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East Moriches, New York — On a morning in late May, the pace was slow and deliberate as seven students formed a semicircle around their teacher to work on a lesson about finding the main idea in a story.

“I have a surprise for you on my phone,” said Nicole Papa, before starting an audio recording of “Smart-Speak,” a nonfiction article about bullying and peer pressure. Pencils in hand, the third- and fourth-grade students followed along with the recorded voice.

“Now, let’s read it again, just a little bit closer, and think about the main idea, or gist, of each section,” said Papa, reading the first section aloud.  “What’s it mostly about?”

After soliciting a range of responses, Papa wrote in blue marker on a whiteboard: “You should speak up and tell your friend, ‘I don’t want to do your homework anymore.’”

Common Core special education
Nicole Papa, who teaches a self-contained class at East Moriches Elementary School, taught a lesson on finding the main idea. (Photo: Amanda M. Fairbanks)

The seven students in Papa’s classroom at East Moriches Elementary School, located in a middle-class Long Island community about 70 miles east of New York City, have all been classified as needing special education services because of diagnoses ranging from autism spectrum disorders to learning disabilities to mood disorders.

Papa’s lesson is contained within the first part of the EngageNY English language arts curriculum for New York State fourth graders. Paid for and developed by the New York State Education Department, EngageNY is a set of curriculum materials aligned to the new Common Core State Standards, which aim to prepare students for college and careers by deepening critical thinking and enhancing problem-solving skills. School districts are not required to adopt EngageNY, but are encouraged to adapt the materials and use them as a guide. Though the curriculum is scripted, each district follows it to greater and lesser degrees, with some following it line by line and others using it as a general template that guides instruction.

“We’re overhauling the plane in mid-air. My son doesn’t fit into this one-size-fits-all model, so what are we going to do with him?” Mary Herrle, mother of two children with disabilities.

East Moriches follows a very scripted approach to EngageNY and that’s why Papa, an educator with more than 20 years of experience, was initially resistant to the Common Core. She worried that her students, whose reading is two to three levels below others their age, would be unable to handle the increased rigor along with a scripted approach to teaching and learning.

In fact, she has already had to go off script. Since the suggested passage was several years above their reading level—and her students were unable to read it independently while also making sense of it—Papa asked one of her colleagues to record an audio version of the text.

Papa is hardly alone in modifying the material to meet the diverse needs of her students. The verdict is still out as to whether students with disabilities can meet these new, more rigorous standards.

So far, implementation has faced stiff opposition from some parents and educators who say that special education students can’t keep up. The Common Core isn’t necessarily the culprit, but rather the way the standards are being interpreted in the state-approved curriculum. EngageNY is one interpretation of the standards, with each state choosing its own approach. Curriculum woes aside, high-stakes tests have fueled further objections with some parents refusing to let their children be tested. Children who are not tested suffer no penalties; the tests have no bearing on end-of-year grades or the following year’s placement.

Papa, for her part, sees incremental progress among her students.

“A couple of years ago, I would never have tried such a difficult passage with these kids,” said Papa, reflecting on her lesson. “My students are stepping it up and showing some unexpected successes. I see the light bulbs go on and I see a lot of growth in their comprehension, in their vocabulary and in their confidence. They know they’re doing exactly what their peers are doing right across the hallway.”

Still, the pace is far slower in Papa’s class than in the school’s mainstream classes. Special education students are taught either in their own classroom (called a self-contained classroom) or with other students (called inclusion). The school’s fourth-grade inclusion class, with 15 general education students and seven special education students, completed the first of four English segments in October. Meanwhile, Papa’s self-contained class, with a month of school left to go, was still on the first segment and only one-quarter of the way to the finish line. At the end of the year, some of Papa’s students were tested while others opted out of taking the tests.

In and Out of Classes with Peers

Mary Herrle has twin 10-year-old sons, Paul and Philip. Paul has autism. Philip has Asperger’s syndrome.

Herrle lives in Saint James, about 40 miles from East Moriches. Her husband works as a carpenter; she stays busy looking after the couple’s four children.

