Massachusetts Solution

Matthew Deninger looks at special education and race in Massachusetts, the problem of “disproportionality.” “Despite these positive trends and obvious success stories, there are aspects of the special education system where much work remains. Disproportionality is one of those areas.” Mitigating strategies are mentioned:

1. Awareness of bias within the IEP Team:

“Are students from certain backgrounds more susceptible to particular disabilities, or are the IEP Teams charged with determining a student’s eligibility exhibiting some kind of bias when identifying disabilities? As the body of research grows in this area, we are better able to understand and contextualize this phenomenon. For instance, researchers have found that IEP Team bias is a factor. When teachers or parents refer a student to be evaluated for disabilities, they typically make their own informal diagnosis (“That kid definitely has ADD…”). After evaluative testing has been completed, these same teachers and parents are involved in deciding whether or not the student has a disability, and a self-fulfilling prophecy can ensue that reflects acceptable community norms.

2. Child study teams are helpful:

When a student struggles, a teacher can refer him or her to a child study team instead of referring the student directly to the special education department and asking for an evaluation. Child study teams are composed of both general education teachers and specialists, and it is their job to consult with the teacher and suggest classroom strategies that may benefit the student. After a few weeks of implementing these strategies, the child study team meets with the teacher again. If the strategies worked and the student shows progress, no special education referral is made. If the strategies do not work, the child study team proposes new ideas and makes more suggestions. Only after the child study team has exhausted its “bag of tricks” and has seen no progress in the student’s situation is a referral for a special education evaluation finally made. By focusing on instructional strategies that the general education teacher can employ, child study teams help prevent disproportionate numbers of students from being unnecessarily evaluated for disabilities.

3. Early social and pre-social skills work:

New York City, Baltimore, and several other large school districts teach social skills to preschool and early elementary school students as part of the curriculum. Students learn appropriate ways to resolve and prevent conflicts and to behave appropriately in a variety of contexts. Studies show that such interventions help students who are at risk for developing emotional or behavioral problems. Early organizational skill development too has been useful in preventing learning difficulties and the exacerbation of learning disabilities.

4. Professional development in differentiated instruction and cultural proficiency:

In order for the general education classroom teacher to be able to reach all students of all abilities and learning styles, high quality professional development is necessary in two main areas: differentiated instruction and cultural proficiency. Differentiated instruction responds to the individual needs of learners by presenting information in a variety of ways, engaging students in a variety of learning activities, and using a variety of assessments to draw on each student’s strengths. Cultural proficiency encourages teachers to build relationships with all students, let students know that they are valued, and acknowledge individual and group differences to create an environment of trust and mutual respect.”

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