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Special Education Conference Puts Emphasis on Collaboration

With schools moving to include in regular classrooms more students with disabilities, special educators must also reach out to their colleagues in general education, health care, and other related fields, speakers and participants at a meeting here this month agreed.

Those attending the National Association of State Directors of Special Education's 62nd annual meeting also agreed that many underlying problems need to be resolved before special education becomes a full part of the mainstream.

"The very title [special education] tells us we have a problem," said Gerald N. Tirozzi, the executive director of the National Association of Secondary School Principals and a keynote speaker. "We continue to use different descriptions for programs, whether it be general ed or special ed."

The Nov. 13-17 meeting, with the theme Partnerships for a Unified System of Education, brought together a selection of speakers from a range of education fields to discuss how to collaborate better on the education of children with disabilities and how the changing demographics of the general student population will affect special educators.

Despite meeting in rooms located above a hotel casino and down the hall from a wedding chapel, the mood among the state directors was all business as they tackled topics such as teacher training, finance reform, and accountability.

While nearly every state, as well as the federal government, is talking about holding all students to higher standards, Mr. Tirozzi said, students with disabilities are at risk of being overlooked or penalized. For instance, more and more states and districts are adopting high-stakes testing and making administrators accountable for student progress, he said. Those factors could stir a backlash against students with disabilities if they fail to perform well on tests, he added.

In addition, Mr. Tirozzi argued, if initiatives such as vouchers take hold, special education students will likely see discrimination by private schools without the means to accommodate them.

Mr. Tirozzi, who stepped down early this year as the assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education in the U.S. Department of Education, also urged the participants to play a greater role in supporting federal initiatives that could benefit disabled students indirectly. He cited as examples President Clinton's funding proposals for after-school programs, reading initiatives, and class-size reduction.

Nevada has already seen special education benefits from state efforts to reduce class sizes in the early grades, state schools Superintendent Mary Peterson said.

"Our achievement has been significant, but not as much as we'd hoped," she said. "But one little-known side effect of class-size reduction is that it has reduced referrals to special education" as teachers have gotten to know the needs of students in their smaller classes better.

In addition, the federal Education Department's office of special education and rehabilitative services is beginning several new projects with local and state officials to better coordinate services for the 1 million disabled students served under Title I, the main federal program for economically disadvantaged children, said Charles Laster, a Title I group leader in the office of elementary and secondary education. And the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services is also working with OSERS to help better coordinate children's mental health services.

In another federal move to increase accountability, the 1997 amendments to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act require states to implement by July 1 of next year a system of alternative assessments for students with disabilities. Those assessments should be tied to state standards, said Stephen Elliott, an educational psychology professor and senior research fellow at the University of Wisconsin—Madison.

"Aligning content standards, test objectives, and the classroom curriculum is critical to meaningful assessment and accountability," Mr. Elliott said. States should also give schools flexibility to allow some students with disabilities to take regular assessments in some subjects and alternate tests in others, he added.

In addition, he said, state standards are beginning to affect the individualized education plans required for special education students.

But at a session on teacher education, some participants noted the need for special educators to become better versed in state and local standards and accountability issues. "Special education teachers are not as adept at state and local standards," and they are usually the ones who write a student's goals into the IEP, said Rebecca Walk, the state director of special education in Wyoming.

--Joetta L. Sack

Vol. 19, Issue 13, Page 6

Published in Print: November 24, 1999, as Reporter's Notebook
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