Paul attends Ascent: A School for Individuals with Autism in Deer Park, N.Y. alongside 25 children with severe cognitive impairments. After Paul turned two, Herrle noticed that Philip also wasn’t meeting many of his developmental milestones. Philip later received a diagnosis of Asperger’s syndrome, a higher-functioning form of autism.

Common Core special education

Since kindergarten, Philip has bounced between self-contained and inclusion classrooms, depending on the year. By the time the Common Core came to Saint James Elementary School in September 2012, Philip was in a fourth-grade inclusion classroom. Five of his classmates had Individualized Education Programs, or I.E.P.s, a requirement for children receiving special-education services.

Philip thrives on repetition, particularly in math. In third grade, he scored a 3 in math (4 is the highest possible score). Then everything changed.

“Suddenly, in fourth grade, they’re giving him math he’s never seen before in his life,” said Herrle.

After failing all subjects, Philip repeated the fourth grade. Looking ahead to fifth-grade math, Herrle saw a curriculum way above her son’s skill level. Come September, Philip will be back in a self-contained classroom, where Herrle hopes he will finally receive the individualized attention he so badly needs.

“If we’re granting kids double time to take a test, why wouldn’t we grant them double time to learn the material?” Charles Russo, superintendent and elementary principal, East Moriches Union Free School District.

“I have no problem exposing him to higher standards and to more intense rigor, but if you’re going to teach kindergarten to fourth grade one way, you’re going to have to go back and reteach the other methodologies before diving in at fifth grade with a whole new approach,” said Herrle.

As for self-contained classrooms, Herrle doesn’t believe segregating special education students from their general education peers is the answer, either. Federal law requires schools to educate students with disabilities in the least restrictive environment, or exposing special-needs children to their non-disabled peers as much as possible.

“It’s a huge step back for him, but he isn’t getting the proper scaffolding in his current classroom,” said Herrle. “We’re overhauling the plane in mid-air. My son doesn’t fit into this one-size-fits-all model, so what are we going to do with him?”

Looking ahead, Herrle worries that large numbers of students with disabilities won’t graduate. During a recent school board meeting, she asked administrators to reevaluate the Common Core’s impact on special education students.  “If my son, who is more than capable of being a producer in our economy, doesn’t get a high school diploma, he will be receiving services, with your children footing that bill. It will bankrupt our economy, when all of these children can’t support themselves.”

Opting Out

Across New York State, many parents were stunned by last summer’s release of the first test scores aligned to the Common Core. Among students in grades three to eight, only around 30 percent demonstrated proficiency in English and math. Children with disabilities fared worse. Statewide, just 5 percent of students with disabilities were proficient in English, with 7 percent proficient in math.

On Long Island, which has 124 school districts,more than 20,000 students did not take this spring’s English and math exams. Though entire districts can’t opt out of state-mandated testing, individual parents can sign waivers allowing their children to refuse the exams.

Parents in districts separated by only a few suburban streets reacted very differently to the Common Core. Some supported the new standards; others mobilized to end them.

Last spring, Jeanette Brunelle Deutermann created Long Island Opt-Out, a Facebook group with more than 17,000 members. At more than 50 public forums she’s organized since September, Deutermann said she found that parents of children with disabilities are among the Common Core’s fiercest critics.

Some educators are equally concerned.

Roberta Gerold, the superintendent of Middle Country Central School District, described the Common Core-aligned assessments as a “one-sizes-fits-all program without a real recognition of the need to be attentive to individual needs.”

Gerold said she’s troubled by the premise that every child can learn at the same level, at the same pace and with the same depth, “no matter what level the child is at and whether they possess an extraordinary ability or are cognitively challenged.”

A quarter of Middle Country’s 10,500 students, a combination of regular and special education students, refused both tests, she said.

But Sonja Santelises, vice president for K-12 policy and practice at The Education Trust, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit that works to close achievement gaps, sees a danger in large numbers of children with disabilities opting out of state tests.

Santelises sees real value in students with disabilities taking part, particularly during the early years of testing.

