As a parent of a child with a disability and as a math educator, I am repeatedly struck by the fact that a group of adults (educators and professionals) convene to discuss and plan how to help a child. A great deal of time, resources, and money is concentrated on that child. Awesome! Unfortunately, in math education I frequently encounter situations in which this collective energy is concentrated on math that is more about boxes to check than engaging the student in math that he or she will need in post-secondary life.
IDEA enumerates the purpose of special education, with the transition goals aligned with employment, living skills, and future education that are desired for each individual student. This is explicit and aligns with the goal most teachers likely have, to make a difference in the lives of their students.
Despite this, when I am called in to help with math programming for a student I often find the math being presented to the student is not aligned with the post-secondary goals and often appear to the result of following the general ed curriculum, by default. Here are some examples.
I co-taught an algebra 1 class with a student impacted by autism to the point that he needed a paraprofessional guiding him through the daily work. He worked in isolation with the para and struggled with the basic elements of the course. It was not until his junior year that he was moved to a consumer math class.
A senior was in a consumer math course I taught. The course was for students who could not access the general curriculum, yet her transition goal for education was to attend a community college. This setting likely require a math course (that did not have consumer math topics) and a placement test.
Over 25 years of teaching math I have periodically heard educators minimize the struggles of students with math with the rationalization “they will never need this math.” My response is to ask why “then we are presenting this math to them?!”
So what math do they need? Here is a list of blog posts that address this question. In short, here is what I share with IEP teams, educators, parents, and special ed teacher candidates I teach.
If the goal is a career that involves a 4 year degree, then boxes must be checked. The student will have to have the math courses needed to get into the college and to prepare for the math in his or her major. This is the “mathy math” that will be on a college placement test as well.
For a 2 year degree at a school with open admissions, the focus of the high school math can be narrowed to the math course required (if any) and on the placement test. Typically, this would involve a focus on algebra. For the aforementioned 10th grader, we did not cover geometry and prioritized the algebra topics to cover.
For another middle school student whose goal was to have a job and to be as independent as possible. He loved sports and his mother said he would love to work in a sports related store. For him I recommended data and statistics (not the mathy type but meaningful and applied stats and data) to help him make sense of and discuss sports stats. This was complemented by a recommendation for consumer math.
In working with students with special needs on math programming and services, a common and important issue is that the student is behind and there is a tension between math intervention to fill gaps and addressing ongoing grade level content.
Unpacking the situation
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.
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.
If you are reading this post, it is likely that you have a student or you teach students who struggle with math. Here are suggestions to help your students prepare for the math they will encounter in the fall.
Ask for examples of what mastery looks like for the IEP math objectives. You may not understand the math but you can compare your student’s work with an example of mastery to get some idea if your student is showing some level of mastery.
Get a math evaluation to see where you student is in terms of the curriculum.
Many students are behind in their math education. This has long term implications. The sooner you can address the gaps, the better chance your student has for post-secondary success or competence with math.
Below is a photo of a hyper-doc that I use to map out a long range plan for math services and academics for students receiving special education services. Here is a link to a video explaining how the document is organized and how it “works.” (Note, the image of the document on the video is not crisp, so I suggest you look at the handout while watching the video.)
The document contains several links to resources such as videos, websites and blog posts that provide additional information. Feel free to reach out to me using the Contact Form on this page if you have questions or would like input. I am happy to help.
Ask employers what skills are desired in graduates and you will not see academic competence at the top of the list. In schools we talk about creating life long learners and similar qualities but the major focus in the 7+ K-12 schools in which I have served is academics, or more appropriately grades as a proxy for academic mastery. Add to this the focus on exit exams for graduation and you see major disconnect between the desired outcomes and the focus.
I have taught math at 5 colleges or universities and have seen first hand students struggle with content but also with independent study skills. Manchester Community College in Connecticut conducted a survey of students and asked students to cite reasons why students struggle in their classes. The second most commonly cited responses by students themselves is that students don’t know how to study (see below). In high school we talk about study skills. Teachers will share they expect students to be independent but often the focus is on academic mastery and not the study skills.
At Manchester Community College I serve as an instructor at a highly successful (based on objective outcomes) bridge program for first generation students. A major emphasis is a focus on student academic discipline with a mantra that discipline is the bridge between goals and accomplishment (see below). Learning how to BE a good math student, especially academic discipline, is as important as developing the prerequisite skills to be successful. This could be a major focus in the IEP for students who have a goal of college or post-secondary training..
In special education and in K-12 education in general graduation is viewed as a culmination or the end game. In fact it is just the opposite. Graduation is a STEP towards the future. If the plans for your student is post-secondary education, including vocational training, it is important to understand a couple false assumptions.
A diploma indicates the student has the academic mastery for post-secondary education. Below is a link to some documents. One is a study of how well prepared high school graduates in Connecticut are for college. In 2009 more than 2 out of 3 students entering a community college or a Connecticut State University needed to take a remedial (developmental) course in English or Math despite earning a high school diploma (and passing a state graduation exam).
A diploma indicates the student has the ability to perform as an independent student. In a survey from Manchester Community College (Connecticut) students were asked why students struggle academically. 60% of MCC students reported that students don’t know how to study.
Here is some information about the placement tests, with Manchester Community College used as an example. The placement test results are what determine if a student will have to take a remedial course.
The SAT has a different scale. To get a rough prediction of the SAT score add around 80 to the total PSAT score (or add 40 to math and add 40 to Verbal)
Here are related documents including those referenced above. The placement test is the Accuplacer and the documents linked include a handout with example problems for math and English from the Accuplacer.
Unprepared College Freshmen Could Be The Cost Of High Schools
Huffington Post Education has a story about states considering action to hold school districts accountable for their graduates having to take remedial courses upon entering college.
Of course there are many factors that affect a student’s performance in college but high schools can do more to prepare students for post-secondary education or training. The current set of evaluation and accountability measures are actually counterproductive for preparing students for subsequent education and training. SAT scores, graduation rates, standardized testing and grades in general do not measure independent learner skills. Such skills are essential in a post-secondary setting that offers far less support provided in high schools.
This could have a major and very positive impact on students with disabilities. In lieu of the current approach of helping a student with special needs pass his or her courses to get a diploma the focus would be on training a student to be a more independent learner with competence in study skills such as maintaining and using a notebook.