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UFT, special ed advocates call for better reading instruction

New York Teacher

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Better teacher-preparation programs and evidence-based reading instruction are crucial to improving the unacceptably low literacy rates of students with disabilities, said UFT leaders and advocates for students with special needs at an Oct. 28 City Council hearing devoted to special education instruction.

In the 2013–14 school year, just 6.7 percent of special education students passed the English language arts test.

“While the UFT cautions against using state standardized test scores to fully understand what our students have learned, the test results are sobering,” said Carmen Alvarez, the UFT vice president for special education in her testimony.

Evidence-based approaches incorporate phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, comprehension and vocabulary. Yet for at least the last decade, the Department of Education has not set out the expectation that evidence-based approaches must be used to teach reading. This lack of direction has led to a cascade of students requiring special education services to learn to read, said Alvarez. Many of those students could have benefited from early intervention by a reading specialist in a general education classroom, she noted.

“The increase in the number of students receiving special education services is directly related to what is not available in the general education classroom,” Alvarez said.

Maggie Moroff, the special education policy coordinator at Advocates for Children of New York, echoed Alvarez’s concern about the inconsistent use of evidence-based methods to teach reading from school to school.

“Students start making significant progress once they receive specialized tutoring, using evidence-based methods in after-school settings or over the summer,” said Moroff, who also coordinates the Action for Reform in Special Education coalition, or ARISE, of which the UFT is a member. “Disability should not be destiny. Federal and state laws mandate more than our schools are currently delivering.”

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The ARISE coalition has called for evidence-based literacy instruction beginning in prekindergarten for all students. In addition, the coalition said there should be ongoing screening and monitoring for reading ability of all students through high school, with targeted interventions for those who fall behind.

The coalition also recommends after-school and summer instruction for those students requiring extra help; the creative use of technology and multimedia to assist students having trouble reading; and the forging of partnerships with parents so they can continue literacy instruction at home.

Corinne Rello-Anselmi, the DOE’s deputy chancellor for the Division of Specialized Instruction, told the Council that the DOE is negotiating with Columbia University, Hunter College and New York University to improve training in special education for all prospective teachers. While she did not directly address the lack of evidence-based reading instruction in her testimony, she is working with the UFT on a number of initiatives to improve instruction.

Alvarez also spoke about another problem in special education instruction that she said has an impact on literacy: Teachers are not prepared to work with the behavioral and emotional problems that many special education students have.

“Behavior and reading are linked in a vicious cycle,” she testified. “Students who can’t read often demonstrate behavior issues, and students with profound behavior issues most often are poor readers.”

Alvarez said the Institute for Understanding Behavior, a joint consortium of the UFT and the city Department of Education, showed one way to tackle this issue. The IUB, which relies on an approach called Therapeutic Crisis Intervention in Schools, tries to help entire school staffs address student behavior issues before they escalate into crises.

In the 14 schools that are participating in the IUB program, she said, the data already show changes in school climate and culture that enhance learning and minimize disruption. The IUB, and other programs like it, need more funding to expand, she noted.

Read Alvarez’s full testimony.

NY Teacher