Closing the achievement gap for students with disabilities


Historically across the state of Iowa, students with disabilities have not been making acceptable achievement gains. In fact, in a span of 12 years, Iowa went from 5th to 25th in national student reading performance. The gap in performance between Iowa’s learners with and without disabilities is one of the nation’s highest (ranking 48 out of the 50 states), pointing to a need for change. Implementing high quality Specially Designed Instruction (SDI) has been shown to reduce the achievement gap between students with disabilities and those without.

Specially Designed Instruction provides students with disabilities with explicit, systematic instructional supports and services. The process engages educators and families in diagnosing, designing, and delivering instruction based on the student’s unique needs in order to remove barriers that result from the student’s disability.

So what is so special about SDI?

  • SDI encourages educators to utilize students’ strengths, interests, and preferences to sustain learner engagement.
  • SDI is designed through collaboration with families and highly qualified educators.
  • SDI can be delivered in various settings across the school day.
  • SDI supports learners to use tools, materials, or strategies to reach grade-level aligned goals.
  • SDI is closely monitored to ensure that the intended results are being achieved (i.e., a reduction in the learning gap).
  • SDI does not involve lowering standards or expectations for the student.

Although SDI is good for all students, it is required for students with disabilities.

The Iowa Department of Education, in collaboration with all nine of Iowa’s Area Education Agencies (AEAs), has developed high quality professional learning packages focused on improving specially designed instruction for students with disabilities. The packages are intended to be fully implemented in every district in Iowa by 2023.

Central Rivers AEA has prioritized meeting the academic and behavioral needs of students with disabilities and provides numerous supports and services to schools, teachers, and students, including professional learning and coaching support. Currently, Central Rivers AEA is partnering with 12 districts and 29 schools to strengthen their implementation of high quality SDI practices. Questions about SDI and how it’s making a difference in your school district? Contact Brena Huber, Central Rivers AEA School Psychologist at bhuber@centralriversaea.org.

Brena Huber

Brena Huber, School Psychologist

Brena Huber is a School Psychologist with Central Rivers Area Education Agency (CRAEA) based in Cedar Falls. She can be reached at bhuber@centralriversaea.org. Central Rivers AEA serves over 65,000 students in 18 counties of Iowa.