Approximately 6,000,000 special needs students attend U.S. public schools, facing frequent and well-documented challenges beyond their peers.
Most special-needs students spend at least 40 percent of their time in mainstream classrooms. While nationally the use of innovative technology has become a mainstream mode of daily life, this often ends at the schoolhouse door. Tech-smart, data-driven classrooms providing quality personalized learning for those most in need are few and far between.
Education may be seeing potent new promise in blended learning school models around the country, one that is especially well suited to effectively offering new solutions to an underserved and ever-growing special-needs population.
Students with disabilities, and their parents and teachers, are investing in blended learning at an ever-increasing rate.
Traditional school models have not served students with disabilities well. Their dropout rates are significantly higher, and their graduation rates lower. On assessments, disabled students achieve average or above average scores at half the rate of their peers. Recent research found that nearly a third were held back a grade.
Special-needs students, particularly students of color, receive out-of-school suspensions and other school discipline measures at much higher rates than general education students, raising important fairness and equity concerns.
Special education is a struggling field in the nation’s education system and students in these programs often find themselves at a great disadvantage.
But the personalized learning models that high-quality blended learning classrooms offer students may prove to be a valuable, and viable, solution
Students in blended learning classrooms spend time learning digitally on interactive software programs, and newer and better programs are being produced every month. This allows teachers, supported by real-time, actionable information on student progress, to support personalized learning with classroom lessons and targeted help. These models are demonstrating powerful gains in student achievement and growth that hold great promise for many special-needs children and youth.
In fact, many of the most successful charter schools that offer blended learning are proving extremely popular with special-needs students, and enroll them at higher rates than the school districts in which they operate.
This makes sense for a variety of reasons. Federal special education laws already require schools to provide all special-needs students with Individualized Education Plans (IEPs) that are often very much about personalized education. Assistive technologies have long been popular as learning tools for students with a range of special needs.
Additionally, a national shortage of special education teachers has impacted public schools’ ability to meet the needs of the rising number of disabled students.
In turn, an increasing number of under-qualified teachers who don’t carry special education certifications are emergency certified to fill special education roles in schools. According to the Council for Exceptional Children, more than 30,000 educators without the appropriate licenses teach students with disabilities; notably more in some rural and urban locales.
For strapped-for-cash districts, increasing manpower is simply not a solution. But supporting teachers with digital learning and technology might be.
In recent years, traditional school districts serving student populations as diverse as Horry County, SC, the District of Columbia Public Schools and a consortium called the Pennsylvania Hybrid Learning Institute have all shown strong student gains using blended learning models.
Currently, a proposal authored by Congresswoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers, and sponsored in the U.S. Senate by Orrin Hatch and Marco Rubio, would offer valuable support for personalized, blended learning, and boost professional development programs that provide teachers with proven strategies to help them succeed.
More than 95 percent of children with disabilities are placed in public schools, and many jurisdictions around the country are encouraging inclusion strategies for disabled students, while seeking to reduce the disparities in exclusionary disciplinary practices. Well-designed, well-supports personalized learning classrooms can play an important role in these strategies.
Special needs students are poised to gain through the development of quality blended learning programs. The majority of IEPs are constructed for social and physical, not intellectual disabilities. Implementing quality blended programs not only increase educators’ availability to meet individual students’ needs, but allows for a more tailored and successful learning experience for students.
The success gap is far too wide and increasing. Innovative classroom practices utilizing today’s technology have much to offer.
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