By Jill Haney
With the commitment by the Council of Chief State School Officers to develop Common Core State Standards in 2009, we are seeing an emphasis on helping all students be career and college-ready. As an educator and a parent of a child with autism, I watch this work with cautious optimism because of the term “all students.” How will one set of standards work for a wide range of students? Can we create standards that challenge academically gifted students while still being attainable for students with disabilities? And what, in particular, will these standards mean for students with significant intellectual and developmental disabilities, like autism?
For many years, the primary emphasis in teaching students with intellectual and developmental disabilities was on functional life skills. Because these students often struggle with the most basic academic skills, the thought was to spend the majority of classroom time on skills students would need to live and function as independently as possible. Thus, activities often focused around learning such things as “survival” words and “money” math.
However, federal legislation (including the 1997 amendment to the Individuals with Disabilities Act and No Child Left Behind) over the past decade has changed this emphasis by requiring that students with disabilities have access to the general curriculum and by establishing accountability measures for all students. In response, many states have established an alternative set of standards that echo the state’s regular academic standards while reflecting the developmental needs and varied abilities of students with intellectual and developmental disabilities. In publishing these alternative standards, states such as Florida, Wisconsin, Texas, and California have established that all students will be exposed to and, through appropriate instructional materials, master academic standards in language arts, math, science, and social studies.
Alongside the standards and assessment movements, however, IDEA also requires schools to establish transition plans for students. Transition services are an integral part of the student’s education plan and are designed to meet their unique needs and prepare them for further education, employment, and independent living. Preparing students for transition to adult life does include teaching functional life skills.
Integrating Academic Standards and “Life Skills”
As a parent, I celebrate the new emphasis on academic standards for students with intellectual and developmental disabilities but I also know that “one size does not fit all,” particularly with this population. To truly meet the needs of students with significant cognitive disabilities, we need a blend of academic and functional goals. My son, who is nonverbal, needs daily living and social skills certainly but he also deserves an opportunity to learn how to read, write, add, subtract, and think.
This blend of academic and functional is exactly what my co-authors and I worked to achieve with the newly published Environmental Print Series from PCI Education. The program integrates language arts skills and standards with real-world experiences and common signs that students need to understand to function in everyday life. Standards are addressed in a controlled, developmental sequence so that they are truly attainable. Students not only learn the terms “main character,” “setting,” and “main idea,” but also are able to identify these concepts in multiple books. Life skills, such as washing hands before eating, picking up after one’s self, and wearing a seatbelt while riding in a car, are illustrated in the books and addressed in the lesson plans.
As we consider common core standards, determining the correct approach and balance for students with significant intellectual and developmental disabilities will be an essential part of ensuring that the standards are truly for “all students.” From my perspective as parent, educator, and consultant, the blended approach offers the most logical and engaging solution for my son and other students in special education classrooms across the country.
Individuals with Disabilities Education Act of 1990, 20 U.S.C. x1400 et seq. (1990) (amended 1997).
Individuals with Disabilities Education Act of 2004, 20 U.S.C. x611–614 (2004) (reauthorization of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act of 1990).
No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, 20 U.S.C. 70 x 6301 et. seq. (2002).