The Common Core Is Tough on Kids With Special Needs

The standards don't allow enough flexibility for students who learn differently.

Jarod Carruthers/Flickr

In a recent discussion board thread on reading comprehension challenges in autism, a special-education teacher commented that her students can’t understand the assigned reading passages. “When I complained, I was told that I could add extra support, but not actually change the passages,” she wrote. “It is truly sad to see my students’ frustration.”

Why must this teacher’s students contend with passages that are too complex for them to understand? She attributes this inflexibility to the Common Core, new standards—created in 2009 by a group of education professionals, none of them K-12 classroom teachers or special-education experts—that have been adopted by 45 states. Though most Common Core goals are abstract and schematic, collectively they constitute a one-size fits-all approach that, in practice, has severely straightjacketed America’s special-needs students.

The teacher I quoted above—one of the many special-ed instructors I
teach at the Drexel University and University of Pennsylvania
education schools—is hardly alone. She’s echoing the concerns of dozens of other special-education teachers I’ve spoken with, most of whom have already gotten the message from their supervisors or superiors that they must adhere to the standards and give all their students the designated grade-level assignments.

Precocious students, students with learning disabilities, precocious students with learning disabilities: How does the Common Core suit them?

Even before the widespread adoption of the Common Core, it was already increasingly rare for even the most intellectually unusual children to be exempted—whether by acceleration, remediation, or placement in special classrooms—from the course of study followed by their cognitively typical peers. The 2001 No Child Left Behind Act had schools focusing away from the most academically advanced students (and requires no special programming for them); the 2004 re-authorization of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act required children with disabilities “to be involved in and make progress in the general education curriculum.” Increasingly, it’s the general curriculum for everyone. And now that this general curriculum is being shaped by dozens of grade-specific Common Core standards, and that teachers (including special-ed teachers) are increasingly expected to align each day’s lesson with one or more of these standards, there’s even less room for remediation or acceleration.

Indeed, those two words appear nowhere in the standards, not even in the one Common Core document that addresses this subject: a one-and-a-half-pager entitled “Application to Students with Disabilities.” It says that special-needs students should have the support services, individualized instruction, and assistive technology they need for the “the rigor and high expectations of the Common Core State Standards.” It does not, however, state what these services are or how they would work. As for curricular materials, they might be altered or presented “in multiple ways,” but only “within the framework of the Common Core.”

For students with sensory disabilities like deafness or blindness, the necessary accommodations—e.g., sign language interpreters or audio books—are obvious. Cognitive disabilities are different. Yet the document simply states:

Some students with the most significant cognitive disabilities will require substantial supports and accommodations to have meaningful access to certain standards.

So what happens to the approximately six percent of the student population with significant cognitive disabilities—whether general intellectual disabilities, language impairments, reading impairments, non-verbal learning disabilities, or autistic spectrum disorders? What happens when their classrooms function under a set of guidelines that ignore their skills and specific needs?

In general, the news isn’t good. Last November, an issue of Education Week ran several articles on special-needs students and the Common Core. One article characterizes the English language arts goals as “largely unmet.” Another reports more than half of teachers surveyed saying they are unprepared to teach the standards to high-needs students.

To see how the Common Core standards play out in practice, let’s look at two subsets of children with cognitive disabilities: those with language impairments and those with autism. Let’s look at eighth grade in particular, and at two of the English language arts standards for reading and literature, beginning with R-L 8.2:

Determine a theme or central idea of a text and analyze its development over the course of the text, including its relationship to the characters, setting, and plot; provide an objective summary of the text.

This, like all Common Core goals, is rather schematic. So perhaps there’s a way to tweak things in line with the Students with Disabilities document. Perhaps one could adjust the material by using a simplified or alternative text at the student’s actual reading level.

But probably not. As additional Common Core documents explain, the texts for the different grade levels must be at a certain grade-appropriate level of verbal complexity. The Common Core Myths vs. Facts page notes, “the Standards require certain critical content for all students, including… America’s Founding Documents, foundational American literature, and Shakespeare.” And an appendix explains that sample texts, which include The Adventures of Tom Sawyer for eighth grade, “exemplify the level of complexity and quality that the Standards require all students in a given grade band to engage with.” So, while one might supplement a text, say, with glossaries and storyboards, one can’t adjust the text itself to match the student’s reading level.

