5 Classroom Strategies to Address the Achievement Gap

Tuesday, November 3, 2015 - 08:00
  • Kristina Birdsong

Key Points:

  • A vocabulary gap between children from professional families and children from families on welfare is a major contributor to the achievement gap
  • In a child's early years, the quality of conversational opportunities is just as important as the quantity of words spoken
  • Teachers can foster better conversations in the classroom to help close the achievement gap and encourage academic success for all students

Revisiting the 30 million word gap

In 1995, Betty Hart and Todd R. Risley published landmark research about the ways in which young learners were exposed to vocabulary words before they reached school age. They tracked infants just learning to speak and studied their interactions with their families, measuring the total number of words the babies were exposed to. They also studied the types of interactions parents offered their children through their budding conversations.

Hart and Risley discovered that the children of upper middle-class, college educated parents hear, on average, about 2,150 words per hour. Children in working-class families heard 1,250 words per hour, and children in families receiving public assistance heard only about 600 words per hour. They estimated that, over time, the poorest children would enter school with a 30 million word deficit compared to their better-prepared peers.

As politicians and reformers worked to improve education leading up to the passage of No Child Left Behind, Hart and Risley's research highlighted a measurable aspect of the achievement gap that seemed relatively easy to fix, and many educators strove to expose young children to more varied vocabulary words to help disadvantaged students catch up.

Conversational quality vs. quantity

Hart and Risley's initial research has led to two decades' worth of follow-up research that has largely corroborated their findings. Though the 30 million word figure is now considered to be somewhat overstated, new research by the LENA Research Foundation suggests that a serious gap does exist: children growing up in poverty hear only half as many words as their wealthier counterparts by age three, amounting to an 11 million word gap.

The latest research suggests that, though the amount of vocabulary introduced is important, the quality of parent-child conversations is just as crucial. In continuing studies, researchers found that children in upper-class families were given many more opportunities to participate in open-ended conversation and had a greater number of interactions. Disadvantaged children, by contrast, had interactions that were more often one-sided; for example, those in which the parent gave a command and did not elicit any give-and-take in the conversation. Researchers theorize that the quality of the conversational opportunities is just as important as the number of words spoken in a child's early years.

Classroom strategies to boost conversation

How can teachers help close the achievement gap? A careful focus on exposing all students to high-quality conversational give-and-take and varied vocabulary can make a big difference. Teachers of early learners in kindergarten through third grade should consider incorporating the following 5 activities into their daily routines:

  1. Model appropriate conversation, including asking questions and taking turns. Children without much experience in give-and-take discussions at home will need support in engaging in deep conversation.
  2. Use varied vocabulary when presenting new information. Support students by using visuals and other context clues to make meanings clear.
  3. Check in with students individually. Ask open-ended questions about their opinions and feelings to give them a chance to engage.
  4. Create an interactive word wall where students can add vocabulary words and definitions to a colorful display. Encourage students to add words they love, whether based on the meaning or sound, to foster a love of language.
  5. Choose read-aloud books that include characters having conversations with each other. In discussing the books, guide students in analyzing how the characters are speaking to each other. Are they being respectful conversational partners, or is there a misunderstanding?

When you turn your attention to improving the quality of conversations in your classroom, you can help engage struggling students and close the achievement gap at the same time.


Executive Function - The Foundation for School Readiness

Tuesday, September 29, 2015 - 08:00
  • Grace Wardhana

Over the past few weeks, millions of children across the United States began kindergarten. Whether graduating from a full-day preschool or parent-led homeschool or something in between, children will transition into their first year of a formal school setting in various stages of school readiness. What will determine a successful transition? Research shows one foundational factor: executive function.

What is executive function? Harvard University’s Center on the Developing Child defines executive function and self-regulation skills as “the mental processes that enable us to plan, focus attention, remember instructions, and juggle multiple tasks successfully. Just as an air traffic control system at a busy airport safely manages the arrivals and departures of many aircraft on multiple runways, the brain needs this skill set to filter distractions, prioritize tasks, set and achieve goals, and control impulses.”

To put this in a real-life classroom context: imagine 3 kindergarteners participating at circle time. Abby and James are focusing on the discussion and raise their hands to answer the teacher’s question. Michael is distracted, interrupts repeatedly and has a hard time remembering what to do. It is clear which of these children will be more successful at the learning activity, and the latest research links this with executive function skills.

There is a dramatic window for growth in executive function and other cognitive skills between the ages of 3 to 5. We know now that development of these skills is not guaranteed and children with problems do not necessarily outgrow them. Children who struggle to plan and organize their work in early elementary may become adolescents who fall behind in homework, have difficulty completing projects and struggle to gain academic skills. In particular, economically disadvantaged groups tend to suffer from under-development of these skills, which puts them behind even prior to entering elementary school. Severe under-development may also lead to behavioral problems and in some cases, failure in school, as many teachers are not trained to recognize or treat these problems effectively. This reinforces the ‘achievement gap’ that already exists for at-risk groups in underserved communities—since those with behavioral challenges are often kept out of classroom work, and in turn may have trouble attending when in class.

The potential impact for early intervention during the pre-school and early elementary years is huge. Identifying deficits and building executive function and cognitive skills at the age-appropriate time could alleviate problems faced by at-risk groups. If these children, for example, are increasingly able to attend to class material and participate in group lessons, they will benefit from increased learning as well as better relationships with teachers and peers. Rather than laying a foundation as children who are frequently struggling to participate, these children may begin a positive cycle of engagement with teachers and peers.

