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Common Core special education
Third grade reading intervention teacher Antoinette Coppa provides small group instruction to students Matilda Helt, Miguel Santos and Jeremy Cantero during reading workshop. Credit: Ibby Caputo

BROOKLYN, N.Y. — On a Tuesday afternoon at PS 172 in the Sunset Park neighborhood of Brooklyn, Yulizabeth Ramirez, 8, uses her hands to determine how to differentiate between the letters b and d. To do this, she gives herself two thumbs up.

“The b has a belly and the d has a tushy,” says Yulizabeth, who, because of a speech and language disability, has an Individualized Education Program, or IEP. She’s in the process of writing a paragraph about a book her teacher read out loud to her class. The question she needs to answer is projected on a screen: “Choose a lesson you learned from this book. Explain how, using evidence from the text.”

Even though Ramirez is only in second grade, she’s already learning skills that hopefully will come in handy when she starts taking New York’s Common Core-aligned assessment tests next year. While most students struggle with these tests, none are struggling more than New York’s special education students. Last year, only 7 percent of New York City students with disabilities scored “proficient” or better in English and 12 percent in math, and statewide there were at least 190 school districts in which not a single special education student was proficient on the third-grade language arts test. But at PS 172, special education students did much better: Of the 70 grade 3-5 students tested, 60 percent were proficient on the language arts test, and almost all were proficient in math.

“We do believe our students can meet the same standards as everyone else does because they are getting the support they need,” said Erika Gundersen, assistant principal at PS 172, where 27.6 percent of the students have IEPs, much more than the citywide average of 18 percent.

Gundersen is on one side of a sharp divide within the special education community that the Common Core has brought to the fore.

Related: “It’s unfair” special education students lag behind under Common Core in Kentucky

On one side are educators and advocates who say the standards and the standards-related tests are an unnecessary “humiliation” that may harm the self-esteem of children with special needs and derail the progress they’re making. Such critics say that the exams are too difficult, and that students with disabilities shouldn’t be expected to take the same exams as students without disabilities. Last year the tests were met with protests, as 20 percent of all New York students opted out of the exams, including a couple of special education students at PS 172. The 2016 assessments were met with more protests as the opt-out movement continued. This year eight special education students at PS 172 opted out.

Last year, only 7 percent of New York City students with disabilities scored “proficient” or better in English and 12 percent in math, but at PS 172, 60 percent of grade 3-5 special education students were proficient in language arts and almost all were proficient in math.

On the other side of the divide, supporting Gundersen’s view, are special education advocates like Sheldon Horowitz, senior director of learning resources and research at the National Center for Learning Disabilities, who said that most special education students should be expected to meet rigorous standards, just like their peers.

“There is what I like to call the soft bigotry of low expectations,” said Horowitz, referencing a quote from former president George W. Bush in a speech to the NAACP in 2000. “If you presume that a child can’t meet those standards, you are not going to teach as aggressively to those standards, and kids are going to be left behind.”

Horowitz said the tests can help educators avoid that outcome. “The reason you are giving the test shouldn’t be about how well the kids score,” he said. “It should … be to inform how it is that you [can] move a child along to a point where they are able to demonstrate mastery.

“The question is, how do you use those standards to taper and personalize instruction?”

PS 172 prides itself on the personalization of its instruction. The curriculum is handcrafted and is constantly being adjusted based on the students’ needs.

“We really try to create that individualized educational experience that’s going to help every kid as they move through the standards,” said Gundersen.

Related: Can special education students keep up with the Common Core?

The approach PS 172 takes with its special education students started with a proverbial Eureka moment. One day about ten years ago, Gundersen and her colleagues were sitting around a table, talking about a group of students who weren’t making any progress, despite working with really great teachers year after year.

“We do believe our students can meet the same standards as everyone else does because they are getting the support they need.”

So they started pulling out the students’ IEPs to look for clues.

“We found when we read through the files that there were things we were missing. There were things we need to learn more about,” said Gundersen. “So it really became us understanding that we need to learn a lot more about how to make proper changes in our curriculum to support these kids, because it was our fault that they weren’t making the progress.”

Most teachers at PS 172 are dual-certified in general and special education, something Horowitz said is “the exception rather than the rule.” The school uses the increasingly common Integrated Co-Teaching (ICT) model, which means that students with and without disabilities are in classrooms together with two teachers.

“It’s very much a population where you can’t tell which student has an IEP and which doesn’t,” said Gundersen. The skills students learn in each grade level are the same, she added, yet “the depth at which you learn those skills or apply them changes as you grow older.”

For example, in second grade, Yulizabeth Ramirez is expected to write one solid paragraph with a thesis statement and evidence. In third grade, she will be expected to write a full essay. Because Ramirez has trouble with writing and decoding words, she works with a “push-in” speech therapist. Push-in therapists and teachers come into the class to work with students with disabilities, as opposed to the students leaving class to receive special attention.

Gundersen said the range of disabilities at PS 172 includes mostly students with learning disabilities and speech and language disabilities, but also some students with autism spectrum disorders or other health impairments. There are no students currently enrolled with severe cognitive disabilities. (Citywide, 0.4 percent of students have severe cognitive disabilities and are consequently eligible for the New York State Alternative Assessment.)

“The kids don’t miss out on the classroom culture,” said Allison Wilmot, who’s the mother of a third-grader with an IEP. She added that working with occupational therapy and other service providers in the classroom helps reduce the stigma that comes with learning disabilities.

Related: More than five years after adopting Common Core, Kentucky’s black-white achievement gap is widening

Wilmot said she’s proud of the way her daughter, Matilda Helt, 8, speaks about her own disability and the disabilities of other students in her class. “There’s a sensitivity and there’s a self-awareness, and there’s an empathy and a compassion to it,” she said. “I know that children don’t learn that necessarily on their own, so the way that she had to have learned that was from seeing other professionals working with children.”

Speech and occupational therapists don’t only provide support for students, they also provide feedback on the curriculum, which is a practice unique to PS 172, said Gundersen. At weekly grade-level meetings, teachers and administrators grade papers together and discuss the progress of different students.

“The question is, how do you use those standards to taper and personalize instruction?”

Staff development is also a priority, said Principal Jack Spatola. Former teachers are hired as “coaches” or staff developers to help teachers navigate the challenges they come across in their classrooms. “If you [as a teacher] do not respect yourself as a learner, how could you inspire others to be learners?” he said.

Still, despite the progress made by special education students, Gundersen and Spatola say they are not fans of New York’s Common Core-aligned exams. Gundersen said some of the questions are unfair.

Sometimes “the teachers aren’t even sure what the correct answer is, and that’s a problem,” she said.

One way the curriculum tries to tackle this is with a class called “complex text work.” It’s a time dedicated to teaching students strategies to get through texts that are above their reading level.

“Think of ourselves as readers. When we go to college we are sometimes presented with [a text] that we really don’t want to read, or that’s very difficult or very technical, but as a good reader you have to have strategies to get through that piece of text,” said Gundersen. “So part of our reading instruction is teaching kids how to do that same kind of work.”

Matilda Helt said she used some of those strategies on the third-grade language arts Common Core test. “Well, if I don’t know a word or something, I just kind of skip it or think about it,” she explained. If the word is only used once, she figures she can probably skip it, but if it repeats throughout the text, it is probably an important word. “This is probably related to the thing I’m reading, so I should try and think about the word.”

Matilda’s teacher, Antoinette Coppa, said students come into third grade with some anxiety about the test, having heard stories from older siblings, friends and parents. “We just reassure them,” Coppa said. “If you use the strategies that we’ve been teaching you and applying during your lessons, then you should be okay.”

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