Tag Archives: special education

What can we learn about proficiency from special education?

 Equitable access for each & every student

assessment in proficiency-based classroomsMany of us doing proficiency work in the state see it as a means of ensuring equitable access for all students. A proficiency-based learning environment asks the learning community to partner together. The goal: to make certain all learners meet clearly articulated targets for success.

And, the VT Agency of Education agrees. As articulated in the Proficiency-Based Learning Team’s  Why is Proficiency-based learning Important?  proficiency-based education is a means to reach equity for each and every student:  

“A proficiency-based education system benefits all by allowing students to progress at their own pace and creating the space and time to do so. Students are given sufficient time to finish assignments and meet learning targets. Educators respond to individual learning needs by providing timely, differentiated feedback and support. If students do not initially meet expectations for proficiency, they are given additional opportunities to demonstrate proficiency without penalty. Those who progress quickly might dig deeper into the content or move onto learning new concepts. Students eligible for special education services are expected to meet the same requirements as their nondisabled peers in an accommodated and/or modified manner. Proficiency-based learning must exist in a learning environment that fosters strong social and emotional development and encourages high achievement for each and every learner.”

Special education implications: shifts in practice

Let’s look at how one Vermont special educator embraces proficiency-based teaching and learning.  

Meet Angela Spencer, a special educator at Lamoille Union Middle School in Hyde Park, VT. Spencer describes the shifts in practice needed to support students’ growth in a proficiency-based system. 


Key ideas in shifting practice for equity

In the past, much of Spencer’s work with students occurred in silos during intervention time. She says students feel more integral, like they are part of the school now. 

A key benefit: “utilizing the transferable skills and their habits of work scores to develop life skills goals and behavior goals because before they were all so accuracy based. I can come to class and sit for 80%  of the time might now be I can come to class and be a participant following a habit of work. Or, getting a job would be a transferable skill so now we have more of those we can play with to make those goals.”

Here is an example of Spencer’s Behavior Goals with Proficiency Tracking scale.

Collaborating with teachers

With proficiency-based teaching, Spencer is now able to use teacher-created rubrics. And these rubrics support calibration during progress-monitoring.

Spencer shares how she and the classroom teachers on her team work to create learning targets and scales that meet individual learners’ needs and mark growth. They do so by backing out targets for instruction and assessment. She concludes that proficiency-based teaching and learning “finally gets to the point of what individualized plans were, making it about what the individual students needs.” This work took her there.

Sara Crum, Champlain Valley Union High School

Learn more about what Spencer describes in the video about backing out targets with this blog post from Sarah Crum, special educator at CVUHS.  Standards Based Learning and Special Education on the CVULearns blog (excerpted below):

“Again, this type of modification requires taking the classroom target and backing it out by articulating the two, the one and below. Then, like using a ruler, the teacher assesses the student on a different set of 1-4, but using the same targets and skills so that the ultimate goal is to get back on the classroom targets.” 

–Shifted Scale: Backing Out Targets for Instruction & Assessment

Supporting all learners through targeted professional development

Remember the VT AOE article Why is Proficiency-Based Learning Important? I referred to earlier? In it, the authors make explicit that special education students are “expected to meet the same requirements as their nondisabled peers in an accommodated and/or modified manner.” The National Center for Disabilities agrees. “CBE allows students to demonstrate mastery of competencies in many ways, and by allowing such broad differentiation, it has the potential to increase access of students with learning and attention issues to the general education curriculum.” 

Our Vermont context

Among the 10 National Center for Learning Disabilities recommendations is “general and special education teachers must have on-going CBE professional development.”  Here in Vermont, the recently passed Act 173 can be a means to help us meet this goal. Act 173 aims to enhance the effectiveness, availability, and equity of services provided to students who require additional support. It also changes the distribution of special education funding in our state in order to do so.

This year, the VT AOE will work with the Act 173 Advisory Group. Together they will develop a state-wide, coordinated professional learning plan for anticipated stakeholder groups. The Instructional Strand supports supervisory unions by providing instructional staff, including general education and special education teachers, professional development. The goal: to adopt best practices to meet the needs of all learners.

Learning from and with our special educators

In Sally Allen’s article Is it Special Education or Proficiency Based Education? Yes  she argues that proficiency based learning is synonymous with what special educators have been up to successfully for years:

“Teachers provide multiple pathways for students to demonstrate mastery.  In many classrooms it’s difficult to tell the special education classrooms apart from the regular education classrooms, especially at the younger levels. There is student responsibility and accountability, students are grouped and regrouped according to skills that need to be targeted and learning is celebrated.”

We’ve got a lot to celebrate here in Vermont!

Explore further

I recommend reading Designing for Equity: Leveraging Competency-Based Education to Ensure All Students Succeed. The equity principles in the report help districts and schools to create an equity agenda. “Equity is an intentional design feature embedded in the culture, structure and pedagogy” to ensure success for all.

