Wednesday, November 20, 2013

The Common Core and the special ed fantasy

One of the biggest problem with the Common Core Standards, as I noted earlier, is that

They’re imposing a set of one-size-fits all goals on all students, regardless of intellectual ability, that is extraordinary damaging to the education of advanced students and special needs students alike.
We’ve already heard anecdotes about advanced students that are being left behind by the CCS rollout. Even more vulnerable are special ed students, who, though they may be advanced in some academic areas, are often quite behind in others. Several recent articles in a special issue of Edweek address how the CCS are affecting this population. As one of these articles notes, special ed high school students now face, along with their typical peers, requirements
to read several challenging texts and compose an argument that cites evidence from those texts.
to describe how they reached a solution to a problem, or to apply their math understanding to real-world problems.
As the article notes, this is an educational challenge “that is largely unmet, more than two years after every state but four adopted the standards.”

A second article explores this problem further:
One problem is that teachers of students with disabilities, particularly those with severe cognitive disabilities, have often believed the students had to master life skills before moving on to academics, said Diane M. Browder, a professor of special education at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte and the author of books on IEPs and common-core alignment.

That's a double standard, Ms. Browder said. Teachers of typically developing students don't wait for students to learn life skills before teaching reading, she said.

"Why would we take a whole class of citizens and say you don't get to learn the standards that we say are most important for everyone?" she said.
This kind of wishful thinking is part of a general trend that’s been going on for some time, and which, since the late 1990s, has been working its way into the guidelines for the Individualized Education Plans (IEPs) that regulate the instruction of special needs students.
The standards-based IEP began in the 1997 reauthorization of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. Access to the general curriculum was a mandated goal for students with disabilities, though the law did not say that access had to be at the student's enrolled grade level.

The No Child Left Behind Act, signed into law in 2002, and the 2004 reauthorization of the idea provided reinforcement that children with disabilities should be exposed to the general education curriculum on their grade level to the greatest extent possible. [Boldface mine.]
And, to a large extend, this has indeed remained wishful thinking:
Margaret J. McLaughlin, a professor in the department of special education at the University of Maryland College Park, said the reality of standard-based IEPs has not measured up to their promise.

"We end up cherry-picking these discrete little standards and plopping them into a standard, and I think that's even worse than what we were doing before," said Ms. McLaughlin, who is also the associate director of the Institute for the Study of Exceptional Children and Youth, based at the university. Teachers have not been given the time and the training to meet and craft meaningful blueprints for students, she said.
She’s right. But it’s worse than teachers not being given enough time and training. For many special ed students vis-à-vis many of the Standards, no amount of time and teacher training will suffice. This is because—and this is one of the biggest problems with the Standards—the CCS authors have assumed that grade level alone determines goal-readiness. In our age of “social promotion,” where hardly any kids are held back a grade (or promoted up to the next grade), this makes the CCS totally unrealistic, and totally inappropriate, for any student whose mental and chronological ages aren’t in sync.

Which grade level students are assigned to is an artifact of society; when it comes to neuro-atypical students, psychologists have long recognized mental age, rather than chronological age, as the more valid psychological construct. Focusing on chronological age and away from realistic goals deprives special ed students of optimized learning opportunities, and attainable learning goals, at their Zone of Proximal Development. The result, substantially lower achievement within the special ed population, is the opposite of what Standards Based IEPs claim to be promoting.

This doesn’t stop members of the armchair class from pretending otherwise. Professor McLaughlin, for example, claims that one can:
drill down into a set of standards and determine which are the critical elements, and then figure out how to get a child to a point where he or she can understand those elements.

"Capturing the essence" of the standards is how Barbara Van Haren, the director of special education at a cooperative educational service agency serving more than 30 districts in southeastern Wisconsin, describes the necessary work when she provides professional development to teachers.
What does it actually mean to “capture the essence of, say, CCSS.ELA-Literacy.WHST.6-8.2b (“Develop the topic with relevant, well-chosen facts, definitions, concrete details, quotations, or other information and examples”), when we’re talking about a hypothetical 8th grader who, in Edweek’s words has “the academic skills of a much younger student.” Here’s Van Haren:
"That's where I have a lot of conversations around universal design, response to intervention, and building those core principles, so that we can ensure our students with disabilities have access to the higher-level skills that are embedded in the common core."
Thanks. That really clears things up.

Regarding teachers' concerns about students with “significant cognitive disabilities,” Kim Mearman, an assistant director at the State Education Resource Center in Connecticut “who has produced an electronic presentation on the common core and special education for use by schools and districts” has, in Edweek’s words:
tried to get teachers thinking about the standards in different ways. For example, she said, one English/language arts standard talks about being able to cite evidence from text.

