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Common Core and special education
Field Elementary teacher Jessica Rockhold works with Remy Campbell on a smart board in her classroom. April 27, 2016 Credit: By Michael Clevenger, the Courier-Journal

Since Kentucky became the first state to adopt the Common Core in 2010, the achievement gap between students with disabilities and their nondisabled peers has widened slightly – despite sweeping expectations the more rigorous standards would help eliminate disparities in academic performance.

Though both students with and without disabilities have improved reading and math proficiency over the years, students with disabilities often fail to get the intervention they need to progress at the same rate as their classmates, causing them to fall behind their peers and widening the gap.

It’s unfair these students – about 98,000 across the state with conditions ranging from dyslexia to severe cognitive impairments – are entering society unprepared, said former Kentucky Education Commissioner Gene Wilhoit, a longtime supporter of the Common Core standards.

But to expect that the Common Core – or any standards – alone will move the needle is overreaching, he said.

“For us to really reach the students with disabilities, we’re going to have to change the way in which we interact with them around the learning process,” he said.

Field Elementary, where nearly one out of every five students is classified as having some sort of a disability, has actually managed to do this.

The school has shrunk the achievement gap between disabled students and their peers to nearly half the size it was when the Common Core was introduced, by pushing expectations for students and focusing on individualized learning.

And Jefferson County Public Schools is trying to bring the strategies driving Field’s success to other schools in the district.

Reframing expectations

Most educators agree the Common Core standards are rigorous enough that students who meet these guidelines will be adequately prepared to pursue a career or a college degree after they graduate from the public school system.

State education officials say all students are held to the same academic standards regardless of whether or not they have a disability, but some experts argue that’s not necessarily the case.

To be sure, some students with the most severe cognitive disabilities won’t be able to reach grade-level goals set by the state – but the vast majority of Kentucky’s disabled students have conditions mild enough that they should be able to perform on grade-level with sufficient interventions from teachers, said University of Kentucky professor Lee Ann Jung, whose research has focused on special education and academic standards.

“We should not see a gap for the overwhelming majority of students who have disabilities,” she said. “But we do.”

“There are a lot of people who say, ‘we are all working on the same standards for all students,’ but if we really were to look at each individual student, we would find there are lots of students not working on the grade-level standards,’” she said.

Part of this has to do with educators’ expectations for students with disabilities, which Jung said are a strong predictor of what students will actually achieve.

Although many believed the Common Core standards would elevate achievement by raising expectations for students, educators still sometimes underestimate what students with disabilities can do, and that’s a problem, Jung said.

“I think we see kids early on and say, ‘Oh, they’re a poor reader. They’re probably going to have poor outcomes,’” she said. “And we’ve got to reframe that.”

Even the most well-intentioned teachers can “fall into a rut” of low expectations, said Jessica Rockhold, who teaches a class of six Field Elementary students who are on the moderate-to-severe end of the autism spectrum.

Common Core and special education
Field Elementary teacher Jessica Rockhold works on reading with Tyler Howard, left, and Anthony Diaz, right. April 27, 2016 Credit: By Michael Clevenger, the Courier-Journal

She and her classroom assistants constantly push themselves to adopt a different mindset, which school leaders say has been key to narrowing the gap.

“We don’t know what they can or can’t do if we don’t ever try to push them to learn,” Rockhold said. “We’re constantly offering and trying new things and pushing them a little bit harder than maybe they’re wanting us to, but then you see the success start happening.”

An issue of resources

On a recent morning, Rockhold and two teaching assistants cycled through a series of silly, animated songs, each a precursor to technology-aided exercises, where students answered a series of questions using their tablets or the interactive white board at the front of the class.

The “let’s be quiet” song played on the white board, followed by the “hands are not for hitting” song, and songs and lessons about the calendar, seasons and weather.

Despite the seeming abundance of gadgets in Rockhold’s classroom, technology is still her greatest need because it is key for helping students communicate what they know.

“They’re learning how to communicate in a way that we know in their head they’ve been trying to, but they just couldn’t figure out a way to say it to us,” she said. “That’s a very exciting thing … watching them academically really open up.

Wilhoit said technology stands to be an asset for educators when it comes to closing the gap for students with special needs, although devices can be expensive.

Common Core documents and state officials say schools and districts should provide accommodations to students with disabilities to reach the same high standards to which their nondisabled classmates are held. This includes assistive technology devices.

Common Core and special education
One of the tablets in use in Jessica Howard’s classroom at Field Elementary. The tablets are used to help students with autism close the learning gap with their peers. April 27, 2016 Credit: By Michael Clevenger, the Courier-Journal

JCPS provides iPads to qualifying students with disabilities, district spokeswoman Allison Martin said, and several of Rockhold’s students have iPads from the district.

“We have children that range from learning disabilities to autism who we provide with individualized technology,” she said.

And to be sure, the school and Rockhold have done their share of work obtaining the resources they need to ensure students are successful.

Rockhold has used website Donors Choose to raise funds for a Kindle Fire, which a student uses as a communication tool, and Go Talk communication devices.

Field, which has 12 special education staff members, is also well equipped to serve its population of disabled students, about a third of which are on the autism spectrum. Martin said JCPS has purposely staffed its schools to better serve certain populations of special needs students and works with parents to place their children at schools where their needs will be best met.

The state’s support for special education is “pretty loose,” Wilhoit said, although there are “tremendous resources” going into teacher development – which is important. Field’s teachers have greatly improved their ability to accurately and efficiently identify whether a student has special learning needs, thanks so very focused teacher training at the district level, which Wilhoit said is key to better serving students with disabilities.

But, Wilhoit said, “there are federal resources and there are state resources that can be retargeted to better support these students.”

Taking a lesson from special education

Closing the achievement gap for one specific population of students – say, just special needs students or just Hispanic students or just low-income students – is nearly impossible, said Steven Stark, Field’s assistant principal. That school, which serves the area around the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, has an extremely diverse population.

Nearly 70 percent of Field’s students fall into one or more of what the state refers to as “gap” groups, subpopulations of students, such as disabled or low-income or minority, who have historically been at a disadvantage in the classroom.

So, the school has aimed to tackle the gap for all its students by bringing the philosophy behind the Individualized Education Plan – a practice mandated by law for students with disabilities – to its entire student body. At the root of everything, the premise of the IEP is that all children learn differently, so a “one size fits all” approach isn’t going to cut it.

“We try the best that we can to meet kids where they are and make sure our instruction is designed to carry out – whether you have an IEP or not,” Stark said.

Rockhold is constantly checking data for her six students, comparing it with each student’s learning goals and assessing the efficacy of what she and her classroom aides are doing. She adjusts instruction in the classroom and starts the process all over again.

Now, this sort of data-driven approach is used for all students.

Just like Rockhold’s students receive small group or one-on-one instruction, Field students participate in daily (?) WIN – or “what I need” time. The school brings in retired teachers and instructional assistants to deliver more individualized instruction that, oftentimes, special education teachers worked with general education teachers to create.

A key component to the success of WIN time, Stark said, is that “everyone knows the data,” including students.

“They want to take ownership in their learning,” he said. “And I think that’s what truly closes that gap.”

Reporter Kirsten Clark can be reached at 502-582-4144. Follow the Courier-Journal’s education team on Facebook at

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