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Aurora Institute

Help or Hinder: The Impact of CBE for Students with Special Needs

CompetencyWorks Blog

Author(s): Jason Ellingson

Issue(s): Issues in Practice, Commit to Equity

As I continue to think about competency-based education and the structural changes that go along with fully supporting it, I am concerned about its impact on students with disabilities and  the current special educational system.  Theoretically, a competency education system should benefit students with special education needs as it enables greater customization for all students. However, the way the current special education system is designed and implemented may throw up some bureaucratic obstacles in our way.

For example, for students to receive special education services, they must have a disability – medical or learning.  If a student is to be designated as having a learning disability, then the student must demonstrate discrepancy from his/her peers.  As we work through the suspected disability process, the team must look at exclusionary factors.  Will competency education make such peer academic comparisons more difficult?  In a competency-based system (“anytime, anyplace, any how, any pace”) where each student could be involved in different learning experiences, there may no longer be the type of  peer comparisons that we have available to us in the time-based system.  If students no longer are accessing the same academic content at the same time, it looks to me as if we may have to have other forms of identifying special education needs within the current framework.

This then raises a number larger issues. How do we think about special education within a competency-based system?  How do we ensure that students having difficulty in understanding material  have access to the support services that are managed within special education programming?  Do those support services take on a different focus and expectation?  And for district leaders, what happens to the weighted funding that supports those services?

Competency-based education provides a new paradigm for student learning, teacher effectiveness, and district leadership; as such, many current systems, such as special education, may be changed by its implementation.  I believe we need to strongly consider the system structures we currently have in place and how competency-based education may change them, so we can be mindful of the implications. As a starting point, I’d like to begin to think about support services more broadly engaging policy experts in special education and other support services so that we can make sure that our children with special educational needs thrive within a competency education system.

I’d be interested in hearing from other school districts how they are integrating special education systems into the overall competency education structures.

Jason Ellingson is superintendent/curriculum director for Collins-Maxwell Community Schools. Jason is the president of Iowa ASCD, teaches for Viterbo University’s Iowa leadership program, and is working on his doctoral dissertation focusing on central office / system responsibilities through the University of Northern Iowa. Jason was just named to ASCD’s Emerging Leaders Class of 2012. He is married with four children ages 2 to 8. “I am committed to building a better system of learning for my children and their peers. First, we must recognize what we have built before we can build better.”