Higher Expectations to Better Outcomes for Children with Disabilities

President Obama has said that we are stronger when America fields a full team. Unfortunately, too many of the 6.5 million children and youth with disabilities in this country leave high school without the knowledge and skills they need to be successful in a 21st century, global economy. While the vast majority of students in special education do not have significant cognitive impairments that prohibit them from learning rigorous academic content, fewer than 10 percent of eighth graders with disabilities are proficient in reading and math on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). Too often, students’ educational opportunities are limited by low expectations. We must do better.

That’s why the Department is changing the way it holds states accountable for the education of students with disabilities. For many years, the Department primarily focused on whether states were meeting the procedural requirements of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Generally, we have seen significant improvement in compliance.

But if kids are leaving high school without the ability to read or do math at a high-school level, compliance is simply not enough. This year, we also focused on improving results when we made determinations as to whether states are effective in meeting the requirements and purposes of IDEA.

With this year’s IDEA determinations, we looked at multiple outcome measures of student performance, including the participation of students with disabilities in state assessments, proficiency gaps in reading and math between students with disabilities and all students, and performance in reading and math on NAEP.

I believe this change in accountability represents a significant and long-overdue raising of the bar for special education. Last year, when we only considered compliance data in making annual determinations, 41 states and territories met requirements.


This year, however, when we include data on how students are actually performing, only 18 states and territories meet requirements.


In enacting IDEA, Congress recognized that improving educational results for children with disabilities is an essential element of our national policy of ensuring equality of opportunity, full participation, independent living, and economic self-sufficiency for individuals with disabilities.  We must do everything we can to support states, school districts, and educators to improve results for students with disabilities. We must have higher expectations for our children, and hold ourselves as a nation accountable for their success.

Michael Yudin is Acting Assistant Secretary for the Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services at the U.S. Department of Education.


  1. Unfortunately, the low expectations expressed here by special education teaches do not surprise me much. As the parent of a soon to be 10th grader with Down syndrome, I have a lot of experience with those who come to the table with prejudice and who are not willing to do what it takes to learn what my daughter really knows.

    It reminds me of a 5th grade meeting where the special education teacher told us she “doesn’t know anything about the planets, all she knows is earth.” Concerned, we asked her at the dinner table about science class and what she was learning and she broke into song where she recited facts about all of the named planets in our solar system, based on what she had learned from Blue’s Clues. So a little blue dog on TV can teach her what 6 years of public school failed to do?

    Most parents of children with significant disabilities do not care about the results on standard assessments because they are not designed to show what our children know and have learned. There is a lot of lip service given to the involvement by special education teachers in designing these tests (ie PARCC) but apparently that doesn’t really happen. States are responsible for designing the tests, not the federal government, so it is up to you to make your voice heard during this process. In our state (Maryland) they have recently eliminated the modified version of the standardized test for no known reason so there goes many chances of success on the tests. Why wasn’t there any uproar over that from special educators?

    High expectations are not just related to testing. We see low expectations for students with disabilities by placing them in segregated classrooms learning life skills because of their disability coding all the time. If you really want to change things, make your voice heard about the tests and stop limiting our children due to your pre-concieved notions of what a child can or cannot do and where they are placed. We cannot expect different results with the same old methods.

    If you are unable to do that, please find a different job and get out of the way of those of us who are trying to improve our childs chance for success.

    • So what you are saying is that you think special education teachers who have taught your child should be able to teach your child the same level of academics your child’s peers on the same grade level are learning despite the cognitive difficulties resulting from Down’s Syndrome? There are many very talented and dedicated special ed teachers here in the U.S., but I don’t know any of them being the miracle worker you think they should be for your child. I am sorry for you disappointment, but you need to be more intelligent in your expectations.

  2. Thank you Secretary Duncan and US DOE,

    As a parent of a son with dyslexia, who has advocated for his right to an effective education for more than a decade, I feel a focus on high expectations and outcomes for students on IEPs to be critically important.

    I believe teachers are hard working and try to help kids as best they can. That said, I have seen first hand that low expectations are widely prevalent for “students with disabilities”. The great majority of children absolutely have the ability to learn – in fact, to reach a level of “proficiency” or better! But they learn differently. Our education system does not support these children effectively.

    Unfortunately, good intentions are not creating the outcomes needed, especially for students on IEPs, and other “at risk” students. We cannot improve without acknowledging our shortcomings. Literacy skills are the foundation of every person’s future. We are affecting children’s lives, positively or negatively, depending on how effectively we educate them. It is time to stop blaming and to start acting in the best interest of all children so they have a fighting chance to be competent citizens.

