Bridging the Gap: Access to the General Education Curriculum

archpuzzleExpectations for students in Virginia are high, as laid out in explicit detail in the Curriculum Framework documents that support the Virginia Standards of Learning (SOL).  The SOL, in turn, are aligned with College and Career Readiness priorities.  The targets are the same for all students, including students with disabilities (SWD). The best way to bridge the gap that currently exists in graduation rates and postsecondary outcomes between SWD and their nondisabled peers is to improve meaningful access to the general education curriculum.

The development of high-quality Standards-Based Individual Education Programs (IEPs) (Virginia Department of Education (VDOE), 2010c) is a critical first step in paving the path to standard or advanced studies diplomas for SWD.  Special educators must be prepared to collaborate with general education teachers and become proficient with interpreting the intent of the Virginia SOL in order to build programs focused on meaningful access.

The VDOE has provided a number of tools designed to help educators develop a deep understanding of the intended learning outcomes at the core of the SOL. The most comprehensive tools available are the Curriculum Framework documents found in Table 1.

Table 1
Virginia Standards of Learning Curriculum Framework Resources

Virginia Standards of Learning Curriculum Framework Documents
EnglishReading & Writing  framework
Mathematics  mathcur
Science  2010framework
History & Social Science  2011framework
Additional support documents are available for the following areas: Family Life, Economics & Personal Finance, Fine Arts, Foreign Language, Computer Technology, Health, Physical Education, and Driver Education. http://www.doe.virginia.gov/testing/index.shtml

 

The greatest challenge for special educators is being able to effectively support the varied grade levels and content areas that students will encounter during their school careers.  While collaboration with content- or grade-level general educators can mitigate this challenge, special educators still need to become fluent in the content in order to design opportunities for meaningful access (Sharpe & Hawes, 2003).

The first stop for special educators supporting students across content areas should be the English Curriculum Framework document (VDOE, 2010b).  While students need to be successful in all academic areas, literacy skills are foundational to curricular access in all grade levels and content areas.  Special educators who have a deep understanding of the intent of the English SOL will be able to design appropriate IEPs for students and effectively co-plan with general educators across the curriculum.

Consider the English reading standard “Use reading strategies to monitor comprehension throughout the reading process” (VDOE, 2010a) found in fiction and non-fiction standards in grades 3-10.  The standard language is exactly the same at each of the eight grade levels.  Similar language appears in grades 11-12, indicating that students should be able to understand and use reading strategies.  The ability to independently and flexibly use reading strategies to self-monitor comprehension is a critical skill that will support access in all content areas and improve graduation rates and postsecondary outcomes.

Unfortunately, this standard is easily overlooked in the crafting of standards-based IEPs and general education pacing guides because it is not directly tested on any English reading SOL assessment.  While test blueprints identify this standard as “Excluded from Testing” (VDOE, 2010b), it is important for general and special educators to understand that this does NOT mean that it should be excluded from instruction or that it is not critical to the development of other standards.  On the contrary, many of the standards “Excluded from Testing” (VDOE, 2010b) are key to providing access to the other standards. For example, the standard “Use reading strategies to monitor comprehension throughout the reading process” (VDOE, 2010a) meets the criteria for what is commonly referred to as “power standards” or “priority standards” (Ainsworth, 2010). Students, who are successful with this standard benefit because it will endure throughout their lifetimes, provide leverage across academic areas, and support readiness for the next grade level (Ainsworth, 2010).

When evaluating standards for inclusion in standards-based IEPs and developing specially designed instruction, special educators should give careful consideration to the following questions.

  • What is the intent of the content standard? (VDOE, 2010c)
  • What does the content standard say that the student must know and be able to do? (VDOE, 2010c)
  • Will the standard provide endurance, leverage, and readiness? (Ainsworth, 2010)

Processes for answering these questions are often referred to as “unpacking the standards” or “unwrapping the curriculum”.  When general and special education teachers take the time to “unpack” or “unwrap” the curriculum using the Curriculum Framework documents, they are better able to analyze the standards for intended learning outcomes and prerequisite sub skills.

To do this in a comprehensive way, educators must examine the standard beyond the basic descriptor by reviewing all three columns of the Curriculum Framework document (see Table 2).  Teachers often make the mistake of focusing solely on the third column of the Curriculum Framework because “The Essential Knowledge, Skills, and Processes” (VDOE, 2010a) are thought to be where the most important information is found.  But the reality is that the other two columns, “Understanding the Standard (Teacher Notes)” and “Essential Understandings” (VDOE, 2010a), give the big-picture intent of the standard.  Without an in-depth analysis that starts with the big picture, teachers may lose sight of the forest (intent of the standard) because they are focused on so many individual trees (skills). In other words, starting with too many discrete standards can result in a lack of focus on the broader intended learning outcomes.

Table 2
Making the Most of the Curriculum Framework Documents

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Examining and analyzing the overall intent of the Virginia SOL as outlined in the Curriculum Framework documents is an important first step to effectively providing access to the general education curriculum for students with disabilities.  Once general and special educators have fully examined the Curriculum Framework documents, they can start to use structured tools to collaboratively unpack or unwrap standards for both content and cognitive levels.  This detailed process may be further explored by accessing the VDOE resources in Table 3.

Table 3
Additional Training Resources From VDOE

How can the division and principal help teachers understand how to “unpack” the standards and plan more effective lessons? How do the division and school include these steps in the school improvement plan? How do the division and school monitor these steps in the school improvement plan?

How can the division and principals support teachers in understanding how to align unit tests and plan backwards for instruction? How do the division and school include these steps in the school improvement plan? How do the division and school monitor these steps in the school improvement plan?

(VDOE, n.d.)

When general and special educators collaborate to provide meaningful access to the general education curriculum, the skill gaps for students with disabilities in Virginia will begin to close, and SWD will achieve standard or advanced studies diplomas and improve their postsecondary outcomes. This article has outlined an important first step in examining and analyzing the intent of the standards as outlined in the Curriculum Framework documents and provided some next-step resources for unpacking standards, aligning unit tests, and backwards design of instruction.  All of these efforts will support the greater goal of bridging gaps through greater access to the general education curriculum.

Resources

Ainsworth, L. (2010). Prioritize the standards. In A. Bernhard (Ed.), Rigorous curriculum design: How to create curricular units of study that align standards, instruction, and assessment (pp. 39-60). Englewood, CO:  The Leadership & Learning Center.

Sharpe, M., & Hawes, M. (2003). Collaboration between general and special education:  Making it work. [Issue brief]. Examining Current Challenges in Secondary Education and Transition, 2(1). Retrieved from http://www.ncset.org/publications/viewdesc.asp?id=1097

Virginia Department of Education. (2010a). English standards of learning:  Curriculum framework. Retrieved from http://www.doe.virginia.gov/testing/sol/frameworks/english_framewks/2010/framework_english_k12.pdf

Virginia Department of Education. (2010b).  Virginia standards of learning assessments test blueprint:  Grade 3 reading. Retrieved from http://www.doe.virginia.gov/testing/sol/blueprints/english_blueprints/2010/2010_blueprint_gr3_reading.pdf

Virginia Department of Education, Office of Special Education Instructional Services, Division of Special Education and Student Services. (2010c). Guidance document: Standards-based individual educational program (IEP). Retrieved from http://www.doe.virginia.gov/special_ed/iep_instruct_svcs/stds-based_iep/stds_based_iep_guidance.pdf

Virginia Department of Education. (n.d.). Additional training for contractors, divisions, and principals. Retrieved from http://www.doe.virginia.gov/support/school_improvement/academic_reviews/training/index.shtml