First Person

When teaching students with special needs, special training isn’t everything

For most of my teaching career, I have spent part of each day teaching students in a setting called 12:1, with one special education teacher and 12 students with special needs. Over time, I have lost faith in the effectiveness of this approach.

For most students with special needs, I’ve come to see integrated classes taught by two teachers as the best approach, because it gives them access to teachers with deep content knowledge and sends a clear message that all students, regardless of ability, can strive to meet high standards.

Recent special education reform efforts in New York City are a step in the right direction. Under the reforms, rolled out citywide in 2012, schools are expected to place students with special needs in the least restrictive environment possible, so that they are in classes with typically developing peers when they can be. But even two years into the reforms, too many students are still being placed in 12:1 when they could learn more in integrated classes.

The benefit of separating students with special needs in a 12:1 setting ostensibly lies in greater individualized attention, thanks to a lower teacher-student ratio. Yet this idyllic vision, in my experience, rarely matches the reality.

Here’s the vision of a self-contained classroom I once pictured:

  • The teacher quietly conferences and redirects each individual student throughout the lesson
  • Students work in a safe and supportive atmosphere where they can concentrate and focus
  • Students receive instruction catered to their individual needs

Here’s the reality:

  • The teacher puts out one social-emotional fire after another
  • Students bear the stigma of their “special” status on their shoulders every day
  • Instruction in core content areas tends towards remediation rather than challenge

Why the difference?

In my experience, students are highly aware of their status as being in a “separate” or “special” class, as are their peers. This burden, in addition to the myriad emotional and psychological burdens they may already be experiencing, can make them more volatile or even fatalistic when faced with academic challenges.

When we segregate students based on “abnormal” or “below average” functioning, we send them the message that their differences necessitate failure. When we include all students together, we send them—all of them—the message that failure is a normal function of differences and high standards.

There are, certainly, students who are better served in a smaller, self-contained setting. As the IEP teacher and district representative at my school, I have and will continue to recommend 12:1 for some students when it matches their needs, which are measured in part by school psychologist-administered tests. Cognitively and emotionally, a small percentage of children do need separate classrooms or schools.

But I don’t believe that this is true for the majority of students, even for those who may be “borderline” in cognitive functioning or who might demonstrate fairly challenging behaviors in the classroom. That’s because when students with special needs learn in a self-contained setting, they often miss the chance to work with the teachers they really need: the ones who know their content best, and who can break concepts down to their core components.

Training in how specifically to work with students with special needs—what many people think those who teach those students most need—doesn’t have a significant impact unless paired with deep content knowledge.

In my current job, I almost always teach English, the subject area I know the most about. But imagine that I were given a math class to teach next year filled with “gifted” students. Since I don’t understand math very deeply, I would probably teach them procedural math, as in, here are the steps for how to solve this type of problem.

Because this group of students would have a fairly strong base in math already, they’d be able to follow the steps just fine. Maybe they would even figure out for themselves more or less how to apply the same steps to similar types of problems. A few of them might go further and determine some underlying concepts on their own.

These students would do O.K. They would do even better with an amazing math teacher who could push them to the next level. But it’s unlikely that they would fail, or feel completely inadequate, or end up held back a grade if I were their teacher, even though I don’t thoroughly understand math.

But put me in front of students who struggle to retain information, generalize concepts, and negotiate multi-step procedures, and it’s an entirely different ball game. They don’t need me. They need the best math teacher out there, a math teacher who knows how to approach mathematical concepts from different angles. They need a teacher who can break each concept down for them, and help them to feel the first glimmers of success in gaining a real mathematical understanding.

That’s because a procedure that might seem “easy” to me, such as subtracting nine from 26, can be abstract and daunting for someone lacking a strong foundation in numeracy. A good teacher can break such a problem down by helping his or her students understand place value, then providing consistent opportunities to apply that understanding so that students begin to use the concept more fluently.

I’m not suggesting that students with special needs be tossed into general education classrooms without additional support. Even the best teachers can’t necessarily do it alone, particularly with a class that includes students with significant behavioral or academic challenges.

The idea of integrated co-teaching classes is that we support students with two teachers in the room: the general education teacher with deep subject-specific knowledge, and the special education teacher with experience in delivering individualized attention and supports. (Neither teacher need follow this archetype, of course—sometimes it ends up the other way around!)

A lot depends on those two teachers’ styles, experiences, and knowledge, and how well they work together. But generally speaking (and without any rose-tinted glasses on), two professionals working together have greater potential to meet the needs of students of students who struggle.

As teachers, you have the advantage of two sets of eyes on students throughout a lesson. You have a colleague to bounce ideas and feedback off of, someone to ease the burden of planning and grading. And students have models before them every day of the sort of collaboration that you wish them to emulate.