Thus, these skills are a necessary groundwork to the building of academic skills, rather than simply an add-on. On the bright side, science has shown these skills can be trained and improve even with short-term interventions. Researchers who specialize in childhood brain development are working to spread the word to help parents and caregivers through books like “Einstein Never Used Flashcards” and initiatives like Vroom and Mind in the Making. A tablet-based app, “Kiko’s Thinking Time” was developed with support from the US Department of Education to target executive function and other cognitive skills through fun, adaptive games.

The importance of building executive function and other cognitive skills at an early age is clear. We want children to build a strong foundation to become engaged and self-directed lifelong learners. We need to increase awareness of these skills and the potential for them to be explicitly taught by parents, caregivers and the educator community – whether it be through outreach programs, educational apps or other interventions. The sooner we make this a priority, the better equipped our communities will be to help children get the most out of their school experience.


Brain Science and Reading Instruction

Friday, August 14, 2015 - 08:00
  • Timothy Rasinski, Ph.D. and Martha S. Burns, Ph.D.

Reading Achievement

Key Points:

  • Reading achievement has largely remained the same in the US in the past 30 years, despite various efforts
  • Five critical factors for reading are phonological awareness, phonics or word recognition, fluency, vocabulary and comprehension
  • Research indicates many children who struggle with reading have difficulty processing the “fast parts” of speech
  • One school saw students reading at a Basic or above level increasing from 19% to 81% after using Fast ForWord

How to improve student reading achievement

The past three decades have seen substantial efforts at the national, state, and local levels to improve reading instruction and reading outcomes for students in the United States. These have ranged from the Reading Excellence Act, to the National Reading Panel, to Reading First, to various standards movements, to high stakes testing of students, and higher degrees of teacher accountability. Yet, despite these and other efforts, reading achievement among students in the United States has largely remained unchanged during this period. The National Assessment of Educational Progress reports that the most recent assessment of 12th grade students’ achievement in reading (2013) is actually lower than it was in 1992 (U.S. Dept. of Education, 2013). Clearly, we have yet to find the “magic bullet,” if there is one, for improving student reading achievement.

One major advance in our understanding of effective reading instruction came at the turn of the century with the advent of the National Reading Panel (2000). The panel was made up of a group of distinguished literacy scholars who were given the task of laying a scientific foundation for effective reading instruction. After reviewing the existing scientific research into reading and reading instruction, the panel identified five critical factors that students must develop competency in and that teachers should emphasize in instruction. These factors were:

  • Phonological awareness
  • Phonics or word recognition
  • Fluency
  • Vocabulary
  • Comprehension

Phonological Awareness

Phonological and phonemic awareness refer to the ability to perceive, segment, blend, and otherwise manipulate sounds, particularly the sounds of language. Research has demonstrated that this competency is required for effective phonics instruction. If students have difficulty in perceiving and manipulating language sounds, they will certainly be challenged when those language sounds become associated with written letters as in phonics.

Phonics or Word Recognition

Phonics or word recognition refers to the ability of readers to produce the oral representation of a written word using, primarily, the sound symbol representation of letters and letter combinations.


Fluency is the ability to produce the oral representation of written words effortlessly so that readers can direct their attention to the meaning of the text. Fluency also includes the ability to read with appropriate expression that reflects and enhances the meaning of the written text.


Like phonics, vocabulary refers to competency with words. However, vocabulary deals with the meaning of the oral and written words rather than the ability to “sound out” words. Clearly, comprehension is not possible if readers do not know the meaning of words, even if they can sound them out correctly.


Finally, comprehension refers to the ability of readers to gain meaning from a written text. Comprehension is the ultimate goal of reading and requires meaning-making effort and strategies on the part of the reader.

Brain plasticity and reading

During this same period in which the scientific foundation was being laid for reading instruction, advances were being made in our understanding of how the brain works. One of the earliest discoveries was that of the human brain’s ability to change itself, or brain plasticity, even beyond the early stages of development. The prevailing scientific view had been that once the critical period of development had passed, infancy to early childhood, the human brain operated within a limited and fixed range of ability. Although changing the brain or learning was clearly possible after the critical stages of development, there were limits.

Through a series of studies conducted in the 1990s, neuroscientist Dr. Michael Merzenich and colleagues discovered that our brains had the ability to change in significant ways well beyond early childhood. However, the stimuli (i.e. instruction) that lead to brain changes need to be intentional, intense, focused and repetitive. Early in life, our brains seem to learn effortlessly. Beyond that early period, more intentional effort is required to change the brain.

During this period, neuroscientists, using ever more sophisticated methods, were developing more detailed maps of the brain. That is, they identified specific locations of the brain that were associated with cognitive tasks and competencies. Brain locations and functions were identified for phonological or sound awareness, visual awareness and perception, fluency, vocabulary, and language comprehension.

Reading and brain science meet

We know that there are competencies that need to be mastered in order to become a proficient reader. We also have learned that there are specific areas of the brain that are associated with these competencies. Moreover, we have discovered the brain’s ability to change itself in response to intentional stimuli. Do these understandings offer some new approaches for conceptualizing, implementing, and monitoring reading instruction? The answer is, of course, yes.

One of the first approaches came in the areas of phonological awareness and auditory processing. Research indicated that many children with language and reading difficulties had difficulty processing the “fast parts” of speech - common combinations of consonants and vowels that are pronounced quickly (e.g., the plural suffix that distinguishes the word cat from cats). It was the ability of the brain to perceive rapid auditory input that lagged behind other aspects of language use. This resulted in difficulties in distinguishing differences in similar sounds as well as perceiving grammatical prefixes and suffixes in some contexts.

