Forgotten Teachers, Forgotten Students: Witnessing the Common Core State Standards in a Self-Contained Special Education Classroom
by Erin McCloskey - March 16, 2015
This commentary discusses the implementation of the Common Core State Standards in a self-contained special education classroom.
Ms. R is one of the best special education teachers I know. For over twenty years, she has been teaching and caring for students placed in her self-contained special education classroom in a small city school district. We worked together for about five years and I always admired how she stayed true to her students needs even when the many top-down mandates from the district, state, and federal government invaded her classroom. When I became interested in seeing for myself how the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) looked in practice for students with disabilities, I asked Ms. R if I could spend some time in her classroom. Yes, she said, please come. I need your help. Im having a hard time figuring out how to teach all of this. Im hoping you can help me.
When I arrived in Ms. Rs classroom, I saw twelve students gathered around her as she read them a story. The teaching assistant was organizing papers and halfway through the story the speech and language therapist came into the room to take out four students for their thrice-weekly session. Five minutes after those students left, the physical therapist came in for a student. Ms. R had about twenty minutes left with the remaining students before they all went off to gym class.
While the students were in gym, Ms. R explained to me that she received her CCSS materials, which consisted of New York State curriculum guides and lesson plans, less than one week before school started. She was responsible for teaching three different grade levels of curriculum. Her students ages ranged from first grade through third grade. Let me reiterate this pointMs. R was responsible for teaching three different curriculums for three different grade levels that included math, English language arts, social studies, and science. She had six 3-inch binders filled with curriculum materials that she needed to modify for her students individual needs because her students had individualized education programs (IEPs) that needed to be implemented. All of Ms. Rs students needed intense additional instruction in literacy and most in math. Ms. R had a student in her class who was at a 2nd grade age, but this was her first year in school. She arrived from Mexico in the beginning of the school year and was quickly placed in Ms. Rs class. Another student had just been moved from his third grade general education classroom to Ms. Rs room and was having difficulty adjusting, especially when he ran into his old classmates in the hall. He was angry about having been moved and often called himself stupid.
I am an advocate for inclusion, but the reality is that right now there are three grade levels of students in Ms. Rs classroom and no one is providing her with the support she needs to successfully implement these curricula. In fact, it would seem like nobody even considered Ms. R and her students when it was decided that the CCSS be implemented in New York State. Ms. R works hardduring each prep period, over lunch, and at hometo make sure her students are receiving instruction geared toward their needs and aligned with the CCSS, but she is fighting a losing battle. There are no texts that are at her students levels and many students dont have adequate background knowledge to apply to new topics, so Ms. R backtracks often. Because Ms. R is responsive to her students needs, she is rarely able to teach one full lesson the way New York State would like her to. While she is trying to implement the second grade curricula, she needs to find ways to engage the other two grade levels. Ms. Rs students need individual assistance to respond to prompts in writing, so answering one question can take all period. And then of course, Ms. Rs students are constantly coming in and out of the classroom because many of them receive counseling services, speech and language therapy, physical therapy, and occupational therapy. Many times students re-enter the classroom halfway through a lesson and Ms. R or the teaching assistant must stop the work they are doing to guide this student into the lesson. All of this leaves me extremely frustrated while Ms. R seems to just keep trying to make it work. Truly, I was of little help to her, but I went to witness and now to write.
Its May in the same school year. Its time for Ms. Rs third grade students to go upstairs (Ms. Rs self-contained special education classroom is in the basement) to the computer lab so that they can be tested to determine whether they have met their student learning objectives or SLOs. SLOs in New York State are used as an attempt to connect student learning to teacher evaluations. The three students I follow up the stairs enter the computer room where the reading teacher presides. She has had to cancel all of her classes for the week so that she can administer this computerized standardized test. She directs each student to a computer. Each student has an index card next to them with two numbers: where they scored last fall when they took this test and the projected score they should receive to determine whether Ms. R is an effective teacher. The students click buttons and move the mouse. One of Ms. Rs students asks for help. The reading teacher responds that he should just do the best he can. He looks at me and I feel inadequate, smile, and say to do what he thinks is right. He tries, he clicks, and all three students are done in less than eight minutes.
