More on assisting (and accommodating) vs. teaching

(Cross-posted at Out In Left Field–an older post that seems as relevant as ever).

Increasingly, our special ed students aren’t getting the instruction they need. Underlying this are multiple forces:

1. The decline in direct, structured instruction, which all students need, but special ed students especially.

2. The notion that remediation lowers expectations and amounts to tedious drill and kill and the same thing “over and over again.” and the resulting decline in dedicated programs that are truly remedial.

3. The decline in ability based grouping and the rise of mainstreaming and heterogeneous group work, such that students of all abilities, including highly challenged students, are required to work together in heterogeneous groups. All the worse for specialized education for special ed students delivered by special ed- trained professionals rather than by classroom peers.

4. The rise of the Common Core State Standards, which assign the same goals to all students at a given grade level regardless of actual ability—many of these goals being out of reach of special needs students—while providing no roadmap for getting there, even for typical students.

5. The rise of computerized educational packages, a medium that could theoretically customize instruction for all sorts of special needs, but is very far from its promise of delivering even halfway decent instruction to anyone.

6. The rise of Augmentative and Alternative Communication devices and simplified texts that, as I’ve discussed elsewhere, too often become excuses not to teach.

7. The related tendency to manage rather than instruct special needs children, especially those on the autistic spectrum, with calming devices like weighted vests, beanbag chairs, and Risperidone, when the underlying problem may that the lesson content isn’t sufficiently accessible or engaging.

8. A tendency, especially with the rise of support staff working one-on-one with specific children, to provide heavy guidance in the assigned tasks to those with special needs, without leading them towards autonomy.

9. The popularity of learning styles theory, which has lead to a proliferation of alternative assignments (e.g., posters instead of essays, and movies instead of plays and novels in language arts classes) that often bypass the skills supposedly being taught.

10. A failure to follow-up assessments with review or remediation as needed.

Every year I have several opportunities to review student lesson plans for classrooms that include autistic students, and here’s what I’m noticing lately. Most students begin their lessons with an obligatory citation of the grade-level Common Core goals that these lessons are supposedly addressing. One student whose lesson involved a nonfiction text on sea animals, for example, cited these two Common Core goals:

CC.3.5.9-10.B. Determine the central ideas or conclusions of a text; trace the text’s explanation or depiction of a complex process, phenomenon, or concept; provide an accurate summary of the text.

CC.3.5.11-12.B. Determine the central ideas or conclusions of a text; summarize complex concepts, processes, or information presented in a text by paraphrasing them in simpler but still accurate terms.

After listing the goals, the lesson plans then spell out the details of the actual lesson, including all the “supports” that will be offered to autistic students. These include things like visual cues for kids who have trouble understanding verbal information; “word banks” for children who have trouble coming up with the right words; fill-in-the blanks for kids who have trouble writing complete sentences; and lots of one-on-one guidance throughout. The lesson plans also mention alternative ways in which a special needs student might complete the final product—most commonly, for the many who have trouble with language or writing, some sort of visual display.

All in all, a rich assortment of accommodations: whatever it takes to satisfy those Common Core goals.

As important as kowtowing to the Common Core is assessing the students. And nearly all lesson plan duly detail their “assessment tools.” Today’s preferred assessments are of the “authentic” variety, which means informal observations during class activities rather than formal tests in which students would be more clearly demonstrating their independent capabilities. And it’s with said assessments that these lessons typically end. Almost none of them even mention possible follow-up measures.

Here’s what we actually need. We need to spend more time teaching our special needs students rather than guiding and managing them. We need to remediate deficits rather than just accommodating them. We need to assign students tasks they can do on their own, tutoring them and pre-teaching material as needed to make the assigned work truly doable, rather than doing part or all of it for them. In other words, we need to assign students tasks they can do on their own rather than helping them through what they can’t. In still other words, rather than over-accommodate in the service of unrealistically high standards, we need to stick to realistic goals and tasks students can do without excessive assistance.

As with teaching, so, too, with accommodations. Accommodations should be ones that help students learn tasks rather than ones that perform those tasks for them: enlarged print for the visually impaired, amplified sound for the hearing impaired, keyboards for those with severe fine motor difficulties, AACs for those with speech apraxia, and, perhaps most importantly, reading assignments at the student’s actual reading level, math assignments at the student’s actual math level, and extra tutoring for those who need intensive one-on-one instruction.

Finally, assessments shouldn’t be endings, but beginnings: wherever students fall short, remedies must follow.

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