Excerpted from Support for Students with Disabilities in the Math in Common Districts (2018) by Dona Meinders, Rebecca Perry, Frances Reade, Diana Blackmon, and Tony Fong.

As school districts across California work to implement the Common Core State Standards in Mathematics, thousands of students with disabilities are falling behind. On the 2016 California Assessment of Student Performance and Progress, 37 percent of all California students across tested grades (grades 3–8 and 11) met or exceeded standards in mathematics, while only 11 percent of students with disabilities did. Under the state’s new accountability system, 163 school districts were flagged as requiring Level 2 support, or “differentiated assistance,” due at least in part for failing to meet state targets for their students with disabilities subgroup on state priorities.

Answers to a survey of administrators in the 10 Math in Common (MiC)* school districts laid out some of the challenges that districts face in building strong systems of support for students with disabilities. Most crucially, they reported that it is difficult to schedule necessary collaboration time to enable general education teachers and special education teachers to plan and co-teach together. In addition, special education teachers have not been offered adequate professional development to improve their math content knowledge.

Two MiC districts, Sanger Unified and San Francisco Unified, have shown an improvement in mathematics achievement for their students with disabilities’ from 2015 to 2017. These districts have also been the subjects of prior research that identified them as having implemented districtwide systemic and instructional practices for supporting their students with disabilities.

To learn more about how these districts are making improvements for their students with disabilities, we conducted interviews with math administrators and special education specialists in both districts. To describe our findings, we used a framework from one of the few longitudinal studies that tracked long-term outcomes in districts that have focused on making systemic improvements with their students with disabilities in mind (Ellis, Gaudet, Hoover, Rizoli, & Mader, 2004).

This framework outlines 11 practices that were seen in these districts; most of these practices were also important in Sanger and San Francisco’s efforts to better serve all students:

  • The determination that effective leadership is essential to success
  • A pervasive emphasis on curriculum alignment with the state framework
  • An emphasis on inclusion and access to the general education curriculum
  • Unified practice supported by targeted professional development
  • Culture and practices that support high standards and students’ achievement
  • Access to targeted resources to support key initiatives
  • Well-disciplined academic and social environments
  • Flexible leaders and staff working effectively in a dynamic environment
  • The use of student assessment data to inform decision making
  • Effective staff recruitment, retention, and deployment
  • Systems to support curriculum alignment

Based on findings from conversations with Sanger and San Francisco, we offer the following set of recommendations to other districts who seek to build supports for students with disabilities more deeply into all their work for math instructional improvement.

Develop a culture of high expectations. As leaders in both our focal districts emphasized, it takes time and dedication to bring the message to all stakeholders that “all students can succeed” and to make sure this is not just a slogan but a practice embedded in everyone’s daily work.

To improve inclusion, support general education and special educations teachers to teach collaboratively. Co-teaching between general education and special education teachers is one of the best ways to support students with disabilities to stay in general education classrooms. It requires district- and site-level leaders to remove systemic barriers and make dedicated time for these teachers to collaborate, plan, and learn together.

Use a lesson-design framework such as the principles of Universal Design for Learning to inform the development of accessible lessons. When teachers are supported to rely on a framework like Universal Design for Learning to design accessible lessons that will benefit all students, there is less of a need for additional differentiation and extra supports throughout the year.

Clarify and support the role of special education staff. Everyone across the system should develop a shared understanding of the roles and responsibilities of special education staff to address the specific needs of identified students. While their expertise is critical, they cannot be the only ones tasked with supporting students with disabilities.

Develop skills at all levels of the district system in collecting, analyzing, and utilizing data to guide planning and continuous improvement. Both teachers and district staff should be supported to use data to understand specific needs for both for individual students’ access and achievement, and for system-wide improvements.

Utilize a systemic framework such as Multi-Tiered System of Supports (MTSS) to guide an effective and efficient system of support that works for all students. To provide meaningful support to all students, many layers and roles within a system need to align, including teachers (general and special education), support staff (speech and language specialists, therapists, counselors, psychologists, paraprofessionals), and administrators from multiple district offices (assessment, curriculum and instruction, English Language Learner support). MTSS is one option for a framework to bring these stakeholders to the table, and to align initiatives, resources, and practices to develop a comprehensive and coordinated system of support to benefit all students.

To read the complete report, visit the Supports for Students with Disabilities in the Math in Common Districts resource page.

*Math in Common is a seven-year initiative funded by the S. D. Bechtel, Jr. Foundation supporting diverse California school districts as they implement the Common Core State Standards for Mathematics across grades K–8.