High Expectations: Raising the Bar for Children with Disabilities?

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At the annual convention of the Council for Exceptional Children last week, Education Secretary Arne Duncan called on special educators to take responsibility for the success of their students.

Duncan said that all children should leave school ready for college and/or career. “High expectations must be the norm, not the exception.”

What do you think? Please take our poll.

Special educators should have high expectations for children with disabilities.

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The article about Secretary Duncan’s speech is available on Disability Scoop: Education Secretary Looks To Teachers To Raise Bar For Students With Disabilities

Several people commented on the article. All but one disagreed with Duncan’s statements about the need to prepare children with disabilities for further education and employment. I agree with him.

Low expectations lead to poor outcomes  in special education. Schools need to prepare children with disabilities for further education, employment, and independent living. (Purpose of IDEA at 20 U.S.C. 1400(d))

The Power of High Expectations

Decades of research shows that children live up to their teachers’ expectations. Low expectations lead to low academic achievement and poor behavior. When teachers have high expectations, student achievement and behavior soar.

In a recent study, 86 percent of teachers agreed that setting high expectations for students has a major impact on student achievement. Yet only 36 percent of teachers agreed that all their students have the ability to succeed academically. (Source: MetLife Survey of the American Teacher)

IDEA Impeded by Low Expectations

IDEA is the federal law that governs special education for children with disabilities. In the Findings section of the law, Congress described obstacles to implementation of the law:

“implementation … has been impeded by low expectations, and an insufficient focus on applying replicable research on proven methods of teaching and learning for children with disabilities.” 20 U.S.C. 1400(c)(4)

Congress found that “over 30 years of research and experience” demonstrated that special education would be more effective by:

“… having high expectations for such children and ensuring their access to the general education curriculum in regular classrooms, to the maximum extent possible … to meet the challenging expectations that have been established for all children; and be prepared to lead productive and independent lives to the maximum extent possible.” (20 U.S.C. 1400(c)(5); page 46, Wrightslaw: Special Education Law)

Do you think special education be more effective if teachers had higher expectations for children with disabilities? Should schools prepare children to lead productive and independent lives to the maximum extent possible?

How can we convey high expectations to our children when their teachers (and some parents) don’t believe that low expectations are a problem?

  1. Having high expectations for students with disabilities and all students being ready for college or a career have nothing to do with each other (in the big picture). There are students who will never be college or career ready, but that does not mean we should have low expectations for them. High expectations should be placed on all, TO HELP THEM REACH THEIR HIGHEST POTENTIAL. We shouldn’t have “high expectations” to meet the goal of being ready for college or a career. That way of thinking says people are basically robots.

  2. Teachers, Parents, and Guardians must have high expectations for these children. I mean set the bar high for them. They need to be challenged so that they can prove to not only us but themselves that they are capable of doing the same things as their peers. I am not saying don’t follow accommodations and modifications. At my daycare center we have little boy in preschool who is autistic and I set the bar high for him. I want him to be able to grasp the same things as the other students. His is capable of sitting for circle time and knows where his spot is. He does need help sometimes if we are doing an art project. Again you have to challenge them. We will see changes when we demand high expectations of all of our students.

  3. Once you believe somebody else can’t do something and you continually convey that idea, it starts a cycle of negativity. If that cycle continues then it starts to impede that person’s growth and it becomes their belief. Perception becomes Reality. Once you believe you can’t do something, you can’t.

  4. I believe children with learning differences should have an IEP, though not necessarily lowered expectations. But I feel that having expectations that they will meet and exceed their IEP (to the point where an IEP would become pointless) may not be fair. Also, does anyone know how (for the most part) parents with OVERLY high expectations of their children (example, a parent who plans for their child to be a Dr or a lawyer before birth) reacts to having a child with mental and/ or physical (particularly severe)?
    It isn’t that I believe that children with disabilities should have low expectatipns of them, but high expectations that are reasonable (not beyond reasonably expected of even a ‘normal’ child their age). It would not be reasonable for example to expect a child with a severe disability related to reading, to read at a grade 6 level if they are say, in grade 3.

