‘Aim for perfection, achieve greatness’
This Specially Designed Instruction really works
Eric Gebhart likes to paraphrase a quote from football legend Vince Lombardi: “We may not achieve perfection, but if we chase perfection, we achieve greatness.”
And it’s with that mindset that the state has embarked on an aggressive approach that is designed to close the education gap that exists between students with disabilities and their peers.
The focus is on delivering more effective, personalized teaching – known as Specially Designed Instruction, or SDI – and ensuring it is at the core of the Individual Education Programs (IEP) for students with disabilities. And, based on nearly four years’ worth of work through a federal grant, Iowa is well on its way to delivering.
Consider: Among the 94 schools scattered across 36 Iowa school districts, second graders on IEPs were meeting grade-level benchmarks just 18 percent of the time prior to the amped-up work through SDI. Today, they are at 33 percent. And third graders went from meeting grade-level benchmarks just 14 percent of the time to 25 percent.
It’s a marked improvement, to be sure, but still a long way from closing the education gap, said Gebhart, a consultant with the Iowa Department of Education.
“But as educators continue to learn about and deliver high-quality SDI with fidelity based on Iowa’s developed framework, we expect the gap to continue to shrink,” he said.
The work is being done through a five-year federal grant. Now in year four of the grant, the long-term goal is to scale up the work to every school in the state. As part of the grant, Iowa’s SDI Coordination Team established design teams that built content for the key components and critical features of Specially Designed Instruction, an important part of the IEP. Since then, work has focused on usability testing to develop tools and professional learning for educators.
“There are four big pieces to SDI: diagnose, design, deliver, and engage,” Gebhart said. “They are really tied together, because it is diagnosing for instructional design, and then you’re designing the right individualized instruction so that you can deliver the right kind of teaching – teaching that engages the learner and gets the results you want.”
Work on SDI is not new. But effective SDI – SDI that brings students up to grade-level benchmarks – is hard to accomplish.
“It’s up to every IEP team to determine the appropriate SDI for any individual student,” Gebhart said. “The state has designed a framework to assist teachers and IEP teams in determining how to best provide SDI. The idea behind the IEP and SDI is to individualize instruction to that particular student in order to be successful in school.
“But the problem comes in that this individualized approach can lead to a lack of consistency in application. In Iowa, we want to make sure the IEP is challenging and meaningful to the education of a student. It can be a disincentive to educators when challenging goals are not met, but the opposite of that is making goals too easy. When teachers implement the SDI framework, meaningful and challenging goals, based on individual student data, have a higher likelihood of being met and producing the intended result.”
Teachers who have received professional learning in SDI, instructional tools, and coaching supports feel more confident in making learner goals that are challenging and meaningful for the individual.
“We teach them how to implement the framework and have measures that help teachers know if they are implementing it with fidelity,” Gebhart said. “We have found that teachers who implement the framework with consistency have more students who make significant progress, putting them on the path to achieve grade-level goals.”
Fidelity is key.
“What we’re finding is that teachers who routinely apply effective SDI practices with fidelity have students who do better,” Gebhart said. “The more fidelity, the better results.”
Continuous improvement takes time. The SDI framework’s learning packages and supports span across a three-year implementation period.
“They will begin to see results right away, but it is in the long-term application that they’ll see sustained and impressive growth,” Gebhart said. “That is what ends up closing the gap.”
Gebhart said that Iowa is doing great work in this area.
“There are other states that are doing really neat things, but they are working on a smaller scale,” he said. “What’s cool is that in Iowa, we are partnering with all nine AEAs and planning for statewide scale-up.”
And that’s when you again hear Lombardi’s voice in Gebhart’s words.
“We are not going to take it easy, we are going to chase perfection as opposed to chasing something we know we can meet,” he said. “We have the results showing these learners are doing well. It’s worth the chase.”