Experts team up to improve outcomes for often-overlooked student population

The shared belief that all students have a right to high-quality academic instruction has brought together experts from across the country to improve access to the general education curriculum for students who are deafblind with significant cognitive disabilities.

Accessible Teaching, Learning, and Assessment Systems (ATLAS) and the National Center on Deaf-Blindness (NCDB) have partnered to create teaching resources for this often-overlooked population of students. The project is funded by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Special Education Programs.

ATLAS promotes learning and improved outcomes for all students, with a focus on students with significant cognitive disabilities. NCDB serves children and young adults who are deafblind, with a focus on education. The collaborative project uses research data from both centers to understand more about the student population.

ATLAS Director Meagan Karvonen, ATLAS Associate Director Russell Swinburne Romine and longtime ATLAS collaborator Karen Erickson from the Center for Literacy and Disability Studies at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill join NCDB Director Sam Morgan on the project.

The group's first objective was to identify the student population. Karvonen’s report, Students with Significant Cognitive Disabilities and Dual Sensory Loss, draws on expansive ATLAS and NCDB data to address that topic.

“Educators face a range of challenges in providing access to the general education curriculum for students who are deafblind with significant cognitive disabilities,” Morgan said. “What we know, combined with what ATLAS knows, fills a profound gap in helping us demonstrate the challenge and importance of identifying this population of students as early as possible.”

Karvonen's work also supports the project's second goal. Researchers will use ATLAS learning-map models to create teaching resources that support a shift from behavioral and skill-based instruction to conceptually rich academic instruction.

The two centers recently hosted a panel of experts in deafblind education from 14 states. The ATLAS team presented learning-map models that teachers can use to support the shift in instruction. Conceptual, map-based instruction is designed to move students beyond memorization, so they understand why they are doing what they are doing. The cognitive skills related to perception, organization and communication benefit students throughout their lives as those skills are applied to a wide range of academic subject matter.

“The first two days were difficult for the participants. We were not only asking them to review the developing resources but also to shift their ways of thinking,” Morgan said. “But by the third day, they were seeing the potential benefits of this approach.”

Swinburne Romine said the team is excited to see the shift in thinking and to build on the work ATLAS does to create resources for an expanded population of students and teachers.

“Special education teachers are among the most dedicated and hardworking people on the planet with little spare time to read hundreds of research articles,” Swinburne Romine said. “The maps show them multiple pathways by which students can achieve different knowledge, skills and understandings and put volumes of research-based findings at their fingertips.”