There are many variables reported to contribute to the achievement gap. Race, cultural differences, poverty, school structures, family structures, and inequitable funding are all in the mix of conversations that place blame on why some students are academically behind where they should be.
In this post (and another post to follow in two weeks) I want to examine yet another often-discussed variable: students with disabilities. What can be done to help these students close the academic gap between themselves and their non-disabled peers?
I believe there are some very basic, yet critical, steps administrators and teachers can take to help all students blend their personal best with success — beginning by tapping into the power of high expectations. If we are able to take these steps, then along the way we very well may see the gap close over time.
What can we expect?
When speaking about the academic performance gap of students with disabilities, too often we hear, “Well, what do you expect?” I say we can expect a lot. And that is worth repeating (while I stand very tall on my soapbox!). We. can. expect. a lot. When high expectations are set, encouraged, and supported appropriately, our students with learning disabilities can rise to the greater challenge.
Let me introduce you to the education colleague who inspired my topic this week. Paul McNeil is the Assistant Principal at the middle school where I work. One of our recent conversations was followed up by an email message he sent asking me to share some strategies for closing the achievement gap. Little did he know what he was getting himself into! After our meeting, I left bouncing off the walls with excitement. These are the things I think about on a daily basis. You don’t have to ask me twice!
Speaking with Paul is like professional development at its best. You get collegial, informative, supportive, and transformative thinking all at once. That kind of collegiality is something I do not take for granted, and I am thankful that he eagerly agreed to add his voice to this post.
Before becoming an Assistant Principal in 2007, Paul was a social studies teacher in the Smithtown Schools for seven years. During that time, he also served as a co-teacher, which only adds to the value of his perspective here. Before speaking with Paul, I outlined my ideas for what I think needs to happen in order to close the achievement gap for students with disabilities. I placed my thinking sequentially within three levels:
Closing The Achievement Gap at the Student’s Personal Level
• We must make sure that students’ IEPs are written with meaningful individualized goals that state clear objectives, aligned with the common core, and are consistently monitored.
• We must power each student up with specific strategies that meet his learning needs, and provide the opportunities for these students to make these strategies their own.
• We must empower each student to use his strengths to build upon his areas of need. And along this empowering process, students realize that they can compensate for their learning needs to meet high expectations.
• We must recognize the courage it takes for them to be who they are. We must understand that their needs are diverse, but know that they are capable.
• We must, without fail, make them part of the whole. Include them in discussions. Include them in activities. Include them in the mindset that we are a community of learners who come together individually to make up the whole. And each individual is a valued necessity to the equation.
Closing the Achievement Gap at the Classroom Level
• Teachers must establish ambitious goals and learning objectives for students that guide each student’s mindset that he can achieve at his personal best. When these high expectations are coupled with the students’ knowledge that we believe in them, they so often rise to the challenge.
• Teachers must be deliberate in their instruction and their assessment in ways that make the learning process meaningful, while guiding the students to self-regulate their learning success and needs.
• Teachers must realize that the instructional process must be sensitive to the needs of the variety of learning differences in the classroom. That means focusing on the strategies that will work best for a particular group of students, which means that teachers who teach the same lesson for five periods of a secondary school day, well, you will have to rethink the way you do it in the inclusion classroom. Differentiation must happen in order to make true learning happen.
• Bottom line: Teachers in classrooms must break down all barriers to learning, so that all students can have access to the content and opportunity to meet high expectations.
Here’s where my conversation with Paul began. I structured our discussion around some key questions, which served to drive our conversation forward. Our discussion was a relaxed exchange, as I typed key words and phrases from Paul’s ideas, which are paraphrased below. For purposes of this post, I’ll share our discussion in this Q & A format.
Elizabeth: What do high expectations look like at a school-wide level?
Paul: It is really like treating it like a classroom. We establish high expectations through our code of conduct and a variety of building-wide programs.
For example, we have a “Respect all” philosophy that stems from an anti-bullying mindset. It’s purpose is to really evoke emotions. It’s really a public service announcement from international perspectives.
On a smaller scale we bring that into our school and with the work of our grade level teams, it allows for intimacy. We have visual reminders throughout the building, and each teacher carries the message of “Respect all” into the classrooms–turning around a win-win situation.
Our Caught Being Kind program was an outcropping of the Random Acts of Kindness week. Teachers report particular students for performing acts of kindness on any given day. It creates a positive middle school mindset. It could be something as simple as holding the door for someone. It is anything a student does that goes above and beyond, such as making sure a friend gets the notes from class.
The student gets a phone call home and a pencil, and he becomes motivated to continue performing kind acts. The basic process is the same as a disciplinary action, but it’s interesting because the amount of referrals for disciplinary action is significantly less than those who are referred with good news.
It’s also good for the teacher; it is something that is quick and easy, but it benefits the culture of the school. A credit goes to the counselors and everyone who contributes to creating this culture.
Teachers really need to be honest with themselves to make sure that they hold all students up to high expectations.” ~ Paul McNeil
Elizabeth: When students with disabilities feel accepted and well-supported, it is much more likely that they will achieve. What are some things teachers and administrators can do to create a culture of sensitivity, acceptance, and tolerance in order to embrace the abilities of diverse learners?
Paul: It becomes a delicate dance. Teachers really need to be honest with themselves to make sure that they hold all students up to high expectations. Sometimes teachers may have unintentional biases, and if that is the case, they are just as much the problem because they are naturally, but unintentionally, linking up students with certain expectations. Teachers need to ask themselves, “How am I interacting with my students?” Teachers also need to ask, “What am I doing to possibly alienate some students? What can I do to help all students feel accepted and not alienated.” Teachers need to step back and look at each student’s level of success and decide whether they are doing all they can to help the student achieve all he or she can achieve.
Peer tutoring is a school-wide program that works. It is a natural link to bringing all students together. It is not just a social advantage, but the students really work hard academically as well. For example, we have honor roll students tutoring students who struggle academically, and many times you don’t even know who is the tutor and who is the tutee. In many cases, these students work side by side to figure out the work together. It really serves to build confidence on both sides.
Elizabeth: What are your closing thoughts at this point?
Paul: There is not an easy answer to closing the achievement gap. It is not something that will be accomplished overnight. It takes a team approach, and it takes time and patience.
Elizabeth: Thanks to Paul for sharing his initial thoughts. In my next post, I’ll have more from my chat with Paul, including his perspective on parent input and his “wish list” of ideas about ways to bring about more positive results more consistently. And get ready to hear from some students about their ideas on the power of high expectations.
So, what’s happening in your classrooms and schools to help to close the achievement gap for students with disabilities? What conversations are you having with colleagues in efforts to close the gap?