Help Students with Disabilities Close Achievement Gaps

A MiddleWeb Blog

two_teachers-nobord-210There 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 from students with disabilities?

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!

Paul McNeil

Paul McNeil

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.

Closing Gap image - Connecticut Office of Protection and Advocacy for Persons with DisabilitiesClosing the Achievement Gap at the School Level

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?

Elizabeth Stein

Elizabeth Stein has more than 20 years teaching experience spanning grades K-8, specializing in universal design for learning and special education. She’s currently a special education/UDL instructional coach and new-teacher mentor in Long Island NY’s Smithtown Central School District. Elizabeth is National Board Certified in Literacy, and a contributor to Education Week and other publications. Her books include Comprehension Lessons for RTI (Grades 3-5) (Scholastic, 2013), Elevating Co-Teaching Through UDL (CAST, 2016) and Two Teachers in the Room: Strategies for Co-Teaching Success (Routledge, 2017). Follow her on Twitter @elizabethlstein and #coteachat

17 Responses

  1. Kara Purdie says:

    As a special education teacher, I too, am vitally interested in how to close the achievement gap between students with learning disabilities and their more typically able peers. Part of my concern is how can we close a two, three, or even four grade level gap in their ability to decode written language and to then encode their thoughts, responses, etc. at even close to grade level standards? There are obvious bypass strategies to be employed ( books on technology, speech to text and vice versa for content area subjects) to ensure the equal inclusion of all students in content subjects, mathematics and involvement in a whole class novel. But where and when does the extra time and specially designed insruction to close the gap in decoding skills come from?

    In addition, how do we face and deal with the reality that many of our students with learning disabilities also have genuine cognitive deficits that will preclude the possibilty of closing their acievement gap(s)?

    • Elizabeth Stein says:

      Kara, for starters–we must begin to have these conversations with our colleagues and administrators in order to brainstorm solutions for our specific students. These bypass strategies you mention are good–but tend to be a temporary fix to get the students through for short-term learning experiences. So these students get through some grade level activities–but the gap remains.
      We must begin to combine these bypass strategies with other consistent supports in order to create long-term solutions.
      So, for example, I give my students (who have exact profiles as you describe above) additional reading experiences on their independent reading level. Practice and plenty of time to read on one’s independent reading level is the only way to guide these students to begin to close their personal gaps. But then we have the problem of time (as you mention above). These students need additional time to keep up with grade level expectations–so how do we fit in this additional personal reading/writing time?
      We have to get creative in finding the time–and guiding our students to make the time. I have students who come to me on their lunch–or we find time during our study skills period–or some even ask to take some practice home. Sometimes I only find time for them to read one additional reading passage per week. This isn’t the answer, but it is a step in the right direction.
      That’s why these conversations MUST happen. We have to brainstorm real solutions–consistent solutions–so in time we will begin to see that personal gaps begin to close.
      Once these personal gaps close–the larger scale gaps will also see a positive change.

      Kara–thanks for getting this conversation started! It is a critical step in finding solutions that we all need to find.
      What kinds of steps have you taken–or have seen and would like to try? Any conversations starting at your school? Let’s find real solutions together! Let’s keep this conversation going…

  2. Brenda Bates says:

    I taught in a middle school with a team of content teachers. We developed what we called the Passport. In each content the state’s core was broken down into meaningful objectives and communicated to the students. Students had their own Passport where they would record whether or not they had met the expectation of that objective following an assessment. My part as the resource teacher was to support those content objectives during my study skills class. Knowing specifically what content objectives were being studied guided me in the instruction and support I would give my students during that class. For instance, the math teacher and I would look at the upcoming objectives. We would discuss the preskills needed to be ready to learn that content, then we would plan intervention lessons that I would teach in my study skills class. Consequently, when the students showed up for math class they were ready to learn the content presented. Often times, the resource students were better prepared than the general ed students. By using study skills as a content intervention class versus a just do your homework class my students generally performed well and according to our end of year testing moved up one to two levels which is considered significant growth.
    When we focus on helping the students access the content instead of trying to fill holes, students can and do succeed.