Around the classroom other third graders from general education classes celebrate, sigh, and cry. Students who meet their SLOs are congratulated; for others, the reading teacher tries not to look disappointed, but her downcast eyes give her away. I travel with Ms. Rs students back down the stairs and into the basement. Ms. R does not ask about the test but warmly welcomes each student back, telling them she missed them. I think about how computerized test scores cant ever measure this level of caring and compassion. Ms. R has to work constantly to show her students how valuable they are as citizens of her classroom through these seemingly small but significant comments.
Reading about the implementation of the CCSS and the computerized evaluations of student performance tied to teacher effectiveness evokes lively and heated discussions among scholars, practitioners, parents, and others concerned with schools, students, and teaching. Seeing the implementation of the CCSS and the NYS curriculum designed around these standards, with this class of students, was devastating. Not only did Ms. R teach her students a curriculum that was relevant to their lives and appropriate to their levels, but she also was able to provide instruction that made students feel capable and she encouraged them to embrace learning. All of that was thrown away when Ms. R was handed her curriculum binders. The marginalization of students with disabilities n school, both physically and academically, enforces what Peter Johnston (2012) calls a fixed-frame view of learning. Students believe that learning is something that they can or cannot do, not something that is a lifetime endeavor and dynamic. This understanding about learning is reified when a student does or does not reach the score on that index card. It is reified when students are moved from their regular education classroom and placed in a special education classroom, and it is reified when a teacher tells you they cant help you and that you should just try even though you need help.
Developing a fixed-frame view of learning has dire consequences that are confirmed by statistical evidence (Johnston, 2012). Students who receive special education services make up about 8.9% of the population of public school students in the United States, but 32% of the youth in juvenile detention centers (Cregor & Hewitt, 2011). In New York State only about half of students with disabilities graduate from high school with a diploma (Stetser & Stillwell, 2014). We also know that if students dont find schooling meaningful, they will not stay. Students do not merely drop out of schoolthey are also pushed out and pulled out of school (Doll, Eslami, & Walters, 2013). Ms. Rs class, in keeping with the statistics on the overrepresentation of children of color in special education, has more students of color identified as emotionally disturbed and intellectually disabled (Blanchett, 2009) than the school and district population would suggest. Why dont we use these numbers to judge the effectiveness of the state and national officials who design and implement these standards? If we are going to use data to evaluate teachers, it should be used as a measure for all who impact the educational lives of students.
Pretending that all students will meet certain benchmarks because we say so is irresponsible and harmfulparticularly so to the teachers and students in self-contained special education classrooms. The creators of the CCSS specifically stayed away from suggesting ways to implement or teach the Standards, but New York State crafted detailed lesson plans where all students are expected to be at the same place at the same time. We have instructional approaches that can be used to meet the learning needs for all students, such as Universal Design for Learning (UDL), which advocates principles for curriculum development, not standards for testing. Ms. R and her students deserve to be considered at the design phase of curriculum. Anything else is unjust.
Blanchett, W. J. (2009). A retrospective examination of urban education: From "Brown" to the resegregation of African Americans in special educationIt is time to "Go for broke". Urban Education, 44(4), 370388.
Cregor, M., & Hewitt, D. (2011). Dismantling the school-to-prision pipeline: A survey from the field. Poverty & Race, 20(1), 57.
Doll, J. J., Eslami, Z., & Walters, L. (2013). Understanding why students drop out of high school, according to their own reports: Are they pushed or pulled or do they fall out? A comparative analysis of seven nationally representative studies. SAGE Open, 3, 115. doi: 10.1177/2158244013503834
Johnston, P. H. (2012). Opening minds: Using language to change lives. Portland, ME: Stenhouse Publishers.
Stetser, M., & Stillwell, R. (2014). Public high school four-year on-time graduation rates and event dropout rates: School years 2010-11 and 2011-12. Washington, DC: National Center for Education Statistics Retrieved from http://nces.ed.gov/pubsearch.