Joey Hassell Takes Your Questions

Assistant Commissioner for Special Populations Joey Hassell

The department sends out a monthly Educator Update to teachers across the state, including top resources and current news (you can subscribe to the Educator Update from your district email address). In our March edition we announced that Joey Hassell, assistant commissioner for Special Populations, would be taking teacher questions in our monthly Q&A series.

Joey’s division oversees programs for English Learners, special education, early childhood education, and Response to Instruction and Intervention, among others. While we got a slew of insightful questions from teachers, we chose three that were both commonly asked and seemed relevant for most readers.

Joey sat down to answer these questions.

1. What resources are available for teachers who instruct students with the most significant cognitive disabilities?

In Tennessee, we are dedicated to ensuring that all children have the opportunity to succeed. We know that each child is different and that our instruction needs to be tailored to meet the varying needs of our students. While we need to differentiate instruction, it’s also critical that we maintain high expectations for all kids, including our children with the most significant cognitive disabilities. For this reason, the Common Core State Standards also apply to students with cognitive disabilities. We will no longer have alternative standards for this student population. Rather, we will have supports for these students to access the more rigorous standards.

You might think about student access to the standards as you think about access to a building. One of the iconic features of the U.S. Capitol is the long line of steps approaching the entrance. Until the Americans with Disabilities Act was passed, it was very difficult for citizens in wheelchairs to access the capitol and other public places. Building wheelchair ramps provided an access point for these individuals. However, our new public buildings that are designed with access for all in mind are much more natural than adding on a ramp at a later date.

The Common Core State Standards were similarly designed to be accessed by all students. To support teachers in scaffolding the standards for students, we created a wiki page with instructional resources and solutions for instructing students with the most significant cognitive disabilities. The site is open to all Tennessee educators. If you have questions about the wiki site, or about the alternative assessment, please contact Lori Nixon, director of special education assessment.

2. How will students that do not require Tier II interventions spend their time while teachers are helping their peers that do require Tier II interventions?

Tier II interventions are essentially small group instruction. As you know, with any small group instruction, clear expectations and procedures help this run smoothly. If the classroom teacher is providing Tier II interventions in the classroom with a small group of students for 30 minutes, there are many options for the other students in the room to work independently, but we believe there are some important steps that need to be taken before this process can be done effectively.  First, teachers need to establish management routines for students who are working independently.  These routines can include ways for students to seek help when needed, ways for students to transition to activities, and ways for students to work with peers. Second, teachers need to carefully plan for this time. Teachers need to plan for Tier II interventions so that materials are ready, can be easily accessed, and students can start and end on time.  Because a large group of students will be working independently, teachers should do their best to design materials that will keep these students engaged, minimize discipline issues, and provide students the opportunity to learn in meaningful and independent ways. While students are working independently, it is best that they are not exposed to new content.  Independent student work should focus on practicing and enriching content they have already learned. This time would also be an excellent opportunity for collaborating with peers on learned content.

3. How is a child labeled gifted, and once they are deemed gifted, how do parents ensure they are given appropriate enrichment activities? Is this all a part of Response to Instruction and Intervention (RTI²)?

In the state of Tennessee gifted services are provided through special education.  According to the state criteria, Intellectually Gifted describes a child whose intellectual abilities and potential for achievement are so outstanding the child’s educational performance is adversely affected. “Adverse affect” means the general curriculum alone is inadequate to appropriately meet the student’s educational needs.

Eligibility for services as a gifted student is based on evaluation in each of the following components:  educational performance, creativity, and cognition/intelligence.  Anyone, including parents and teachers, may refer a student for screening and/or possible evaluation.  The assessment team considers screening information, classroom performance, and previous evaluations to determine if a comprehensive evaluation is warranted.  If found eligible, gifted students receive services through an Individual Education Program (IEP).  This program is developed by a team of professionals and the student’s parents based on the needs of the student.

RTI² is a multi-tiered framework for delivering high quality instruction and intervention to both at risk and advanced students.  These interventions are provided through general education based on students’ needs and do not require comprehensive testing.  Within the RTI² framework, all students receive high quality, core instruction.  Students who demonstrate a need above and beyond core instruction receive additional interventions in their targeted area(s) of need.  For high achieving or advanced learners, this may mean additional enrichment opportunities.  If students demonstrate a need above and beyond what can be provided through these tiered interventions, they may be referred for screening and/or evaluation to consider their eligibility as a student who is Intellectually Gifted.

Next month’s Q & A will be with Erin O’Hara, assistant commissioner for data and research. Erin’s division runs the logistics of state testing, produces the state’s Report Card, and calculates teacher and school effect scores, or TVAAS.

Please email your questions to Educator.Communications@tn.gov. You can subscribe to the monthly Educator Update from your district email address.