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3 ways to make the common core work for special education

3 min read

Voice of the Educator

For students with disabilities, the Common Core State Standards have the potential to support access to inclusive education, rather than an education based on a deficits model devoid of grade-level content. As teachers across the country implement the new standards, they face a critical challenge: How should the common core be integrated into special-education practices while ensuring students have individualized education plans tailored to their unique learning stage?

The standards present rich opportunities for generalization of critical skills being targeted through the IEP. Common core also complements efforts toward inclusion and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act’s push for standards-based individualized-learning plans that incorporate a state’s content standards. Special educators have long embraced this equity imperative for students with special needs.

Despite the promise of the common core, special educators across the country are discouraged — and with good reason. Districts and educators must implement the standards while delivering specialized programs within state implementation timelines. This is a difficult task.

A middle-school teacher shared that she was attempting to design an IEP goal for a student with limited verbal skills, based on a grade-level standard that required the student to “label the structural layers of the Earth, including the core, mantle and crust.” This is just one example of teachers trying to develop IEP goals based on the standards, which may have little application to a particular student’s situation. As a result, goals focus instruction on a specific content area — rather than helping a student learn skills applied across content areas to access educational discourse and lead to greater educational success.

Specific content focus is an ineffective method to develop individual goals. As special educators spend the summer preparing for the upcoming school year, they should consider the following guidelines for integrating the common core to best serve their students:

  1. Start with the student. A well-designed IEP starts with the student’s present levels of performance, and determines individual needs based on that assessment. Subsequent goals should then provide a road map of the prerequisite skills that a student needs to more fully access academic content.
  2. Standards as context. In the example above, it was clear that the student needed to expand expressive vocabulary. The content of the standard provides an age-appropriate context; increasing vocabulary using the context of the standard referenced above could guide the process of differentiating instruction for the student based on his current needs and level of ability. The common core and aligned curriculum should provide meaningful context for working on that goal, rather than a basis for the goal itself.
  3. Break it down: By breaking down the standards into discrete elements, educators can begin to sensibly integrate student skills. The breakdown of the standards allows for analysis of where skills targeted in the IEP can increase student opportunities to engage with standards.

Special education requires individualization; we will do our students a disservice by taking a uniform approach with common core aligned plans. The challenge ahead is no reason to exclude students in special education from common core, the benefits are great and can be realized in classrooms across the country. This challenge should remind us that serving students with special needs effectively requires thoughtful, personalized instruction.

Deborah Swink works as the LEA special-education supervisor for three school districts in Van Buren County, Ark., and has 32 years of experience in public education. Jamie Pagliaro currently serves as Chief Learning Officer of Rethink, and previously led the New York Center for Autism Charter School.