This approach, like many interventions, costs money. It requires commitments of funding and of leadership, as well as close attention to scheduling, hiring, and collaborative planning. But if we are truly committed to the values and benefits of inclusion, then this is what it takes.

First Person

I’m a principal who thinks personalized learning shouldn’t be a debate.

PHOTO: Lisa Epstein
Lisa Epstein, principal of Richard H. Lee Elementary, supports personalized learning

This is the first in what we hope will be a tradition of thoughtful opinion pieces—of all viewpoints—published by Chalkbeat Chicago. Have an idea? Send it to

As personalized learning takes hold throughout the city, Chicago teachers are wondering why a term so appealing has drawn so much criticism.

Until a few years ago, the school that I lead, Richard H. Lee Elementary on the Southwest Side, was on a path toward failing far too many of our students. We crafted curriculum and identified interventions to address gaps in achievement and the shifting sands of accountability. Our teachers were hardworking and committed. But our work seemed woefully disconnected from the demands we knew our students would face once they made the leap to postsecondary education.

We worried that our students were ill-equipped for today’s world of work and tomorrow’s jobs. Yet, we taught using the same model through which we’d been taught: textbook-based direct instruction.

How could we expect our learners to apply new knowledge to evolving facts, without creating opportunities for exploration? Where would they learn to chart their own paths, if we didn’t allow for agency at school? Why should our students engage with content that was disconnected from their experiences, values, and community?

We’ve read articles about a debate over personalized learning centered on Silicon Valley’s “takeover” of our schools. We hear that Trojan Horse technologies are coming for our jobs. But in our school, personalized learning has meant developing lessons informed by the cultural heritage and interests of our students. It has meant providing opportunities to pursue independent projects, and differentiating curriculum, instruction, and assessment to enable our students to progress at their own pace. It has reflected a paradigm shift that is bottom-up and teacher led.

And in a move that might have once seemed incomprehensible, it has meant getting rid of textbooks altogether. We’re not alone.

We are among hundreds of Chicago educators who would welcome critics to visit one of the 120 city schools implementing new models for learning – with and without technology. Because, as it turns out, Chicago is fast becoming a hub for personalized learning. And, it is no coincidence that our academic growth rates are also among the highest in the nation.

Before personalized learning, we designed our classrooms around the educator. Decisions were made based on how educators preferred to teach, where they wanted students to sit, and what subjects they wanted to cover.

Personalized learning looks different in every classroom, but the common thread is that we now make decisions looking at the student. We ask them how they learn best and what subjects strike their passions. We use small group instruction and individual coaching sessions to provide each student with lesson plans tailored to their needs and strengths. We’re reimagining how we use physical space, and the layout of our classrooms. We worry less about students talking with their friends; instead, we ask whether collaboration and socialization will help them learn.

Our emphasis on growth shows in the way students approach each school day. I have, for example, developed a mentorship relationship with one of our middle school students who, despite being diligent and bright, always ended the year with average grades. Last year, when she entered our personalized learning program for eighth grade, I saw her outlook change. She was determined to finish the year with all As.

More than that, she was determined to show that she could master anything her teachers put in front of her. She started coming to me with graded assignments. We’d talk about where she could improve and what skills she should focus on. She was pragmatic about challenges and so proud of her successes. At the end of the year she finished with straight As—and she still wanted more. She wanted to get A-pluses next year. Her outlook had changed from one of complacence to one oriented towards growth.

Rather than undermining the potential of great teachers, personalized learning is creating opportunities for collaboration as teachers band together to leverage team-teaching and capitalize on their strengths and passions. For some classrooms, this means offering units and lessons based on the interests and backgrounds of the class. For a couple of classrooms, it meant literally knocking down walls to combine classes from multiple grade-levels into a single room that offers each student maximum choice over how they learn. For every classroom, it means allowing students to work at their own pace, because teaching to the middle will always fail to push some while leaving others behind.

For many teachers, this change sounded daunting at first. For years, I watched one of my teachers – a woman who thrives off of structure and runs a tight ship – become less and less engaged in her profession. By the time we made the switch to personalized learning, I thought she might be done. We were both worried about whether she would be able to adjust to the flexibility of the new model. But she devised a way to maintain order in her classroom while still providing autonomy. She’s found that trusting students with the responsibility to be engaged and efficient is both more effective and far more rewarding than trying to force them into their roles. She now says that she would never go back to the traditional classroom structure, and has rediscovered her love for teaching. The difference is night and day.

The biggest change, though, is in the relationships between students and teachers. Gone is the traditional, authority-to-subordinate dynamic; instead, students see their teachers as mentors with whom they have a unique and individual connection, separate from the rest of the class. Students are actively involved in designing their learning plans, and are constantly challenged to articulate the skills they want to build and the steps that they must take to get there. They look up to their teachers, they respect their teachers, and, perhaps most important, they know their teachers respect them.

