Why is overcoming the expectations gap so hard? | Tanya Sheckley | 4 Min Read

October 31, 2022

The expectations gap is something that we all know exists within the realm of special education, yet very few call it out.  Parents are weary from years of being told what their child cannot do, or is not capable of, by doctors, therapists, teachers, and other well-meaning professionals; and school districts are not incented to provide an education that is challenging or meaningful for students with disabilities. Instead, the language used in our culture is that of accommodation or modification.

When my daughter started school, with cerebral palsy, identified by the school district as OHI (Other Health Impairment) and Multiple Disabilities, there were goals for many life skills and physical skills, but none for her education.  I was fine with this, as I believed her goals were the same as any other student’s, to get an education and go on to whatever college, school, or program she chose to pursue in life.  

When she was in first grade, the focus of the meeting changed to looking at academic goals.  I was fortunate she was in full inclusion, spending between 70 – 80% of her time in her class when she wasn’t getting pull-out services.  I expressed that her goals were matching those of her peers.  I was asked if I wanted modified grades.  Having a modified curriculum is different than having an accessible curriculum.  When we make it accessible it is the same curriculum but delivered in a different manner or the expectation of the deliverable is in a different form.  When we modify a curriculum we change it.  Our students are no longer getting the same, full, general education curriculum.  

In my case, the school was asking to modify the curriculum because that’s what they always did and they didn’t expect her to be able to complete the regular curriculum.  It wasn’t because she couldn’t do it, she was currently thriving in the top half of her class academically, but because they didn’t expect her to be able to do it.  This is the expectations gap.  We have a student who is in the high reading group and the high math group, doing three-digit math equations in kindergarten, and we are asked for modified grades due to her disabilities.  The school did not expect her to achieve.  I expected her to achieve all she dreamed of; the space in between is the expectations gap.  It is present for students of different socio-economic statuses, different races, and different cultures, but huge for students with disabilities. 

In fact, when we asked for equal goals, for the support we knew worked, and even for inclusion, this is a part of the response we got from the district.  Note that they are providing what the law dictates and not what is best for the child,

A School district must provide “a basic floor of opportunity. . .(consisting) of access to specialized instruction and related services which are individually designed to provide educational benefit to the (child with disability)” (Rowley, 458 U.S. 176 at 201).  The intent of the IDEA is to “open the door of public education” to children with disabilities; it does not “guarantee any particular level of education once inside.” (Ibid, at p. 192).” 

To be clear, they told us they were willing to offer the floor of opportunity. They would open the door and let her inside but not guarantee any particular level of education for her once she was in the classroom and they had provided the bare minimum needed for her to be there.  So, ‘your child can come to school and they might even get an education, or maybe not’ was the message we heard. This is not an acceptable level of education for anyone.  If this was the standard to which all students were held, there would be a rebellion of parents against the school system.

Recently there was a study published that shared much of what we already knew, students with disabilities tested higher, learned more, and achieved more success when they were in class with their peers.  They may need more support, but together everyone achieves more.  The full article was published in The Journal of Special Education.  They show significant improvements for students who are in a general education classroom at least 80% of the time.  However, when we look at national statistics on special education, we see that only 63% of students are included that frequently.  Almost half of the special education students do not have that opportunity.  What could they accomplish if they had higher expectations?

The movement towards inclusion is exciting.  I hope for a time when we see all people as capable and understand each for their own contributions and strengths.  Beginning with inclusion in the classroom is important, it allows students to work and play together and understand how to bridge differences.  This will impact their future education, their work, their lives, and our planet.  I urge you to be the rebel educator who questions “the way we’ve always done it” when we look at goals, achievements, and expectations for our students.  Why do we have these expectations and are they really appropriate for that individual student?  What might happen if the expectation were higher?  When we have high expectations for all students, everyone wins.  Raising the ceiling requires a change in expectations for everybody, and it also increases the likelihood that student equity of opportunity and belonging will occur.  Closing the expectations gap is just the beginning.

You may also be interested in reading more articles written by Tanya Sheckley for Intrepid Ed News.

Tanya Sheckley

Tanya Sheckley is Founder and President of UP Academy, an elementary lab school which values innovation, empathy and strength and incorporates a unique neuro-development program for children with physical disabilities. Tanya’s vision and mission show it’s possible to celebrate differences, change what’s broken in the American education system, and that all children can receive a rigorous, well-rounded education. She is an Edpreneur, Author of Rebel Educator: Create Classrooms of Imagination and Impact and host of the Rebel Educator podcast. She speaks frequently on the future of education and entrepreneurship. She is a rebel educator who works with new and existing schools to question the status quo and develop innovative student experiences through inclusion and project-based learning.

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