  5. My son has some learning problems; anxiety, expressive/receptive language delay among other things. It was suggested he go into learning support for reading/writing in the 5th grade. I agreed with the promise that expectations for him would not be lowered. Many times over the years they have tried to “dumb” things down for him rather than work harder at getting him to meet standards. I do not want things made easy for him, I want help provided to him to understand and achieve what he needs to achieve. I will continue to fight for what I believe in my heart of hearts to be right.

  6. I absolutely agree. Children with special needs should not be handicapped further by limiting their expectations. Perhaps the method of getting to a goal may be different – including the speed at which it’s attained – but goals should not be modified or “dumbed” down any.

  7. I believe that children with disabilities should be held to the same standards of other children. Granted they may not meet those standards, but they deserve the chance to try. I hold my son to those standards and he has made great progress considering he has an ASD. If you do not hold them to high standards then they will do what you give them, and never reach a higher level of success. My son is put into a resource room with about 10 kids for his learning issues in some areas, and modified work, no homework etc. He can do the work, granted with extra help, and stress on my part from the redirecting several times. But its easier for the teachers to make it easier on theirselves to pull out, and modify, even though they say its in the best interest of the kids. Next school year I’m demanding him to be held to the same expectations.

    • I am a teacher for children with autism and severe intellectual disabilities. I have been bitten, hit, scratched had objects thrown at me and am often outright attacked. Yes I follow all behavior plans and IEPs use the latest technology and instructional practices and no, sometimes it does not make a difference. I love my job but I fear for my kids. How are their needs supposed to be met If society doesn’t even know they exist? their parents can’t take them anywhere due to behaviors. All these disability rights advocates further the issue. I’m not supposed to restrain but if a child attacks another child, bashed his head against a wall repeatedly or tries to jump through windows, I can be held responsible if I don’t restrain. Remind me how grade level standards For all will work?

  8. After a resolution session the school wanted to have my son looked at by other specialists…O.T. and Psych (outside) and assistive technology. The O.T. recommended 60 mins 1 time a week for 6 months then review. The school now says they will not use that O.T. that he needs to go to summer school for 4 weeks to someone who has never evaluated him. They told me that the outside company would do the O.T. and they never did the assistive technology that I authorized in January. What is my next move? Oh yea they also never gave him the accommodations on star testing and resource never did what they said they would do. They are also 2 months behind on the payments to the private reading tutor. Please give me suggestions. I am losing my job because of all the transportation this is requiring and I cannot afford an attorney anymore.

  9. Jennifer,

    My hat is off the the teachers like you who are on the front lines because you have a desire to help our kids. Our school district has some incredible teachers who would do anything to help our kids.

    Unfortunately those in power at our District Office, seem to have lost their desire to act in the best interest of the child when they take parent advocacy personally.

    Just know that my son in no way feels like a victim. He is in a private setting now and is absolutely thriving in every way a parent can dream of.

    Whenever we have a bad experience in life, we choose to either get bitter or get better. My son has taken this as a learning experience.

    The folks who acted in poor judgment in our district could realistically eventually work for my son some day.

  10. David–
    I am a special education teacher (SLP), and this exclusion practice just irritates me.

    Unless your child is a danger to himself or others, or for some reason can’t tolerate it, there is no justification for taking him out of social activities. Our job as special educators is make sure that our children have access to everything non-IEP kids do. Even if it weren’t the law, it’s the right thing to do.

    Everyone benefits when students with IEPs are with their peers, as much as is possible.

  11. The school did an evaluation to determine if my son qualified for special education as a fifth grader. This evaluation shows one IQ.

    After being placed on an IEP, the school excluded him from numerous social activities.

    To get an accurate account of strengths and weaknesses, we had an independent evaluation done that documents the lower IQ.

    I agree that this number does not fluctuate without traumatic brain injury. When a child is excluded by the adults in the school, the other students learn to exclude the child. This creates an emotional trauma for the child who doesn’t understand their reasoning.

    Early intervention is VERY critical.
    See link for Mathew effect.

  12. David–
    How did you figure the drop in I.Q.? Was he re-evaluated? An accurate I.Q. score is not supposed to change over time. Just curious.

  13. I believe that teachers do put expectations on their students. For instance my son is in IEP due to having auditory, sensroy, and focusing hardships. He is in 4th grade, but reads at a 2nd grade level, among other issues my son only does what is being given from his teachers which is below grade level and very basic.

