Difficult passage

difficult-passage
Nicole Papa teaches a self-contained class at East Moriches elementary school. (Amanda M. Fairbanks)
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East Moriches, N.Y.—On a morning in late May, the pace was slow and deliberate as seven students formed a semicircle around their teacher to work on a lesson about finding the main idea in a story.

“I have a surprise for you on my phone,” said Nicole Papa, before starting an audio recording of “Smart-Speak,” a nonfiction article about bullying and peer pressure. Pencils in hand, the third- and fourth-grade students followed along with the recorded voice.

“Now, let’s read it again, just a little bit closer, and think about the main idea, or gist, of each section,” said Papa, reading the first section aloud. “What’s it mostly about?”

After soliciting a range of responses, Papa wrote in blue marker on a whiteboard: “You should speak up and tell your friend, ‘I don’t want to do your homework anymore.’”

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The seven students in Papa’s classroom at East Moriches Elementary School, located in a middle-class Long Island community about 70 miles east of New York City, have all been classified as needing special education services because of diagnoses ranging from autism spectrum disorders to learning disabilities to mood disorders.

Papa’s lesson is contained within the first part of the EngageNY English language arts curriculum for New York State fourth graders. Paid for and developed by the New York State Education Department, EngageNY is a set of curriculum materials aligned to the new Common Core State Standards, which aim to prepare students for college and careers by deepening critical thinking and enhancing problem-solving skills. School districts are not required to adopt EngageNY, but are encouraged to adapt the materials and use them as a guide. Though the curriculum is scripted, each district follows it to greater and lesser degrees, with some following it line by line and others using it as a general template that guides instruction.

East Moriches follows a very scripted approach to EngageNY and that’s why Papa, an educator with more than 20 years of experience, was initially resistant to the Common Core. She worried that her students, whose reading is two to three levels below others their age, would be unable to handle the increased rigor along with a scripted approach to teaching and learning.

In fact, she has already had to go off script. Since the suggested passage was several years above their reading level—and her students were unable to read it independently while also making sense of it—Papa asked one of her colleagues to record an audio version of the text.

Papa is hardly alone in modifying the material to meet the diverse needs of her students. The verdict is still out as to whether students with disabilities can meet these new, more rigorous standards.

So far, implementation has faced stiff opposition from some parents and educators who say that special education students can’t keep up. The Common Core isn’t necessarily the culprit, but rather the way the standards are being interpreted in the state-approved curriculum. EngageNY is one interpretation of the standards, with each state choosing its own approach. Curriculum woes aside, high-stakes tests have fueled further objections with some parents refusing to let their children be tested. Children who are not tested suffer no penalties; the tests have no bearing on end-of-year grades or the following year’s placement.

Papa, for her part, sees incremental progress among her students.

“A couple of years ago, I would never have tried such a difficult passage with these kids,” said Papa, reflecting on her lesson. “My students are stepping it up and showing some unexpected successes. I see the light bulbs go on and I see a lot of growth in their comprehension, in their vocabulary and in their confidence. They know they’re doing exactly what their peers are doing right across the hallway.”

Still, the pace is far slower in Papa’s class than in the school’s mainstream classes. Special education students are taught either in their own classroom (called a self-contained classroom) or with other students (called inclusion). The school’s fourth-grade inclusion class, with 15 general education students and seven special education students, completed the first of four English segments in October. Meanwhile, Papa’s self-contained class, with a month of school left to go, was still on the first segment and only one-quarter of the way to the finish line. At the end of the year, some of Papa’s students were tested while others opted out of taking the tests.

In and Out of Classes with Peers

Mary Herrle has twin 10-year-old sons, Paul and Philip. Paul has autism. Philip has Asperger’s syndrome.

Herrle lives in Saint James, about 40 miles from East Moriches. Her husband works as a carpenter; she stays busy looking after the couple’s four children.

Paul attends Ascent: A School for Individuals with Autism in Deer Park, N.Y. alongside 25 children with severe cognitive impairments. After Paul turned two, Herrle noticed that Philip also wasn’t meeting many of his developmental milestones. Philip later received a diagnosis of Asperger’s syndrome, a higher-functioning form of autism.

Since kindergarten, Philip has bounced between self-contained and inclusion classrooms, depending on the year. By the time the Common Core came to Saint James Elementary School in September 2012, Philip was in a fourth-grade inclusion classroom. Five of his classmates had Individualized Education Programs, or I.E.P.s, a requirement for children receiving special-education services.