“It’s much easier in the early years of assessment to make the adjustments that need to happen,” she said.

Lindsay Jones, the director of public policy and advocacy for the National Center for Learning Disabilities, another Washington-based nonprofit, said the Common Core raised the bar on expectations for special education students, and her organization strongly supports that. She said that in the past, without those higher expectations, there had been a “huge underachievement problem.”

Nevertheless, Celia Oyler, a professor of education at Teachers College, Columbia University, is troubled by the uniformity she observes when visiting special education classrooms.

“Every child is being given the same materials at the same time,” said Oyler, who runs the Teachers College Inclusive Classrooms Project and directs the inclusive teacher education programs at the college. “The very essence of meeting the needs of children with disabilities is that learners need to be doing things at different times.”

During classroom observations, Oyler often finds teachers under the constant threat of scripted curricula, with every classroom expected to be on the same page, every day, no matter what.

“If you want students to be engaged in learning, they first have to feel successful at it,” said Oyler. “If a child has a third-grade reading level, they shouldn’t be given a sixth-grade book unless specific accommodations are carefully provided.”

Double Time

Back in East Moriches, Charles Russo, who serves as both the district’s superintendent and also its elementary principal, advocates a balanced approach to the Common Core. Earlier this spring, only 10 percent of the district’s 750 students refused the statewide exams.

Russo has seen general education students—not just those with disabilities—bristle at the increased rigor.

“If we’re granting kids double time to take a test, why wouldn’t we grant them double time to learn the material?” asked Russo, referring to the testing accommodations many special education students receive when taking exams.

Common Core special education
Christina Liberatore, an inclusion teacher at East Moriches Elementary School, helps her fourth-grade students complete a group assignment. (Photo: Amanda M. Fairbanks)

Russo views Papa’s classroom as a sort of Common Core laboratory. If he can show gains here, among seven of his most vulnerable students, the standards might work elsewhere.

Ultimately, he sees the success of the Common Core hinging on district-to-district rollout.

“We don’t have to have this all done this year,” Russo has said in faculty meetings.  “I tell all of my teachers to adapt the work, to modify the work, to slow down. Get your students through it with fidelity and understanding and don’t worry if you don’t get it all done.”

Though he foresees special education students struggling with new material come testing time, he would much rather they tackle fewer areas in greater depth than speeding through an entire year’s curriculum.

In past years, as a former special educator, he saw students with disabilities achieving grades that weren’t reflective of grade-level work—with parents given a false sense of how their children performed.

“I’m OK with them being evaluated on work they’re supposed to achieve, but I’m not OK with forcing them through an assessment they’re not ready to take on,” he explained.

“If we see your kids hitting the wall of frustration, we’ll shut it down,” he said he has told parents. “But let’s give them a crack at the test. Even if it’s only 15 or 20 minutes. We don’t need 120 minutes of frustration and tears. It’s nothing but cruel.”

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  1. Sometimes I think the special needs card is overdiagnosed and overplayed. Case in point: I used to be a mental health worker, and an actual diagnosis was OPPOSITIONAL DEFIANT DISORDER. Give me a break. Just say the kid is a rebellious S O B and give him a choice–sit down, shut up, pay attention or we’ll call–and prosecute–your parents. Cue the bleeding hearts. Cut me to pieces. But I’ll always feel this way!!!

  2. The NCLB-Common Core combination is toxic to pupils with special needs. What first needs to be withdrawn is No Child Left Behind’s annual testing requirements, since, 13 years in, the evidence is clear that millions of children, especially those with special needs, are still being left behind, while our country as a whole is being left behind others with a more intelligent and modern approach to education reform. I favour rewriting the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (whose current version is NCLB) along the lines of the UK’s Education Act 2011, which is raising accountability by reforming qualifications, a concept almost totally forgotten in American education, where the emphasis is on giving all children meaningless high school diplomas that certify preparation for neither college nor careers, a poor welcome to adulthood indeed.