A program was developed that eventually evolved into Fast ForWord®, a program that trains students in sound perception by using technology to initially slow down or enhance the production of the “fast” sounds. Through frequent, repeated, focused and sustained practice with reinforcement, the sound production was gradually modified until it approximated normal speech speed in exercises that emphasized speech perception in words and oral language comprehension. Clinical research indicated that students who were put into such an enhanced auditory processing program made significantly greater progress in speech discrimination, language processing, and grammatical comprehension than students who were placed in a similar program using natural speech production (Tallal, et al., 1996). Similar findings of improved language processing were also reported in a study of special education students.

Evidence from students’ reading achievement

Although examining changes in the way the brain processes linguistic stimuli is encouraging, the real proof for educators and the general public is the extent to which an intervention can affect actual reading outcomes in students. An early clinical study (Temple et al., 2003) of the use of Fast ForWord Language over 6-8 weeks with dyslexic students found that the students made significant and substantial improvements in word reading and passage comprehension. School-based studies, of course, provide even more convincing evidence of the effectiveness of a particular intervention as the intervention is actually implemented in a real school setting with real school personnel. Thomas Gibbs Elementary School in St. Mary Parish implemented Fast ForWord over the course of two years with fourth-grade students. Students’ performance on the statewide high-stakes reading achievement increased dramatically, with the percentage of students identified as reading at a Basic or above level increasing from 19% to 81%. During the same period, the statewide average of students identified as Basic or above readers increased from 51% to 69%. Gibbs students went from performing well below the statewide average in reading to substantially above the average in two years.


Albert Einstein was famous for, among other things, defining insanity as doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. It seems that major educational publishers have been offering the same generic type of reading program for students for years. And the result has been reading achievement that has not substantially changed in 20 years. Perhaps it is time to consider new approaches to reading education and intervention, approaches that tap into informative uses of technology and new understandings about how the human brain works, while at the same time holding on to understandings of the competencies students need to master in order to become fully literate. Fast ForWord and Reading Assistant appear to offer some new ways of thinking about and approaching reading instruction that use technology and understandings of the workings of the brain and brain functions, and that correlate with our understandings of what is important in learning to read. Perhaps it is time to try something new; perhaps it is time for schools to give Fast ForWord and Reading Assistant a try.

    This blog post is an adaptation of a white paper written by Dr. Timothy Rasinski and Dr. Martha S. Burns.


    Best of 2015 Webinars

    Tuesday, July 21, 2015 - 08:00
    • Carrie Gajowski, MA

    Stay on top of your game with free PD webinars

    Summertime is here! It’s time to kick back, relax, and enjoy some quiet time before the craziness of back-to-school is upon us. We hope you're taking some time to lounge by the pool! And while you're there, you can fit in some quick professional development time. Join the 10,000 other educators who signed up to learn the latest research on comprehension, fluency, ELLs and much more! Sit back, grab a lemonade and check out our “Best of 2015” recorded webinars. Enjoy!

    The Role of Automaticity in Reading

    Presenter: Timothy Rasinski, Ph.D.
    Length: 40 minutes

    Reading fluency is often defined in terms of reading speed. This has resulted in the unfortunate classroom practice of "timed reads" where students are encouraged to read as fast as they can within a given period of time. Rather than speed, the more appropriate goal for fluency instruction is automaticity in word recognition. In this webinar Dr. Tim Rasinski will explore the nature of automaticity and why it is so important for reading - not just fluency, but also comprehension. He will share engaging and authentic instructional approaches for developing this critical competency for reading.

    Build the ELL Brain

    Presenter: Martha S. Burns, Ph.D.
    Length: 45 minutes

    Despite educators’ best efforts to teach students English as quickly as possible, many never develop academic English fluency. Join Dr. Martha Burns as she reviews the newest research on the ELL brain, the advantages of true bilingualism, and how effective technological adjuncts can build the English brain, quickly, moving ELL students to proficiency.

    Autism: New Research & Interventions

    Presenter: Martha S. Burns, Ph.D.
    Length: 45 minutes

    New research on the underlying neurology of autism is exploding as is information on the most effective interventions available to drive positive neurological changes in children on the autism spectrum. Join Dr. Martha Burns as she discusses the new research and shares data on neuroscience-based interventions that have been shown to enhance language, attention, and social skills in children on the autism spectrum. 

    Inside the Brain of a Struggling Reader

    Presenter: Martha S. Burns, Ph.D.
    Length: 45 minutes

    While home environment, access to books, and social and economic factors all play a part in literacy development, brain differences also play a crucial role. Join us to learn what's different about the brains of those students who struggle to read and what you can do about it in your classroom, school or district.


    4 New Research Findings About Autism

    Tuesday, April 21, 2015 - 08:00
    • Martha Burns, Ph.D

    Autism AwarenessWith approximately 1 in 68 children diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) in the United States, millions of families are looking for research progress in this area. For Autism Awareness Month, we’ve compiled 4 of the latest research findings.

    1.  Autism is in the Genes

    One of the most exciting recent developments in ASD research stems from large, genome-wide studies that have identified genes and genetic mutations that may contribute to ASD. Two such studies have uncovered 60 genes that have a greater than 90 percent chance of contributing to ASD among 500 or more genes associated with ASDs overall  [Ronemus et al, (2014) Nature Reviews Genetics 15, 133-141].  More investigation is needed to dig deeper into the roles of these genes and how they affect the developing brain, but those data are emerging.

