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What do the Common Core State Standards mean for Special Educators?

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By Elizabeth Stein

This article was originally published on the MiddleWeb website. Elizabeth Stein has graciously given us permission to republish the article here.

It’s time for the Common Core and collaboration. When thinking about implementing the Common Core State Standards (CCSS), teachers have a choice to make:

  1. Resist the standards and complain.
  2. Include the standards and get by.
  3. Embrace the standards and dazzle.

Can you guess which option I am clinging to? And as I continue to read and learn, I find that I am embracing the CCSS with more passion and determination than ever before. This brings me to think about my upcoming school year.

I will be co-teaching with four different co-teachers (math, science, social studies, and English). That’s a lot of content and a lot of personalities for one person (namely me) to take on, weave in, balance out, and collaborate with in order to meet the needs of all learners each day. In addition, I will be teaching solo for one period of study skills (that’s a perfect time for me to reinforce the content, process, and strategies to guide independent life-long learners).

There’s a lot to think about as I begin to plan ahead. The instructional shifts driven by the Common Core are enough to make general education teachers’ heads spin. But what does it mean for a special education teacher?

The Common Core and special education

The Council for Exceptional Children provides ongoing articles and updates (based on research) to support that students with varying abilities are capable of reaching higher levels of achievement than was once thought possible. The trick comes as we strive to update the mindsets of administrators, teachers and families (as well as the personal belief systems of the students) about the capabilities of diverse learners.

Typically, a student with a learning disability is viewed through a deficit lens. The fact that he has difficulty reading and writing becomes a priority for teachers to address. Yet, in what direction does this priority go? Is he supported in a way that encourages independent, higher level thinking (that the CCSS demands) or is he supported in a way that focuses on his deficits—emphasizing his disability and dependence?

Enter special education. Teachers must make sure that supports are scaffolded in ways that allow students to become empowered by what they can do—rather than disenchanted by their areas of need. I’m reminded of a former student, Andrew. He could not decode or read fluently. In addition, he could not write in complete sentences using traditional paper and pencil methods. His Individualized Education Plan (IEP) stated that he must have text read to him, and he needed a scribe for all writing assignments.

Does this sound about right? Personally, it makes me cringe just thinking about it. Sure Andrew’s needs were met, but only for the moment. He learned to be completely dependent on others to gather information and express his thoughts. How, I ask you, could this student meet the high expectations of the Common Core? More importantly, how could he apply this to his future life and the need to become an independent learner?

Clearly some changes need to be made as we think about how we are supporting our students. For example, Andrew could be given text-to-speech and speech-to-text technology to encourage his abilities. Educators must re-think accommodations and modifications in a way that nurtures students’ strengths and abilities.

The high expectations of the Common Core Standards are exactly what our capable students need. It’s not their disability that gets in the way of their learning. It’s the way we create the learning environment that can make all the difference. I say, along with the instructional shifts of the Common Core, let’s all do our part to encourage the necessary perspective shifts that can help many more students meet the standards. (My idea of perspective shifts will be addressed in a future post—stay tuned!)

What does CCSS mean for special educators?

The attention around the Common Core’s higher expectations puts special educators in the limelight. Our entire training was based on learning how to individualize instruction. We know what it takes to specialize instruction so that a variety of students’ needs are met. Here’s the part where thunder bolts strike! Isn’t that what general education teachers are being asked to do?

Just think for a second. We have Response to Intervention (RTI) making waves throughout general education scene. And we have Universal Design for Learning being cited as an effective research-based framework for meeting the needs of all learners. The premise and principles of each framework fall solidly on the practices that special education teachers have routinely followed for many decades. It is clear that special education teachers will need to speak up and raise the roof! We need to support our general education colleagues. We have the knowledge of research-based practices that align seamlessly with the expectation that all students will gain the skills and knowledge to achieve more within the CCSS universe.

The Flip Side

General education teachers are not the only ones who need to experience a Freaky Friday moment (remember that book/movie where the mother and daughter switch places?). In addition to the special educators’ responsibilities, we, in turn, must adopt the roles and responsibilities of general educators. The Common Core standards are loaded with literacy and critical thinking skills. Special educators are in the trenches. Many special educators find themselves in a variety of classrooms, subjects, and grade levels—with various co-teaching partners.

The CCSS means we must add to our process expertise and be content experts as well. Sounds like a perfect fit with the expectations of the Common Core, don’t you think? Although I’m aware this can become daunting for those folks asked to teach/support subjects that may not have been their area of study—it doesn’t matter.

Everyone needs to kick it up. For special education teachers, it means investing the time to strengthen our content knowledge — and for the general education teacher it means investing the time to learn research-based practices that differentiate and deepen learning. When content and process expertise are combined, we will pave the way for achieving the high expectations of the Common Core.

Sounds like the perfect rationale for true collaboration. How are you preparing for the Year of the Common Core ahead?

Elizabeth Stein is a 20-year teaching veteran, specializing in literacy and special education, with experience in both upper elementary and middle school. She’s currently a middle grades teacher and new-teacher mentor in Long Island NY’s Smithtown Central School District. Elizabeth is National Board Certified in Literacy and a contributor to Education Week and other publications. Her first book Comprehension Lessons for RTI (Grades 3-5), is published with Scholastic (June 2013). Follow her on Twitter @elizabethlstein.

Photo Credit: Stacy Spensley

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  • Melissa

    Seems to me the CCSS is just going to put the special needs student who are mainstreamed the majority of their time into the special Ed classrooms (inclusive? I think not). Also I don’t believe many of these standards are developmentally appropriate; forget it when you have a child with a LD or other disability. They will be left in the dust. This will ultimately prove to be a major disaster. As a parent, I am extremely upset and worried.

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