    • Elizabeth Stein says:

      Brenda, Thanks for sharing! Your Passport program sounds like the experience I had when I was a resource teacher at the elementary level. It is exactly the mindset we need at all levels to guide our students to be successful. Using study skills or resource room for homework becomes more like a study hall, and that certainly defeats the purpose. Please share any additional details that may help folks get something like this started at their schools.

    • Hope M. says:

      Brenda – I think the Passport is a great idea. How do you manage to have planning/conversation time? That seems to be the biggest problem in my school. There are not enough paraeducators and sped teachers to provide the necessary help that many of our students need in the inclusion setting. My students are much more severely disabled, but I am trying to get them out into other classes, too. They would benefit from the social and academic setting. However, with the stress that gen ed teachers have for ensuring that all of their students pass the standardized tests, they rarely focus their energy or attention on kids with special needs.
      Using the resource time to prepare the students for upcoming lessons is another great way to help them succeed. I’m glad that you have the time and support to make it happen.


  3. I am interested in any webinars that you might sponsor; ordering any discounted,perhaps, publications you might produce.

  4. Rashmi Khazanchi says:

    I believe that every individual is able to learn but at their own pace and raising the bar can help students to accomplish more. I have students with severe and profound disabilities. What is the best way to align IEP goals to Common Core Curriculum.

    • Elizabeth Stein says:

      Eric, thanks for your interest! Be sure to sign up for the MiddleWeb SmartBrief where you will receive countless resources of great value!

      Rashmi, Thanks for adding your voice here. We need to heighten this kind of awareness– that all students are capable in individual ways.
      One way I align the IEP goals with the Common Core is by creating an at-a-glance list of the IEP goals for each student. As I lesson plan, it is easy to align the goals with the appropriate standards. The goals also become second nature to me as I refer to them on a daily basis. What do you think?
      What else is working for other teachers out there?

      • Hope M. says:

        I have been in schools that preferred that the IEP goals and objectives written based on the testing standards. Now, I am working in a school that doesn’t want any part of the IEP to directly reflect those objectives. There should be a neutral zone. Afterall, we are writing an INDIVIDUAL education plan. I am struggling this year with the required testing of my severely disabled students. Virginia changed the Standards of Learning (SOL) requirements so that my students are required to receive instruction and assessment on the 8th grade level for all academic areas except History. This is totally unreasonable for these students. Neither of them can write, read, or speak well. I have spent the past 3 years working with one of the boys trying to get him to speak. He can now say “no”! This is far more important to him than knowing the causes and effects of the American Revolution.

        • marshe says:

          I so agree with this statement. Virginia changes to the SOL requirement for SPED, is a disservice to some students with disabilities. Yes it is VERY unreasonable for the state to require mastery of the American Revolution to students who are unable to even read the word learn.
          I struggle morally with instructional and state assessment that are academically inappropriate to students.

  5. Shelly Weingarten says:

    I would like to comment on the statement from Elizabeth Stein, that ” bypass strategies you mention are good–but tend to be a temporary fix to get the students through for short-term learning experiences. So these students get through some grade level activities–but the gap remains.” These temporary fixes of bypass strategies are known as Assistive Technology. Using Assistive Technology is in the discussion of Common Core Standards as a way to bridge the Achievement Gap not fix it temporarily. Assistive Technology is at the very heart of the discussion of Universal Design for Learning which embraces ” fostering student engagement by presenting information in multiple ways and allowing for diverse avenues of action and expression. Please read Application*to*Students*with*Disabilities at the following address . We must embrace the technology if we are going to help students with disabilities to close the Achievement Gap.

    • Elizabeth Stein says:

      Shelly, clearly technology is a key asset as schools strive to gather the tools needed to empower students through the learning process.
      There are also many low and no tech tools that also must be embraced. I would hate to think that schools that do not have a wide variety of tech access would miss out on the value of UDL. The mindset of UDL alone can break down any barriers in the learning environment. Instructional accommodations that make appropriate changes to materials, while staying true to the same high standards also must be embraced. What do you think?
      Thanks for your post.