    For example, a recent review of the genetic research published by Michael Ronemus and his colleagues has specified de novo mutations (that is, new mutations) in 12 genes that show strong causality of ASDs among boys.  In another recent study, conducted by researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles, the authors reported on the impact of the gene CNTNAP2 on brain function. CNTNAP2 is associated with ASD and has been implicated in impaired language and thinking abilities. Scientists performed functional magnetic resonance imaging scans to compare brain function in carriers and noncarriers of the genetic risk factor. The study demonstrated that the nonrisk group had significantly lower activity in the medial prefrontal cortex during a task requiring processing of reward information. Additionally, there was increased and more diffuse functional brain connectivity in carriers of the genetic risk factor. Although higher connectivity may seem like a good thing, it may actually reflect an inefficient, immature profile of brain functioning. New research just published this month identified a gene that is very important to the development of neurons in utero, CCNND2, associated with ASD in girls found in families in which two or more females are diagnosed with ASDs. [Turner et al., (2015) Loss of δ-Catenin Function in Severe Autism. Nature 520, 51-54)].

    2.  Problematic Brain Pruning May Contribute to ASD

    To understand exactly how these genetic mutations affect brain maturation, neuroscientists are also investigating what happens differently in the brains of children who have been diagnosed on the autism spectrum.  From this perspective, researchers have begun investigating how the process of brain cell pruning may go awry in children with ASD. Pruning is the process by which a brain weeds out unimportant connections and strengthens the important ones, based on experience. In a recent report published in Neuron, the scientists reported that ASD may be associated with higher levels of a molecule that may impair the ability of brain cells to get rid of dysfunctional cell components.

    3.  White Matter Fiber Tracts Differ in Children with ASD

    Another area of investigation of brain differences in children with ASDs has investigated white matter tracts,  the superhighways of the brain  that allow efficient information transfer between brain regions. Scientists at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill studied the development of white matter tracts in infants who later went on to be diagnosed with ASD. They found that at 6 months of age, infants with ASD had higher fractional anisotropy (FA) in key white matter tracts. FA is a measure of the directionality of white matter fibers, with higher FA signaling better microstructural organization. However, those infants with ASD had a slower change in FA over time, such that they had much lower microstructural organization by 2 years of age. This suggests that the trajectory of white matter development may be abnormal even a few months following birth in those who go on to receive an ASD diagnosis. In simple terms, the superhighways of the brain are not working as efficiently in children with ASD as they are for typically developing children. 

    4.  Early Intervention Helps!

    Scientists using the Early Start Denver Model (ESDM), a behavioral intervention, previously showed that this treatment significantly improved IQ and language abilities in toddlers with ASD. Researchers also investigated whether the intervention changes brain functioning. They used electroencephalography to assess electrical activity in the brain during a task involving looking at faces versus objects.  Children who completed the ESDM intervention had faster neural response and higher cortical activation when looking at faces compared to objects. Those who received treatment as usual (a common community intervention) showed the opposite pattern.  Additionally, higher cortical activation during face-viewing was associated with better social behavior. This suggests that the ESDM intervention may cultivate brain changes that result in higher IQ, language abilities and social behaviors.

    Together, these exciting findings highlight the excellent work that is being done by scientists around the world to combat autism. From understanding the impact of individual molecules on brain cell structure to constructing more effective interventions, researchers continue to answer important questions about autism and give loved ones hope for the future of ASD care.

    Further Reading:

    Loss of mTOR-Dependent Macroautophagy Causes Autistic-like Synaptic Pruning Deficits

    Early Behavioral Intervention Is Associated With Normalized Brain Activity in Young Children With Autism

    Dozens of Genes Associated with Autism in New Research

    Altered Functional Connectivity in Frontal Lobe Circuits Is Associated with Variation in the Autism Risk Gene CNTNAP2

    Differences in white matter fiber tract development present from 6 to 24 months in infants with autism

    The role of de novo mutations in the genetics of autism spectrum disorders

    Related Reading:

    Understanding Autism in Children

    Ben's Story:  Intensive Intervention Helps a Young Boy on the Autism Spectrum Succeed


    Educating ELLs: 4 Trends for 2015

    Tuesday, January 20, 2015 - 08:00
    • Kimberly Dill
    2015 ELL TrendsSay hello to a brand new year, and along with it, new directions in educating the nation’s English learners. As districts wrestle with the need to increase rigor for learners at all levels of language proficiency, we’re bound to see changes in the way ELLs are educated. Trends we can expect to see this year include:
    1)      Deeper Learning with Original Texts
    The Common Core standards require all learners to engage in a significant way with the texts they read. Previously, teachers might have assigned English learners simplified versions of standard grade-level texts or explained texts to learners before giving them a chance to make their own discoveries. Now these learners are more likely to read the same texts as their English-proficient classmates – with additional guidance along the way. While diving head-on into original texts such as the Gettysburg Address, ELLs’ understanding of the text may be bolstered by guided reading questions, group activities, historical primers, teacher-led discussions, and other supports, allowing for rigorous engagement at grade level while lessening academic risk.
    2)     Widening the Circle of Responsibility
    Content teachers everywhere are finding they need more support in order to meet the high expectations of the Common Core while working with language-diverse groups of students. Schools have begun to experiment with solutions ranging from co-teaching to requiring all teachers to receive training in how to teach ELLs. It’s too soon to know if the trend will skew toward greater teacher collaboration or increased qualifications for content teachers, but the bleeding of “language-learning” into content courses is certain to shift the role of ELL teachers and fundamentally blur traditional boundaries of responsibility. 
    3)     Reevaluating Instructional Materials
    More English learners will finally be getting instructional materials designed with their particular needs in mind and validated by experts. These materials will match the high expectations established by the Common Core – delivering grade-level content and appropriate challenge in language development – and be explicitly correlated with the standards.
    4)     Rethinking Instructional Practices 
    Districts will be looking at instructional practices to determine what works best for ELLs and establishing guidelines to ensure that ELLs receive receive high-quality instruction. In addition to new instructional materials, changes may include the addition of coaches to support students, increased opportunities for extended learning, evidence-based supplemental support, or quality professional development offerings.


