Core curriculum presents new challenges for special education
by Jessica Oliff
The School District of Philadelphia's new standardized curriculum presents particular challenges for teachers of students with disabilities. These teachers must find ways to meet the requirements of each student's individualized education plan (IEP) while also ensuring that students are exposed to grade-level content that their peers are receiving in regular education classrooms.
After a year of implementing the core curriculum, several teachers and District officials took time with the Notebook to reflect on what is happening in special education classrooms.
Special education teachers report that one of the biggest challenges posed by the core curriculum is providing instruction at many different grade levels. Christina Puntel, a special education teacher at Sheppard Elementary School last year, said that because of her students' varied abilities, she needed to use the first, second and third grade core curriculum materials in her classes.
"I would use the higher objectives in almost every case, and then I would make sure that the assessment was instructionally where the child should be," Puntel said.
Providing instruction at a variety of levels is a challenge, acknowledged Linda Williams, an administrator in the District's Office of Specialized Services (OSS).
"If a fifth-grade-aged student is at a third-grade reading level, there is still an expectation that the fifth-grade core curriculum will drive his IEP," Williams said. "Third grade is his reading level, but there is more to the core curriculum than just reading.... To just use the third-grade curriculum is a disservice to the student."
Director Brenda Taylor of the Office of Specialized Services added, "The first place that teacher should go is to the fifth grade curriculum to see what standards the student can meet at his chronological age."
"Then the teacher should look at the fourth and third grade curricula," Taylor explained. "It's work, and that's what you have to do if you are going to utilize this curriculum and make it work."
Matching the fast pace required for regular education classrooms is another new challenge for special education teachers. "I was overwhelmed at first trying to keep up," said Deena Pierce, a veteran special education teacher who teaches K-4 students at Greenberg Elementary School.
"You want to stay as close to the regular classes as possible so that mainstreamed students will be where their classmates are. But of course that's hard because if they could keep up, they wouldn't be in special education in the first place," she noted.
Pierce said she benefited greatly from support from her principal and colleagues. In addition, she was able to make use of some adaptive materials her school purchased for use with the core curriculum.
Teachers of special education also noted that the core curriculum overlooks some skills that students need to learn, particularly socialization skills.
"I followed the core curriculum really closely for the first two months," Puntel said, "but then I started to realize that the kids didn't know each other's names." She dealt with this problem by adjusting the curriculum to allow students more time to work together in small groups.
Administrators from the OSS say they plan to help other special education teachers develop their own pedagogical techniques using videotapes of teachers who are skilled at modifying their instruction to address student needs. Regional staff from OSS will utilize these tapes in ongoing professional development for special and regular education teachers.
"We're trying to ensure that there is one district, not a district for special education and a district for regular education," Taylor noted. "We know we have a lot of work to do....but we are focused."
Puntel and Pierce agreed that there is a lot of work to do, particularly now that the core curriculum has put greater pressure on regular education teachers to improve students' test scores. They said that some regular education teachers' attitudes towards special education students changed this past year.
Puntel said, "It was more common to hear complaints about special education kids and any kids that were learning at a slower rate because everyone was under so much pressure."