Closing the Achievement Gap for Students with Disabilities: Fix General Ed and Special Ed Together

By Linda Diamond, President of CORE and Author of the Teaching Reading Sourcebook

Students with disabilities are not making the achievement gains they should make. The achievement gap between students with disabilities and students without disabilities has remained largely unchanged despite adaptive technologies and supposedly research-based methods. But we can improve outcomes for special education students by significantly improving general education and special education together.

Educators have long known that students with disabilities have not made the gains they should, despite placement in special education classes with individualized education plans or even mainstreaming into general education classrooms. The most recent 2017 NAEP confirms the persistence of this problem. As reported by Education Week (Christina Samuels, April 11, 2018), “Students with disabilities posted stagnant scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress in 2017 and failed to close the gap with students not identified as having disabilities.”

Despite research-based methods and adaptive technologies, the achievement gap between students with disabilities and students without disabilities has remained largely unchanged (University of Texas, “Is Progress Being Made Toward Closing the Achievement Gap in Special Education?”, Oct. 5, 2017). Although the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) requires a free and equal education in the most inclusive environment possible (FAPE and LRE), little has improved. In fact, the most recent Supreme Court decision in Endrew F. v Douglas County School District, determined that every child needs “a chance to meet challenging objectives” (see my previous blog), but most special education students are not held to high expectations.

High-Quality General Education Leads to Progress for Special Education Students

High-quality general education leads to significant progress for special education students. The results of a new study of Boston Public Charter Schools by Elizabeth Setren confirms this claim. Indeed, she found that “attending a Boston charter school makes special education students 1.4 times more likely to score proficient or higher on their standardized tests, resulting in a 30% reduction of the special education achievement gap” (Brookings Report, “The Importance of high quality general education for students in special education”, Setren and Gordon, April 20, 2017). This finding is not really surprising. If overall teaching quality is better, then all students benefit.

Good Teaching First for Prevention and Achievement

This blog is not an argument for the benefits of charter schools; instead, it points to the importance of high quality first teaching both for prevention and to enable our most vulnerable students to excel. Schools where all students realize strong achievement generally have high expectations, aligned, evidence-based curricula, and expert teaching. This is precisely what is called for by implementing multi-tiered systems of support (MTSS). If advocates for students with disabilities want them to have a free appropriate public education (FAPE) in the least restrictive environment (LRE), then we had better make sure that environment is of the highest quality. Mainstreaming students with disabilities into weak general education classrooms will do little to close the achievement gap for students with disabilities and will only make an already struggling teacher’s job more challenging.

Nonetheless, special education needs significant work as well. Special education teachers and paraprofessionals deserve high quality professional development, excellent materials, and the best possible support to enable them to help their struggling students , particularly students struggling with reading disabilities, the primary reason students are referred to special education in the first place.  All too often special education teachers have been left out of school and district initiatives, and according to a recent report from the National Council on Teacher Quality, only 11 states require that special education teachers demonstrate knowledge of the science of reading as part of their preservice credentialing programs. In fact, in the best MTSS models, special education teachers and general education teachers work closely together supporting all students regardless of classification.

However, only focusing on special education at the exclusion of general education will simply perpetuate continued over-identification of students needing special education and over-representation by children of color in special education. We must work to simultaneously fix general education and make special education truly special.

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