    Related Reading:

    As Classrooms Become More Diverse, How Do We Help All Students Grow?

    Top 10 Tips for Working With ELL Students



    10 Trends to Watch in Special Education in 2015

    Tuesday, January 6, 2015 - 08:00
    • Will J. Gordillo

    2105 Special Ed TrendsTop 10 Trends in Special Education

    With the New Year upon us, it’s time for special education leaders and practitioners to reflect and develop a plan that takes into consideration the changing landscape of special education and the impact these changes may have on current and future practices. Here are 10 trends that you should continue to keep your eyes on as you develop your strategic plan of action in 2015:

    1. Redefining, Rethinking, Redesigning and Reinventing Special Education – The majority of students with disabilities are now served in general education as we embrace inclusive practices in our schools. There will be continued conversations regarding the students we serve, and how and where we best serve them as we continue to reflect on the question, “What is special about special education?” There is now a stronger call for special education to step up and improve efficiency, implement evidence-based practices, and provide greater accountability on key performance indicators that support successful academic and post-school outcomes for students with disabilities. This shift gained impetus with the 2001 publication Rethinking Special Education for a New Century by Chester E. Finn, Andrew J. Rotherham, and Charles R. Hokanson Jr., which envisioned changes for the reauthorization of the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Later, the Fordham Institute for Advancing Educational Excellence’s publication of Shifting Trends in Special Education by Janie Scull and Amber M. Northern escalated the conversations regarding trends in student membership by disability categories and highlighted disparities in incidence ratios and staffing patterns across the nation. This was followed by another publication from the Fordham Institute, Boosting the Quality and Efficiency of Special Education by Nathan Levinson, in 2012, which looked at how districts are spending their special education dollars. Does spending more translate to better results for students with special needs? The results of this report based on the information reviewed did not confirm this hypothesis and led to recommendations for improvement that have generated a lot of discussion and diverging points of views from many professional organizations in the education community while concurrently elevating the topic of special education to the national conversations taking place on educational reform. This past year, the Office of Special Education Programs announced a paradigm shift towards Results-Driven Accountability (RDA) with a rationale of focusing on results-driven indicators to improve outcomes for students with disabilities. State Education Agencies, Local Education Agencies, and school administrators, teachers, and support personnel are beginning to understand the implications of this RDA change and are taking action to align their practices toward this shift.
    2. Providing Specially Designed Instruction Within a Multi-Tiered System of Support (MTSS) Framework – The MTSS framework has had a significant impact on addressing the needs of struggling subgroups of students, including students with disabilities served in general education settings, as evidenced by declining incidence rates for certain disability categories (e.g., learning disabilities, language impaired, emotional behavioral disabilities). There is an emerging paradigm shift toward recognizing that specially designed instruction needs to be provided within an MTSS framework in order to address individual students’ high and low needs, regardless of setting, along with guidance on what this looks like and how best to make it actionable, as reflected in examples on the Florida Problem Solving and Response to Intervention Network.
    3. Implementing Evidence-Based Practices, Interventions, and Standards-Based IEPs – The Common Core is creating greater pressure on developing individualized education programs (IEPs) to ensure that goals are written and aligned to the standards and assessments that are being developed. There will be a stronger focus on professional development for all stakeholders that is focused on developing standards-based IEPs with measurable objectives that are aligned to the Common Core and address evidence-based practices and interventions for students with IEPs while monitoring and documenting measured student progress with resources such as these, which are available for training from the California Department of Education.
    4. Technology – Technology will continue to transform special education classroom instruction by enhancing individual learning opportunities and enabling greater flexibility and personalization through the implementation of blended learning, virtual or video conferencing, the use of tablets, and web-based evidence-based practices as districts continue to create more “bring your own device” (BYOD)  policies. Special education teachers will have a greater need for exposure and training in these areas during pre-service and after employment in order to be confident facilitators of personalized learning that integrates technology into the instruction of the students on their caseloads.
    5. Coding - Learning coding will become a necessity for all students, including students with disabilities (SWDs). Following a standard course of study to remain competitive after graduation in this world where knowledge of computer science is critically essential. Even elementary school students are beginning to be instructed in the use of available coding software to make original pieces so that this skill becomes second nature to them. Students and their teachers are delving into this experience through websites such as http://code.org/.
    6. Autism – Schools and community-based organizations serving students with autism spectrum disorders will continue their focus on creating and enhancing transition options for students and emerging adults with autism. There will be a stronger push by national organizations, such as the Autism Society of America, Autism Speaks, the Dan Marino Foundation, and others supporting the development of specialized programs that prepare students for employment while concurrently advocating and escalating the dialogue on the need for housing to address the rising tide of students with autism spectrum disorders aging out of the K-12 educational system. The recently passed legislation entitled Achieving a Better Life Experience Act (ABLE) was a victory for grassroots advocacy for parents and people with disabilities. The ABLE Act will allow for savings accounts for individuals with disabilities for certain expenses, such as education, housing, and transportation, without jeopardizing certain important federal benefits, such as Social Security and Medicaid. The funds saved in these accounts, if managed correctly, can be another tool in planning for the lifetime support needs of an individual with disabilities. Families will be able to put up to $14,000 a year into an ABLE account, with a cap of $100,000. The State of Florida also passed Senate Bill 850 last year, which creates Personalized Learning Accounts that will allow parents of certain special needs students (e.g., those with Down’s Syndrome, autism, spina bifida, or other designated disabilities) to customize their children’s education by providing access to Personalized Learning Scholarship Accounts modeled on Arizona’s Empowerment Scholarship Accounts. Parents receive an allocated amount, which they can use for private school tuition, educational therapy, private tutoring, or other educational expenses. The money rolls over from year to year and can be saved for college. Look for other or similar legislation that encourages education providers, such as private schools and tutors, to innovate and find ways to provide the same services for lower costs.
    7. Addressing the Needs of English Language Learners Who Are Also SWDs - Addressing the assessment and instructional needs of English language learners who are identified and served by Special Education will continue to move to the forefront as this group of students gains a greater presence in our schools. There will be more research needed and information available on best practices for the assessment and instruction of this subgroup. It will also be necessary to recognize the need to implement evidence-based strategies that support second language acquisition through the IEP process. There will be greater scrutiny on districts that disproportionately over-identify ELL students as SWDs and a call for action to improve overall academic gains and outcomes for students with disabilities who are also English language learners.
    8. The Growth in Charter Schools: Equity and Access for SWDs, Special-Education-Only Charter Schools, and Conversion Charters – SWDs continue to be a subgroup served in charter schools while the number of overall students enrolled in these choice settings continues to increase as referenced in the report  from the National Center for Education Statistics. There appears to be a significant discrepancy evident in the overall enrollment trends of nondisabled students served in charter schools versus SWDs that continues to be of concern. In cities such as Philadelphia and Chicago, the growth in the number of students attending charters has prompted the mass closure of public schools — either because of lower enrollment destroying the district’s budget or because of pro-charter politicians supporting the expansion of this choice option. The SWDs enrolled and served in charter schools continue to be those with mild disabilities and do not mirror the percentages or disability categories of students served in public noncharter schools. Local education agencies (LEAs) will continue the increasingly complex process of monitoring compliance of educational services and IDEA requirements of SWDs served in charter schools while ensuring there is equity and access to these choice school options for all students. The authorization of special-education-only charter schools and the conversion of existing public special education center schools to charter schools, as is currently being discussed by the Broward County Public Schools for the Wingate Oaks Center, are recent developments. This may become a new special education phenomenon to watch, thus impacting school districts that are charter schools authorizers. As parental choice options continue to move to the forefront, these are challenging and redefining the historical dialogue about free and appropriate education and serving SWDs in the least restrictive environment. Parental rights and choice within the IEP are now topics of conversation as a result of passed or proposed legislation in some states that may have a significant impact on the IEP process.
    9. Private Schools and SWDs – Proposed legislation on private school vouchers for SWDs will continue to be considered and debated in states across the nation. New legislation in this area may result in an increase in the number of private schools serving SWDs in states that authorize legislation on private school vouchers for SWDs. This may also have an unintended financial impact on school district assurances and IDEA obligations to private schools. Districts may be required to set aside a larger proportionate share of IDEA funds for eligible students with disabilities, since more may be served in private schools through these legislated vouchers. The discourse on vouchers, scholarships and personalized learning accounts continues as highlighted in this article on the website of redefinedonline.org, a divergent thinking organization with a view that is committed toward a new definition of public education.
    10. Crowdfunding – Special education teachers will continue to turn to online donors for financial support to purchase materials, equipment and supplies for their classrooms due to limited funding availability for such purchases in school budgets. Donorschoose.org is one of the major players in crowdfunding for schools. Teachers can also use other sites, such as AdoptAClassroom and Indiegogo to help fund some of the most basic unmet needs to supplement instruction for their students.

