Do students with significant intellectual disabilities benefit more from instruction adapted from general education or instruction created to teach independent living and vocational skills in preparation for life after school?

As a special education teacher it often feels as if you spend your entire day adapting everything to fit students’ needs. Perhaps educational policy makers have missed the point. Wouldn’t our students become more successful with instruction tailored to their needs and their abilities instead of adapting a curriculum designed to prepare students for outcomes that are irrelevant to them?

Students with severe disabilities have historically been left out of the conversation when it comes to effective instruction. From the Willowbrook State School to the Common Core students with severe disabilities and their needs are consistently an afterthought of policy-makers. In today’s educational landscape, the idea of adapting general education curriculum has been billed as a civil right that students with severe disabilities are fortunate to take part in. However, we are now seeing that statistics show students with disabilities have very poor post-high school outcomes using this model. It has become increasingly obvious that tailored instruction is necessary to prepare them for life after high school.

Allowing students with severe disabilities to live as unique individuals with a unique set of gifts and needs is the true form of civil rights we are striving for. Accepting them as they are instead of attempting to force them into societal expectations enables students with disabilities to flourish and grow in ways that might even surprise society. We hope our artifacts open a dialogue that enables educators to formulate their own opinion in regards to our inquiry question. We have come a long way in special education in America, but we are now at a fork in the road where we must decide which route is more effective: adapted general education curriculum or specialized independent living and vocational instruction? As we read and process the artifacts collected here we come to the conclusion that although the answer is not black and white; our students have a right to instruction designed for their needs and post-high school goals as opposed to access to the general education curriculum.

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Improving Post-High School Outcomes for Transition-Age Students with Disabilities: An Evidence Review

Brian Cobb, Stephen Lipscomb, Jennifer Wolgemuth, and Theresa Schulte, 2013

This article looks at evidence-based practices for improving post-high school outcomes for students with disabilities. Based on their review, instruction targeting specific life skills was the most successful indicator of a positive post-high school outcome for a student with a cognitive disability. When reflecting on our inquiry question, we must remember that Common Core was never designed for students with severe cognitive disabilities and research supports that instruction based on life skills is much more effective.

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SpED Talks: How Changes in the New Alternate Assessment Affect Curriculum and Instruction

Don Johnston Incorporated, 2015

This is a youtube video that talks all about the difficulty of adapting the common core to the special ed classroom particularly when you have all different levels. Differentiation is so important, but it is also important to be mindful that we should be using the appropriate standards for our special education students. This video examines the different options and current practices in special education classrooms.

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Obstacles to Program Effectiveness in Secondary Special Education

Leah Washburn-Moses, 2010

Secondary special education curriculum has a lot of gaps that need to be filled in order to best meet the needs of students with disabilities. This article examines the options that are currently available to students and looks into the strengths and weaknesses of these programs.

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Special Education Teachers’ Perceptions of Benefits, Barriers, and Components of Community-Based Vocational Instruction

Rah Kyung Kim and Stacy K. Dymond, 2010

There is no one who understands a curriculum more than the teacher educating the children. This article takes a looks at vocational programs being used with secondary special education students through the lens of the teacher. It examines the positives of this programs and the things that may need improvement. 

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TED Talk: How autism freed me to be myself

Rosie King, 2014

This TED talk video easily translates into the common core debate. Everyone is constantly trying to force people with disabilities to fit into the neurotypical world. This video addresses the fact that our students are amazing in their own ways and they should not always be forced into a box that society considers “normal”.

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The Common Core Is Tough on Kids With Special Needs

Katherine Beals, 2014

This article takes a look at why the common core may not be best for students who have flexible learning styles. They need a system that can be more fluid to meet their needs. The common core may be asking them to do skills in a way they can not understand.

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Climb That Tree

Alexander Russo, 2012

This commonly seen political cartoon looks at the questions of the common core. When we ask special education students to try and complete a set of standards that they are not able to accomplish we set them up for failure. Now if we think about this in terms of differentiation we would have to adapt the “exam” above so that all students could take it, just like we would have to adapt the common core standards. Furthermore, this point out should we even be giving students exams if we have to adapt them. Rather should they be given a task that will best support their future. For example, instead of forcing our children to learn higher level algebra why not teach them applicable vocational skills. Similarly instead of asking the fish to create a machine that will help him climb the tree, we should just ask him to swim.

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Willowbrook: The Last Great Disgrace

Geraldo Rivera, 1972

This disturbing documentary exposes the horrific treatment of a school for kids with intellectual disabilities in Staten Island in that was open from 1965 to 1987. This documentary exposes the horrors of “education” for students with severe cognitive disabilities a mere 30 years ago in our very city. This video caused outrage when it was released and was a key catalyst to the de-institutionalization movement in America for children with disabilities. When considering our inquiry question, the horrific history of education for this population must be remembered. Many laws have been passed and civil rights victories won since this horrible school closed. However, this school was run by the same government that runs District 75 (the severe special education district) in New York City today. When considering our inquiry question, we must remember that we still have so far to go in order to provide our kids an ethical education. The common core was not created for students with severe disabilities. However we continue to attempt to force it upon them as if we are trying to fit a circle into a square shaped hole.

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Educating Michigan’s Students with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)

Summer Ferreri and Sara Bolt, 2011

This article works as a snapshot into instructing students with Autism Spectrum Disorders ASD) in Michigan. It provides information into the issues schools faced in educating students with ASD as well as the successes. The instruction addressed in this article is tailored to the students’ needs and reflects upon what works and what does not. It relates to our inquiry question in the fact that even tailored instruction (not adapted general education instruction) must still be evidence-based and continually evolving in order to meet our students’ needs.

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