Accommodate Work for Special Ed Students — Don’t Dumb It Down!

Students with special needs are among some of the most vulnerable in our school communities. Providing them with instruction that fails to prepare them for the real world that they are about to enter is despicable. If you are a special education teacher or a general education teacher, it is imperative that you hold yourself accountable for providing students with lessons that will help them achieve success in the classroom and ultimately, in the real world.

It is painful to see students when they realize that they don’t know what they know they should know — and trust me, they know. Special education students are smarter than  we give them credit for.

Students in the most to least restrictive learning environments are being given work that is far below the standards set forth for their grade-level because it’s easier to do that than to actually identify and implement the academic supports they need to take on more rigorous work. Getting inflated grades does a lot of academic damage when students get a teacher —  like me — who actually holds them accountable for acquiring the skills set forth for them.

Dumbing down work is detrimental in New York’s educational climate because the safety nets like modified graduation criteria and local (in lieu of Regents) diplomas that were once in place for students with special needs no longer exist.. Students in special education classes are held to the same graduation requirements as students on a general education track. More accommodating! Less modifying! You’re not helping middle and high school students by giving them elementary level work!

Let me backtrack for a minute because I realize you may be unfamiliar with these terms. According to this article in Parents Have the Power,  “[a]n accommodation is something that changes how a student learns, but doesn’t change the instruction itself… A modification changes what a student is expected to learn.”

These clarifications incite more questions than answers in my mind because I know how challenging it can be to tap into how a student learns versus what she learns. How do teachers deal with special education students who can’t learn at the pace set forth in general education? Do they dumb down the material (which the students know they’re doing) maliciously or with good intentions? Do they ignore the State mandates or are the mandates virtually impossible to adhere to? Do teachers need more flexibility? If so, how does that flexibility get reconciled with the rigidity mandated by the state?

I’m not a special education teacher and, to be honest, in the early years of my career, I felt ill-equipped to teach students with different learning styles and needs. I wrongly thought that this was the job of a special educator. Many years later and having worked with some exceptional special educators, I’ve grown in my profession. I now know that even in an inclusion classroom with a general educator and a special educator present, we are both responsible for developing lessons and presenting them in such a way that every one of our students has a real opportunity to learn the material.

Furthermore, that material must be on par with the grade level we are teaching. It may take longer to get through the material — and I’ve learned that that’s okay, too. I’d rather my special education students leave my classroom at the end of the year having two or three skills or concepts mastered than being taught fifteen skills or concepts and not being proficient in any — or worse, never getting a chance to rise above the perceived limits of their label as a special education student. That’s what giving a student in tenth-grade second-grade work does. It demeans them. It belittles them. It robs them of opportunities to grow. I’m just not about that life. Shout out to other educators who aren’t!

What do you think?

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