    Perhaps some of these trends are already in your area and are incorporated in your daily work. If not, this may give you some points to consider on what may lie ahead for 2015 and help inspire your future work. The one thing we can all take for granted in special education is that change is a constant, but those of us who work with students with disabilities are resilient and quick to respond with meaningful action.

    Related reading:

    Remediation vs. Accommodation: Helping Students with Learning Disabilities Succeed

    Are Your Special Education Practices Aligned With RDA?



    The Role of Literacy in Deeper Learning

    Tuesday, December 9, 2014 - 08:00
    • Norene Wiesen

    Deeper LearningDeeper Learning is a relatively new term for a set of educational goals that have always been prized by the best educators. Also known as 21st Century Learning, Deeper Learning values content mastery, communication and collaboration, critical thinking and problem solving, the ability to self-direct, giving and receiving feedback in a constructive manner, and a healthy academic mindset.

    Real-World Connections

    For academic learning to matter in the real world, students need to be able to determine what knowledge and strategies they should apply in familiar and novel situations and to recognize why they have made those choices. They need to be able to reflect on the effectiveness of their chosen approach and revise their understanding of problem and solution where warranted.

    Deeper Learning typically engages students with real-world situations in ways that traditional learning might not. This real-world engagement raises the stakes where literacy skills are concerned. Students with stronger literacy skills at all grade levels will be better able to self-direct, relying less on their teachers and more on the resources available to them.

    Many of the literacy skills needed for Deeper Learning also align with the Common Core, including (but by no means limited to):

    Lower Elementary

    • Asking and answering questions about a text (e.g., who, what, where, etc.)
    • Retelling a story and explaining what it means
    • Recognizing the differing points of view held by different characters
    • Discussing connections between different parts of a text (e.g., a series of events)
    • Writing opinion pieces, informational or explanatory texts, and narratives
    • Strengthening writing by revising and editing

    Upper Elementary

    • Analyzing various accounts of an event or topic and identifying similarities and differences
    • Using information from a variety of print and/or digital sources to find answers quickly and efficiently
    • Integrating information from multiple texts on the same topic
    • Effectively using facts, sensory details, definitions, dialogue, description, transitional words, phrases, clauses, etc., in writing
    • Conducting research using a number of sources, recalling relevant information, and drawing on evidence to build and present knowledge
    • Writing regularly for extended time periods

