Balancing individual needs with state requirements is not easy
It seems to me there is a fundamental conflict between differentiating instruction for students and, at the same time, ensuring that all students are prepared to take the next big state test. How can teachers take a classroom full of students who might be grade levels apart and make sure that everything in the curriculum is taught and learned by all by a specific time?
I feel the same way about the pacing charts that are in use throughout the district. For example, all fifth-graders are expected to complete a particular unit at the same time. Lock-step learning makes little sense to me. Teachers end up skipping important information, or some students end up frustrated because they may need extra time to master a concept.
Another issue around set curricula, pacing charts, and standardized test schedules is what happens to our special-needs students. Special education covers a broad spectrum. Around 18 percent of CH-UH students—around 900 students—have been identified as having special needs. Our district has very few self-contained classrooms for these students, some of whom are either emotionally disabled (ED) or multi-handicapped (MH).
ED students spend much of the day with the same teacher and a classroom aide. ED students often have elective courses with general education students. MH students have both physical and emotional issues and often have an aide assigned. MH students learn about tasks of daily living in addition to their classes. MH students—about 2 percent of district students—are usually exempt from taking the regular standardized tests.
ED students are expected to learn the same material at the same rate as everyone else in the state. Behavioral problems exhibited by some of these students doesn’t always link to intelligence or capacity for learning, and for some ED students academic learning may be less important than acquiring social/emotional skills.
The vast majority of the identified students in CH-UH are in general education classes, even though they have some cognitive delay or a learning disability. Some of their classes are co-taught by a trained intervention specialist and a core subject teacher. The intervention specialist helps find ways to reach each special-needs student in the class, while also helping the generalist teach the class.
Almost all teachers in our district have students who have been identified with a disability. These students have individual education plans that teachers must know about and comply with the required accommodations. Some students need extra time to do their work, while others need to sit in the front of the room so they can see or hear better.
There are many accommodations to which students may be entitled. These students must be able to complete the curriculum in the same amount of time as everyone else, meaning that they take the same tests at the same time as students in the general population.
The laws governing special education are contradictory, which hurts our district. For example, some students may stay in school until they are 22 years old because that has been determined to benefit them and their families. But by doing so, our graduation rate on the state report card is lower. The law requires that we develop and implement individual education plans for students with special needs, but ultimately they are judged by the same standards as students in the general population.
Schools are not widget factories that are meant to produce identical objects. Schools produce students who are as different from one another as anyone can imagine. It is impossible to recognize and honor the uniqueness of our students, while at the same time judge them by standardized tests.
Ari Klein is a lifelong community member, math teacher at Cleveland Heights High School, and president of the Cleveland Heights Teachers Union.