Students with disabilities can benefit from expanded learning opportunities

Recent research related to summer learning loss among students with disabilities was discussed in a June 8 webinar, “Supporting COVID-19 Recovery for Students with Disabilities: Research Findings, Policy Recommendations, and Lessons from the Ground,” hosted by NWEA, The Alliance for Excellent Education, Future Ready Schools and the National Center for Learning Disabilities

Michael Yudin, president of the public affairs firm Raben Group and former assistant secretary for Special Education and Rehabilitative Services at the U.S. Department of Education, said new research shows that rates of academic growth rose faster among students with disabilities in the early grades, but that growth was offset by greater learning loss among these students during the summer months.

“This research could not come at a more critical time,” Yudin said. He noted that, while the research would suggest grim outcomes as a result of the long-term school closures of the past year, it also provides insights into why achievement gaps remain stubbornly large, and what local educational agencies can do to better address them.

Webinar panelists Dr. Elizabeth Barker, an accessibility research manager for the Research Collaborative for Student Growth, and Dr. Angela Johnson, a research scientist at the Center for School and Student Progress, spoke about their recent study, which found that learning during summers and out-of-school time is especially important for students with disabilities.

Among their findings in the report, “Understanding differential growth during school years and summers for students in special education,” Barker and Johnson found that rates of summer learning loss were substantially higher for students with disabilities. This leads to the question of how students with disabilities fared through extended school closures due to the pandemic. Students with disabilities often require small-group or one-on-one support, which can be difficult or even impossible to deliver remotely.

“If the loss of opportunity to learn during the pandemic is similar to the loss of opportunities during summer, students with disabilities have likely been more severely impacted by the pandemic,” she said. “Supporting students with disabilities should be a priority. Supporting continued learning during summers and other periods of disrupted learning is important. We see this a need to look at policies with extended school years.”

What LEAs can do to best support students with disabilities

Cajon Valley Union School District Director of Student Development Jeremy Boerner said the pandemic caused his district to re-examine its priorities. For example, when the district shifted to distance learning, students initially moved from one learning platform to the next between classes, depending on what system their teacher was using. For students with disabilities, the number of transitions rose along with the number of services they accessed.

“How many transitions do we put students through in any given day? How many components of a schedule does a student with an [individualized education program] have to manage above and beyond every other kid?” Boerner asked. “Some have one provider to log in to to check in with, some have four or five. So, asking how many transitions was that, and was it reasonable? Looking at that experience and how we can streamline that for kids is incredibly important to us as we continue to move forward.”

Meghan Wittaker, Esq., director of policy and advocacy for the National Center for Learning Disabilities, said it will be critical that LEAs move away from remediation and embrace accelerated learning methods with students with disabilities.

Districts already have the flexibility to lengthen their school day or to rework schedules to allow for study halls and free periods within the school day where additional tutoring or other interventions can happen without pulling students from core instructional time.

“There’s a lot to be done. This will certainly take real commitment and work, but I think the time is now, and the resources are available to states and districts,” Wittaker said. “This is a real moment where research and policy have really come together to help us have an opportunity to change practice for the long term for our most vulnerable students. What it will take is, of course, leadership. Who is on board with the importance of this pretty big change to a school system and a culture? And then [we need] the resources to carry that out.”