When High School Students Have Significant Academic Gaps: More Concerns and Common Sense Solutions (Letters to the Editor)

When High School Students Have Significant Academic Gaps:

More Concerns and Common Sense Solutions “When State Policy Undermines Effective School Practice” (Letters to the Editor)

Dear Colleagues,


   For good or for bad, it is amazing to track the technological advances that many of us have experienced over our lifetimes.

   From telephones to smartphones. . . typewriters to computers. . . cars with stick shifts to cars that drive themselves... and now artificial intelligence that seems to think on its own.

   And then, there’s social media.

   In the “old days,” when you wrote an article, what followed—sometimes weeks later—were “Letters to the Editor.”

   Now, you have almost instantaneous “Posts”—with “Likes” or, at times, a barrage of disagreements or worse.

   Fortunately, for all my social media, I rarely get the latter. Instead, I often get many thoughtful comments that alert me to things I’ve either forgotten or not considered. These comments help push my thinking, and I grow as a practitioner and person.

Revisiting “When State Policy Undermines Effective School Practice”

   My last Blog. . .

When State Policy Undermines Effective School Practice: Too Much of Anything Often Results in Nothing (or Worse)


. . . received a great many comments and social media posts. . . so much so that I have decided to use today’s Blog to respond to two of them.

   But as a recap:

The Blog began by analyzing and then describing solutions for a common high school instructional dilemma that has only been made worse by the pandemic:

“How to teach high school students who are two or more academic years behind in their foundational literacy, math, and writing skills.”

Knowing that these significant skill gaps are not easily closed through parallel tutoring or by remediating missing prerequisite skills within the same courses that depend on them, the Blog emphasized the need to provide these students with intensive intervention experiences before they take the courses that they are likely to fail.

Indeed, our reason went, if these students take core academic classes without this intensive intervention, a double-jeopardy exists:

They fail the core classes, and they never close the academic gaps that contributed to their failures.

But this creates a new dilemma because, by delaying their core courses, these students may take more than four years to graduate from high school.

This puts the high school at risk with its State Department of Education—especially when students’ four-year graduation rates are an ESEA State Report Card criterion of “effectiveness.”

The rest of the Blog revealed that almost 30% of our states still use this four-year graduation metric (typically established during the 1991-2015 No Child Left Behind years), and we shared the educational benefits for states that, instead, use four-, five- and six-year high school graduation rates when evaluating their high schools’ effectiveness.

We also suggested that high schools be allowed to qualitatively explain their high school graduation data so they could demonstrate, for example, that their “late” graduates had higher GPAs, took fewer remedial courses in college, or were more academically prepared to go into the workforce.

In the end, we suggested ways to rescind the anachronistic NCLB policies that still exist, and to nurture schools’ cultures of professionalism so that high school administrators don’t face the dilemma of doing the instructionally wrong things for students who are academically behind, in order to protect their schools from archaic, indefensible policies.

Letter to the Editor #1

   From a LinkedIn post of our last Blog, I received the following comment:

I read the article with interest, and my view is that the complexities of the problem are enormous, and inadequately comprehended at various levels.

It is evident that many stakeholders are only recently acknowledging the need for remediation services. I believe it would be highly beneficial to involve higher education institutions as integral contributors to the overall solution in supporting these students.

I concur that the transition from high school to a 5th year in college is a pressing concern. However, if higher education was involved in the solution from the outset, this predicament could be mitigated.

Also, the scale of the issue spans from K-12, and I question whether it can be effectively addressed within the confines of each (i.e., K-5, Middle, and HS).

Instead, a cohesive approach must be adopted, where K-5 collaborates with Middle, Middle engages with HS, and High School partners with higher education, resulting in a comprehensive solution.

Otherwise, the critical "hand-offs" between these stages may falter, hindering the students' progress. The magnitude of the challenge demands a collaborative effort involving higher education entities, fostering a unified approach to uplift and empower our students effectively.

_ _ _ _ _

My Response:

Dear Colleague,

Thank you so much for your thoughtful response to my Blog article. You brought up a number of critical points— ones that were considered when I wrote the original piece, but by-passed in the interest of time and space.

But, given your comments, let me expand on a few things.

First: You are absolutely correct about the necessary involvement of our universities and the broader teacher-training community. Having taught at two major universities for over 20 years, however, I know how anxious my colleagues got when others asked them to expand the curriculum.

Nonetheless, university Teacher Training programs really do need to go beyond teaching teachers how to effectively teach the Core Curriculum and handle classroom management. Well-trained teachers need to know how to diagnostically assess student learning gaps—including the determination of the root causes of those gap.