Philip thrives on repetition, particularly in math. In third grade, he scored a 3 in math (4 is the highest possible score). Then everything changed.

“Suddenly, in fourth grade, they’re giving him math he’s never seen before in his life,” said Herrle.

After failing all subjects, Philip repeated the fourth grade. Looking ahead to fifth-grade math, Herrle saw a curriculum way above her son’s skill level. Come September, Philip will be back in a self-contained classroom, where Herrle hopes he will finally receive the individualized attention he so badly needs.

“I have no problem exposing him to higher standards and to more intense rigor, but if you’re going to teach kindergarten to fourth grade one way, you’re going to have to go back and reteach the other methodologies before diving in at fifth grade with a whole new approach,” said Herrle.

As for self-contained classrooms, Herrle doesn’t believe segregating special education students from their general education peers is the answer, either. Federal law requires schools to educate students with disabilities in the least restrictive environment, or exposing special-needs children to their non-disabled peers as much as possible.

“It’s a huge step back for him, but he isn’t getting the proper scaffolding in his current classroom,” said Herrle. “We’re overhauling the plane in mid-air. My son doesn’t fit into this one-size-fits-all model, so what are we going to do with him?”

Opting Out

Across New York State, many parents were stunned by last summer’s release of the first test scores aligned to the Common Core. Among students in grades three to eight, only around 30 percent demonstrated proficiency in English and math. Children with disabilities fared worse. Statewide, just 5 percent of students with disabilities were proficient in English, with 7 percent proficient in math.

On Long Island, which has 124 school districts, more than 20,000 students did not take this spring’s English and math exams. Though entire districts can’t opt out of state-mandated testing, individual parents can sign waivers allowing their children to refuse the exams.

Parents in districts separated by only a few suburban streets reacted very differently to the Common Core. Some supported the new standards; others mobilized to end them.

Last spring, Jeanette Brunelle Deutermann created Long Island Opt-Out, a Facebook group with more than 17,000 members. At more than 50 public forums she’s organized since September, Deutermann said she found that parents of children with disabilities are among the Common Core’s fiercest critics.

Some educators are equally concerned.

Roberta Gerold, the superintendent of Middle Country Central School District, described the Common Core-aligned assessments as a “one-sizes-fits-all program without a real recognition of the need to be attentive to individual needs.”

Gerold said she’s troubled by the premise that every child can learn at the same level, at the same pace and with the same depth, “no matter what level the child is at and whether they possess an extraordinary ability or are cognitively challenged.”

A quarter of Middle Country’s 10,500 students, a combination of regular and special education students, refused both tests, she said.

Double Time

Back in East Moriches, Charles Russo, who serves as both the district’s superintendent and also its elementary principal, advocates a balanced approach to the Common Core. Earlier this spring, only 10 percent of the district’s 750 students refused the statewide exams.

Russo has seen general education students—not just those with disabilities—bristle at the increased rigor.

“If we’re granting kids double time to take a test, why wouldn’t we grant them double time to learn the material?” asked Russo, referring to the testing accommodations many special education students receive when taking exams.

Russo views Papa’s classroom as a sort of Common Core laboratory. If he can show gains here, among seven of his most vulnerable students, the standards might work elsewhere.

Ultimately, he sees the success of the Common Core hinging on district-to-district rollout.

“We don’t have to have this all done this year,” Russo has said in faculty meetings. “I tell all of my teachers to adapt the work, to modify the work, to slow down. Get your students through it with fidelity and understanding and don’t worry if you don’t get it all done.”

Though he foresees special education students struggling with new material come testing time, he would much rather they tackle fewer areas in greater depth than speeding through an entire year’s curriculum.

In past years, as a former special educator, he saw students with disabilities achieving grades that weren’t reflective of grade-level work—with parents given a false sense of how their children performed.

“I’m OK with them being evaluated on work they’re supposed to achieve, but I’m not OK with forcing them through an assessment they’re not ready to take on,” he explained.

“If we see your kids hitting the wall of frustration, we’ll shut it down,” he said he has told parents. “But let’s give them a crack at the test. Even if it’s only 15 or 20 minutes. We don’t need 120 minutes of frustration and tears. It’s nothing but cruel.”

This article was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, nonpartisan education-news outlet affiliated with Teachers College, Columbia University.

It appeared in the August issue of Capital magazine.