The oversimplification with which the new Common Core State Standards approach the instruction of students with disabilities leaves much to be desired on the part of the classroom teacher, who is left to determine how the standards will be made accessible for all students. The new standards require increased skill and application across the subject areas. Those students with specific learning needs may require additional support, altered classroom instruction and an increase in staff-to-specialist collaboration. At the same time, the new standards also provide an opportunity for students with disabilities to access higher-level thinking skills that may prove advantageous for the students’ confidence and independence in facing academic and personal challenges.
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There is no doubt that the integration of the Common Core State Standards into America’s schools has radically adjusted “the way we do things” in education. Schools and districts around the nation are reimagining their daily instruction for pre-K to 12 students and redefining the future of public education. Currently 44 of our 50 states and the District of Columbia have adopted the Common Core standards, which provide a grade-by-grade framework of expectations for mathematics and English language arts academic instruction. The standards ensure that our students are graduating from high school well-prepared for college and career. Read more teacher views of Common Core at our TBR Teach blog. When compared to previous standards set at the individual state level, the Common Core standards have set more rigorous expectations for high school graduates, aimed at putting the United States in global competitive ranking for postsecondary education and workplace environments.
As with many large-scale educational initiatives, implications exist beyond what is readily seen on the surface. While most can agree that the predominant mission behind the Common Core standards — to more adequately prepare our pre-K to 12 students for postsecondary life — is worthy, implementation of the initiative has raised concerns for some of our most vulnerable school populations. Particular to those students with disabilities, the standards’ guidelines provide scant guidance for educators in how to help their students with disabilities meet Common Core expectations:
In order for students with disabilities to meet high academic standards and to fully demonstrate their conceptual and procedural knowledge and skills in mathematics, reading, writing, speaking and listening (English language arts), their instruction must incorporate supports and accommodations… — Common Core State Standards Initiative, 2014
Every student is expected to meet the same basic level of academic rigor within the Common Core standards. This reasoning is supported by other national regulations, such as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act of 2004 and the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, which prevent discrimination based on disability and promise students with disabilities equal access to a free appropriate public education along with their typical peers.
IMPLICATIONS FOR TEACHERS
Obviously, the teacher’s role in the successful implementation of the Common Core standards is vital. In a special issue of Learning Disabilities Research & Practice, well-known researchers in the field of special education wrote on the challenges and opportunities facing students with disabilities and their teachers with the shift to the Common Core. Three major considerations for educators emerged from their writing: 1) teachers’ current instructional practices must be adjusted to meet the needs of all students, 2) supports for students with disabilities in the general classroom are of heightened priority, and 3) continued individualized instruction must be provided outside of and in conjunction with the general curriculum.
from Learning Disabilities Research and Practice, Feb. 2013, Vol. 28, No. 1
- Bulgren, J.A., Sampson Graner, P., & Deshler, D.D., “Literacy challenges and opportunities for students with learning disabilities in social studies and history.”
- Graham, S. & Harris, K.R., “Common core state standards, writing, and students with LD: Recommendations.”
- Haager, D. & Vaughn, S., “Common core state standards and students with learning disabilities: Introduction to the special issue.”
- Haager, D. & Vaughn, S., “The common core state standards and reading: Interpretations and implications for elementary students with learning disabilities.”
- Powell, S.R., Fuchs, L.S., & Fuchs, D., “Reaching the mountaintop: Addressing the common core standards in mathematics for students with mathematics difficulties.”
- Scruggs, T.E., Brigham, F.J., & Mastropieri, M.A., “Common core science standards: Implications for students with learning disabilities.”
Common Core’s heightened performance expectations for students demands of teachers an examination of their own effective instruction methods. There is an amplified need for teachers to focus solely on evidence-based practices backed by the most recent research on instruction. Specifically, classroom teachers need knowledge and experience with explicit, systematic instructional strategies.
Linking these evidence-based practices to the benchmarks addressed by the standards can increase effective instruction in the classroom, allowing students to achieve progressive skill-building in subject areas and across grade levels. This leads to a clear need for increased and purposeful professional development and instructional coaching for novice and master teachers alike, not to mention additional support for the intensified planning and collaboration time that a curricular redesign such as this entails, as several researchers argue in the special issue on Common Core.