How might you leverage the proficiency work in your context to expand access for all?


Are you a “Learning Maximizer”?

How do you maximize student learning? What are the ways we can do this, and how might our roles and labels get in the way of helping all students?

Words matter. Job titles, given labels, justly or not, can affect how we feel about ourselves and our jobs. They can affect our we are perceived by our students, and how our students perceive themselves.

Meet Erika (aka Learning Maximizer)

Erika Saunders, of the Science Leadership Academy Middle School (SLA-MS) in Philadelphia, knows this. She’s a founding teacher at SLAMS, which is in its second year. She renamed her special educator position as a Learning Maximizer, and heads that department.

She even has this title on her classroom door, and well, also has her own Learning Maximizer official uniform. I’m pretty certain that Erika can save the world.


Erika Saunders, Learning Maximizer
The official Learning Maximizer uniform!

Meet Science Leadership Academy Middle School

SLA-MS is a project based learning focused middle school in its second year. Currently, it hosts fifth and sixth grade students, and will bring on a new grade each year, up until eighth grade.

Learning Maximizers

The Core values of the school are:

  • Inquiry
  • Research
  • Presentation
  • Reflection
  • Collaboration

This is rooted in relevant project-based work with community partners. Students sign up for mini-courses, often working with parents, community organizations, both on campus, and in the surrounding neighborhood.

SLA-MS learning maximizers.
Group work in progress at SLA-MS.

At SLA-MS, they “unprivilege grades” and “privilege” community-based, relevant projects. All students DO. They collaborate, create on the computer, and work side-by-side with teachers.

All students are “OUR” students

Okay, back to the resident Learning Maximizer at SLA-MS.

According to Erika, every student at SLA-MS should have a Learning Maximizer. Erika shared her mindset for being a Learning Maximizer at SLA-MS, and it seemed especially powerful and inspiring.

Erika doesn’t view a certain set of students with learning disabilities as “her” students. All students at SLAMS are “her” students. She said:

“There are simply kids that have official paperwork, and students who don’t.”

When working with students, she teaches them learning strategies, and describes their reading, for example, at different levels, not “low.” These words matter. Just like her title. She asks students:

“What are you not good at yet?”

“You know how to do so many things. Let’s start with that, and figure out what don’t you know yet.”

Then she works with students to help them maximize their learning, by learning about themselves, their strengths and challenges, and how to work with those challenges.

Erika collaborates with teachers, meets with teams, and works toward being proactive instead of reactive in planning, teaching, and supporting students. Project-based learning provides her with many opportunities to promote relevance, engagement, and self-direction as she guides her students.

Philosophies at work

In her role as learning maximizer, we can see a combination of educational philosophies at work:

  • Growth Mindset: Erika believes that all students have the ability to understand how they learn, and they can work together to make a plan to learn at optimal levels in a way that works for each students. How can we carry this message into our work? How can all teachers think about each student’s needs, backgrounds, and experiences and help them plan for their educations with growth mindset?
  • Knowing students deeply: In order to help students learn at high levels, teachers need to know students well and have a trusting, strong relationship with them.

Street-level view of students

One way to know students deeply is to gather information about them in a way an ethnographic researcher would, according to this post in Edutopia. We can gather data about students at different levels to help us connect to students and to plan the best strengths based education plans as possible.

Just how do we do this? By asking questions such as these:

  • Tell me one way you’re feeling successful in my class.
  • Tell me one area in which you’re struggling.
  • How do you learn best?
  • What feedback do you have for me?
  • How could I support you to feel successful?

Do these questions sound familiar? This is just the approach Erika is taking in how she speaks with students about their learning.


Culturally responsive learning environments maximize student learning. This can come about through student interviews and focus groups, and by tracking class participation and academic language.

These learnings can become part of a student’s learning profile, and can be featured and reflected upon in students’ personalized learning plans. That way, students have a place to regularly reflect on their own learning, their growth, and their goals for the future.

What’s your tagline?

In her work to maximize learning, Erika is trying to level the playing field, and create a culturally responsive learning environment rooted in strengths and growth mindset.

Erika shared her tagline that she shares with adults, that guides her work and focus:

“Righting the things that were once wrong.”

Erika inspires me. Special educators and education is often left out, or not deliberately included in, discussions, professional development, plans and reading about personalization. But most of the time, these are the very people that have experience personalizing for students, crafting activities, lessons and assessments to meet individual needs.

Personalization and true student engagement is rooted in knowing our students well, and helping them understand how they best learn. Special educators are key partners in this journey, and can help lead the way.

What would happen if we thought of special educators (or learning maximizers) as personalization specialists, and resources for all students and teachers?

What if every single teacher (and person who works in schools) thought of all students as “their” students, and helped to create a learning environment where all students are known and we are all learning maximizers?

How can you be a learning maximizer?