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NASBE’s Standard Explores Ways to Better Support Learning for Students with Disabilities

Alexandria, VA – The pandemic underscored the challenges of ensuring that students with special needs have equitable opportunities to learn. Students with disabilities are capable of meeting high standards, but too often misconceptions about their abilities, low expectations, and the lack of effective instructional approaches prevent them from reaching their fullest potential, say the authors in the newest issue of NASBE’s State Education Standard. But if policymakers and educators can create systems where students with disabilities can receive the personalized supports they need to thrive, they contend, it will be possible to close achievement gaps and ensure that every student is successful.

Martha Thurlow, Sheryl Lazarus, and Kristin Liu of the National Center on Educational Outcomes urge state leaders to examine the postsecondary success of students with disabilities and watch for red flags in state policies on assessment, graduation, and inclusion that often work against that success. Think Inclusion’s Karla Phillips-Krivickas debunks myths about special education students and their intellectual abilities. States working toward education equity “must pursue high expectations, appropriate services, and booming achievement for students with disabilities,” she argues. They can start by looking at the data to better understand the unique needs of special education populations and how state policies affect them.

Elizabeth Barker and Angela Johnson share NWEA research on the impact of interrupted learning over the summer months for students with disabilities. Their data show that students with disabilities may be even more susceptible to learning loss during out-of-school time since some services essential to their learn­ing are taken away.

Researchers David Peyton and Kelly Acosta compare policies in states with low and high shortages of special education teachers. They find that states with fewer shortages have key supply-side policies, such as attending to working conditions, partnering with teacher preparation programs to build the pipeline of specialized teachers, and differentiating pay.

Drew Fagan and Luis Javier Pentón Herrara, TESOL program leaders at University of Maryland and George Washington University, say state boards should consider the unique challenges of English learners with disabilities. Without a deep understanding of disabilities, the language acquisition process, and cross-cultural differences, educators will struggle to appropriately identify services for these students and address their academic needs.

CAST’s James D. Basham lays out the promise of the Universal Design for Learning (UDL) framework for all students—not just those with disabilities, with whom it is most often associated. He suggests that policymakers and practitioners abandon education systems aimed at the mythical “average” student in favor of those that recognize that every student has special needs that require tailored support. He offers key questions for state and local leaders to ask in the design of such systems.

Lastly, we interview Joel Coleman and Lou Maynus, superintendents at schools for the deaf and blind in Utah and Ohio respectively, who encourage state policymakers to keep an open mind when designing policies that serve students with disabilities. “We personalize education for each child. We need to have the freedom to try things, to fail, and to try again,” they say. “Adopting such a mind-set can encourage a lot of innovation without trying to prescribe everything through policy. We could see some exciting approaches with students with disabilities—or with regular education students who are also craving that personalized, competency-based approach.”

Read and share the special education issue of the State Education Standard.

NASBE serves as the only membership organization for state boards of education. A nonpartisan, nonprofit organization, NASBE elevates state board members’ voices in national and state policymaking, facilitates the exchange of informed ideas, and supports members in advancing equity and excellence in public education for students of all races, genders, and circumstances. Learn more at


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