Low Expectations vs. Unrealistic Expectations: Finding the Balance

  • Posted on: 23 October 2014
  • By: Tina McCoy

How can the needs of students with disabilities be addressed in ways that maximize growth? The trick is to determine what is both rigorous and realistic, given appropriate supports and services. Unfortunately the predominant culture of education today has some blind spots that make this task very challenging. In order to get past these obstacles, it is helpful to acknowledge them and then take conscious steps to work against them.

Since the era of 'No Child Left Behind' started, there has been intense pressure on schools to close the achievement gap between students with disabilities and their non-disabled peers. In essence, a culture has evolved that says to schools, "If you can't get special education students up to the same level as other students, you must be doing something wrong". As the stress of high stakes testing and accountability increased over the years, educators realized that the emperor had no clothes, but they were powerless to do anything about it. After all, if students with disabilities were functioning at the same level as their non-disabled peers, they would probably not be identified as being students with educational disabilities.

One unfortunate outcome of this accountability pressure was that some special education teachers started to believe that academic IEP goals must be written on grade level. By setting the criterion for success at grade level, perhaps they thought, they would close the achievement gap. For some students, however, academic goals at grade level were not realistic. Unfortunately, setting lofty goals doesn't necessarily change outcomes for students. Nor does it 'look good' on paper when student progress is not sufficient to meet annual goals.

When considering the existing climate in special education, it is important to contemplate the past. Not so many years ago, students with special needs were excluded from state and district assessments. When the requirement for them to participate was established, their results 'didn't count'. Schools and parents rarely questioned why students were making little or no progress, and it was not uncommon for IEP goals to be the same for many years in a row. In short (and in general), the field had low expectations for students with educational disabilities. Student outcomes were rarely discussed on either a micro or a macro level. There was no impetus to change until new laws, regulations and practices forced the issue.

I can't think of any advantage of low expectations except that it allows for the necessary acceptance of rare situations where students have degenerative disorders, and special services are trying to minimize loss of skills and abilities. However, the age of accountability has had some advantages for students with disabilities. Concepts like, 'the progress of every student matters', 'all kids are the responsibility of the entire school system' and ' every student should have the opportunity to be involved with and progress within the general curriculum' represent major advances in the field of special education. 

The field of special education is made up of so many different kinds of people: teachers, therapists, administrators, parents and others. Each participant has his or her own ideas about special education. The result is a 'culture' that is an intriguing mix of ideas about what is appropriate. High expectations, low expectations... how can we find a balance in service to our students? 

First, an accurate and current 'level of functioning' in each targeted area is key. This may be the most important step in determining what goals will be both rigorous and realistic for a student. Without this information, professionals will be 'shooting in the dark' as they consider IEP goals. Invest the time to gather this information through a variety of means. Don't settle for vague information that shows that a student is behind grade level. Find out precisely what the student can and cannot do, and document the information.

Second, compare the student's current level of functioning to the general curriculum.  Examine the curriculum as a continuum, and think about the difference between where the student is currently functioning, and grade level curriculum standards. Then, hold that thought as you proceed through the next two steps.

Third, consider carefully the student's disability (or disabilities) and the unique needs that arise from them. What barriers to progress might these present? How might supports be put into place to mitigate the impact of those barriers?  Given the student's learning profile, should it be possible for the student to make a year's progress in a year's time?  Can the student make more than a year's progress given specially designed instruction (thereby narrowing the gap). The answers to these questions can only be determined on an individual basis in light of each student's strengths and needs. However, don't be afraid to consider targeting more than a year's growth. Narrowing or closing the achievement gap (if possible) is always something to work toward.

Fourth, consider the types of specialized instruction and/or supports that have been provided during the past year.  Did those services yield the results for the student that the IEP team planned for? If so, that's great!  Continue to do what worked well.  If not, consider what else could be done to accelerate student progress.  Should teaching strategies be changed?  Should more services be provided? Should a different setting be considered?  Although instructional strategies, services and placement are not explicitly incorporated into IEP goals, they are relevant to consider when determining what is rigorous and realistic given appropriate support. If the student has not been progressing adequately, don't continue doing the same thing hoping for a different result. Boost up services to enhance student progress.

Finally, it's important to remember that these decisions are to be made by members of the IEP team, in relation to the unique needs of each student.  Teams should engage in active discussion about what is realistic and what is rigorous for each individual student, based on the current level of performance, the general curriculum and the student's disability. No one person, whether an administrator, a parent, a case manager or anyone else should dictate for a student 'what is appropriate'. Authentic collaboration is the best way to determine what we can expect to accomplish with our students.