Along the way, we’ve found that students respond favorably when adults treat them as individuals. When teachers make important decisions for them, they see learning as a passive exercise. But, when you make it clear that their needs and opinions will shape each school day, they become invested in the outcome.

As our students take ownership over their learning, they earn autonomy, which means they know their teachers trust them. They see growth as the goal, so they no longer finish assignments just to be done; they finish assignments to get better. And it shows in their attendance rates – and test scores.

Lisa Epstein is the principal of Richard H. Lee Elementary School, a public school in Chicago’s West Lawn neighborhood serving 860 students from pre-kindergarten through eighth grade.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect that Richard H. Lee Elementary School serves 860 students, not 760 students.

First Person

I’ve spent years studying the link between SHSAT scores and student success. The test doesn’t tell you as much as you might think.

PHOTO: Photo by Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images

Proponents of New York City’s specialized high school exam, the test the mayor wants to scrap in favor of a new admissions system, defend it as meritocratic. Opponents contend that when used without consideration of school grades or other factors, it’s an inappropriate metric.

One thing that’s been clear for decades about the exam, now used to admit students to eight top high schools, is that it matters a great deal.

Students admitted may not only receive a superior education, but also access to elite colleges and eventually to better employment. That system has also led to an under-representation of Hispanic students, black students, and girls.

As a doctoral student at The Graduate Center of the City University of New York in 2015, and in the years after I received my Ph.D., I have tried to understand how meritocratic the process really is.

First, that requires defining merit. Only New York City defines it as the score on a single test — other cities’ selective high schools use multiple measures, as do top colleges. There are certainly other potential criteria, such as artistic achievement or citizenship.

However, when merit is defined as achievement in school, the question of whether the test is meritocratic is an empirical question that can be answered with data.

To do that, I used SHSAT scores for nearly 28,000 students and school grades for all public school students in the city. (To be clear, the city changed the SHSAT itself somewhat last year; my analysis used scores on the earlier version.)

My analysis makes clear that the SHSAT does measure an ability that contributes to some extent to success in high school. Specifically, a SHSAT score predicts 20 percent of the variability in freshman grade-point average among all public school students who took the exam. Students with extremely high SHSAT scores (greater than 650) generally also had high grades when they reached a specialized school.

However, for the vast majority of students who were admitted with lower SHSAT scores, from 486 to 600, freshman grade point averages ranged widely — from around 50 to 100. That indicates that the SHSAT was a very imprecise predictor of future success for students who scored near the cutoffs.

Course grades earned in the seventh grade, in contrast, predicted 44 percent of the variability in freshman year grades, making it a far better admissions criterion than SHSAT score, at least for students near the score cutoffs.

It’s not surprising that a standardized test does not predict as well as past school performance. The SHSAT represents a two and a half hour sample of a limited range of skills and knowledge. In contrast, middle-school grades reflect a full year of student performance across the full range of academic subjects.

Furthermore, an exam which relies almost exclusively on one method of assessment, multiple choice questions, may fail to measure abilities that are revealed by the variety of assessment methods that go into course grades. Additionally, middle school grades may capture something important that the SHSAT fails to capture: long-term motivation.

Based on his current plan, Mayor de Blasio seems to be pointed in the right direction. His focus on middle school grades and the Discovery Program, which admits students with scores below the cutoff, is well supported by the data.

In the cohort I looked at, five of the eight schools admitted some students with scores below the cutoff. The sample sizes were too small at four of them to make meaningful comparisons with regularly admitted students. But at Brooklyn Technical High School, the performance of the 35 Discovery Program students was equal to that of other students. Freshman year grade point averages for the two groups were essentially identical: 86.6 versus 86.7.

My research leads me to believe that it might be reasonable to admit a certain percentage of the students with extremely high SHSAT scores — over 600, where the exam is a good predictor —and admit the remainder using a combined index of seventh grade GPA and SHSAT scores.

When I used that formula to simulate admissions, diversity increased, somewhat. An additional 40 black students, 209 Hispanic students, and 205 white students would have been admitted, as well as an additional 716 girls. It’s worth pointing out that in my simulation, Asian students would still constitute the largest segment of students (49 percent) and would be admitted in numbers far exceeding their proportion of applicants.

Because middle school grades are better than test scores at predicting high school achievement, their use in the admissions process should not in any way dilute the quality of the admitted class, and could not be seen as discriminating against Asian students.

The success of the Discovery students should allay some of the concerns about the ability of students with SHSAT scores below the cutoffs. There is no guarantee that similar results would be achieved in an expanded Discovery Program. But this finding certainly warrants larger-scale trials.

With consideration of additional criteria, it may be possible to select a group of students who will be more representative of the community the school system serves — and the pool of students who apply — without sacrificing the quality for which New York City’s specialized high schools are so justifiably famous.

Jon Taylor is a research analyst at Hunter College analyzing student success and retention.