    There are schools who can teach children with learning disabilities and other “high needs” populations, so why can’t our public schools? There are many reasons, but I believe that low expectations are contributing to the problem. Our education system needs to change to ensure teachers have the skills they need to teach all children. And let’s start spending our education dollars more wisely.

    Special education is a general education issue!

  3. I am a student with mild cerebral palsy. Raising testing standards will not help students with disabilities achieve in environments. Each student is unique in his or her needs and I would be surprised if some of my former peers have made it as high as I have. I made it through high school and college because I refused to let my limitations rule my success in life. My parents were a large factor in this.
    Before the DOE slashes funding because states are not meeting their standards, they need to seriously consider visiting at least 20 classrooms of learning disabled students and try to help a student learn.

  4. As an advocate for ASD Education improvements; I hope that states and the federal government will consider that the approach we are taking to teach and clinically assist special needs kids (& I am writing about specifically, children with an ASD) is not how they best learn. I follow the work of Dr. Howard Shane out of Boston Children’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School and he has created the Visual Language in Autism. Perhaps reevaluating how we are teaching and trying to reach ASD students is the key. We continue to teach through auditory training, as if ASD students process language as a neuro-typical student. They do not, in fact, it is the second criteria for an autism diagnosis under the current DSM-5. We are relying on teaching methods that are older than the epidemic of ASD itself and its time we updated how we are training our teachers, clinicians, specialists, and even parents. There is much work to be done and I am most grateful for this report for shedding light on the important role schools play in the lives of special needs students and what happens when ineffective methods for teaching occurs. We are living it first hand in California.

  5. Please understand…many of my students are not academic!!! I currently teach very low-functioning, violent, Autistic students at the secondary level. Attempting to “teach” ANY academics brings out their most violent/disruptive tendencies. Instead, I have focused on their behaviors and treating them individually (not as a whole class). Their aggressive behaviors in the classroom are almost extinct, and they are each doing an excellent job of remaining focused on their prevocational tasks. The students are kept busy all day every day, and several of the staff where they reside have commented that the tasks on which they focus will be those easily generalized to those needed for gainful employment in sheltered workshop situations. As a few others have said, please come and spend a day working with my wonderful students, so that maybe you can understand.

  6. Let me first commend Mr. Duncan at the Department of Education by saying you have woken me up! For years I have been a bystander, minding my own business, my nose to the grindstone, being the best educator I could be in my own little corner of the world. I have been awakened by the news released this week from the Department of Education regarding lack of high expectations for students with special needs. Does the DOE honestly believe that special education teachers and their general education partners are not working hard enough to push their students to their full potential? I cannot describe with enough clarity how degrading your contemptible words are to the dedicated professionals with whom I have had the pleasure to work in both Ohio and Tennessee, and it is my belief, to the teachers across America.

    We, the special education and general education teachers, work to the best of our abilities everyday. Even throughout the summer, we participate in training above and beyond our master’s degrees to learn the latest techniques to reach, push, and enable our children to be the best they can be. Your words and actions continue to chip at the psyche of your dedicated educators throughout the country. You say we do not have high enough expectations? That raising the bar will somehow be “The Fix” for children with special needs? Children with learning disabilities, cognitive delays, visual and auditory impairments, autism, and many other diagnoses are going to function as well as their peers who have NO learning problems as long as we EXPECT them to do so? What do you think these students’ teachers have been doing? In actuality, we have pushed, prodded, coaxed and taught with everything we have and then come back again the next day to do it again and again and again… Some of these students do eventually reach proficiency. Many do not. Do you honestly believe the reason so many children do not reach reading and math proficiency is due to the lack of effort and expectations on the teachers and students part? Could it possibly be that everyone in reality is trying, working, and putting in 100% effort, but still falling short of the bar? On a track team, will it make the high jumping athlete leap higher because the bar is hung at a higher level? Or can he only perform to the best of his abilities despite the countless hours of being coached on technique and practicing tirelessly? Should his coach be blamed because he didn’t hang the bar high enough and expectations were too low? Should the athlete being shamed into believing he didn’t work hard enough because he couldn’t reach the top rung?

    Your words are humiliating to all involved. To the children who have disabilities that have to work longer than their regular education peers just to show some improvement, to their hardworking teachers who find alternate ways to reach their students when traditional methods don’t work, your words are hurtful. These students with disabilities are taking the same assessments as their regular education peers for which you use to ascertain your data. We have children with 80 IQs taking the same tests as children with 120 IQs, yet you want to hang the bar in the same place.

