Special Education Directors Hope to Sway Federal Policy
State special education directors hope that when Congress takes up the reauthorization of the No Child Left Behind Act next year, it will consider making changes that more closely link special education and general education.
“There’s one education community, and we’re all members,” said Jacquelyn J. Thompson, the president of the Alexandria, Va.-based National Association of State Directors of Special Education, which held its annual meeting here this month.
That theme was echoed in the seminars presented during the Nov. 11-14 conference. Principals and superintendents made presentations alongside special educators, with the common refrain that changes that result in educational gains among students in special education also benefit the general student population.
“At the front lines, it’s all coming together because of our partnership,” said Ms. Thompson, who is the special education director for the Michigan Department of Education.
Among the changes state directors said they’d welcome is an easing of reporting requirements on students in special education now mandated by the U.S. Department of Education. The 2004 reauthorization of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act included a number of new provisions on areas of special education that states must monitor, particularly those related to overrepresentation of minorities and implementation of the IDEA’s guarantee of a free, appropriate public education for students with disabilities.
Some state officials have called the new IDEA monitoring efforts burdensome, and duplicative of other efforts already required under the No Child Left Behind Act, which became law in 2002.
“The disjointed nature of some of the data collection wastes a lot of time,” said Mabrey Whetstone, the state special education director in Alabama. “It takes away from my time as a state director to collect this data.”
The No Child Left Behind law requires schools to test all students in grades 3-8 in reading and math and separate the results for certain subgroups, including students with disabilities. Schools must move their students, including those with disabilities, toward proficiency to make “adequate yearly progress” under the law.
RTI at Forefront
Joanne C. Phillips, the director of special education for Arizona, also suggested that some of the federal reporting requirements for special education should be just as applicable for general education. For example, special education directors are expected to report to the federal government how students fare after they leave school.
There is no similar federal requirement for students in general education. “But is it any less important to know what their outcomes are when they leave school?” Ms. Phillips said.
“Response to intervention,” an instructional framework that is promoted in the IDEA regulations as a possible technique for diagnosing learning disabilities, also should make its way into general education policy, several directors said. Because RTI is addressed only in the special education law and only in connection with learning disabilities, it is too easy to dismiss as a subject that only special educators need to know about, they said.
“RTI is not just for special education. It’s a system of providing education that works for all kids,” Mr. Whetstone argued. Under the method, students who are struggling are provided increasingly intense lessons to address deficiencies. The RTI model, its proponents say, can also be used to address other student issues, including behavioral problems. ("RTI Method Gets Boost in Spec. Ed.," Nov. 30, 2005.)
“We do know that we can preach to general ed until the cows come home, but that doesn’t always mean they’ll do it,” Ms. Phillips said. Encouragement of RTI in the No Child Left Behind law would ensure “a more uniform application,” she said.
The directors focused their comments on the No Child Left Behind law, which is due for renewal in 2007, because the IDEA is expected to stay untouched until it comes up for reauthorization in 2009. The special education law, which governs the education of 6.8 million children, was reauthorized two years ago, and the final regulations related to that version of the law were released by the Department of Education in August of this year.
In addition, there appears to be no Democratic or Republican approach to special education, said Bill East, the executive director of the special education directors’ group.
“IDEA is such a nonpartisan bill. Everybody seems to support it, no matter what party is in power,” Mr. East said.
Mr. East also said he doesn’t expect more money from the federal government for special education.
The convention also included a presentation from Alexa Posny, the director of the federal Education Department’s office of special education policy and a former state director of special education in Kansas. Like the current state directors, she also spoke of binding special education and general education policy together more closely, earning one of her largest applause lines when she spoke about response to intervention. The Education Department supports the technique but is not planning to dictate to the states how they should implement it, she said.
“When I think of RTI, I think you’re going to surprise us with your ingenuity,” she said.
John H. Hager, the assistant secretary for the Education Department’s office of special education and rehabilitative services, also spoke about a restructuring in the department’s rehabilitative-services administration, which oversees grant programs to people with disabilities to aid with employment and independent living. The changes will be helpful as educators plan transition services for students in special education, he believes.
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