New standards are tough on special-need kids

Teachers are supposed to enable all students — including those with “the most significant cognitive disabilities” — to “access” the new, more rigorous Common Core standards, writes Katharine Beals in The Atlantic. How?

Beals teaches special education teachers at Drexel and Penn education schools. Most have been told that all their students must be given grade-level assignments, regardless of their abilities.

Common Core tells schools to offer “support services, individualized instruction, and assistive technology,” but don’t “state what these services are or how they would work,” writes Beals. Curricular materials may be altered or presented “in multiple ways,” but only “within the framework of the Common Core.”

One eighth-grade English language arts standard:

 Determine a theme or central idea of a text and analyze its development over the course of the text, including its relationship to the characters, setting, and plot; provide an objective summary of the text.

Using a simplified or alternative text at the student’s reading level appears to violate the requirement for “grade-appropriate level of verbal complexity,” writes Beals. A teacher might add glossaries and storyboards, but not provide a readable text. 

A sample task is provided: 

Students summarize the development of the morality of Tom Sawyer in Mark Twain’s novel of the same name and analyze its connection to themes of accountability and authenticity by noting how it is conveyed through characters, setting, and plot.

Beals imagines a 14-year-old who comprehends language at a fourth-grade level. No technology or storyboards could provide “access to how accountability and authenticity play out in the complex paragraphs of Tom Sawyer.” Take the sentence describing Tom taking a beating from the schoolmaster for an infraction committed by Becky Thatcher:

“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.”

What, short of simplifying the text or spoon-feeding its meaning to her, will it take for our language-impaired 14-year-old to grasp this 67-word sentence, with its complex syntax, words like “flaying,” “indifference,” and an outdated sense of “should,” and the inference needed to grasp the contextual meaning of “captivity”?

And just wait till she gets to Shakespeare.

Another eighth-grade reading goal, R-L 8.3:

Analyze how particular lines of dialogue or incidents in a story or drama propel the action, reveal aspects of a character, or provoke a decision.

Students with autism struggle to understand character and motivation and to draw inferences from dialogue, Beals writes. In a journal article for special-ed teachers, Stephen, an eighth grader with Asperger’s Syndrome (mild autism), doesn’t understand a text in which a bullied and ostracized boy quits going to school.

How, the authors ask, can Stephen’s teacher help him meet R-L 8.3? By creating a comic strip that shows the characters’ thoughts, including a thought bubble for Matt that reads “I am a loser. Everyone hates me. I am never going back to school!”
In other words, the teacher can help Stephen meet the standard by giving away the answer!

Six percent of students have significant cognitive disabilities, writes Beals. “Forcing all students into the same, age-pegged standards deprives atypical students of optimized learning opportunities and attainable goals” and lowers their achievement.

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Comments

  1. Roger Sweeny says:

    This is a problem because, by Beals’ own admission, there are people in eighth grade who are incapable of doing what the standards say is eighth grade work.

    Several solutions suggest themselves, but they all run contrary to the education maxim, “better a happy fantasy than a mean reality.”

  2. And what of the legal requirement to provide a free and appropriate public education?

    I see many court cases in the near future.

  3. Roger Sweeny says:

    “Appropriate” can be interpreted many ways.