Further showing what special needs students are up against are the sample tasks. For R-L 8.2 above, we have:

Students summarize the development of the morality of Tom Sawyer in Mark Twain’s novel of the same name and analyze its connection to themes of accountability and authenticity by noting how it is conveyed through characters, setting, and plot.

Now imagine a 14-year-old who comprehends language at a fourth-grade level. What combination of assistive technology and supplemental material could possibly provide sufficient access to how accountability and authenticity play out in the complex paragraphs of Tom Sawyer? What, other than years of remediation in reading comprehension, could get her through highly relevant sentences like this one, in which Tom takes a lashing from Schoolmaster Dobbins for an infraction actually committed by Becky Thatcher?

Inspired by the splendor of his own act, he took without an outcry the most merciless flaying that even Mr. Dobbins had ever administered; and also received with indifference the added cruelty of a command to remain two hours after school should be dismissed—for he knew who would wait for him outside till his captivity was done, and not count the tedious time as loss, either.

What, short of simplifying the text or spoon-feeding its meaning to her, will it take for our language-impaired 14-year-old to grasp this 67-word sentence, with its complex syntax, words like “flaying,” “indifference,” and an outdated sense of “should,” and the inference needed to grasp the contextual meaning of “captivity”? One can only imagine how tough things become once the student gets to Shakespeare—one author that the standards appear to mandate.

Let’s turn to another eighth-grade reading goal, R-L 8.3:

Analyze how particular lines of dialogue or incidents in a story or drama propel the action, reveal aspects of a character, or provoke a decision.

Now imagine the challenge for a student with autism—even one whose vocabulary and syntax are age appropriate. Autism is largely a social disability, with key deficits in understanding character and motivation and in drawing inferences from dialogues—in real life as much as in reading. Where does the teacher of an autistic student even begin?

Some special-education professionals believe they have the answer. In an article entitled “Core State Standards for Students with Autism: the Challenge for Educators,” published last year in the journal Teaching Exceptional Children, we find Stephen, an eighth grader with Asperger’s Syndrome (mild autism) who is struggling to meet the R-L 8.3. The authors describe a goal-aligned text in which a boy stops going to school after being habitually bullied and ostracized. When asked why the boy quits school, Stephen can’t answer. Presumably, his Asperger’s-related social deficits make it hard for him to recognize the students’ bullying and ostracizing as such, and to grasp the emotional and behavioral effects on the boy.

How, the authors ask, can Stephen’s teacher help him meet R-L 8.3? By creating a comic strip that shows the characters’ thoughts, including a thought bubble for Matt that reads "I am a loser. Everyone hates me. I am never going back to school!"

In other words, the teacher can help Stephen meet the standard by giving away the answer!

But the answer to one specific configuration of dialogue, action, and character does not teach a child with autism how any particular lines of dialogue reveal traits or provoke actions in characters. If it did, we’d have screaming headlines about a simple cure for one of the core deficits of autism.

Not all students will succeed with America’s Founding Documents, foundational American literature, and/or Shakespeare. But well-meaning aspirations for special-needs children can foster deep and widespread denial—in particular among educators facing high-stakes standards. One of the special-education professors quoted in Education Week, for example, asks, in reference to students with severe cognitive disabilities, "Why would we take a whole class of citizens and say you don't get to learn the standards that we say are most important for everyone?"

"Most important for everyone": That’s the real problem. Forcing all students into the same, age-pegged standards deprives atypical students of optimized learning opportunities and attainable goals at their level of developmental readiness. Far better for an eighth grader who is four years behind in language to read texts with vocabulary and sentence complexity just above her current skill level than to struggle through 67-word sentences in Tom Sawyer using story boards as crutches. Far better for a student with autism to engage with simplified social scenarios that he can work through on his own than to muddle through complex ones that need to be explained to him piecemeal. As any of my special-ed student teachers can tell you, and as research has shown, restricting students to curricula beyond their cognitive capacities substantially lowers their achievement.

The purported goal of the Common Core is success for all students. But success for all requires openness towards cognitive diversity, and isn’t so easily standardized.