"That's also a life skill," Ms. Mearman said. "I need to know if I need to wear a coat this morning and I need evidence to make that decision."
Anyone who thinks that the cognitive mechanisms underlying decisions about whether we need to wear a coat outside are anything like the cognitive mechanisms involved in citing evidence from a text should take a look at Daniel Kahnemann’s Thinking Fast and Slow.

When it comes to the uneven cognitive profile of autism, there are even more problems with the Common Core’s One Size Fits All. Many kids on the autistic spectrum, for example, excel in math but not in language. The Common Core standards for Math, however, are being interpreted right and left as requiring students to explain their mathematical reasoning verbally.

What ultimately determines which particular exegesis of the Common Core State Standards is the "correct" one, of course, is what ends up being assessed by the Common Core State tests. And here, too, there are concerns regarding the special needs population. Autistic students, on the one hand, may lose points when they fail to explain their answers, and, because their resulting low scores, may lose opportunities for appropriately challenging math instruction.

Students with learning disabilities, on the other hand, may get an artificial boost from accommodations like text-to-speech devices that may remove any incentive for schools to address dyslexia. As a third article on special ed students reports:
Richard Allington, a professor of education at the University of Tennessee and one of the country's most recognized experts on early literacy, calls the accommodation "cheating."

"What special education does best is create illiterates," Mr. Allington said. "I know why they don't want their kids tested on reading activity. It's because they've done a terrible job of providing those kids with high-quality reading instruction."

"Ensuring that common standards have addressed accessibility concerns does not mean lowering the standards. It does mean, for example, providing a way for students who cannot hear to demonstrate their 'listening' skills; for students who cannot see to demonstrate their 'viewing' skills; and for students who cannot decode to demonstrate their comprehension skills in reading," the report says. But it's not so easy to separate the tasks of reading comprehension and decoding, said literacy expert Timothy Shanahan, the chairman of the department of curriculum and instruction at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

"Part of the task of reading and learning to read is learning to get the words off the page while you think about them. Not having to get the words off the page gives a measurable advantage in most studies," he said.
Similarly insidious are speech-to-text devices, which remove the incentive to teach handwriting and spelling skills to students with disabilities. Even more problematic is one of the accommodations still under development by the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC), a group of 18 states collaborating on CCS-based assessment tests. This is what’s called “word-prediction” software: software that, according to PARCC, provides special needs students with “bank of frequently or recently used words onscreen as a result of the student entering the first few letters of a word.” The facilitative effects of such a program are potentially quite powerful, making it impossible to tell to what degree the student herself has chosen her words, and impossible, therefore, to assess her communication skills.

All this is all the more ironic when you consider that what afflicts much of the special education population—especially those at the milder end of the spectrum—are some combination of dysteachia and unreasonable expectations rather than inherent disabilities in learning. What these students need is direct, structured instruction in phonics, and drills in basic arithmetic, at their instructional level, and a disentanglement of social and organizational demands from academic demands.

But instead of providing students with these instructional basics, we first artificially inflate the numbers of students in need of special interventions, then set totally unrealistic goals, and then create testing accommodations that mask our persistent failure to help the most vulnerable of our children.


Anonymous said...

Our school decided that all classes are to be college prep. No exceptions. Our special ed. students can go to resource room with one of two teachers who both are about students getting passing grades, not learning--they give the kids answers (three students come back from taking test and every answer matches-even the short answer questions. I have two students in American Lit who are reading at 2nd grade level and whose ability to comprehend the material, to make inferences, to write a complete sentence are at that level or lower. I have begged special ed teachers to help me find age-appropriate material that is on their reading level to no avail. We are just expected to pass them along. It makes me burn inside every day that no matter what I do, I can't change this; my student load is 150 students, 4 different preps.

Anonymous said...

It's a little more complicated than you indicate.
while the PARCC assessment will allow blind students to have the text read aloud, The Smarter Balanced testing consortium will not allow blind students to have the text read aloud even if the students do not know braille. The American Federation for the Blind is fighting this, but so far they have not been successful.

Beyond that, you are caught up in the evil teacher fantasy. There is not some vast conspiracy of vicious teachers who are trying to make children dyslexic by refusing to teach them phonics. In the 1980's some government bureaucrats in California mandated that teacher use whole language. This was not requested by teachers. It was a disaster. Contrary to popular conspiracy theories, whole language fell out of favor and has not been used in any school district or education publisher for over 30 years.

Children are dyslexic not because of evil teachers but because dyslexia is a real condition that was first described over a hundred years ago.

Katharine Beals said...

It is a little more complicated than you indicate.

I don't know any critic of current educational practices who blames "evil teachers." What critics typically see as the culprit for dysteachia is either the mis-education of teachers, or the regulation of their classroom practices, by higher powers who themselves are poorly educated about what works, and what doesn't work in education.