    Does that mean a 5’6″ athlete will be able to clear the bar at the same height as the 6’6″ athlete? Perhaps you should speak with the coaches across the country and ascertain their data to find out how many “vertically challenged” athletes reach that bar.


    Carolyn Hamm

  7. Being a retired school nurse, there are many levels of special need children. some will leave with very few survival skills to meet any standard of today. But they also must account for the training given to special needs teachers while attending college. Teachers come into the system that has to deeply view budget cuts and restrictions to who can be rehired the following year. The more students need in this area, more teachers are needed to give deeply challenged students the attention they require and school budgets don’t have it to spend. Some of these children don’t belong in a normal school setting because resources aren’t there period. The need it too high for schools to provide.

  8. Special education students have iep’s because each student has specific individual needs. An iep’s is established to individualize in the least restrictive environment, none are set to dummy down a students abilities. This is ridiculous! Parents are involved in setting up the plan as well as well educated professionals. There no set of directions or directives that is a one size fit all – why are we even discussing this?

  9. And this is why so many special education teachers are quitting. I have taught students with severe intellectual and multiple disabilities for 20 years. I have always given my students opportunities to access a variety of challenging educational and life skill activities but in reality some days I am just glad to see one of my student smile, hold their head up or reach out to grasp an object with their hand. I would challenge this U.S. DOE representative to come spend a day in my classroom and then tell me that my students are just faking their level of abilities and that all they need are more challenging curriculum and testing. It is time for teachers to stand up for themselves and their students and say “let people who have actually taught students with disabilities make the laws that effect their education.”

  10. If we need to get our students reading, then can we just focus on that? Has the government ever talked to these children who are real human beings and asked them about reading? If you want good readers, then use the right reading programs, don’t try to be the master of all subjects, and for goodness sake let us teach them how to read first. I would suggest to the government to look at some neurophychologist’s research on the brain and reading. Dr. Hale’s work with the University of Calgary would be a good start. We are asked to shove everything at the same time down our kids’s throats when we need time and teachers to focus on reading/math first so our kids can do all the other stuff. Think about it. If a child can’t decode, how can he/she comprehend? If a child doesn’t have adequate time and instruction to practice, then how does he/she get better? If there isn’t enough teacher power and time to teach, how will a student with a reading//math disability learn how he/she uniquely learns how to read? Why isn’t the government funding or paying for all teachers to have training in reading recovery or specific Orton-gillingham training? I don’t get it! Why do we always have the horse before he cart. Teachers, lets try to get it through to those government leaders that we can only do our best with what we are given. We need time to focus on reading, period!

  11. I taught Special Education Language Arts to 7th and 8th graders with reading levels of pre-K to post high-school, most reading at about 2nd and 3rd grade level. My students
    .had various disabilities, from high functioning autism, intellectual disabilities, emotional, learning disabilities. A lot are poor. The NAEP scores have been going up continuously. Even with the SpEd population. The students with higher IQs tend to improve, so stop skewing the facts and lying to the public. We all know that this is a scheme between US DOE and tech companies to waste taxpayer dollars. There is a reason some children qualify for SpEd, and it’s not because they need to try harder and take more tests.

  12. Secretary Duncan, what words of wisdom can you impart in regard to increased testing of students with special needs? How did all this testing work out for you when you were the classroom teacher of 8-10 eights grade students with a variety of special needs? How did you handle the six who required read-alouds, three who needed extra time, eight who required one-on-one assistance from a teacher or trained aide, three with seizure disorders, six who couldn’t sit still for the three hours needed to take the test, four whose medication prescriptions had run out three days ago, two with violent tendencies, nine who were reading at a third-grade level or less, five who have zero interest in taking a test so they’ll just click anything, three who are trying so hard they’ve vomited or urinated on themselves from the stress….

    What did you do? How did you handle all these special needs in your classroom? Please sir, I need your wisdom. Tell me how you handled these children on testing day.

    Or, maybe you should just spend a week in my school during the “testing cycle,” and see how your ideas are panning out. I’ll wait for your call.

  13. When I chose to go to graduate school to become a Special Education teacher I did so because of my passion for teaching children with disabilities. If I didn’t already have high expectations for what my students could do, I would be failing them before I started. However what this article (and what seems to be every article or speech given by a government official regarding special education) fails to realize is that the expectation of my students reading on grade-level is not a high expectation, it is an unrealistic expectation and I refuse to set my students up for failure.

    I teach kindergarten-5th grade special education for students with significant cognitive (and sometimes physical) disabilities.

    A high expectation means setting a goal that builds on what they are capable of doing and working hard to get them to that goal. I wonder if Mr. Yudin or Arne Duncan or President Obama have ever heard of the term “scaffolding”? I also am curious how many hours they have spent in a classroom like mine which is primarily comprised of students who are non-verbal — and — yes I’m going to say it — will never read or do math on grade level.

