More Planning Needed for Special Ed Students Under Common Core

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Integrating Common Core learning standards at the same time that special education reform is taking hold in schools citywide made sense, Corinne Rello-Anselmi said Thursday, despite the obvious challenges. She is the deputy chancellor for students with disabilities and English language learners. Both efforts require a shift in instruction, she said, and both require more collaboration among teachers.

"More so than ever, the relationship between the special ed teacher and the general ed teacher is mutually dependent," said Rello-Anselmi.

She and other education officials spoke at a meeting of the Citywide Council on Special Education. But not everyone in attendance thought the joint implementation benefited students with special needs.

Parents and advocates said the intersection of Common Core and special education reform -- both citywide and complicated policy shifts -- made things at the school level even more complex. One parent, Suzanne Peters, worried that the higher-level material and rigorous assessments would create more barriers to special education students receiving high school diplomas.

Peters, who is also a parent advocate at the Jewish Community Center in Manhattan, said she is not adverse to the new standards. "But we need a safety net," she said, for some special education students.

Another parent, Jaye Bea Smalley, expressed concern over whether the new focus on instruction would also mean training teachers on how to write Individualized Education Programs (I.E.P.) for special needs students in a Common Core era.

"I think that's a missing link," said Smalley, who also co-chairs the Citywide Council on Special Education. "I want smart I.E.P. goals."

Parents also asked how easily the new Common Core-aligned textbooks could be modified for students with disabilities to meet their individual learning needs. Education officials admitted that the new materials were not perfect, and only meet a "basic minimum standard of accessibility" in terms of providing supports for a range of students and learning styles.

Josh Thomases, deputy chief academic officer, said education policy-makers and schools were grappling with the transition to Common Core, including how students with disabilities were served under the new learning standards. But, he acknowledged, it wouldn't happen overnight.

"We're serious about this being a multi-year effort to move students toward a higher standard," he said.

In addition to Common Core, schools started including more special education students in classes with their non-disabled peers. One goal of the changes to special education was to allow more special education students to attend their zoned schools. In most cases, schools were expected to provide appropriate services for all students eligible to enroll.

Previously, students with disabilities often would be sent out of their neighborhood or district to find a program providing the appropriate services. And they would be assigned to separate "self-contained" classes.

Maggie Moroff, the special education policy coordinator of Advocates for Children and the coordinator of the ARISE Coalition, said education officials needed to better translate the dual philosophical and pedagogical shifts for families.

She and other members of the coalition met last week with education officials to discuss the Common Core, and did not leave satisfied that the D.O.E. had planned properly for special needs students.

"They need to think really carefully about how to make the new, more complicated, more intense curriculum more accessible to kids with disabilities," she said in a phone interview.

She is also concerned that education officials are predicting that achievement gaps will likely get bigger at first instead of smaller. "They know that and they are anticipating that, but what are they going to do about it?"

Families of students with disabilities must have a better understanding of what students were expected to accomplish academically, said Moroff.

Thursday night's presentation came a week after the D.O.E. released data on the 260 schools that started implementing special education reforms as a pilot program, along with some initial figures on the citywide expansion taking place this year.

In general, fewer special education students this year are in self-contained classrooms and more are in co-teaching classes, the classrooms that mix special education and non-special education students.

However, advocates said, the D.O.E. has not provided information on the supports students are receiving, how schools are working with families to modify students' individual learning plans or how many special education students could attend their zoned school this year who could not last year.

The ARISE Coalition sent a freedom of information request for more detailed information on the reform in January. Deputy Chancellor Rello-Anselmi said the D.O.E. was working to fulfill the request.