A Special Educator Shares Her Perspective on the Common Core State Standards

Written by Chelsea Miller, Guest Writer | 6 years ago

The Common Core State Standards (CCSS) creates high expectations for student success by outlining the set of skills that students need to master at each grade level. At the end of the day, students are supposed to be equipped with critical thinking, problem solving and other career-oriented skills for college and 21st century jobs. Although the implementation of the Standards will have a big impact on students with disabilities, the authors of the Standards have provided only limited guidance in this area.

In the midst of this uncertainty, I hope to provide educators and families my perspective on how to leverage the enterprise of CCSS adoption for the benefit of students with learning disabilities (LD).

CCSS is explicit in outlining goals but ambiguous on how teachers should instruct or assess. Words like “analyze” and “identify” are frequently mentioned, but can have different meanings to individual teachers. It’s like the game of telephone – the original intent can get lost when standards are passed from the Standards writers to textbook publishers, teachers and finally students.

In some ways, this ambiguity plays to the strengths of teachers in special education – those who mentor and teach students with LD. Their day-to-day work involves finding outside-of-the-box solutions to adapt broad goals to the varying skills and individual needs of their students. Special education teachers will play a large role in ensuring that students with LD have access to grade-level curriculum through collaboration, Universal Design for Learning,  and most importantly, differentiated instruction. Fortunately, Common Core encourages educators to be creative and to differentiate or individualize lessons for students.

Having taught in middle school, I know that some of my students will struggle with traditional academic assignments at their grade level. So rather than evaluate them on one set of criteria, I will accept multiple versions of the same assignment. For example, one student can read a book with visual supports, such as a graphic novel. Another can do an oral presentation rather than writing a formal book report. In addition, based on my assessment of each of their needs and interests, I encourage them to use technology to make these activities more engaging. This addresses another goal highlighted by CCSS – the ability to “use technology and digital media strategically and capably.”

According to research, students with LD spend more time on task in the classroom when technology is thoughtfully integrated into instruction. It’s not merely the novelty of technology that excites students, but rather the access to the curriculum that technology gives them.

Here are two examples from my classroom:

  • As an English-language learner and a student with LD, Juan does not yet read and write at grade level. When the term paper for his social studies class rolled around, Juan and I watched historical documentaries online and then turned his research into a stellar Google Docs presentation which incorporated all of the key elements of the CCSS for writing a research paper.
  • Alex is a student with LD and ADHD. She struggles with motivation and has a hard time sitting still – that is, until I found Raz Kids. Although she sometimes produces little work during the day, she can’t wait to play Raz Kids for at least 30 minutes, three times a week. I used data from Raz Kids to target reading instruction in the classroom, and as a result, Alex’s reading level increased from 3rd grade to 4th grade in three short months. Now that she’s engaged and receiving differentiated instruction, she’s learning to read.

Of course, these kinds of teaching techniques and uses of technology are not limited to special education. Many general education teachers employ similar strategies.

With all the uncertainty about putting CCSS into practice, we should remember that the idea of standards is not new. Both general and special education teachers have been differentiating and individualizing standards-based content for students for years, and there’s a lot they can learn from one another to share and explore innovative methods to accomplish the essential purpose of the new Standards. Fundamentally, we need thoughtful implementation of the Standards for all students, including those with LD. Just as importantly, educators and families must believe that all students deserve access to the general curriculum and are capable of achieving.

Chelsea Miller is a special education teacher who holds a Master’s degree in Learning and Instruction from the University of San Francisco. She is also a consultant for Goalbook and teaches at the University of San Francisco. (A version of this article appeared on EdSurge.com.)