Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Teaching and Leadership


Beth A. Ferri


Disability Studies, No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top, Special Education, Standards-Based Reform

Subject Categories



A critical, interpretivist, qualitative study, this project examines how standards-based reform impacts special education at an urban school, called Westvale Elementary School. The school was labeled a Persistently Low Achieving school under the No Child Left Behind Act and was thus required to undergo a "transformation" process. The demographics of the school at the time of the study were: over 95% free and reduced lunch, 40% Limited English Proficiency, and over 20% students with disabilities. The racial makeup of the school is: 50% Hispanic or Latino, 35% Black or African American, and 10% white. My methodological approach drew primarily upon 19 in-depth, semi-structured interviews with teachers, administrators, and policy makers. All participants were either associated with, working at, or overseeing Westvale Elementary School. I also conducted observations at over 15 public events relevant to the study. Interview and observation data were contextualized through an examination of public documents, such as policy statements or media reports.

Findings indicate that the transformation process that Westvale was required to undertake was both a dramatic and sanction-laden one. For instance, prior to the transformation process, Westvale operated fully inclusive classrooms and afterwards the school shifted to a variety of self-contained, tracked, and pull-out programs. Thus, a key finding of this study was that standards-based reform impacted the physical inclusion of students with disabilities, even if they were accessing, at least to some degree, regular education content. Findings also showed how standards-based reform policies, including the implementation of the Common Core standards, testing, teacher and leader evaluations, and accountability systems significantly impacted special education, particularly in this "failing" school. Financial incentives, the media, and research all played distinct roles in disseminating standards-based reform ideology, which forced failing urban schools to adopt standards-based reform policy, even if local educators and administrators believed that the policies negatively impacted students. Unfortunately, the study also documents how special education is often an after-thought during local, district, state, and national policy-making, which resulted in policies ill-suited for the needs of students with disabilities. Finally, I illustrate how standards-based reform relies on discourse that blames teachers for the failures of urban schools, essentially removing the need to remedy the inequities existent in our educational system. I conclude this study with a series of recommendations directed to teachers, administrators, and policy-makers.


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