  3. I haven’t read the article yet. Just the title. But, already, I’ve got a comment.
    Consider me an ‘observer’ – a migrant hired to teach special ed in the U.S.
    The common core test – as it is, is not fit to be used as a true testing tool for kids in special ed. Nevertheless, I could see that the special ed programming – depending on the nature of each student’s disability – can utilize some of the principles embodied in the common core idea. But, as it is, common core testing is not appropriate for students with special needs. It will not yield a realistic picture of the special ed students’ learning level.
    Just consider this single fact: Students (special ed) are in the 5th grade level but, are assessed as between kinder to 3rd grade in math and reading! They can barely write and read!
    Inappropriate. Highly. But, I’m not complaining. I’m just an ‘observer’.

  4. These high stakes tests are not preparing our students to be better employees, better citizens or better future parents. They are teaching them to sit down, shut up and fill in dots. There is one right answer and you’d better be able to identify it or be faced with being held back, not receiving a high school diploma or whatever (consequences vary by state). In many jobs, careers and vocations there are SEVERAL possible answers to any given problem. We need to be moving away from COMMON Core and into CREATIVE Core, PROBLEM SOLVING Core, INNOVATIVE Core or anything else that builds the skills that employers, communities and the future needs.

  5. Mr. Smith…Oppositional Defiant Disorder is considered a social maladjustment and as such is a mental health disorder that no longer qualifies for an IEP in most states. Students with mental health disorders such as Depression, Schizophrenia, Bipolar, etc. can qualify for an IEP if there is a need for direct educational services or curriculum modifications. If a student only needs accommodations, such as extended time for assignments and testing, they would likely have a 504 plan not an IEP. Things do evolve and change, so some past experience is no longer applicable to current situations.

  6. Please do not use the phrase “special education students”. This term is disrespectful. In 1990, the IDEA stated we should use person-first language such as students with disabilities or students with special needs. Thanks!

  7. The vast majority (75%) of special needs kids are above a 100 IQ with a processing disorder. The medical diagnosis is dyslexia (also dysgraphia, dyscalcuia, etc). Best intervention is a multi-sensory method (Wison, Slingerland, Lindamood Bell). HOWEVER SDC classes have a mix of kids, many with emotional issues (OCD, bipolar, autism). When multi-sensory intervention REQUIRES an auditory chant of what is written (common core requirement) , this sets these emotional kids off. Therefore, multi-sensory intervention is not done. Funding dictates that these SDC kids be lumped together in one self-contained class by grade or age.

  8. In comment to Paul. That is an extremely narrow perspective on this subject. Unless you have a child with special needs you just need to shut up. There is a wide range of special needs. My son was diagnosed with AgCC at birth because my doctor decided to do a late term ultrasound. He was a large baby and they noticed the ventricles in his brain where enlarged which then lead to a ultrasound on his head the day he was born. He is missing his corpus collasum which is the main connection between the right and left hemispheres. At the age of two is when we started to notice a delay in language and social development. He is now a second grader in a 50/50 inclusion program that allows him to go to a gen ed class part of the day and get special help. With out this he would not be progressing academically or socially. The significance of his story is that if we had not been lucky enough to find out about the AgCC at birth, he could very easily have been put on a behavioral track and would not have known why he was having issues communicating and following directions in class. It is not a black and white situation and I strongly believe that children who are struggling are very rarely just bad seeds, there is always a bigger issue to be addressed and you can’t just lump every child that might act out in class or struggle into a group as “bad kids”. You are entitled to your opinion but it is based off a very limited understanding of this subject.

  9. Paul: the fact that you were ever a mental health provider is a terrifying thought. I am a behavior consultant in these schools. In these classes. Trust me, these disabilities are real. Yes, they can be addressed with intensive behavior intervention, but your approach is absolutely deplorable.

  10. I spent several years as a special ed / intervention teacher in inner city Akron, Ohio. I spent most of my time in makeshift rooms and areas which were far too small (I only rarely was given a standard sized classroom), rarely given materials, and frequently had no working computers. My union, to which I paid a small fortune in dues, told me that these were factors beyond their control, and that I should deal with it or job hunt. I found it interesting that my students, who had the greatest needs, were usually given the fewest resources.

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