    A high expectation for one of my 5th grader students would be for her to use a head or hand switch to scan and choose the correct answer to a simple comprehension question about a story that was read aloud. The expectation that she is able to read on a 5th grade level is not a high expectation, it’s a set up for failure.

    This article makes it sound like if we just wish hard enough and say “I expect you to read on grade level” over and over again that my students will miraculously jump out of their wheelchair, run over to the book shelf and start reading aloud (which would also require another miracle since many of my students are non-verbal).

    If the DOE really wants to help students with disabilities and really wants to provide the support it says they do in the last paragraph of the article, then they could start by stopping the proliferation of charter schools which are sucking the funding from our schools (among other things), they could end Race to the Top which essentially rewards only schools with a small or non-existent Special Education program and instead put that funding into traditional public schools like mine who have a very high special education population.

    There are a million things the DOE could do to help, but history tells me the DOE is more focused on testing, union-busting and setting students up for failure.

    **I typed this on my phone so I hope there aren’t too many typos**

  14. I have taught special needs children for 35 years in the private and public sector. I am dumbfounded by the statements made by Mr. Duncan. The lack of hard knowledge reflected in his comments trivializes the struggle that parents, teachers and disabled students encounter daily. It flies in the face of all the work we all do to enable our students to reach their individual potential, which, given a diagnosis of “special needs” May not be that of a typical child. This is hard. Mr. Duncan is making it harder still. I view his remarks as cruel and callous and his plan as nothing less than child abuse.

  15. Do you actually hear what your saying? Special ed kids competing and being successful in a 21st century, global economy? There is a reason they are special ed kids, and that’s because they have a disability. That’s why they take special ed classes. Your solution is to make it tougher for them to succeed? That by raising expectations they are suddenly going to lose their disability? Please resign today, Mr. Duncan. You have finally proven that you know zero about how kids learn and what is best for them. You are a national disgrace.

  16. Raising expectations will solve the problem? Perhaps we should expect all students to perform Mozart on the piano as that would be really raising expectations. Or perhaps we should expect all students to high jump six feet (after all, it has been done many times). Perhaps we should expect all students exiting third grade to perform derivations of formulas and apply them to physics! After all, it is JUST a case of raising expectations.

    But in all seriousness, the NAEP is not a good measure to apply to students with disabilities. According to renowned educational statitistical scholar, Gerald Bracey, large numbers of students who score basic on the NAEP have gone on to very successful college careers. To simply use the cut scores for the NAEP as a guideline is to guarantee failure as the cut scores are very high. That is but the minor fault. Using standardized test scores to measure students with disabilitities and then to further extrapolate these scores to evaluate an entire state is an abhorrent misuse of standardized tests, data, and common decency.

  17. For a second, I will believe Secretary Duncan’s claim and respectfully request he publically supply the accredited non-biased research studies that he is basing his latest reform.

    Every empirical study I have read in the areas of cognitive development have stated that most students are scoring low because they choose to, but instead because they literally do not have the proper functioning to do the tasks being asked. More testing, will not cure the low frustration tolerance, low impulse control, hyperactivity, and poor coping skills that are so common with the students I teach.

    I am a BadAss Teacher of music education working with special ed in Bronx, NY and I approve this messsage.

  18. Mr. Duncan, Please explain to my student who has severe cerebral palsy, is blind, and non-verbal how more testing will magically bring her up to grade level. Have you ever taught children with disabilities? That’s right. You are NOT a teacher. You are clueless. Tests are not teaching. Do I have high expectations for my students? Of course. Every good teacher does. But making the road even more difficult for students with disabilities is unfair and cruel. My students are already struggling. Demanding more testing and threatening funding tells me you do not serve the students. You serve Gates and Pearson. Shame on you!

  19. Everyone believes that children with learning disabilities are getting a great education in the public school system, when in fact they are not. The school districts lump the students together and feel that just because they are in smaller class sizes, they are getting all that is necessary, and parents should be grateful to them for that.
    In my school district, many children that graduate high school are barely reading at an eighth grade level. Forget asking the NJDOE and the teacher’s union for answers. They are clueless. No students should be evaluated by the districts child study team. Student’s should be evaluated independently, and then an individual, tailored program should be developed for that student. This is the only route to success for these learning disabled students.

