Holding High Expectations for All Students

Teach For America Launches Special Education and Ability Initiative

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Friday, March 21, 2014

Over my six years of teaching and instructional coaching in Washington, DC, I met a wide variety of students across inclusion, resource and self-contained settings – who held a wide variety of learning differences, strengths, and challenges.  Ninth grader Vanessa would not talk for the first two months of school and was reading at a second grade level. First grader LaTanya cried when math time started.  Fourth grader Scott stuttered when it was time for him to share in class, and wouldn’t read for more than five minutes. 

By the end of the year, each of these students grew significantly.  Vanessa read at a fifth grade level. LaTanya shared that “math is awesome,” mastered grade level standards, and even taught a small group how to use a math intervention that supported her.  Scott voluntarily shared with the class, grew over 1.5 years in reading, and sustained reading for over thirty minutes at a time. 

Vanessa, LaTanya and Scott were able to fulfill their potential and reach milestones because they were held to high expectations and their instruction was differentiated to fit their unique learning profiles.  They are just a small sample of the fortunate students who have teachers, families, and supporters in their lives who believe in the potential of all kids. 

Unfortunately, this is not the case in all of our classrooms teaching students with learning differences.

When we talk about giving all kids an equal and excellent education, our actions haven’t quite caught up with our rhetoric. Students with disabilities comprise 25 percent of our nation’s multiple, out-of-school suspensions, and 23 percent of in-school arrests – despite constituting just 12 percentof the overall student population.  When time in the classroom does not meet students’ needs, and time out of the classroom is too frequent, limited academic and life opportunities result. Department of Education datareveals significant four-year graduation rates between students classified with learning disabilities and those in general education – a gap approaching 40 percent in several states. In consequence, The National Center for Learning Disabilities reportsnearly half of adults with learning disabilities report being unemployed.

Imagine the contributions our world would miss out on if we dismissed the brilliant and talented individuals who have learning differences.  F. Scott Fitzgerald, one of the greatest American authors of all time was expelled from school at the age of twelve for his perceived inability to focus or complete work.  It is likely that he had ADHD or a related attention difference.  Award-winning actor, comedian and writer, Whoopi Goldberg was diagnosed with a learning disability as an adult. Agatha Christie, the most famous mystery novelist of her time, had dysgraphia, a learning disability that makes the act of writing by hand difficult. If Albert Einstein were born today, it has been said that he would most likely be diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome, a mild form of autism. 

What if one of these students was sitting in your classroom?  Would you believe in them?

It is imperative that our students with learning differences have teachers who believe in them, and who help them achieve at the highest levels. I’m humbled, encouraged, challenged, and excited to lead Teach For America’s Special Education and Ability Initiative to expand the movement of teachers, students, communities and organizations that work together to ensure that ALL children have the opportunity to attain an excellent education. 

Currently, more than 10% of our corps members work in special education contexts, primarily in inclusive and resource settings. And it’s highly likely that all of our teachers (and all teachers from all backgrounds) work with at least one student who has a diagnosed or undiagnosed learning difference, who will benefit from differentiation and a teacher who helps them reach their own unique potential.

The initiative will focus, in part, on expanding Teach For America’s regional special education advisory partnerships – to help both special and general educators have a greater impact on studentsThese collaborations are critical for the communities in which Teach For America serves – according to the U.S Department of Education’s 2013 “Teacher Shortage” report, low-income communities across the nation suffer from a lack of special educators. 

Already in Atlanta, Teach For America educators have worked to develop individualized goals aligned to students’ and families’ personal visions. In pursuit of these individualized visions, they have partnered with their Georgia Parent Mentor Program to help leverage parents in “Unleashing the Unique Potential of Students.” In Philadelphia, corps members and alumni joined parents and community organizations to form the Special Education Advisory Partnership (SEAP) – a group dedicated to informing and improving special education outcomes.

We’ll also be forming a national Special Education and Ability Initiative advisory board consisting of alumni and partners will help inform teacher training and support around ability-based mindsets and inclusive practices. Both of Teach For America’s new 2014 initiatives – which will provide an extra year of pre-service training for select admitted undergraduate seniors, and ongoing support for teachers in their third, fourth, and fifth years across 12 regions – will feature support around strengths-based mindsets and inclusive practices, both valuable concepts for special educators.

Low expectations drastically limit academic and life prospects for students with learning differences– with low-income students and students of color the most at risk of all. These are our highest-needs students in our nation’s highest-needs classrooms, who also happen to have extremely high potential. They deserve teachers who will support them, push them, and most of all, believe in them. 

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