05/23/2014 12:58 pm ET Updated Jul 23, 2014

Working Together to Support Students With Learning Differences

As managing director of Teach For America's Special Education and Ability Initiative, I was disappointed to see the critical work of our special education corps members mischaracterized in this open letter. With 5.7 million students in special education settings nationwide and 46 states facing teaching shortages in special education , adding capacity in this area is one of the most urgent issues facing our education system -- and it's imperative that we engage in transparent and productive dialogue, free of misinformation and finger-pointing, that will lead to better outcomes for students.

The reality is that students in our nation's highest-need communities have limited education opportunities when compared to their more privileged peers. They also face additional challenges of poverty in pursuit of a life-changing education. From not knowing where one's next meal will come from, to working to help financially support one's family, to being the primary caretaker of young siblings -- many of these challenges weigh heavily on students in low-income communities, including those with learning differences. Preparing all teachers to meet the social and academic needs of these students will greatly reduce the chances that they will be overlooked or misunderstood, with consequences that extend far beyond the classroom.

Nationally, students with disabilities comprise 25 percent of multiple out-of-school suspensions and 23 percent of in-school arrests -- despite constituting just 12 percent of the overall student population. When time in the classroom does not meet a student's needs and time out of the classroom is too frequent, disproportionately low graduation rates for students with learning disabilities result. U.S. Department of Education data reveals that several states have a significant gap -- some approaching 40 percent -- in four-year graduation rates between students classified with learning disabilities and those in general education. Additionally, The National Center for Learning Disabilities reports that nearly half of adults with learning disabilities are unemployed.

These outcomes are unacceptable. Working together, we must continue to build upon a culture where all teachers are trained to understand the unique learning needs of each student and provide education plans that address these needs.

Teach For America is proud to be an ally in the special education community -- working with families, communities, and partner organizations -- to do just that. We're bolstering corps member and alumni training around ability-based mindsets, differentiation, and inclusive practices. We're also working to expand parent and neighborhood partnerships, so that our special education corps members are continuing to learn from and with the people who know their students best. Our corps members do not clinically diagnose students. Diagnoses of learning differences have always been, and will continue to be, administered by certified school counselors, psychologists and medical professionals.

Over my six years of teaching and instructional coaching, I met a wide variety of students across inclusion, resource and self-contained settings. My students, who demonstrated a wide variety of learning differences, strengths, and challenges, worked with my colleagues, related services providers, their families and myself to make remarkable progress.

Ninth grader Vanessa would not talk for the first two months of school and was reading at a second-grade level. First grader LaTanya cried when math time started. Fourth grader Scott stuttered when it was time for him to share in class, and wouldn't read for more than five minutes.

By the end of the year, each of these students grew significantly. Vanessa read at a fifth grade level. LaTanya shared that "math is awesome," mastered grade-level standards, and even taught a small group how to use a math intervention that supported her. Scott shared voluntarily with the class, grew over 1.5 years in reading, and sustained reading for over 30 minutes at a time.

Vanessa, LaTanya, and Scott were able to fulfill their potential and reach milestones because they were held to high expectations and their instruction fit their unique learning profiles. Equipping educators to understand how all children learn leads to a future where society benefits from the diverse perspectives and talents of all individuals. I'm grateful to all special educators in this country for playing a critical role in ensuring that all children -- including those who learn differently -- receive an excellent education.