    Middle School

    • Citing evidence that strongly supports the analysis of a text
    • Analyzing the way a modern work of fiction draws on traditional stories, myths, etc., to create a story that readers perceive as new
    • Determining an author’s viewpoint and explaining how the author treats conflicting evidence or opinions
    • Assessing arguments for soundness and sufficient evidence
    • Building an argument, supporting it with solid reasons and pertinent evidence, and writing a well-reasoned conclusion
    • Writing an entire composition in a formal style

    High School

    • Considering the effect of an author’s choices (e.g., the setting, the way that characters are introduced and developed, etc.) on a text
    • Evaluating the impact of specific word choices on meaning and tone, including words with multiple meanings
    • Analyzing a text that requires the reader to understand that what is really meant is different from what is directly stated (e.g., satire, sarcasm, irony, or understatement)
    • Developing claims and counterclaims evenhandedly, providing relevant evidence, and pointing out the strengths and weaknesses of both in a way that anticipates the audience’s knowledge level, concerns, and possible preconceptions
    • Gathering information from a variety of authoritative print and digital sources; assessing the strengths and weaknesses of each source; avoiding overreliance on any single source; and presenting citations following a standard format

    Real-World Learning

    Today’s students face challenges unknown to previous generations. They must be able to filter an onslaught of information to decide what is relevant and what can be ignored. They have to learn how to communicate using an ever-growing variety of formats and media. Along with traditional essays, reports, and letters, today’s students need to learn how to write effective and appropriate emails, PowerPoint presentations, and video scripts. Self-directed learning might mean that even the youngest students are conducting independent research and learning how to judge the quality and authority of information sources and evidence.

    New technologies, along with education trends like Deeper Learning, expand opportunities for students and give them new ways to succeed. But learners are also faced with new ways to fail. The reaches of “literacy” extend farther and deeper than ever before, and the consequences of illiteracy are dire. Every student deserves a toolbox of strong literacy skills to help them rise to meet today’s academic and real-world challenges.

    For Further Reading:

    Evidence of Deeper Learning Outcomes

    Related reading:

    Creating Reading Intention to Improve Reading Comprehension Skills in Students

    Self-Regulation Strategies for Students With Learning Disabilities



    Dyslexia Legislation is on the Rise. But Why?

    Thursday, October 23, 2014 - 08:00
    • Hallie Smith, MA CCC-SLP


    dyslexia legislationIn the past few years, more than a dozen states have passed or proposed new laws to raise awareness about dyslexia through increased screening, intervention programs, and teacher training. Delaware, Tennessee, Illinois, Pennsylvania, Hawaii, Kansas, Arkansas, West Virginia, New Jersey, Mississippi, and Kentucky are among the states with notable legislative activity, but there’s a movement in nearly every state to legislate educational approaches to tackling the most common learning disability.


    The Yale Center for Dyslexia & Creativity – led by Co-Directors Drs. Sally and Bennett Shaywitz – is one force behind this trend. The center’s Multicultural Dyslexia Awareness Initiative (MDAI) website positions education – and more specifically, dyslexia – as “a civil rights issue” due to the “struggles and marginalization of many dyslexic children.” The mission of the MDAI is to influence policy through the grassroots engagement of educators, legislators, and others. The effort appears to be working, with dyslexia advocacy surging around the country.

    Decoding Dyslexia, a “parent-led grassroots movement,” is one example, with a presence in 47 states. Founded in 2012, the movement focuses on raising awareness about dyslexia and changing literacy legislation at the state level.

    Then there’s Texas teen Ben Cooper. On behalf of dyslexic learners nationwide, Cooper is lobbying the House of Representatives to adopt HR456, a resolution calling on states and schools “to recognize that dyslexia has significant educational implications that must be addressed.”

    In Connecticut, Governor Dannel Malloy has spoken out about his own experience with dyslexia. Malloy is a proponent of universal access to pre-K, in part to ensure early identification of learning disabilities. As Governor, he signed a bill into law that requires future teachers to receive training in dyslexia recognition and intervention.

    In Washington, D.C., there’s a new Bipartisan Dyslexia Caucus currently co-chaired by Representatives Julia Brownley (D-California) and Bill Cassidy (R-Louisiana). “The Big Picture: Rethinking Dyslexia,” a film directed by James Redford, was screened at the 2012 inaugural event.

    The rise in legislation is a hopeful development. Dyslexia is the most common learning disability – about one in five students has it – but not all educators know how to recognize it and help learners with dyslexia succeed in school.  

    We now know that dyslexia is neurologically based, and schools have access to effective interventions like the Fast ForWord program – which has been proven to positively impact reading ability in dyslexic children and adults. With only 34 percent of 4th graders scoring at or above Proficient on the 2013 NAEP, enacting early dyslexia identification and intervention is a no-brainer.

    Related reading:

    Dyslexia – How Far We’ve Come!

    Remediation vs. Accommodation: Helping Students with Learning Disabilities Succeed



    Are Your Special Education Practices Aligned With RDA?

    Tuesday, October 7, 2014 - 20:00
    • Will J. Gordillo

    Special Ed RDAThe U.S. Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP) announced a major shift in the way it oversees the effectiveness of states’ special education programs. Until now, OSEP revealed that its primary focus was to determine whether states were meeting procedural requirements such as timelines for evaluations, due process hearings, and transitioning children into preschool services. While these compliance indicators remain important to children and families, under the new framework known as Results-Driven Accountability (RDA), the Department will also include educational results and outcomes for students with disabilities (SWDs) in making each state’s annual determination under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).

