Robin Lake: 3 Takeaways to Ensure Every Student Reaches Their Full Potential
October 18, 2019

The 2019 PIE Network Summit included a variety of opportunities for advocates to explore strategies for ensuring every child has the educational experiences and opportunities they need to succeed. As advocates return to the work of advancing progress in their states, Network MVP nominee Robin Lake, PIE Network Board Member and Center on Reinventing Public Education (CRPE) Director, shares insights from recent CRPE research on educating students with disabilities in charter schools–including key takeaways that can help accelerate progress in all public schools.

By Robin Lake, Director, Center on Reinventing Public Education

Strong special education cannot exist as an isolated program. It happens in schools committed to supporting every student.

If more schools would make a commitment to educating students with disabilities effectively, all students would benefit.

That’s one key takeaway from a major new report we at the Center on Reinventing Public Education just released along with our partners at the National Center for Special Education in Charter Schools.

Our researchers spent 12 months visiting 30 charter schools in 13 states. We spent two days at each school, observing classrooms and interviewing teachers, administrators, and parents of students with disabilities. We conducted interviews and reviewed data to assess each school’s approach, outcomes, and policy context.

Our goal was to learn what charter schools are doing to help close the achievement gap no one talks about: The gap between students with disabilities and their peers.

Typically only 20 percent of students with disabilities score proficient on state assessments. Fewer than 70 percent earn a diploma in 4 years. That’s despite the belief among researchers that 80-90 percent of students with disabilities should be capable of mastering grade-level content if they receive the right accommodations.

Clearly, all public schools have work to do if they want to ensure every child can achieve their full potential. That’s why we believe our study offers three important takeaways for people who advocate for a better public education system.

Takeaway # 1: It takes a whole school

Since our earliest days 26 years ago, we at CRPE have understood that the best schools function as coherent organizations, where teachers and leaders harmonize around a common vision.

That was true in the most promising schools in our study. Leaders committed to meeting every student’s individual needs.

Teachers blurred the lines between special and general education, and worked together to solve problems.

Parents were full partners in setting learning goals for their children.

We saw charter schools had some advantages that helped them apply these principles school-wide. Their leaders had autonomy to create coherent institutions that did not silo special education away from the rest of their organizations. They could make innovative use of staff time and other resources.

Parents, who had chosen to send their students to a charter school, were already bought in. Over the course of our study, we spoke to many parents who were relieved to find a school that actually listened to what they wanted for their children. 

However, charter schools also faced unique obstacles. Talent is a major one. The schools in our study often struggled to recruit teachers and leaders who were highly qualified and committed to educating students with disabilities effectively.

General education teachers often lacked access to training on how to differentiate instruction for students with disabilities. Standalone schools couldn’t easily create the economies of scale to efficiently hire specialized staff.

Takeaway #2: Outcomes matter

Too often, our school systems leave educating students with disabilities to chance.

In our study, we found charter school authorizers and accountability frameworks often overlooked students with disabilities, or focused on compliance, rather than outcomes, in special education.

In other words, schools in our study often didn’t feel much pressure to serve students with disabilities. Some state funding systems even punished schools of choice that attracted high concentrations of students with disabilities.

We believe advocates and policymakers should amend state and federal accountability systems to incentivize rigor and results—not just compliance to process—for students with disabilities.

Takeaway #3: New breakthroughs will be necessary

Our study identified many promising practices that can help any school educate students with disabilities more effectively. We spotlight some of them here, and will be adding more in the coming months.

But our work also brought us face-to-face with a grim reality: all our public schools must improve education for students with disabilities.

No school in our study, and few that we have seen elsewhere, has succeeded in preparing every student with a disability for success in college, career, or life after high school.

At the school in our study with the strongest overall outcomes, just half of students with IEPs had achieved grade-level proficiency. It is clear that new breakthroughs will be necessary to enable all students to meet their full potential.

It’s likely no accident that some of the schools we visited that were most effective at closing the achievement gap between students with disabilities and their peers operated further outside the box.

Some used the flexibility they enjoyed as charter schools to rethink what schools and classrooms looked like. They took out-of-the-box approaches to hiring to bring more subject matter experts into the classroom, or ensure that every special education teacher also had certification in a subject they helped teach.

We believe more charter schools should use their flexibility to develop new approaches that meet the needs of every student with a disability.

More work ahead

This study is one installment of an ongoing focus for us at CRPE: ensuring our school system meets the needs of students on the margins—including those with disabilities. We will have more to come on this important topic in the coming months, including some deep dives into how families with disabilities experience school choice.

At CRPE, we are a research organization, but we strive to be different. We aren’t wed to ideological assumptions or a particular set of institutions. We are committed to following the evidence where it leads, and we are focused on the goal of doing whatever it will take to prepare every child for the future.

Our goal is to formulate fresh ideas about what it will take to ensure our education systems can prepare every child for the future, and test those ideas with high-quality research.

We are always interested in partnering with other organizations who can help translate our ideas into action.


Robin Lake

Robin Lake is the Center on Reinventing Public Education's Director


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