The Unique Potential of All Learners

Rachel Brody, Managing Director, Special Education and Ability Initiative, Teach For America, 2007 Corps Member

Shayla Cooke (New Mexico 2007) teaches 6 - 8 grade Special Education at Navajo Middle School


Across the Teach For All network, our teachers have the honor of working with diverse learners.  In some systems, “special education” is an established field of study or department of education focus. In others, little or no specific supports exist for children with learning differences (which we are defining here as learning profiles that are not aligned with the expectations and teaching methodologies prevalent in mainstream school systems—including, but not limited to: dyslexia, attention issues, and learning disabilities). Yet in almost all of the communities, schools, and classrooms where we work, children with learning differences are under-served.

At Teach For America, we launched the Special Education and Ability Initiative in March of 2014 to expand our efforts in partnering with students, parents, community and national organizations to ensure that ALL children have access to an excellent education. Currently, the USA is making a major shift in how we orient toward special education and learning differences.  “In too many states the outcomes for students with [learning differences]” are simply too low,” Arne Duncan, US Secretary of Education, shared as he discussed the reasons behind a recent shift from evaluating states based on compliance (completing paperwork) to actual outcomes for kids. Recent studies show that in the United States, students with [learning differences] comprise 25% of the nation’s multiple out-of-school suspensions, and 23% of in-school arrests—despite constituting just 12% of the overall student population. United States Department of Education data reveals significantly different four-year graduation rates between students classified with learning [differences] and those in general education—a gap approaching 40% in several states. As a consequence, the National Center for Learning Disabilities informs us that nearly half of adults with learning [differences] in the United States report being unemployed.

Globally, people with learning differences make up the largest minority group, with about 10% of the world’s population living with a disability. In Nepal, where our first Network Learning Trip will take place for the Oak Foundation Learning Differences Fellowship, 85% of students who are not in school have a [learning difference].  Italy is the only European country in which almost all—99%—of students with [learning differences] are included in mainstream schools.

“I've met families whose children stay at home all day because the local school won't allow their child to attend and the family can't afford private schools or institutions. I've met 8-year-olds who are on the verge of dropping out because they can't control their behavior, struggle to read and do math no matter how hard they try, and truly believe they're dumb. I've met young adults who can hardly form sentences or interact in public, but who probably have similar disabilities to the children I used to teach and who are on the honor roll right now in high school. But for every instance of heart-break that I've seen, I've been reminded by how possible this is to solve.”

—Jessica Shyu, National Advisor and 2005 Corps Member at Teach For America and former Head of Training at Teach For China

Six years teaching in Washington, D.C., and summers collaborating with teachers internationally—specifically with Teach For Lebanon and Noored Kooli—have made me a believer in the importance of collaboration for stronger outcomes. Through each of these experiences, I’ve seen that classroom complexities cross borders and that we must work together, globally, to support students with learning differences. The more that I collaborate and learn with and from my international colleagues, the better I become as an educator, problem-solver, and global thinker.

In Lebanon, I worked with two Fellows who spent countless hours crafting manipulatives out of scraps, writing songs to teach new skills to their primary school students, and always referring to the unique potential of each student in their summer school class. By the end of the summer session, I was touched by one of their students—Mohammed*—who told me that those same Fellows were the first teachers who believed that he could “do math” and supported his learning. 

In Estonia, a teacher (Mona Mägi–3rd cohort) shared that “we must gain [our students’] trust and teach our students to think on their own so that they are choosing to learn and will continue to make that choice again and again—far beyond their time in your classroom.” Differentiation, or altering the delivery, content and/or assessment so that all students can learn effectively, allows us to gain the trust of our students. ALL students deserve the opportunity to choose learning and it is up to us—as educators—to allow that possibility.   

Taking these lessons with me back to Washington D.C., my students were able to fulfill their potential and reach milestones because they were held to high expectations, their instruction fit their unique learning profiles, and they had teachers, parents, and their community working together to support them in choosing learning. 

In the USA, it was only in 1975 that students with [learning differences] won the right to a free and appropriate public education and at the same time, overrepresentation of minority children in special education was already identified as an issue of concern.  This continues to be the case today.  Many diverse learners are still marginalized and oppressed in our education system and we do not have the privilege of silence.

Imagine the contributions our world would miss if we dismissed the brilliant and talented individuals who have learning differences  F. Scott Fitzgerald, one of the greatest American authors, was expelled from school at the age of 12 for his perceived inability to focus or complete work. It is likely that he had ADHD or a related attention difference. Award-winning actor, comedian, and writer, Whoopi Goldberg was diagnosed with a learning disability as an adult. Agatha Christie, the most famous mystery novelist of her time, had dysgraphia, a learning difference that makes the act of writing by hand difficult. It has been said that Albert Einstein had difficulty with social interactions, was sensitive to tactile stimulation, and was extremely intelligent—a quality confirmed by his amazing contributions to science—yet found language difficult and struggled in school.

Who is in your classroom? Do you believe in them?

It is imperative that our students with learning differences have teachers who believe in them. The Teach For All Oak Foundation Learning Differences Fellowship is designed to ensure that all educators across the network have the knowledge, skills, and mindsets to hold ALL students to high expectations and support them in reaching their fullest unique potential. In order to accomplish this goal, the Fellowship will engage 15 teacher coaches from the network and help them gain a deeper understanding of learning differences, as well as the tools to coach and support teachers who address learning differences in their classrooms.  As 15 teacher coaches learn and grow alongside experts in the field and mentors from within and outside of the Teach For All network to gain a deeper understanding of learning differences, we at Teach For America are humbled, excited and ready to embark on this journey together.


*This student’s name has been changed.