    Each state will also begin to issue their school districts an annual determination that is aligned to their own data on educational results and outcomes for SWDs. This will encourage each school district to be more cognizant of the impact that each school’s data for SWDs will have on their district’s determination and work closely with schools to improve instruction and provide targeted evidence-based practices and interventions to struggling SWDs. This change in accountability represents another significant raising of the bar for special education. The “shift” towards RDA will have a great impact in refocusing the priorities of state education agencies, school districts, and schools by sharpening the focus on what is happening instructionally in classrooms to promote educational benefits and improve outcomes and results for SWDs. How will these changes affect your school or district? 

    Throughout my tenure overseeing the provision of special education and ensuring compliance with IDEA in school districts, I have been a strong advocate for systems change that is focused on student performance in order to continue to redefine special education and help it regain its groove.  Some of the things most valued in terms of impacting outcomes for SWD include focusing on serving students in the least restrictive environment (LRE), promoting inclusive practices, implementing evidenced based practices and interventions, closing the achievement gap on standardized assessments, reducing suspension rates, reducing drop-outs, and increasing graduation rates towards attainment of successful post-secondary school outcomes.  

    These indicators for success are now moving to the forefront of accountability. Some progress has been made throughout the years but we are still not bridging the gap significantly and disparities in student performance between disabled and non-disabled peers continue to grow.  Common Core implementation has raised the bar on rigor and expectations for all students and there is a valid concern that the gap for SWDs will continue to grow based on the historical trend data and outcomes for this subgroup. There is great potential to redefine the Individualized Education Program (IEP) process by placing a greater collective emphasis on how educational benefit is provided to the student through specially designed instruction, accommodations, and evidence-based practices and interventions as well as how well their fidelity of implementation is monitored and recorded for SWDs served in both general education and special education settings.  

    This new RDA framework encourages some reflections.

    As educators, we must always presume competence. It is important to remember that the majority of SWDs will receive instruction in the standard curriculum and will follow a standard diploma pathway towards graduation.  IDEA is founded on principles that all SWDS are entitled to a Free and Appropriate Education (FAPE) in the LRE and the IEP documents the processes of addressing the needs of the students in accordance with all the requirements of this federal law. We must also remember that the “I” in “IEP” stands for “Individual” and stop expecting SWDs to deliver the same results at the same pace and in the same ways that their non-disabled peers do. Their ways and rate of learning may be somewhat different, but “different” doesn’t mean “less.” The word “individual” should also apply to the ways in which they are instructed and provided evidence-based practices and interventions as well as how their progress is measured. It’s not just about standardized test results but also about measuring against their own individual histories and not solely compared to the history of other student’s records. SWDs often need more time to master concepts and specialized approaches that are proven to be effective based on their instructional needs, measured performance, and recognized disability. If the same evidence-based practice or intervention is being delivered to a SWD that all other students are also receiving and is not working, then it’s time to try another one that is more individualized and addresses the presenting needs of the student while considering the context of his or her disability.

    So what could a “shift” towards RDA look like in both general education and special education classroom settings in the future?

    1. Standards-based IEPs are written to provide access to instruction and research-based interventions for SWDs by teachers who can align IEP goals and Common Core Standards confidently while implementing and monitoring them with fidelity.
    2. Early intervention is provided to struggling learners with a greater focus on language and literacy first with the goal of all students reading by 3rd grade.
    3. Instruction in the content areas is provided to SWDs who are following a standard curriculum pathway in the general education setting first.
    4. The neediest SWDs with deficits in language and literacy are scheduled first for interventions on the master schedule in general or special education classroom settings in accordance with the IEP.
    5. Evidence-based practices and interventions are selected and matched to address the individualized needs of SWDs.
    6. Flexible scheduling is implemented by grouping clusters of SWDs in the general education classrooms based on similar instructional needs to effectively provide specially designed instruction and implementing evidence-based practices and interventions with co-teaching or in-class supports by a special education teacher.
    7. Personnel resources are efficiently scheduled to provide co-teaching or in-class supports to SWDs by special education teachers in general education classroom settings.
    8. Paraeducators are shared to assist multiple SWDs and provide individual or small group instruction under the direction of the teacher and help scaffold access to instruction in the common core standards.
    9. Processes that monitor the fidelity of implementation of accommodations, specially designed instruction, evidenced-based practices, and interventions are clearly delineated in the IEPs of SWDs.
    10. Universal design for learning, accommodations, and assistive technology are used and clearly evident in both general education and special education classroom settings to address the individual needs of SWDs.
    11. Facilitated classroom environments that incorporate specially designed instruction delivered in group rotations with stations that provide multiple opportunities for learning (e.g. direct instruction, cooperative learning, individual seat work, virtual/online/computer-based learning, project-based) are evident during classroom observations.
    12. Instruction is extended beyond the classroom for SWDs using content that is accessible through multiple devices and can be used at home or in the community.
    13. Multiple diploma pathways are available that will provide options for SWDs to progress towards college career readiness, employment, and successful post-school graduation outcomes.
    14. Early warning systems will be in place to track SWDs who are at risk or not on track for graduation so that appropriate strategies can be implemented proactively.

    In my upcoming webinar, How Can Special Education Regain Its “Specially Designed Instruction” Groove in the ERA of Results Driven Accountability (RDA)?, we will explore this topic further in order to gain a better perspective of what this “shift” towards RDA will look like in classroom settings serving SWDs in the future. Practical information will be provided that will assist practitioners, schools and districts to implement systems change so that strategies are aligned for success in this “shift” in accountability.

    Further Reading:

    New Accountability Framework Raises the Bar for State Special Education Programs

    Florida Inclusion Network Website Resources

    Inclusive Education Research & Practice (PDF)

    Related reading:

    Assessing ELLs for Special Education: 5 Pitfalls to Avoid

    Flipping the Classroom for Students With Learning Disabilities




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