  20. I am from Puerto Rico and I am a proud mother of a 10 years old girl with Down syndrome. Here in Puerto Rico we have been struggled for more than thirty years with the government to ensure that our children receives their education in a proper manner without violating their human rights. Unfortunately they keep violating our children’s human rights.
    I keep asking why our children have to be segregated instead of being in an inclusive environment? Anyhow, when they get adults they will have to work and live with typical people (“people that are not disabled?).

  21. NAEP has retained validity in large part because states do not teach to it. That is revealed by the large gaps between state test scores that are inflated by narrow teaching to the test, and the NAEP results that are not (or minimally) inflated. This move by Duncan is step one toward destroying NAEP validity. If he can erase that, then we’ll have NAEP inflation and lose a valuable tool, one that has enabled us to see the NCLB and test-and-punish schooling does not work. See http://fairtest.org/NCLB-lost-decade-report-home

  22. My daugher with an IEP is too young to take the assessments yet, and while I do agree that students with disabilities who can learn to read and do math should leave school with those skills, I disagree that standardized assessment are the way to determine that. I know children with IEPs that are brilliant, can read and can do math, but “fail” on VA Standard of Learning tests…how is that a true reflection of her abilities or services of the school and teachers? (In the Map VA “meets requirements”)

  23. I am a teacher with a Master’s in Education. Both my girls had learning disabilities in math and reading. I had to remove them from school to home school them because of bullying and other distractions. We did not do very well but it help them gain confidence in themselves and not have to deal with unrealistic expectations. I think it just take a little longer but holding them back only crushes their self esteem. I continued to work with them after they past the GED and they both went on to college and are accomplishing things they never thought they could accomplish.

  24. Here goes the unrealistic statistics battle. It all falls down to numbers and what looks good on paper. Numbers can be manipulated to make anything look good.

    These people need to get out and meet these children, their teachers and their parents. If they had any idea of what it is really like then maybe they could come up with a realistic goal. The key to success is setting realistic goals so that they can be met. When goals are not realistic, they perpetuate failure. The reason behind that is that the success helps to build self confidence.

    If they really want to make things better, they should focus on the bullying issue. Too many special needs children are targets of bullying simply because they are different. When a child feels safe, then they are able to focus more on things such as learning. They should take a look at the increase of hospitalization of young children and teens who have reported that they have been bullied in school.

    • I have a daughter who is a “high honor” student in a very academic school district. She was on an IEP (adopted over seas at age 4, which is a very tenuous age for language) until 5th grade. She receives A’s in English/language arts and cannot write a simple paragraph with out many many errors (syntax, subject/verb agreements). It is outrageous that they will pass her along with flying colors, rather than teach her. It infuriates me that she continues NOT to pass MCAS (asinine state testing) but receives A’s. Her college outlook is grim. I have other adopted special needs kids that they warehouse. My plan is to home school all of them rather than fight ignorance, insanity and oblivion.

  25. I am a 4th grade teacher, with a Master’s in Special Ed and currently in the
    Special Ed. Ph.D. program at the University of New Mexico, but most importantly, I am the mother of a 22 year old son with Autism, who is non-verbal and needs a wheelchair to go any distance. Maybe if the people in the DOE lived my life they would have a much more realistic view of what special needs means and what these children and adults really go through. Come spend a day at my house, and my classroom and then let’s have a “real” conversation about special needs.

  26. Frankly, when I heard about the comments Mr. Duncan made about special ed students, I thought it was a joke. I WAS an 8th grade math teacher until a week ago. I retired because I could no longer continue with what we call education in this country. I had special education students in my classes and also had a math intervention/remediation period every day. I had high expectations for ALL my students for all 36 years. I used technology in my classroom. I did anything I had to do to help my students learn. No matter how well they did in my class, there were always students who were not proficient on our Pennsylvania state test. There are many children, especially the special ed children, who have difficulty taking the many lengthy tests that PA 8th grade students must take.
    I agree with Ms. Cerritos in the previous post. Please, share with the teachers exactly what we can do to make it happen.

  27. I teach special education students who are in the 6-8 grades but are reading on a 1-4th grade reading levels. I work non-stop in my reading intervention class to get the students to read on higher grade levels but many of my students struggle to comprehend the texts and are no where near the grade level they should be. They work very hard and sometimes working hard isn’t enough to make the government happy. If people think that these students are able to reach grade level material and comprehend it then I wish they would share that with myself and other teachers out there who are working very hard to make special education students proficient.

    • Have you tried getting all these kids accessible instructional materials that are on grade level? Bookshare.org offers free text books and a whole library of literature that is digitally enhanced with audio. Kid’s that read below grade level many times lack comprehension because their disability limits their access to print. If you look into these resources and give them audio access to grade level and above, you may find that they can comprehend very well.

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