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[Educator Network] What Can Special Education Teach Us About Meeting the Needs of Every Student?

[Educator Network] What Can Special Education Teach Us About Meeting the Needs of Every Student?

As educators search for solutions to the performance gaps in learning exacerbated by the pandemic, some are rediscovering the idea that more personalized methods could help students who’ve had wildly different experiences with education this year. Through this quest, they are finding inspiration in special education. Since the 1975 passage the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), it has promised students with disabilities special services and accommodations to help them learn at their full potential.

IDEA is the federal law that defines and regulates special education. It obliges public schools to provide special education services to children ages 3 to 21 who meet certain criteria. This process involves a full evaluation that looks at the ways kids think. It also looks at other aspects of development. To be eligible for special services students must both:

  • Have a documented disability in one of the 13 documented categories covered by IDEA
  • Need special education to effectively access the general education curriculum

Access is an important term in education. Making learning accessible to kids with disabilities means finding ways to remove the barriers to their learning. In a year where many students, regardless of their identification, have struggled with a variety of barriers to leaning we have classrooms full of students that might have a range or hurdles to learning.  Not every child has been identified with one of these documented classifications but may be struggling.

Special education is a modified program which involves some unique tools, techniques, and research efforts to improve instructional arrangements to meet the need of exceptional children. There’s no “one size fits all” approach to special education. It’s tailored to meet the needs of students with disabilities.

Special education strives to put students in the least restrictive environment (LRE) which is often and most preferred, the general education classroom. However, services and supports for one student may be very different from those of another student. Kids who qualify for special education have an Individualized Education Program (IEP). IEPs are rigid legal documents, written not for students so much as for teachers, parents, and lawyers. These plans are meant to ensure that students with disabilities receive specialized instruction and services tailored to their needs. This can mean they can get individualized teaching and other resources at no cost to their families. Specialists work with kids on strengths as well as challenges. And families are key members of the team that decides what kids need to thrive in school.

Chronic shortfalls in federal funding have burdened local education agencies and families, and—in the most extreme cases— sometimes denied these children access to quality education. Under IDEA today, more than 7 million children, or 14 percent of public school students, are entitled to special services and accommodations to help them learn. But in the legislation’s almost 50-year history, the federal government has never fulfilled its promise to pay 40 percent of the average cost of educating students with disabilities.

Alternative Assessment and Competencies Conversation

As educators reflect on the disruptions of the past two academic years, they’re increasingly gravitating toward the kind of personalized, “move on when you’re ready” learning. This is intrinsically special education. K-12 schools in 2020 accelerated the conversation about alternative assessments that would help educators personalize learning and focus on students’ long-term success rather than year-to-year progress, as measured by current end-of-year tests. A core discussion revolved around demonstrating competencies on critical concepts which would allow educators to address gaps immediately rather than letting them grow over time. Schools that succeed in educating students with disabilities are engaged not simply in following the law, but in finding the best way to serve each student; that same spirit will be key to tackling education moving forward.

Much of this may sound familiar to teachers of special populations. As part of their jobs, special education teachers assess students and develop teaching plans based on each unique skills of each child. They teach students as a class and one-on-one or in small groups. They collaborate with wrap around services such as occupational, physical and speech therapists, and ideally provide detailed documentation of a child’s strengths, weaknesses, and goals.

Competency-based education usually goes hand in hand with personalized instruction to ensure that students meet their learning objectives. These approaches to instruction require flexibility on the teacher’s part. Needing to be agile and swiftly change between focus. Each student focuses on what they need with the teacher vacillating between the skill, instead of the other way around with the student adapting. Fashioning learning to students’ exact needs takes significant resources, teacher training and, ideally, close collaboration with families—something many educators struggle to pull off.

Because competency-based education requires such dramatic shifts in the way schools typically operate, there are huge challenges to widespread adoption. This is where we can look to special education educators for points of reference. Students can be encouraged to learn at their own pace, with lessons tailored to their specific aptitudes and needs, this can happen with the aid of technology.

Technology is essential in making personalized learning work. By making it easier for kids to learn at different paces, and focus on different goals, technology does the heavy lifting. This is not done in isolation or without dexterity, sometimes printing out the lesson meets the needs of a student who might be facing computer burnout. Again, keeping in the front of the mind that the solution rests with the student not the content. Technology should supplement, not supplant a teacher.

Concrete Steps for Change

By helping educators recognize that there is no such thing as an “average” or “typical” student, and that brain differences are normal, personalized learning could de-stigmatize, and improve education.

What are the first steps to doing this?

1. Plan on teaching teachers.

When there is a better understanding of how to and the why behind the process for instruction, they will start to focus less on just getting students from a to b and more on the learning journey. With a full understanding and time to explore, there is a stronger chance that educators will give up the rote and leap into intentional changes in instruction. Educators should be able to collaborate and share what works, this requires time to work collaboratively and must be ongoing.

2. Use technology to support and engage students in content appropriate for their skill level and interest.

Technology can be an amazing way for teachers effectively engage with their students in an in-person, online, or blended environment. 

3. Consider a variety of ways that students can demonstrate their knowledge and interests.

Assessments are critical for understanding a student’s grasp on the content, but it should fall outside the one size fits all model. Consider self-assessments and reflection.

4. Allow for student input.

When given the chance to own some of their learning experience by creating goals and becoming familiar with the scope of the expectations for their own learning, students build essential skills, such as self-advocacy and responsibility.

5. Provide choice.

Create a classroom of learning activities related to topic and skill. These can be independent, group, digital and partnered work. Educators can assign points to activities as well as build in assessments that require a demonstration of mastery before moving on. Benefits here are to both the student, who has ownership of learning and choice and provides time for the teacher to pull students for small group or one to one instruction.

Above all else, educators need to know their students. This is true in a competency-based classroom, a personalized learning environment, general education or educators of special populations. Utilize student voice and students’ personal interests to drive instruction. Understand that the environment and instructional practices during this pandemic have been diverse and student learning reflects this. It is clear that some students who have and IEP have thrived and some students without are struggling. This year, maybe more than any in the past, brings students with splintered abilities and no identified, legally required supports to the classroom. Educators must provide these. By taking a page from special education, educators can meet the needs of every student.