Opinion
Special Education Opinion

Eight Steps to Rewrite the Special Education Script

By Brent Betit — April 12, 2017 5 min read

The U.S. Supreme Court’s recent ruling in Endrew F. v. Douglas County School District means that one Colorado family whose child is on the autism spectrum will finally receive the private school tuition support that their son needs to succeed academically. Bravo for them. Enlightened human beings and experienced educators know that standing in the path of an impassioned mother or father whose child struggles with a learning challenge is suicidal. I am in awe of the courage that these family members displayed, and the love that so clearly drives their passion for their son’s success and well-being.

This unanimous ruling also has profound implications for all public education. It endorsed a higher standard for the benefits students must receive under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. The ruling soundly rejected the notion that de minimis progress for students with diagnosed learning differences, including specific learning disabilities, attention deficit disorders, or autism spectrum disorders, is acceptable under the law. Rather, the Supreme Court justices stated that the educational plans developed by educators to serve students with disabilities must be “reasonably calculated to enable a child to make progress appropriate in light of the child’s circumstances.” In other words, our job as educators is to ensure that every child achieves his or her greatest potential, whatever that may be. This has been the light that has guided my career as an educator for more than 30 years.

Eights Step to Rewrite the Special Education Script: The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act entitles students to a better education than they often receive, writes Brent Betit.

Despite claims from some public education leaders that this ruling changes nothing, I know about a gazillion impassioned parents of students with learning differences—who have been fighting for years for their children’s educational rights—who will aggressively disagree.

During my career, I have learned a few simple lessons about serving students with learning differences, which might be useful and relevant to the public educators who are now scrambling to figure out how their schools might ramp up to deliver better than de minimis outcomes for their enrolled students with diagnoses. Just how do you help a student achieve her greatest potential when she learns differently?

Document potential. Start by determining what that potential is. A comprehensive psycho-educational battery is the best tool educators currently have to delineate what an individual student’s learning profile looks like. This will measure cognitive capabilities, documenting a child’s verbal comprehension, visual-spatial understanding, fluid reasoning, working memory, and processing speed. The results provide insight into an individual child’s unique cognitive strengths and challenges, documenting how they learn. These evaluations can be expensive, so alternative learning-style inventories are also an option. The fundamental concept? Determine how a student learns and teach the way she learns as much as you can, which leads directly to the following principle.

Just how do you help a student achieve her greatest potential when she learns differently?"

Be student-centered. Create an individualized plan that integrates your understanding of a student’s learning style and that includes milestones and appropriate expectations. Public schools call this the individualized education plan, but I prefer “individualized strategic learning plan” because such a plan must include different strategies based on a diagnostic approach to each child. Is she a visual learner? Auditory? Tactile or kinesthetic? The strategies in the learning plan should be aligned with the student’s documented strengths as a learner, leveraging the multisensory techniques that educators have developed in order to teach in the way he learns best.

Start from the point of potential. If you have measured where a child is as a learner, you know where to begin teaching. When I tutored college students, the first thing I asked them to do was recite the alphabet. Every single one of them had a high school diploma. About 5 percent of them did not know the entire alphabet. The point of potential for those kids was ground zero: Learn the alphabet. Identify the point of potential and teach from that point.

Teach language the way humans learn it. Acknowledge that language acquisition is hierarchical, sequential, and logical. The Orton-Gillingham system and others like it (such as the Wilson Reading System) are pedagogical approaches that integrate insights into how human beings acquire language, in a rational, flexible, but logical system that honors each child’s unique learning path and provides the structure that keeps him on the path.

Teach the hidden curriculum and build self confidence. Students need to learn how to learn. We need to teach them study skills, time-management techniques, self-management strategies, and advocacy skills. We should help them understand how they learn—or metacognition—and we should ensure that they believe in their own ability to learn and know what their strengths are as learners. They should also learn how to ask for individual help when they need it, based on that self-understanding, or self advocacy.

Stay relevant. There are amazing advances in assistive and general technology, flipped classroom approaches, executive-function coaching, smart boards, lecture casting, and myriad other strategies now available to educators. If educators do not continually learn, we cannot effectively teach.

Honor learning modalities. If every student learns in a different way, then how can we serve a diverse classroom? Integrate multisensory, multimodal lesson plans that serve up the same teaching in different modalities. Use images, videos, recordings, physical models, and other tools to ensure every student “gets it.” The various modes of teaching will only reinforce learning.

Teach joyfully. In the extraordinary school that I am privileged to lead, laughter rings throughout the classrooms and is proof that phenomenal education produces jubilation, not tears. Every kid in the building has a diagnosis, but our teachers know that these kids are the next generation of leaders—smart, creative, entrepreneurial young people with energy, passion, and ability, who can change the world. But not if our expectations for them are restrained. Not if we expect only de minimis progress from them. Not if we clip their wings.

Follow the Education Week Commentary section on Facebook and Twitter.

For RSS: Sign up to get the latest Education Week Commentaries in your email inbox.

Events

This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Classroom Technology Webinar
Here to Stay – Pandemic Lessons for EdTech in Future Development
What technology is needed in a post pandemic district? Learn how changes in education will impact development of new technologies.
Content provided by AWS
School & District Management Live Online Discussion A Seat at the Table: Strategies & Tips for Complex Decision-Making
Schools are working through the most disruptive period in the history of modern education, facing a pandemic, economic problems, social justice issues, and rapid technological change all at once. But even after the pandemic ends,
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Education Funding Webinar
From Crisis to Opportunity: How Districts Rebuild to Improve Student Well-Being
K-12 leaders discuss the impact of federal funding, prioritizing holistic student support, and how technology can help.
Content provided by Salesforce.org

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Special Education 'They Already Feel Like Bad Students.' A Special Educator Reflects on Virtual Teaching
In a year of remote teaching, a high school special ed teacher has seen some of his students struggle and some thrive.
4 min read
Tray Robinson, a special education teacher, sits for a photo at Vasona Lake County Park in Los Gatos, Calif., on April 21, 2021.
Tray Robinson, a special education teacher, says remote learning has provided new ways for some of his students to soar, and has made others want to quit.
Sarahbeth Maney for Education Week
Special Education What the Research Says Gifted Education Comes Up Short for Low-Income and Black Students
Wildly disparate gifted education programs can give a minor boost in reading, but the benefits mainly accrue to wealthy and white students.
8 min read
Silhouette of group of students with data overlay.
iStock/Getty Images Plus
Special Education What the Research Says Most Students With Disabilities Still Attend Remotely. Teachers Say They're Falling Behind
A new survey finds that students with disabilities are struggling in virtual classes, even with added support from teachers.
3 min read
Image shows a young femal student working on a computer from phone, interfacing with an adult female.
Getty
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Special Education Whitepaper
A Comprehensive Guide to the IEP Process
Download this guide to learn strategies for bringing together all stakeholders to plan an IEP that addresses the whole child; using relia...
Content provided by n2y