As well, these teachers need to know how to link the results of their root cause analyses to strategic interventions (that include, as needed, remediations of skill gaps, accommodations of the learning process and environment, and modifications of the curriculum) so that the gaps are closed and the student can proceed with his or her next level of learning.

Parenthetically, it is amazing that it took a Pandemic for education to really begin addressing this area. . . right now, in the context of accelerated learning.

_ _ _ _ _

But, you also really “nailed” it when you emphasized that many students’ gaps in high school were gaps that originated when they were in elementary or middle school. . . and that these gaps (a) were missed, (b) were not effectively addressed, and/or (c) were not well communicated to the “next school” when the students transitioned from elementary to middle, or middle to high school.

Indeed, schools do not do a good job of evaluating students progress at the end of each school year, and “tag teaming” the data up to the next year’s teacher or teaching team.

That’s why—over 30 years ago—we created the “Get-Go” process.

Briefly, the “Get-Go” Process is a student review process where every student in the school is briefly reviewed at the end of each school year by its current grade-level team, the Building-level Multi-tiered Systems of Support (MTSS) Team, the administration, and other selected support staff. At times, the process also includes the “next highest” grade-level team, respectively, who will receive a specific cohort of students the next school year. 

The goals of the Get-Go Process are to:

* Complete a final, summative evaluation of the academic, and social, emotional, and behavioral progress of every student—including their attendance, medical and home/living status (as relevant), and their multi-tiered intervention status (again, as relevant).

* A significant portion of these data are required by the Elementary and Secondary Education Act for every school’s annual report and Report Card.

* Use the information collected to help organize what classes and/or “home rooms” students will be assigned to for the next school year.

* This is often done to ensure that every (especially elementary and middle school) classroom has only three functional skills groups in it so that teachers can successfully differentiate instruction. This is also done so that all classroom teachers know the functional literacy, math, writing/language arts, and oral expression skill levels of all students—again, so that they can differentiate instruction, and in case they need to provide remediation, accommodations, or modifications.

* Identify and communicate the special needs (as identified during the process—see below) of specific students to the next year’s classroom teacher (or teaching team), as well as to the school’s administration and related services and support staff—so that the school is prepared to implement all necessary interventions starting on the first day of the new school year.

* To identify the resources and personnel needed to address the universal, strategic, and intensive needs of all students in a school prior to the end of the previous school year,so that (a) needed resources are coordinated or purchased during the summer, and (b) appropriate staff can be deployed or hired.

To meet these goals, both the School Leadership and MTSS teams are formally trained, and the school prepares each year a Get-Go spreadsheet with relevant data on each student in the school imported from the District’s Data Management/Student Information System.

If you are interested in more specifics on this process, feel free to read my earlier July 25, 2020 Blog:

“Identifying Students with Back-to-School Social, Emotional, and Behavioral Needs: How to Screen Without Screening.”


. . . or look up our Monograph, The Get-Go Process: Transferring Students’ Multi-Tiered Information and Data from One School Year to the Next


Meanwhile, thanks so much for your interest and comments.



Letter to the Editor #2

   From a post of our last Blog to the National Association of School Psychologists’ Community Forum, I received the following comment:

Hi Howie,

I read with great interest your blog regarding the harmful effects of an outdated NCLB policy: the 4-year cohort grad rate. I started out as a high school English teacher in 1998 and witnessed the changes you spoke about, including the shifting cutoff scores for state testing. It was lunacy.

I wanted to follow up with you regarding the increasingly popular movement of co-teaching at the high school level in which a special education teacher (in theory) teaches alongside a content area specialist in classes that are supposed to somehow address both the core curriculum and remediation. That gap may be as large as fourth grade skills in 9th and 10th grade level math, English, and science coursework. Students earn their HS credits in core areas “on time”, advance in the sequence, and their percentage of time in special education decreases because they are now technically in a general education class. I have found scant empirical evidence that this approach is effective for low achieving students, and the Murawski books our co-teaching staff were provided included mostly self-referential citations. For example, the author recommends that only 20% of the class is comprised of “at-risk” learners (i.e., 504, special ed, ELL, individuals retaking a class) but also states that a 30% threshold might be more pragmatic—with no evidence to support. Effectively, Special ed teachers are reallocated to the general education setting with little time for remediation and case management, with more time spent learning content mastery of grade level coursework.

I wonder if you have any research or opinions on the co-teaching movement and its effectiveness, which is a very expensive endeavor that has increased in use in my district over the last four years as a means to support graduation in a four-year timeline.

_ _ _ _ _

My Response:

Good morning,

Thanks for reading my Blog and for your e-mail.