It's possible that some of those involved are evil, too, but that's rather hard to judge from this distance.

"There is not some vast conspiracy of vicious teachers who are trying to make children dyslexic by refusing to teach them phonics."

Right. But current practices aren't giving enough children sufficient phonics. That's why many who are initially identified as dyslexic end up losing that diagnosis after they are properly educated. See

"In the 1980's some government bureaucrats in California mandated that teacher use whole language. This was not requested by teachers. It was a disaster."

Indeed it was.

" whole language fell out of favor and has not been used in any school district or education publisher for over 30 years."

"Whole language" may have fallen out of favor, but the intensive, systematic phonics instruction of yore has not made much of a come back. Today's "Balanced Literacy" has students guessing at words by focusing on the initial and final letters and the story context.

"Children are dyslexic not because of evil teachers but because dyslexia is a real condition that was first described over a hundred years ago."

Some children are dyslexic because of poor instruction; others are dyslexic because of brain differences; others are dyslexic because of a combination of the two. For more information on these factors, see:

Anonymous said...

Sigh. The trouble is that it is There is no major publisher of reading programs that does not provide intensive phonics instruction for beginning readers, Contemporary reading programs generally provide beginning readers with 60 to 90% of their instructional time spent on phonics. In addition, students who are flagged with reading problems get still more phonics instruction.

Teachers are not stupid and are well aware of the importance of phonics. Today's teacher training programs emphasize the use of phonics for both beginning readers and as remediation for struggling readers. This has been the case for years.

Your citing of the old cover the word activity is emblematic of your problem. First, it's an old activity that is no longer very popular. Even back when this activity was introduced, it was not meant to be a replacement for phonics instruction. It was meant to be a brief activity that wouldn't take more than a minute or two.

All you have to do is find one widely used reading program published during the last 10 years that does not provide intensive phonics. Here are some names to look for: Pearson, Houghton-Mifflin,Harcourt, Open Court, McGraw Hill.

Katharine Beals said...

"There is no major publisher of reading programs that does not provide intensive phonics instruction for beginning readers, Contemporary reading programs generally provide beginning readers with 60 to 90% of their instructional time spent on phonics."

What matters is what's going on in actual classrooms now compared with earlier. For a history of reading instruction, and a graph showing trends over time, see:

In many of today's classrooms, "mini-lessons" have replaced lessons, and textbooks are de-emphasized. Students spend more time working in groups, and less time attending to teachers or completing exercises independently. This pedagogy is not suited to intensive phonics instruction. Other language arts activities--students reading informally in small groups, writing workshop activities--predominate.

"Your citing of the old cover the word activity is emblematic of your problem."

I'm having trouble understanding this sentence, but I'm guessing that you're referring to what I say about word-guessing via initial sounds and story context. This, in fact, is still alive and well in schools I've observed, often being the centerpiece of the mini-lesson.

Textbooks tell only part of the story: the broader historical and educational contexts are key to understanding what's happening, and not happening, in reading instruction today.

John said...

Anyone have expenrience in getting a school system to change from implicit phonics/balanced literacy to an explicity approach? How to go about doing that ? thanks.

momod4 said...

A lack of explicit instruction is not limited to phonics; it permeates the entire ed world and has for decades. The teacher is not supposed to be the "sage on the stage" but the "guide on the side". Only that which is discovered by the child is considered to be authentic learning. Direct instruction by a teacher is considered to be inauthentic by definition. Shepard Barbash had an excellent article (Pre-K Can Work) in the autumn edition of City Journal ( the link is in a comment on pre-k on - and the same principles apply to ES-MS. It's point is that there is hard data proving that direct instruction works, but the ed world refuses to admit it, let alone use it, because it runs counter to all of its most cherished theories and practices. Even with disadvantaged kids and spec ed kids who are academically behind and desperately need help, it's often not used. It's also vastly more efficient (DON'T WASTE TIME!) Sigh

Anonymous said...

John, tell the school to read the instructions on their reading program, since every major curriculum publisher provides explicit systematic phonics as the center of instruction for both beginning and remedial readers. You might also have them contact the universities that trained their teachers, since there is no accredited teacher education program in the United States that does not support explicit phonics instruction.

If you look at the long-term trend for reading assessments from NAEP, since 1973 scores for whites have gone up 14 points, scores for blacks have gone up 34 points, and scores for hispanics have gone up 25 points. Research has proven that children cannot learn to read without phonics. If it were true that teachers do not teach phonics, these scores would not have gone up.

Katharine Beals said...

