4 Steps to Improve the Achievement of Students with Disabilities

by John O’Connor

Book_StudentsWithDisabilities100pxO'Connor is author of the new AASA book Students with Disabilities Can Meet Accountability Standards: A Roadmap for School Leaders.  AASA members save 25% on the book using promotion code 6S10AASA until June 30, 2010.

Students with disabilities are having a tremendous impact on the ability of schools and districts to make AYP. Even schools that do not have an official disability subgroup are being impacted by their students with special needs. In fact, students with disabilities carry more statistical weight than most other students in the school. Even without an official subgroup, they count in the “all” group, in their respective ethnicity group, and some count in the economically disadvantaged and Limited English Proficiency subgroups. In essence, if students with disabilities don’t meet accountability standards, their scores can weigh many times as much as their non-disabled peers. Students with disabilities have the potential to have an impact on almost every school and district in the country.

Some might assume that most students with disabilities will not meet AYP standards. That assumption is faulty. The overwhelming majority of students with disabilities have cognitive abilities that fall in the average range. Therefore, they have average potential. As educators, it is our job to help students with disabilities to overcome their disabilities in order to meet accountability standards. The million-dollar question is, “How do we radically improve the achievement of our students with disabilities?” There are four major steps that must be implemented if we are going to see significant academic improvements.

Step 1: Focus on Instruction

Decades of research has shown us that the school factor that has the greatest impact on student achievement is classroom instruction. What happens between teachers and students in our nation's classroom has the greatest impact on how those students learn. This applies almost equally to students with and without disabilities. In fact, it is even more important for our students with disabilities.

By definition, our students with disabilities are overcoming obstacles that impact their school performance. In addition, they often have gaps in their learning. Therefore, their instruction has less room for error. In order to catch them up to their non-disabled peers, we have to help students with disabilities overcome their obstacles and actually learn more in a year than their non-disabled peers. We have to fill instructional gaps while also teaching grade-level standards. Therefore, in one school year, our students have to learn more than their non-disabled peers who enter the school year on grade level.

What type of instruction should we see for our students with disabilities? They need GREAT instruction that is:

  • Guided by the performance standards
  • Rigorous with research-based strategies
  • Engaging and exciting
  • Assessed continuously to guide instruction, and
  • Tailored through flexible groups

Unfortunately, our special-education programs are weighed down with paperwork and compliance activities. Teachers and special education leaders spend an extraordinary amount of time meeting federal and state timelines, completing IEPs, and meeting hundreds of regulated requirements. It is easy for our teachers and leaders to take their hands off of the instructional steering wheel while they complete the countless compliance tasks.

Because of the complexities of compliance, there is a constant pull for special education programs to shift their focus from improving instruction to focusing almost exclusively on compliance activities. As school leaders, we have to ensure that school personnel complete compliance activities while maintaining an unrelenting persistence to improve and implement GREAT instruction.

Step 2. Focus on All Classrooms

If we are going to focus on improving the instruction that is provided for students with disabilities, what classrooms should we focus on? We should focus on every classroom in the school. Across the country, more than half of all students with disabilities spend at least 80 percent of their school day in general education classes. In a traditional school schedule that has six instructional segments during the day, more than half of the students across the country spend five of those segments in general education classes. Because of this type of inclusion for students with disabilities, there are students with disabilities in practically every classroom in public schools. In fact, it is somewhat difficult to find a general education class in which at least one of the students does not receive special-education services. If we are going to improve the performance of students with disabilities, then we have to influence all teachers in every classroom.

Step 3. Develop Broad Ownership

If we are going to improve the instruction that is provided in all classrooms for students with disabilities, then we must start with a broad base of leaders. Fifteen years ago, we would try to improve the instruction provided to students with disabilities by providing professional development activities exclusively to special-education personnel. That approach is simply inefficient.

If we are going to improve the instruction in all classrooms in the school for students with disabilities, we must unify all leaders in the building to “make it happen.” The principal plays the most important role for a school as he/she sets the clear tone and expectations. He/she must stand in front of the staff and clearly communicate that there will be high expectations for students with disabilities and effective instruction to help students meet those expectations.

The effort must have the full involvement of other leaders like assistant principals, department chairs in all content areas, instructional coaches and others who will play an important roll in providing ongoing, sustained professional development on effective instruction for students with disabilities. A variety of teachers should also be included as expanded members of the leadership team since their involvement will provide credibility as improvement initiatives are rolled out. Special education should certainly be a part of the efforts to improve instruction, but they should not dominate the expanded leadership team.

Step 4. Spread the Benefits of GREAT Instruction

Some individuals may question the viability of spending so much effort on improving the instruction for students with disabilities when they make up a relatively small portion of their school’s population. The improved instructional strategies, if implemented well, will actually impact the performance of students who do not have disabilities.

All teachers realize that they have many students without disability labels who function almost identically to their disabled peers. Because of the complexities of the disability identification process, some students barely miss qualifying under a disability category, but still need intensive instruction. These students and many others will benefit when GREAT instruction is implemented in every class. Students who have traditionally underachieved but do not qualify under special education provisions will demonstrate higher achievement. By implementing these four steps, you will see an increase in the performance of students with disabilities and other students who struggle in school.

John O’Connor is the executive director for special services with the DeKalb County School System in Atlanta, Ga. His book Students with Disabilities Can Meet Accountability Standards: A Roadmap for School Leaders provides a road map for radically improving the achievement of students with disabilities.