Yes. I am well-aware of the co-teaching movement, but am not really an expert in it. When I worked for the Special Education Unit in the Arkansas Department of Education, we had a very successful state-wide co-teaching program (with Marilyn Friend as the lead consultant) for the 13 years I was there. It continues today.

As you know, there are a number of co-teaching models and configurations and—unlike the general education focus of my Blog—these models involve students with disabilities.

The "bottom line" for me, first, is that we should never do an "intervention" (broadly framing co-teaching as an instructional intervention) with a student with a disability (SWD) unless it will benefit them academically or otherwise.

Thus, I believe that the "co-teaching question" is one that should be asked at every IEP meeting. Indeed, if it will not benefit a specific student, then why do it?

Note that I have never seen an IEP team do ask this question, but I think it's actually a good idea.

_ _ _ _ _

Indeed, District Directors of Special Education typically make their own independent decision as to whether or not a school or their district will "do" co-teaching.

But, as in my original Blog, that brings us back to another State Department of Education policy issue.

The U.S. Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP) has long interpreted the Least Restrictive Environment (LRE) element of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA; 2004) to mean that "every SWD should be educated in a regular education classroom in the general education curriculum at least 80% of the time.”

In fact, this LRE criterion is one of the 17 annual Special Education Indicators that every district is evaluated on each year by its State Department of Education. This is because every state is evaluated on the same Indicators each year by OSEP.

And if a district is out-of-compliance on this (or other) Indicator(s), there are clear procedural and, eventually, financial penalties over time.

Significantly, this LRE percentage has existed since 2004, it is NOT research based, and NO state to my knowledge has EVER met the 80% criterion—largely because students in some of the 13 disability areas covered by IDEA simply cannot be successfully educated in a regular education classroom in the general education curriculum at least 80% of the time.

But this policy and its annual evaluation results in District Directors of Special Education trying, nonetheless, to do exactly this.

And what is their solution? Co-Teaching.

Indeed, many districts use co-teaching in all of their schools. But this is done not because it is the most effective way to teach all of their SWDs, but as a way to avoid getting in trouble with the LRE Indicator.

And this occurs even when everyone knows that Co-Teaching works best when the co-teaching general and special education teachers are (a) trained, coached, and supervised together; (b) develop and sustain good working relationships together; and (c) are both well-versed in the academic areas being taught, and in ways to differentiate, accommodate, and modify their instruction for the specific SWDs that they share.

And these characteristics do not just “magically” appear when two teachers are thrown—unaware—into a co-teaching relationship (which I have seen more often than not).

_ _ _ _ _

Anyways, to answer your question, I am not up-to-speed in this research area. I could Google it. . . but you might want to invest 30 minutes of your time to do this, because you know specifically what you are looking for.

OSEP has districts track what happens to SWDs for a few years after graduation, so that data might give some picture of co-teaching success at your local level. . . but that doesn’t necessarily validate co-teaching.

Has anyone in your district done an anonymous survey of your general education teachers, special education teachers, students (both with and without disabilities), and parents to evaluate their perceptions of co-teaching? I think that would be interesting.

_ _ _ _ _ _

Just a few reflections on your e-mail. Let me know your thoughts (if you would like). . . and I hope some of these reflections are useful.




   This Blog continued the discussion from our last Blog that asked:

“How do you teach high school students who are two or more academic years behind in their foundational literacy, math, and writing skills?”

   The discussion was prompted by two real “Letters to the Editor” that we responded to.

   The responses discussed the importance of addressing students’ significant academic gaps in high school by:

  • Encouraging university Teacher Training programs to teach their teachers how to diagnostically assess the root causes of students’ learning gaps, and then how to close the gaps through interventions linked to these causes;
  • Recognizing (and directly addressing the fact that) many students’ gaps in high school were gaps that originated when they were in elementary or middle school. . . and that these gaps (a) were missed, (b) were not effectively addressed, and/or (c) were not well communicated to the “next school” when the students transitioned from grade to grade; and
  • Expressing concerns when co-teaching is used especially when the students with the largest gaps are receiving special education services as students with disabilities.

_ _ _ _ _

   Thanks so much to those of you who read my bi-monthly Blog, think about the issues or recommendations that we share, discuss them with your colleagues, and (even then) share your comments and perspectives with me.

   This past week, I had a series of Zoom calls with colleagues from a number of my Grant sites who have teachers in this week for training, and students in next week for the beginning of the new school year.

   As you make your own transition from Summer to Semester One, know that I am always available for a free one-hour consultation conference call to help you and your colleagues move “to the next level of excellence” this new school year.

   Please feel free to reach out and let’s talk.