Curricular Standards vs. Intensive Remediation: The “Balancing Act” in Special Education
Regardless of where you reside in our country, today’s special education teachers are expected to incorporate standards-based instruction into the provision of specialized instruction. States require that all students have access to general education curriculum, including the Common Core State Standards, Smarter Balanced Standards, and/or state-specific curriculum. At the same time, special educators are charged with the delivery of specialized instruction as documented on Individual Education Plans (IEPs).
As a result, the pressure to deliver both standards-based and specialized instruction comes from a variety of sources. Parents demand that their students receive a highly individualized program that will accelerate academic growth. School districts require special education students to have access to the same standards (and, in some cases, exact materials) that would be available in the general education setting. Requirements for all students to participate in state testing encourage teachers to spend precious remediation time preparing students for these rigorous tests. In total, these demands and requirements may pull teachers away from their primary responsibility—to provide specialized academic interventions—and, instead, push forward to “get through the curriculum.” What, then, is the answer? How can special educators deliver on both and provide a balance between standards-based instruction and needed remediation?
This is a dilemma that our special education teachers face every day. It is also one that is near and dear to my heart. There are many times, when visiting a school, I will observe activities that are, in effect, identical to those offered in a regular classroom in a public school. While the activity may be very age and grade appropriate for typical learners, it may be highly inappropriate for a group of struggling students. When questioned about the choice, I often hear, “This is what the district wants us to do.” My response is always, “If the student could do this on his/her own in public school, he/she would not have needed us and would not be in our program.” The truth is the teacher is stuck between a rock and a hard place.
Years of research on students with disabilities has informed us that certain characteristics are necessary in order for appropriate instruction to occur and to close the academic gap. Instruction must include intensive, individualized interventions based on the best available evidence to help students improve in their areas of need, successfully access the general education curriculum, and make progress toward standards. Very often, special education students are provided with modifications and accommodations to the general curriculum. While helpful to some degree, such strategies do not equate to intensive, targeted, remedial interventions.
In order to provide appropriate academic interventions for our special needs students, a firm research-based instructional foundation must be in place. These students require intensive treatments, over time, characterized by small group or 1:1 instruction. They also require instruction that is explicit and systematic and that addresses the critical elements associated with success in reading, writing, and math. Instruction must also be of sufficient dosage. This refers to frequency (e.g. daily) and of meaningful duration. A significant factor underlying these characteristics is data-based individualization using ongoing progress-monitoring data. In order for progress to occur, these students must accelerate their learning. For some students, evidence suggests that this will require ongoing, sustained interventions for several years.
I believe it is possible to balance curricular demands with remediation. Our students must have access to and instruction in the general curriculum in accordance with the grade in which they are enrolled. They must also receive appropriate research-based, intensive interventions according to skill deficits. Such interventions must be targeted and of sufficient dosage to accelerate learning.
How can this be accomplished?
The first step is to review all available data in regards to both skill-based and standards-based areas. Skill areas for remediation must be identified with an appropriate plan for materials and strategies. All decisions must be made from the best available data on individual students.
Second, the daily schedule must be conducive to both curriculum instruction and skill-based instruction. There must be adequate time to provide remediation for skill weaknesses. In order to meet grade-standard requirements, consider a “less is more” approach. One example might be completion of two novels in a year as opposed to four contained in a curriculum guide. Spending intensive time on two novels, provided specialized strategies are incorporated through close reading, for example, will result in greater student gains as opposed to a cursory read through twice as many novels.
Another approach to balancing is to alternate days for curriculum and remediation. For example, three days per week might be devoted to literature required for completion of English 9 and two days per week devoted to remediation of reading word identification and word attack skills.
Third, utilize all available staff for instructional purposes. In addition to teachers, assistant teachers can be trained to implement a number of specialized strategies to close skill gaps, such as spelling programs, fluency programs, math calculation skills, providing a higher dosage of specialized instruction throughout the week.
Fourth, utilize research-based strategies to assist students with organization and storage of grade-level content material. Strategies, such as those from the University of Kansas Content Enhancement Series, provide an excellent means of mediating grade-level content material for students with learning disabilities.
Finally, for certain students, consider expanding a four-year high school track to a five- or six-year plan. This allows for content classes to be spread out over multiple years, resulting in more time for remedial efforts and closing the academic gap.
In conclusion, finding a balance between curricular-standards instruction and remediation of skill deficits can and must be accomplished for our students. For schools struggling to meet this challenge, teachers and administrators must come together to discuss priorities for the students. Very often this will result in schedule changes as well as a refocus on needed materials for the school. I further believe that school districts will be willing to adjust expectations when faced with accelerated student achievement as a result of finding the right balance. Without this balance, students will continue to tread water and never close the academic gap. In future blogs, I will explore what it means to increase dosage, adjust group size, and base instruction off of assessment data in greater detail. In the meantime, start thinking about what this means to you as a special educator. Are you spending all of your time trying to meet grade level standards? Are your students closing the skill gaps? Are reading and math levels increasing in an accelerated fashion? Do you need to find a better balance?