Why Common Core Fails Special Needs Students


Common Core, whatever else may be said about it, is a one-size-fits-all standards regime. Parents of special needs children therefore have every reason to oppose its implementation, whether by name or in some other “Common Core-aligned” form.

Although the standards provide for some accommodations for special needs students, the accommodations are minimal and totally inadequate to the wide variety of particular needs across our (or any other) state. It may sound good for politicians to proclaim the virtues of across-the-board standards, but it does nothing to improve an education system to hold (for example) eighth-grade students who read at first- or second-grade levels to eighth-grade reading standards.

There is simply no persuasive evidence to support the idea that simply raising standards benefits students, individually or in the aggregate, and much to contradict it. Students don’t need higher standards; they need teachers with the flexibility to tailor their instruction to their students.

These observations aren’t shared merely by those of a certain ideological viewpoint. Rather than make the arguments ourselves, then, we relay the observations of highly-regarded academics and teachers:

Katharine Beals, Lectuer at the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education, writes“That’s the real problem. Forcing all students into the same, age-pegged standards deprives atypical students of optimized learning opportunities and attainable goals at their level of developmental readiness.”

Catherine Gewertz, an editor at Education Week, writes: “In English/language arts, for instance, it will come as a shock to many high school students when they’re asked to read several challenging texts and compose an argument that cites evidence from those texts. In mathematics, many students are expected to struggle when asked to describe how they reached a solution to a problem, or to apply their math understanding to real-world problems. Designing such lessons for the typical student is tough enough for teachers; adapting them to children at wildly varied points on the skills spectrum is tougher still. Meeting the needs of students with disabilities, those learning English, those from disadvantaged backgrounds, and gifted students is a challenge that goes to the core of education’s purpose, however. And it’s a challenge that is largely unmet, more than two years after every state but four adopted the standards.”

Diane Ravitch, Research Professor of Education at New York University, traces the problem to Common Core’s origins: “The Common Core standards were not developed in a transparent manner. The standard-setting and writing of the standards included a significant number of people from the testing industry, but did not include a significant number of experienced teachers, subject-matter experts, and other educators from the outset, nor did it engage other informed and concerned interests, such as early childhood educators and educators of children with disabilities.”

Middle School Principal and former special ed teacher Tim Farley bases his apprehensions about Common Core  squarely on experience: “Horrendous. It’s horrendous. . . . Special education students can’t even read the questions [on the state tests] . . . Their brains aren’t designed to do what they want them to do. They’re concrete, consequential learners. Their brains don’t work that way. Throw into the mix a learning disability . . . and it’s disastrous.” In the same piece, another special education teacher and mother of a son with autism expresses her frustration: “It’s horrible and sad because [students] want to do well . . . they look at you and ask for help and teachers have to say, ‘Sorry, I can’t help. Do the best you can.’”

When devising new educational standards in South Carolina, state law requires “a task force of parents, business and industry persons, community leaders, and educators, to include special education teachers, shall examine the standards and assessment system to determine rigor and relevancy.” Yet the 2010 review included no parents. The cyclical review currently underway is a excellent opportunity to ensure that that mistake isn’t repeated. (UPDATE: Take a look at a breakdown of the nominees writing the standards as well as the team writing new ELA standards.)

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