Centering Teaching and Learning in Plans to Educate Students With Disabilities This Fall

Disabled schoolboy using digital tablet

This article by Nathan Jones, associate professor of special education at Boston University, is Part 1 of a two-part series.

Questions of health and safety of students and school personnel have dominated summer debates about how to open schools this fall. The collective focus on safety is certainly appropriate, considering concerns voiced by parents and educators. In most all cases, states have asked school districts to prepare for multiple possible scenarios, ranging from fully in-person to fully virtual. To plan well for any of these scenarios would take a tremendous amount of collective will and resources. To plan for all options simultaneously means that schools have simply not had the opportunity to wrestle with the deep teaching and learning challenges in front of them. If we were to wave a magic wand, and all schools were able to operate fully in person with no threat to students or staff this fall, schools would still face an uphill battle to address the learning losses that have been disproportionately felt by critical student sub-populations. Nowhere is this issue clearer than in the education of students with disabilities.

Although formal data are not yet available, we should anticipate that many students with disabilities have regressed considerably since the transition to distance learning. Data from NAEP assessments show that, for the past several years, students with disabilities have lagged behind their peers in reading, writing, and math. These gaps have likely widened further during distance learning, where students with disabilities have likely not received the additional instructional time they need to make progress. In a May 2020 survey conducted by Parents Together, 40% of parents of students with disabilities reported receiving no services at all since the transition to remote learning, and only 20% reported receiving the services they were entitled to.

What would schools need to do to stem learning losses experienced by students with disabilities? In a recent policy brief I co-authored with Sharon Vaughn and Lynn Fuchs, written as part of the EdResearch for Recovery series, we tried to answer this question. We reviewed the most rigorous evidence we could find from special education research, drawing on a series of meta-analyses and systematic reviews, as well as reviews conducted by the What Works Clearinghouse.

My co-authors and I concluded that the single most important thing that schools can do to stem the tide against additional learning gaps this fall is to provide additional intervention time. For many students, they will need at least small-group or one-on-one intervention as frequently as three to five times per week. These interventions, which frequently emphasize explicit, systematic instruction in foundational skills, should be tailored to students’ individual academic or behavioral needs and delivered by well-qualified personnel. There is no shortage of information on the kinds of interventions that work well for these students (see, for example, the academic intervention and behavioral intervention charts from the National Center on Intensive Intervention (NCII). Further, researchers have provided resources documenting how these interventions could be implemented through distance learning.

Just as critical as what we recommend is what we do not. We argue that differentiation within the general education classroom, while important in its own right, will be insufficient alone to meet the needs of many of these students. To accelerate their progress, these students will require specialized instruction that is uniquely tailored to their individual needs. As I will discuss in Part II of this series of posts, practices like co-teaching, though popular, will likely not be the best use of school resources during this time. Instead, schools should re-orient the work of special educators to prioritize the delivery of interventions.

As of the writing of this post, many districts of the country are still awaiting final decisions on how school will take place this fall. How do we ensure we have the adults necessary, the space necessary, and the resources necessary to pull this off? But as school districts land on final plans, they will have to grapple with the enormous teaching and learning challenges ahead of them. We have clear evidence from special education research on how to support students with disabilities. The question is, will schools have the time and resources necessary to put in place instructional supports for students with disabilities that align with this best evidence?

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