  6. Pat Reynolds says:

    Elizabeth – I agree with all your points and would like to add another dimension – leadership. School leaders need to create both the vision/climate and the conditions for systemic change, and that’s what it will take to close the gap. Strong leaders know where they want to be and plan and implement steps to get there. They share a vision with their team and create the conditions to realize it – including recruiting people who buy into shared goals. Closing the gap requires more than individual teacher commitment. Schedules needs to be developed that allow for collaboration – across grade levels, to establish vertical alignment, to include El and SPED specialists to design accommodations – all with the goal of maintaining students with learning challenges in their gen/ed classes with appropriate supports so that they’re not missing vital instruction. In addition, co-teaching models provide favorable student/teacher ratios to adjust pacing and provide for re-teaching. Lesson planning in PLCs allows teachers to review data and plan for instruction across the spectrum, ensuring a solid core lesson and accompanying formatives from which teachers can further personalize for student needs. With a shared vision and all students being the responsibility of all staff, we can make a difference and provide the support these students need.

    • Elizabeth Stein says:

      Pat, thank you for adding your voice! You share so many great points throughout your post.

      Your comment about leaders is one example:

      School leaders need to create both the vision/climate and the conditions for systemic change, and that’s what it will take to close the gap. Strong leaders know where they want to be and plan and implement steps to get there. They share a vision with their team and create the conditions to realize it – including recruiting people who buy into shared goals. Closing the gap requires more than individual teacher commitment.

      This really made me stand up and cheer! It reminds me of the message that teachers must rise above the status quo–they must be leaders. You are so right, it takes a shared vision and a definite team approach to create the conditions necessary for excellence. No teacher or administrator should ever feel alone on such important missions.

      Thanks for your post!

  7. Your blog was suggested as a resource. I am a teacher of students with low-incidence disabilities in transition to adult services. The observations and framework suggested by Mr McNeil are spot-on as the environmental attitude must be respectful and rigorous. My students often arrive without the basic communication tools required to realize their post-secondary goals, but all are capable to reach mastery if the goals are based on their strengths and preferences.
    I am interested in your approach to your primary assessments of students who have just transitioned from elementary to middle school or middle to high school. If you have not had previous experience with the student and the IEP present levels do not seem to match where do you start to get a reliable baseline?

    • Elizabeth Stein says:

      Tom, you bring up such a necessary point of discussion.
      For starters, teachers/psychologists/social workers, etc. are in communication to ensure that the transition is a smooth one for each student. They meet at the end of the school year to discuss each student’s present levels of performance, and specifically, what they will need to be successful as they make the transition.
      When the school year begins and we begin to apply the IEP, most times, they are right on, and they clearly outline students’ strengths and needs, which gives us the information we need to move forward in productive ways. In cases where present levels or goals do not seem to match, we take a team approach. We confer with the teachers/team from the previous year to help fill in some gaps.

      Speaking with the students and the parents is a huge step in the process as well. All voices join to paint the picture of what the child is capable of accomplishing. We put this information together with the assessments and classroom performance that give us a reliable baseline. If needed, as you know, IEP’s are amended to make any necessary changes to statements or goals.

      Does this answer your question?


      You said:

      My students often arrive without the basic communication tools required to realize their post-
      secondary goals, but all are capable to reach mastery if the goals are based on their strengths
      and preferences.

      Tell us more about that. I love how you state that the students are capable to meet their goals when given the right supports–I wholeheartedly agree! What do you do at the classroom, grade, and school levels to provide the tools your students need?

      Thanks so much for your thoughtful post! We are looking forward to hearing more!

  8. Megan McFarland says:

    Thank you for such an important and relevant post! This was a suggested resource in our secondary dual educator program (trains prospective teachers in Gen Ed, SPED, and an M.Ed) and it’s refreshing to see these ideas of opportunity and capacity presented. After reading through your ideas, we wondered how you would approach bringing these capacity-building techniques to a school that may not have admin support for inclusive practices. For example, how would you broach this subject within a school climate that inherently doesn’t see academic instruction for students with more severe disabilities as meaningful? Unfortunately, these tools may seem commonplace for SPED teachers, but foreign and futile to others that don’t have the same mindset.

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