A widespread problem at the secondary level is addressing basic skills deficiencies – gaps from elementary school. For example, I often encounter students in algebra 1 or even higher level math who cannot compute problems like 5÷2. Often the challenges arise from learned helplessness developed over time.

How do we address this in the time allotted to teach a full secondary level math course? We cannot devote class instruction time to teach division and decimals. If we simply allow calculator use we continue to reinforce the learned helplessness.

I offer a 2 part suggestion.

Periodically use chunks of class time allocated for differentiation. I provide a manilla folder to each student (below left) with an individualized agenda (below right, which shows 3 s agendas with names redacted at the top). Students identified through assessment as having deficits in basic skills can be provided related instruction, as scheduled in their agenda. Other students can work on identified gaps in the current course or work on SAT problems or other enrichment type of activities.

Provide instruction on basic skills that is meaningful and is also provided in a timely fashion. For example, I had an algebra 2 student who had to compute 5÷2 in a problem and immediately reached for his calculator. I stopped him and presented the following on the board (below). In a 30 second conversation he quickly computed 4 ÷ 2 and then 1 ÷ 2. He appeared to understand the answer and this was largely because it was in a context he intuitively understood. This also provided him immediate feedback on how to address his deficit (likely partially a learned behavior). The initial instruction in a differentiation setting would be similar.

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.