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Catching Up in Math is Often Akin to a Stuffing Suitcase

In working with students with special needs on math programming and services, a common and major issue is that the student is behind and there is a tension between filling in gaps and addressing grade level content. Let me unpack this (pun intended).

  • There is no single grade level for math, as is the case for reading. Math progression is more like a web, not a line. For example, if a student can do 5th grade geometry but only 3rd grade level fractions, do we average out the grade level math to be 4th grade? (No.) Do we identify the student as working at a 3rd grade level? (No.) 5th grade level? (No.)
  • Like a suitcase, there is a capacity to the daily time a student has for school services. I often encounter situations in which the services recommended involve the student working on grade level content and catching up on the gaps during support time. If the student has only been learning 75% of the math content each year, he or she needs that support time to help learn the new content to get closer to 100%. There is too much being stuffed into the suitcase. Something has to give.
  • The focus of the services and programming often shifts away from post-secondary plans, which has long term implications as I wrote previously using the falling dominoes analogy.

There are two recommendations I make in regards to addressing the gaps.

  1. Maximize the efficiency of the support time by having the support class focus on the prerequisite skills for current or upcoming topics.
  2. Use triage to shift focus to the priority topics. For example, the parents of a student in 7th grade but working on math from lower grade levels wanted to pursue a math track that would allow the student to go to community college. I mapped out a long range plan (image below) that focuses on algebra as that is the type of math most likely encountered in a math requirement. Here is another plan which was to prepare a student to possibly work in a field related to cars.
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Standards vs Deficits and Long Range Plans

categories-of-long-range-outcomes

I’ve had discussions with multiple caregivers and parents recently about IEP objectives and evaluation/assessment. I think this is not only an important issue but is an issue that is a foundation for special education.

The purpose of special education, as established in IDEA, is outcome based. The focus is on the future life of the student. Decision making and services are made in this context. With this in mind I believe evaluation/assessment and the development of the IEP, especially objectives, fall under this context. There should be an alignment to the long range future of the student.

Often the focus of special education is on deficits. Evaluations identify deficits and the programming is developed to address the deficits. Certainly many or most educators are conscientious of long range outcomes but the deficits are the priority. Contrasting this is a standards based approach. I do not mean every student working towards grade level work as this would be entirely inappropriate for severely impacted students (like my son). I mean more of an outcome based focus with long range goals as the priority. If the purpose of special education is to prepare students for life after K-12 education then the standards or outcome based approach is necessary. A deficits based approach can result in progress but progress that does not translate into necessary preparation for the future.

Here’s an analogy. A person gets up in the morning and has to go to work. She has a range of tasks from the essential, e.g. getting dressed, to the desired but not essential, e.g. send an email to a friend or make a cup of coffee to go. As is often the case with me, she runs out of time. Maybe she can try to send the email but then has no time for the coffee. Maybe she needed to print a report for work but overlooked it because she was preoccupied with all the other tasks. At some point she has no choice and has to leave regardless if the coffee is ready or the report is printed.

Our kids have a limited amount of time in special education. Like the person going to work, at some point our kids are exited from IDEA regardless if they are prepared. We know a great many of our kids are not prepared. A deficits approach prioritizes urgency at the expense of important. The email is sent but the report was overlooked. A standards/outcome based approach focuses on importance not urgency. This doesn’t mean deficits are overlooked but they are prioritized.

In my experience in school and in working with many different parents I have found a focus on deficits.

  • A sophomore in high school spent an entire year on arithmetic (doing this by hand) and basic pre-algebra skills because these were deficits. The goal is for him to go to a community college where he would qualify under ADA for use of a calculator.
  • A junior moderately impacted by autism was taking a basis algebra class. His postsecondary plans focused on some level of independence and maybe a supported work placement. He couldn’t count money but he was being taught how to simplify 3x + 2x.
  • Often, accommodations, e.g. teacher prompts, are included in assessment of IEP objectives “because the student needs this to be successful.” I’ve heard this in multiple situations.

Contrast this with another situation. I helped a family with a middle school student with autism. His mother explained to me that they had a goal of him having some type of job and some level of independence. He was very much interested in cars and working with cars in some capacity for his job. The math needed for auto repair is mostly measurement. We mapped out a muti-year plan for his math to focus on measurement and consumer math. He was not going to learn to simplify 3x + 2x but would focus on what a 5/16 inch wrench is and what is meant by 5/16 of an inch.

The first student I ever helped when I began my work in special education was a sophomore with aspergers. He received ineffective special education support and entered community college with the same challenges and gaps in math as he had his sophomore year. I served as a kind of case manager for him as he worked through community college. He needed help with study skills, math content, stress, completing work etc. This semester he is likely to graduate from community college and plans on transferring to a university.

Again, I am not proposing that deficits be marginalized. The deficits can be prioritized based on long range goals and addressed accordingly. The photo of the table above shows 3 categories of post-secondary outcomes and the level of focus on standards and curriculum.

  • Some level of independence – no formal vocational training or college course work
  • Some vocational training or college course work or a community college certificate or degree.
  • 4 year college

My position is that the current student work and support should be aligned with the appropriate outcome.

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