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We need to rethink school systems and environments if we are going to better serve students with the highest levels of need. Traditional systems, practices and policies in many cases cater only to general education students.

Ask yourself: What is your current system for helping students with disabilities fill skill gaps? If these students are only receiving remedial instruction, will you close those gaps?

Recent data shows  that students with disabilities continue to perform significantly below their peers in general education. The data has not statistically improved over the past 10 years. The thing is, teachers and education policymakers have been working tirelessly to implement special education initiatives over that time. Why aren’t they having an impact?

Let’s start with the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act — known as the IDEA. Passed in 1975, the legislation protects students who need an extra boost and represented a crucial step on the road to educational equity. However, the act’s execution has failed. We are not living up to the standards the IDEA set, and thus our commitment to inclusivity is unfulfilled.

All educators must take responsibility for all students.

One way we aren’t living up to those standards is in how we are preparing teachers to support students with disabilities. Only 17 percent of general education teachers say they feel well-prepared to teach students with mild-to-moderate learning disabilities. Meanwhile, one in five students in the U.S. has a learning or attention issue.

Here are four recommendations for how we can better serve all students.

First, let’s commit to a vision of authentic inclusivity. The pandemic has opened the door for a renewed commitment to equity, and the goal of closing the opportunity gap for all students has received deserved attention. This first step requires an inclusive mindset, a belief that all students, regardless of ability, can meet rigorous academic and social-emotional outcomes and are entitled to training that will help them do so. Educators must align their actions to include all students and bolster academic outcomes for all. That means all educators must take responsibility for all students. It means all students deserve to be meaningfully included in the general education setting and deserve meaningful access to grade-level content. It also means that we must make professional development more inclusive so that all staff build their capacity to support all learners. 

Related: Is the pandemic our chance to reimagine education for students with disabilities?

Second, reframe how we think about student discipline. Instead of using traditional methods that are reactive and punitive in nature, we must cultivate systems that view behavior challenges as expressions of social-emotional needs and identify appropriate and effective supports. Only then can we help students with social-emotional needs meet academic and social-emotional expectations. 

Third, rapidly respond to data. This starts with setting rigorous goals for students with disabilities that are aligned to grade-level targets. Always assume competence, never assume that a label on a student means they can’t meet rigorous expectations. Educators should have a frequent pulse on how students are responding to instruction and whether they are mastering daily objectives. If students are not, teachers must respond immediately. In addition to short-term progress monitoring, educators must also use evidence-based methods to monitor growth and suggest next steps. 

We are not living up to the standards the IDEA set, and thus our commitment to inclusivity is unfulfilled.

Fourth, design accessible instruction. Educators should consider who students are as learners and seek to remove potential barriers to learning during the lesson-planning process. Educators should also integrate the nine guidelines of universally designed instruction to support student engagement and access to grade-level instruction. We also need to rethink schedules so that students who are receiving specialized instruction can receive foundational skill-level support in addition to, not instead of, grade-level instruction.

When systems are allowing exceptional learners to fall behind, we must step up to orchestrate change. The goal is for all students to thrive. Continuously reflect on whether your system supports the student rather than whether the student fits in the system. Be an advocate for systemic change.

Following these recommendations means thinking differently about the design of instruction, data and schoolwide systems. We must keep asking ourselves: How are we making sure that all students have rigorous goals aligned to grade-level standards while building foundational skills? How are we making grade-level content accessible to all kids across the learning spectrum — not just to the average kid? How are we building educators’ capacities to meaningfully meet the needs of their students? Are we holding all educators accountable for all students?

To answer these questions in a productive and positive fashion, leaders need to change our current approach so that we can truly meet the mandate of the IDEA and ensure every learner benefits from and makes meaningful progress in school. Once we’ve done so, it’s time to get to work.

Toni Barton is the founder and president of Spelligent Education, a consultant for Relay Graduate School of Education and a founder of Relay’s Inclusive Schools Leadership Institute.

This story about better serving students with disabilities was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.

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