Special Needs Kids and the Common Core Straitjacket

Here’s an update of an old post, based on an article I published in the Atlantic, The Common Core is Tough on Kids with Special Needs, that I think is just as relevant today as it was 9 years ago.

Some people have cited the following passage from the Common Core State Standards as allowing teachers “a huge amount of leeway” to provide their special needs students with what they need:

Teachers will continue to devise lesson plans and tailor instruction to the individual needs of the students in their classrooms.

The Standards set grade-specific standards but do not define the intervention methods or materials necessary to support students who are well below or well above grade-level expectations. No set of grade-specific standards can fully reflect the great variety in abilities, needs, learning rates, and achievement levels of students in any given classroom. However, the Standards do provide clear signposts along the way to the goal of college and career readiness for all students.

It is also beyond the scope of the Standards to define the full range of supports appropriate for English language learners and for students with special needs. At the same time, all students must have the opportunity to learn and meet the same high standards if they are to access the knowledge and skills necessary in their post–high school lives.

For all this leeway, however, serious problems remain:

1. Large numbers of special ed students are mainstreamed into regular classrooms based on calendar age rather than mental age. I.e., if you turned 13 by September 1st and are not so severely intellectually impaired that you spend all your time in a special ed classroom, you attend 8th grade classes even if cognitive testing shows you reading at a 4th grade level.

2. Specific CC standards are pegged to specific grade levels (e.g., 8th grade).

3. The CC standards name specific sets of texts, including Shakespeare and America’s Founding Documents, that all students should read, as well as specific levels of reading passage complexity, exemplified by sample texts (and sample reading assignments) in its well-known Appendix B, and, again pegged to specific grade levels (e.g., 8th grade).

Putting it all together, we have all mainstreamed 13-14-year-olds, even those reading at a 4th grade level, expected to make their way through passages whose complexity matches that of Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer, for example, this one:

Inspired by the splendor of his own act, he took without an outcry the most merciless flaying that even Mr. Dobbins had ever administered; and also received with indifference the added cruelty of a command to remain two hours after school should be dismissed—for he knew who would wait for him outside till his captivity was done, and not count the tedious time as loss, either.

So is it really the case that teachers have “tremendous leeway”?  More importantly, do most teachers perceive that they have tremendous leeway?  Here’s how I opened my article:

In a recent discussion board thread on reading comprehension challenges in autism, a special-education teacher commented that her students can’t understand the assigned reading passages. “When I complained, I was told that I could add extra support, but not actually change the passages,” she wrote. “It is truly sad to see my students’ frustration.”

This student isn’t alone; she’s echoing what I’m hearing from a great many students, most of whom are already teachers of special needs students, many of whom are extremely frustrated by the CC Standards.

Are all of them misinterpreting the Standards?

To some extent, the answer to that question is irrelevant. When large numbers of flesh and blood students are deprived of the developmentally appropriate reading assignments that they depend on in order to maximize their progress in reading, it doesn’t matter whether or not this deprivation occurred because of correct or incorrect interpretations of the Common Core Standards. All that matters is that they aren’t getting what they need.

Furthermore, there’s flexibility and then there’s flexibility. Letting teachers decide what reading level is appropriate for their students is one thing; the Common Core does not do this. Instead, it tells them what the reading level has to be and leaves it up to them to somehow figure out what “supports” or “intervention methods” or “materials” will somehow give all students meaningful access to texts at this reading level. This is a very different sort of “flexibility.”

Imagine being told: “You need to climb this 200-foot cliff, but don’t worry, we’re giving you all the flexibility you want because we’re not telling you how to do it or providing you with any specific materials.”

Of course, some people may simply helicopter their way to the top of the cliff. Likewise, some educators may, as I discuss in my article, essentially give away the answers or otherwise fake their way through things. Or they may convince themselves that students have attained standards when objective, independent testing would reveal otherwise.

But the ultimate problem, the one that trumps all others, is that no amount of “supporting” and “intervening” and “differentiating” and IEP writing makes any difference in the world if the curricular content assigned to special needs students doesn’t match their levels of developmental readiness.

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