Parents and educators shared a common concern at a recent forum: special education cannot work properly under the Common Core’s blanket standards.
Senators Cecilia Tkaczyk and Neil Breslin and Assembly members John McDonald and Phil Steck listened to comments from several speakers Tuesday, Feb. 11, discussing how implementation of the Common Core curriculum has exacerbated challenges for students with special needs. The forum was held at Farnsworth Middle School in Guilderland, and a few dozen people attended and listened to comments stretching from the classroom to home.
Bianca Tanis, a special education teacher and parent of two children with autism, kicked off the evening and set the tone for the forum.
“I find these reforms to be one of the worst things that could have happened to students with disabilities,” Tanis, of New Paltz, said. “With the advent of the Common Core, pretty much overnight … the achievement gap widened incredibly.”
Tanis said many students with disabilities are “confused” and “frustrated,” and the new standards are not helpful for students with special needs.
“(The Common Core) really promotes a kind of teaching that is not best practice for students with disabilities,” Tanis said. “For many of these kids, it is like you are building the third floor without the second and the first floors. For students with disabilities, they are so sensitive to having the appropriate scaffolding and prerequisite skills.”
Breslin asked Tanis if students with special needs “should just be taken out of the Common Core equation,” with her responding that the standards have to change. Breslin said the age-based standards don’t seem to fit special education students.
“The only thing that’s different about kids with special needs is we need to think outside the box, and we need to be better teachers,” Tanis said. “We say we celebrate diversity and all different learning needs, but here we are holding everybody up to these same homogonous standards.”
Kathleen Ferguson, an elementary school teacher in Schenectady and 2012 New York State Teacher of the Year, said increased testing has negatively affected many students, but children with special needs have been more greatly affected.
Special education students spend the year with material at their instructional level, Ferguson said, but are faced with testing often above their level. Their confidence is often built throughout the school year only to be crushed when tested.
“Is it fair and equitable education to be tested on material you are not prepared for because some arbitrary standard says your chronological age matches the words on the paper?” Ferguson said. “It is an anxiety-ridden exercise in futility that has time and time again brought children to tears.”
McDonald asked Ferguson what could be changed to better address children with special needs.
Ferguson said the proposed three-year moratorium on “high-stakes testing” is absolutely necessary. She added teachers need more time to learn about the Common Core and more flexibility to teaching students that “don’t fit the bill.”
“We need time and practice to make sure that we’re getting it right before we hold students accountable and tie teachers to that through their evaluations,” she said.
Steck said the State Education Department used to provide more support to individual districts, with the state creating the curriculum. He believed if the state prepared more material supporting the Common Core, with dedicated staff creating curriculum, schools could spend more time focusing on students.
“No one is saying they all should teach the same way … but if State Ed is going to impose requirements, they have to provide appropriate support for those requirements, which they did in the past and they don’t really do today,” Steck said.
Ferguson said the state does provide modules for some grade levels through its website, but the information does not completely cover everything. She said teachers must be given more time to use resources.
North Greenbush resident Meredith Gavin, a single mother of a boy with autism, said Common Core assumes all children learn at the same pace.
“I feel like the majority of people assume that (a special needs) child lacks intelligence, and that is not the case. They just learn things differently,” Gavin said.
Gavin said there are little options facing students with special needs when tested, with an alternative assessment offered to “severely disabled” children or doubling the amount of time given.
“I need the word ‘special’ to stay in front of special education, because we are not common education,” Gavin said. “And I need the word ‘individual’ to stay in front of the individual education plan.”