    I introduce grade level material to him and he automatically assumes he can’t do it because his teachers don’t give him the same material. After a bit of talking it out and frustration my son completes the work and in turn becomes a little more confident than before that he “CAN” do it.

    I also take it upon myself to print out worksheets and buy him booklets to give him access to his grade level material. Isn’t this the teachers responsibility? I guess this qualifies for the “low expectations” concept.

  14. Martha,

    The expectation should always be for your child to go onto higher learning and independent living to “their” fullest potential.

    An independent evaluation and understanding the results will offer a baseline of strengths and weaknesses.

    In our experience, my son’s IQ dropped about 34 points in 20 months. His weaknesses were not being addressed during this time period.

    He will graduate high school in a few weeks in the top ten percent out of over 400 seniors.

    Had we not gotten an independent evaluation, we would have never had a reason to address areas that my son needed the most help in.

    Our Public school’s only priority is to deliver the minimum required by law, yet we too often accept their vision of what our kids can achieve.

    Focus on what our kids CAN do.

    Good Luck!

  15. FYI fellow advocates…..the IDEA, (federal regs) including the commentary of the federal regs, references the ESEA 162 times, ie, defining adequate reading instruction, regarding high expectations for our kids, defining scientifically research based.

    As advocates we must recognize these tools and utilize them to advocate for those high expectations.

  16. My son definitively has a math calculation learning disability and most likely a communication/written disorder (but they haven’t figure out who is supposed to test for that LDTC or the SLP-CCC). He is quite frankly pretty bad at math, but I convinced him that Math is Fun! and You like math! (after a pretty bad experience with a horrid 1st grade teacher). Second grade now he lists math as his favorite subject, only second to phys ed. He has difficulty but his desire to excel (partly because I am very good at math) exceeds his disability. He wants his brain to “work like mine” (He calls me the human calculator. Though sometimes their expectations are too high, like when they gave him a sheet of 70 math problems & expected him to finish on his own (he had a near panic attack looking at the page)

  17. In our experience, high expectations are not a problem. Low expectations are toxic because the child incorporates them into his/her self concept where they affect the child’s approach to life and willingness to learn forever.

  18. Dyslexic son’s fluency was GL 1.7 in mid. 4th despite tutors. Eligible for IEP in 2nd grade but failed to test in all areas of suspected disabilities, scored IQ test incorrectly and denied his reading problem existed only identified writing disability. While discussing the the school’s reading program, teacher’s training, research behind it and if it could provide the growth needed to close the gap…all the program coordinator could offer me was the saddest expression and “But your son has a learning disability. It would be hard to determine where we can get him”. I responded he also had 126 IQ, is bright, capable of learning and I would not lower expectations . I never did, schools program failed him but I found program that worked. I made sure he received access not modifications. He now qualified for honors in 9th.

  19. there’s nothing wrong with teachers having high expectations but sometimes disabled kids might not be able to achieve those expectations. That when IEPs should be used and implemented along with those expectations sensibly. Far too many kids are left with no expectation of ever amounting to anything because of their disability. I say turn those disability into ability and work with what you have. I had this problem with my son in the 2nd grade. Lowered expectations and not enough drive caused me to change schools where he rose to the occasion because of a very nice male teacher who saw potential in my son and worked with him. I say thanks to Matt Schoen my son had advanced more than I could expect. He opened the door for my son to all kinds of possibilities. Thanks if you are still out there for starting the ball rolling.

  20. Susan: Thank you for not giving up on your son. Clearly, you and he have worked very hard for him to make this progress.

    Angela: strengths and weaknesses CAN be measured or quantified by a skilled evaluator. You say your daughter is intelligent but can’t do the same things your son does. Any parent of two or more children sees significant differences between their children. Please get a comprehensive psycho-educational evaluation of your daughter by an evaluator in the private sector. Ask the evaluator to explain the test results to you so you understand them.

  21. David1: Good that you are teaching your son the value of hard work.

    In the US, we attribute a learner’s success to innate ability (or IQ) and discount effort (hard work) and the quality of instruction. In Japanese and Chinese schools, teachers and students attribute success and failure to the quality of training and effort.

