What Every Principal Needs to Know About Special Education: Part 2 Reflection

Below is a reflection on part 2 of Margaret J. McLaughlin’s book called, What Every Principal Needs to Know about Special Education as an assignment for my EDL 277 course, Current Issues in Special Education Administration, at Drake University.

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Reading over section 2 of McLaughlin’s book, several key themes emerged. First, McLaughlin begins by reminding the reader about the historical model of isolating special education students away from general education students. The unintended consequence of this isolation was the creation of two separate learning systems for students with and without disabilities. In essence, students were theoretically learning the same guaranteed and viable curriculum. However, McLaughlin indirectly asserts that the systems were far from being in alignment.

Within the current reality of recent educational legislation, specifically the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act of 2001, and the more recently adopted Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), such systems of isolation are no longer permitted to be in operation. Instead, this new legislation has created a dramatic shift in both the philosophy and approach regarding special education in our school systems.

Gone are the days of creating segregated systems of learning for special education students. Instead, the legal expectation and requirement has shifted to one where all students are, first and foremost, general education students. Therefore, the more modern approach of special education is to create the conditions and supports necessary to enable special education students to learn and be successful in general education classrooms and within the general education curriculum.

McLaughlin aptly notes that while special education students are general education students first, they also may need additional supports and skill building in areas not served in the general education curriculum. Therefore, our schools have a moral imperative and legal responsibility to prepare every students for success beyond high school. While students with mild or more severe disabilities may have some limitations in their abilities to perform specific tasks, all students are capable of success. Therefore, it becomes imperative that our school systems work to ensure that all students have the skills necessary for their future success, whatever that may look like.

Another key topic in this section was the difference between accommodations and modifications. Often, even among educators working in the field, these words are used interchangeably and there appears to be some general confusion regarding the distinction between the two terms.

According to McLaughlin, the intent of accommodations is to offset the impact of a student’s disability so he/she can learn the same content as his/her peers w/o disabilities. Accommodations do not change the content or performance expectations, but may change the sequence in which information is presented, or may entail differentiated instruction. When creating learning accommodations, it is important for the content-area and special education teacher to have opportunities to collaborate to ensure that the accommodations do not alter the major learning outcomes expected of students in the curriculum. This will ensure the maintenance of a guaranteed and viable curriculum for all students. McLaughlin stressed that the principal also has a crucial oversight role to ensure that the accommodations being made are best practice and align with and reflect the needs of the individual student, not what is convenient or readily available.

Modifications, on the other hand, involve changes to the performance expectations, topics taught, curriculum sequences, or the type of instruction being delivered. McLaughlin asks educators to exercise great caution in creating modified learning experiences for special education students, as they often reduce a student’s opportunity to learn the critical knowledge, skills, and concepts needed for long-term success. She also notes that modifications can reduce the rigor of the curriculum to the extent that a student no longer has access to the general education curriculum, which is a legal requirement.

Another idea that really connected with me was the idea of creating standards-based IEP’s. More and more educators are implementing standards-based or standards-referenced learning practices in the general education curriculum. In such a system, learning expectations are clearly communicated with students, enabling them to continually assess their level of learning in reference to a particular learning standard. Systems like this enable students to use performance data to self-diagnose areas of learning deficiency. Students are able demonstrate learning on a timeline that is more individualized for their ability level. Students can accelerate, participate in remediation, and gain a deeper understanding of course content through receiving more targeted feedback and practice opportunities.

If this is educational best practice in the general education curriculum and if all students are general education students, why not utilize such approaches in all facets of the educational system? For example, could such practices be implemented be when writing and monitoring Individual Education Plans (IEPs) for special education students? McLaughlin suggested that such a process was attainable when content-area and special education teachers are given opportunities by principals to engage in collaboration centered on the identification of priority learning standards, differentiated learning opportunities, and the creation of a system of supports to ensure the success of students with disabilities in the general education classroom.

The last part of this focused on the need for principals to cultivate relationships and build partnerships with parents. As educators, we must remain mindful that we are entrusted with that which is the most sacred to our parents: their children. McLaughlin reminds us that our parents have a personal relationship with their child that starts at birth and spans a lifetime. Our parents knew our students first and they know them best. Therefore, they represent a crucial component to the learning success of our students. We must therefore seek to leverage their expertise and unique insights about their child to create more personalized learning experiences for every student.

Furthermore, McLaughlin notes that our parents of students with disabilities often have unique anxieties about their child in school, including fears about their student’s safety, acceptance by their peers, teasing, bullying, and fears their student is not learning or making enough progress. Sometimes, the only interaction these parents have with the school system is in IEP meetings, which for the parents can serve as a constant reminder of their student’s disability. In such meetings, McLaughlin notes that parents often do not feel competent to make critical decisions, relying on experts and professionals to explain to them what their child needs. This requires a great deal of trust in people that are often strangers or mere acquaintances to the parents.

Our parents of students with disabilities deserve better. They deserve to be genuinely heard and listened to. They deserve more opportunities to engage in and provide insight on their children’s education and the education of all students with disabilities. Therefore, McLaughlin advocates that educators, especially principals, work to create ongoing partnerships with parents based upon open communication, trust, respect, and time on the part of the staff and the building leader.

From such experiences, parents will build trust in the people working with their child. As an ancillary benefit, they will also gain a better understanding of the system their child is learning in and develop a broader perspective of where the system is moving, why it is moving there, and how special education and the educational needs of their child fit into this system.



  1. McLaughlin, M.J. (2009). What every principal needs to know about special education. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.


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