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Students in special education classes are still required to meet the Common Core State Standards.

This lesson gives you some strategies that will work regardless of your student population.

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Teaching the Common Core State Standards

At Ms. Wolf’s school, the teachers make a big deal about meeting the Common Core State Standards. All of Ms.

Wolf’s colleagues know the standards for their grade levels and spend a lot of time making sure their units and lessons are aligned to the standards. As a special education teacher in a self-contained setting, Ms. Wolf sometimes resents these standards and feels they are unrealistic for her students. At the same time, she understands that the standards are there to remind teachers not to have unfairly low expectations for students. She decides to think about what she can do to help her special education students meet the expectations of the Common Core.

The Spirit of the Standards

One thing that Ms. Wolf realizes is that while there is a great deal of specific content delineated by the standards, and they also outline expectations for particular skill development, the standards are generally defined by an underlying spirit.

In other words, the overall focus of the standards has to do with developing particular habits of mind. For instance, Ms. Wolf notices the following emphases: critical thought, process and college and career readiness.

Critical Thought

The standards desire that students learn to read and think critically, with an eye toward understanding the bigger messages and meanings behind particular texts.

Even when Ms. Wolf’s students are reading well below grade level and struggling to memorize historical facts, she can still help them develop their capacity for critical thinking, or thinking in interpretive and deep ways.



Wolf also notices that in areas like math, science and even writing, the standards place a premium on process, or how a particular task is accomplished rather than simply a correct answer. Again, even when Ms. Wolf’s students are doing math work that is several grade levels behind, she can work toward the standards by focusing on helping them think about and communicate the various strategies they use.

College and Career Readiness

Another major aspect of the spirit of the standards is their underlying emphasis on college or career readiness, or the idea that all students should finish high school prepared for college or meaningful work. Ms. Wolf supports this by helping her special education students understand the connections between what they do in school and what they might do later in life.


Ms. Wolf also understands that there are many standards that her students can meet in spite of their struggles and diagnoses. However, they may not be able to meet them using the same instructional and preparatory paths as their typically developing peers. This is where differentiation comes in.

Differentiation refers to letting different students learn the same material but at different paces and in different ways. There are a wide variety of ways teachers can differentiate instruction. For example:

Reading and Writing

  • Let students work on the same reading strategies but using texts at different levels.
  • Give students a chance to work on fluency and decoding strategies even as they stretch their comprehension.
  • Read aloud more complex texts to students who are not yet ready to read them independently.

  • Let students use graphic organizers to help with complicated writing tasks.


  • Give students access to manipulatives in order to solve problems.
  • If the work is conceptual, allow students to use calculators for the purely computational parts.

  • Break complex and multi-step problems down so that students can work through them one step at a time.
  • Let students work with times tables and helpful formulas rather than requiring memorization.

Science and Social Studies

  • Provide a good balance of language-embedded and hands-on investigations and tasks.
  • Let students read about the same topics using texts at different levels.

  • Incorporate field trips and visual or dramatic activities whenever possible.

Lesson Summary

Many special education students find the Common Core State Standards frustrating, since they attempt to standardize student learning and outcomes in a way that may seem inaccessible to disabled or struggling children. However, there are things you can do as a teacher to help your special education students meet the standards. For example, it can be helpful to remember to teach to the spirit of the standards even when the details do not make sense for your class. Thoughtful differentiation can also make an enormous difference in helping your special education students meet the standards’ rigorous requirements through pacing.

While teaching to the Common Core, you can develop your students’ capacity for critical thinking and encourage them to think and talk about a task’s process. By encouraging them to make connections between school and real life, you can also support the standards’ emphasis on college and career readiness.

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