According to the graph of U.S. reading instruction since 1850 found on this site, ,
intensive phonics peaked between 1900 and the early 1930s, declined precipitously thereafter, and, though there have been some recent ups (as well as downs), has regained only a bit of what was lost between 60 and 80 years ago. The modest rise in NAEP scores since 1973, which is consistent with this chart, does not mean that phonics instruction is anywhere near what is once was and still should be.

C T said...

Anonymous at 10:35: While I agree that some teaching of phonics is going on (varying widely from teacher to teacher), most elementary school reading instruction sadly does still waste a lot of time on memorizing sight words (which teaches kids to memorize as images words that are partly or even completely phonetic) and elevating "reading strategies" such as guessing from "context clues" instead of attacking unfamiliar words by first trying to sound them out.
As to teacher education programs and phonics, in 2006 the NCTQ put out a report indicating that the teacher colleges were, on the whole, failing to deliver current-science-based reading instruction. See Even if things have entirely changed in the last 7 years, which I hope they have, there are a lot of elementary school teachers out there with inadequate background in phonics instruction.

C T said...

Thanks to Catherine Johnson over at kitchentablemath, I just found out that phonics instruction HAS improved in teacher ed schools! See Hurrah!
There's still plenty of room for improvement, though, seeing as they found only 47% of education colleges were making phonics instruction part of their required coursework for elementary ed majors.

Anonymous said...

I just checked out the website that seemed so convincing to you. The "ministry of 40 L" is nothing more than a jumble of religious quotes and appeals to the good old days of the 1800's.

No truly educated person would take this seriously.

Katharine Beals said...

The page I directed you to was this phonics page:

Not this religion page:

The only mention of religion on the phonics page is this:
When students taught with whole word methods or phonics programs with too many sight words are taught with systematic, explicit phonics, the change is remarkable! A whole new world is opened to them, and they become more confident and excited about the world. A whole new opportunity to achieve also opens. Most importantly, they have the ability to read the Bible and choose for themselves whether or not they will embrace the truth of God.

The pages are associated with one another, but "guilt by association" isn't much of a counterargument to a historical account of phonics pedagogy.

If there is any specific misinformation on the phonics page, feel free to point it out.

Anonymous said...

Katherine, I hardly know where to begin. The page you cite is a part of the "Ministry of 40 L", as is made very clear at the top of the page. That this page has been put together by an individual with limited education is painfully obvious.

The chart in contains has been given a scale of 0 being pure meaning and 10 being pure sound with no supporting evidence or even explanation of what this means and how the scores were assigned. No one with a real understanding of research would put together something like this.

There is no reason for us to argue. We come from very different backgrounds. I have not been following your blog for very long, and I misunderstood its nature.

C T said...

Anonymous, you are confidently ignorant of many things and apparently content to remain so. The website that Katherine linked to was not always connected with 40L, which an internet search shows was incorporated as a non-profit to encourage reading in 2011. When I first came across "thephonicspage" years ago, there was no mention of 40L; "thephonicspage" has served as a valuable internet reference on the history of reading instruction for many years. Regardless, are we supposed to dismiss the information on its page because it is now linked to a faith-based ministry? I believe the phrase for such behavior is "anti-religious bigotry".
The graph you criticize is clearly described as being only an estimation and appears to be based on the information laid out immediately below it plus some unstated information from the research of Geraldine E. Rodgers; I agree that the graph is not fully explained or substantiated on this webpage, but neither is it a creation out of thin air.
"That this page has been put together by an individual with limited education is painfully obvious," you say. Why? Because it is a rather plain-appearing collection of information and links? Do they misspell lots of words? Use poor grammar? Or is it that they don't parrot Ed.D.s and still believe it's important to read the Bible? Or is it just that they disagree with what you think to be correct? Please, prove actual facts are wrong on the "thephonicspage" before so loftily insulting its authors (who I don't know personally and have no connection to).
You still have not responded to the successive NCTQ findings that show how off you are in your confidence that US education colleges are providing necessary phonics instruction. Your failure to recognize what you don't know as well as your quick dismissal of others as not "truly educated" does a disservice to a serious discussion.
Katherine may be too nice a hostess to do it, but I'm willing to tell you what a pompous ignoramus you come across as.

John said...

Our school district does a lot of sight word teaching despite the research evidence for phonics. How to get them to change this? How to get teacher buy in. Their curriculum says they teach phonics, but in reality teachers are give a lot of discresion to not use the board approved curriculum.

Katharine Beals said...

Hi John,

Here's my two cents. To the extent that teachers have forgotten what it's like for a novice to learn an alphabetic writing system, show them this image from a children's book written in the Georgian alphabet, and ask them how they would have liked to have learned to read this page by learning these words as sight words:

Anonymous said...

Katherine, I thought you'd find one of Peter Gray's recent articles interesting.