    How many people believe they are “not good at math”? We blame our inability to do math on lack of ability, saying “I’m not good at math.” This belief becomes a self fulfilling prophecy. We give up. In Asia, when a person has difficulty with a subject like math, the response is different: “Isn’t it a shame that no one taught you how to do math.” (Bamburg 1994)

  22. My question is this: how can our teachers have high or low expectations when our children’s abilities very often cannot be quantified? My son has HFA and has done exceedingly well. My daughter has Asperger’s. She is every bit as intelligent, but she is unable to do most of what my son has been able to. Her abilities are continually overestimated, because she talks a lot and has a massive vocabulary. Her comprehension, however, is far, far below even MY knowledge, as is continually illustrated, to my never-ending astonishment. How can a person who deals with many children each 8 hour day, for 9 months determine a proper level of expectation for my child?

  23. the current IEP process is so deficit – based (in order to garner services), teachers don’t/can’t know how to write to the kids’ strengths

  24. My son is dyslexic… and dyspraxic with an IQ in superior range… he is in 5th grade but reads at an early 3rd grade level. He excels in math and well over 92 percentile.

    His teachers as well and our family has to have HIGH expectations and IMPLEMENT the correct reading program consistently,… the issue is usually how to implement the program and if the school district offers a good research base program…

    My son knows his brain is challenged with reading but he also knows he can do it if he tries and if he continues getting the help he needs.

    I know he will do it… and I will continue to advocate and fight for him… entering middle school will be interesting

  25. I believe children should have their individualized education. Educators and parents should have high expectations to reach their full potential. I’m always pained when I see children with autism who are academically high-functioning, but because of their behavior and social deficits are needing to be educated with disabled peers who learn at a slower pace. The reason is many children with autism learn at a fast pace, and some may have the gems of genius inside of them. I think they could be challenged. The problem with raising high expectations is they can’t be achieved unless the bar is raised on teachers providing the support in the classroom these kids need which is difficult when the only thing that seems to be happening is budget cuts and disappearing teacher assistants.

  26. My adoptive son was in Virginia foster care for years, locked up in for-profit facilities licensed only to serve children with intellectual disabilities. In seven years of “education” in foster care he regressed from functioning on a second grade level (he is 8 yrs old) to basically having no educational skills. His educational goal was an IEP diploma. Custody was taken from our local DSS and he was literally dropped into our laps. Signed him up for local school the next day and he has now (in 2 1/2 years) increased his reading level 6 grade levels, passed a few SOLs, and is working hard to try and graduate as an 18 year old sophomore. It has taken, and is still taking, a lot of effort, but is a lot less expensive than locking children up in for-profit residential centers which produce non-functioning adults. Never, ever give up on a child.

    • Awesome story about perseverance and what providing APPROPRIATE instruction can do to change a student’s trajectory! Just curious if you’d care to share an update on him? Just wondering what he’s done in the past 7 yrs and what he is doing now as an adult. 🙂 PS- We too are foster parents and experienced similar struggles (although more so with the school more so than LDSS, although there were instances where the water was muddied because the school would triangulate and go to them even though under federal guidelines, they could not play the role of the students parent for academics, for Special Ed foster students.) Our 18 yr old is just about done with his Jr year of college and made President’s list last semester! 🙂

  27. We should never give our kids permission to accept the minimum out of life.

    Beginning at the age when my son first began paying attention to Corvettes and Porches, my wife and I would tell my son that you can drive one of those if you are good. We wanted him to know early on that being good and making good grades equals more choices in life.

    This rule did not change when we learned that he has a diagnosis.

    When Mom and Dad tell you that YOU DESERVE THE THINGS IN LIFE THAT DON”T COME EASILY, the hard stuff in life begins to be more obtainable.

    I just hope he lets me borrow that Corevette…

    • I am a special education teacher for the children you all turn a blind eye to. The children that aren’t seen outside of the home because they are too violent. The children who need their diaper changed every hour or they will reach into it and smear poo. I have been bitten, hit, scratched, hair pulled, clothing ripped, chairs thrown at my head and more. Most of my students do not understand what a letter or a number is and god knows I try. I attend every training, use every technology, follow every IEP and behavior plan, and all of the latest instructional based practices. Do you know what a slap in the face it is to hear from society that everyone can learn and it must just be my fault if they can’t, knowing that I give everything I have and none of my kids understand what a letter is?

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