In addition to the adjustments to the core curriculum, there will be an increased need for differentiated instruction, supplementation and accommodations for students with disabilities when accessing the general curriculum. Again, these sorts of supports must be aligned with evidence-based practices in each subject area in order to warrant the most efficient and effective use of classroom time. But difficulties in providing these supports stem back to the initial lack of clarity that the Common Core Standards initiative provides, where it is adamantly obvious what requirements teachers have in supporting students with disabilities but not how teachers are expected to meet these requirements given the vast diversity from one classroom to the next.
Finally, the special education teacher’s responsibility in helping students with disabilities reach the Common Core standards is as significant — if not more so — than the general education teacher. Specifically trained to identify and provide individualized instruction for students with disabilities, it is the obligation of the special education teacher to collaborate with and provide support to the generalists in their school building, as Graham & Harris and Bulgren, et al. write. Tailored, evidence-based instruction for each student with a disability must be ensured legally within the large group setting, but also within the small group setting in which instruction is the responsibility of the special education teacher. Expertise of the Common Core standards is requisite to a special education teacher’s ability to provide access to the general education classroom for students with disabilities, assist classroom teachers in adapting and accommodating their curriculum, designing interventions for the small group setting and beyond, and provide guided practice opportunities for students when applying their academic skills. See Haager and Vaughn in Learning Disabilities
IMPLICATIONS FOR STUDENTS WITH DISABILITIES
Preliminary literature on the topic of Common Core implementation introduces both concerns and advantages for students with disabilities in acquiring the necessary skills to make grade-level progress in numerous academic areas, most notably those math and English language arts objectives measured by the standards but also including content areas such as social studies, history, and science. As Graham & Harris mention in their article for Learning Disabilities Research & Practice, our ability to teach students how to be better writers will impact their ability to comprehend text and provide opportunity to access content materials in a more substantial way. Powell, Fuchs, and Fuchs voice their concern for those students with math difficulties, pointing out that when the most essential foundational skills of mathematics are not solidified within primary grades, student struggles persist throughout formal schooling — and often beyond — and can be exasperated by increased demand of higher-level learning and skill application.
For students with disabilities, particularly those in the secondary setting, maintaining the rigorous pace and increased demands of instruction presented by the standards may prove difficult and compounding, as Bulgren, et al. discuss. Those students with disabilities who were identified in need of receiving specialized services in primary grades of elementary school may not have mastered those most foundational level skills needed to connect and extend their learning as they traversed through intermediate and secondary grade levels; therefore, these students’ abilities to apply higher-level thinking skills — a most notable addition within the standards — may require high amounts of additional remediation and support, as several researchers suggest.
In addition, most students with disabilities receive the bulk amount of their core content instruction within the general education environment, leaving limited individualized resources beyond what the classroom teacher can provide within the large-group setting. This is a vital consideration for individual school buildings as they face state and national requirements to implement “Response to Intervention,” a tiered system of interventions meant to identify and support students at risk for falling below grade-level academic expectations. If students with disabilities, those already identified as performing below grade level, are not provided the necessary instruction and support within the general education classroom, their ability to successfully access the general education curriculum is stifled.
Among the complications, there are also advantages that the Common Core standards provide for students with disabilities. The Common Core State Standards Initiative (2014) expressed a desire to “provide an historic opportunity to improve access to rigorous academic content standards for students with disabilities… [helping to] improve access to mathematics and English language arts (ELA) standards for all students.” Another benefit to this increased academic rigor that Graham and Harris point to is the emphasis that teachers must now place on higher-level thinking skills, thus increasing the likelihood that students with disabilities will acquire greater critical academic skills. Finally, as Haager and Vaughn suggest, the increasingly challenging concepts presented in the standards are created to aid students in applying higher-level thinking skills across content areas, providing students with disabilities the opportunity to build independence in areas of academic they may not have been able to access before.
No matter which way you look at it, the shift to the Common Core State Standards is one that every educator in America must accept. With this new initiative, we can no longer consent to the outdated methods by which we used to teach students. Instead, we must undertake the challenge that the standards place in front of us and embrace for ourselves the responsibility to increase our professional knowledge and skills through research-based evidence. Preliminary research on effective implementation of the Common Core standards shows promising academic gains for all students. More specifically to our students with disabilities, the raised expectations that the standards place on students and teacher alike may provide these students opportunities to thrive within classroom environments in new ways, leading to academic and personal gains that may connect them to a world of learning they might never have experienced. While there are definite and substantial challenges ahead in finding success in the Common Core State Standards, the benefits of increased student independence and teacher confidence far outweigh the consequences.
The views and opinions expressed here are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of Boise State University or the School of Public Service.