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The first big idea changing the way schools and parents plan is that all children benefit when schools have high expectations for what each student is expected to know and be able to do. No Child Left Behind (NCLB) and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) very clearly promote high expectations for academic learning and access to the general curriculum for every child. Both laws also require that all children count in school accountability measures so high expectations will result in high achievement for every child.
What are high expectations for students with the most significant cognitive disabilities? And how can we describe high achievement for them? NCLB and IDEA ask the states to think about these questions in order to describe what the results of good teaching should be for these learners.
Since the early days of special education services, we have learned a lot about how students with the most significant cognitive disabilities can learn and become more independent. For example, we learned in the 1980s that a functional, life skills curriculum allowed students with the most challenging disabilities to participate meaningfully in their home and community life. In the 1990s, we found that inclusion with same age classmates was an effective approach to helping students with the most challenging disabilities make their own life decisions and improve their communication and other social skills.
In the past five years, in communities and schools across the country, parents and teachers are again discovering new possibilities. Across the country, we are finding that students with the most significant cognitive disabilities can access, and make progress in, the general curriculum.
Today, many students with the most significant cognitive disabilities are included in their enrolled grade classrooms and they are learning academic skills and gaining understanding linked to the same content as their classmates.
As part of the NCLB and IDEA assessment and accountability requirements, students with the most significant cognitive disabilities are participating in a curriculum based on the same academic content standards that all their grade-level peers are learning—content that is age-appropriate, engaging and challenging. Sometimes, they interact with this same content in slightly different ways from their classmates—through assistive technology, pictures, symbols or textures, or through whatever method they use to communicate. They also are showing what they have learned in creative and exciting ways.