A shift in responsibility for special education research within the Department of Education has some advocates concerned that the needs of children with disabilities may get lost in the shuffle.
The reauthorized Individuals with Disabilities Education Act moves special education research from its former home within the department’s office of special education programs to the 3-year-old Institute of Education Sciences, the primary research arm.
The institute’s focus is on improving achievement in core academic areas, not the “diverse academic, developmental, technology, social, behavioral, and transition needs of children with disabilities,” said Kim Musheno, a policy analyst with the Association of University Centers on Disabilities, a Silver Spring, Md.-based group that opposes the move.
In addition, the move appears to contradict the findings of the 2002 President’s Commission on Excellence in Special Education, Ms. Musheno said. The commission considered whether research should remain under its former home in the special education office, and concluded that it was a good fit there.
Supporters say moving special education research to the Institute of Education Sciences, which has an $83.7 million budget for fiscal 2005, makes special education a part of the larger educational research agenda.
“You want to have the education of special ed kids and regular ed kids integrated,” said Connie Garner, the policy director for disability and special populations in the office of Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., who was a co-sponsor of the reauthorized IDEA.
“You’ve got two-thirds of the kids with disabilities in regular education classrooms,” Ms. Garner said. “They need to be part of the larger research community.”
The research shift is part of a series of changes that came with last year’s reauthorization of the main federal special education law, which affects 6.7 million children with disabilities. The revised IDEA also eliminated a 13-year-old panel, the Federal Interagency Coordinating Council.
The FICC was an advisory body to Cabinet secretaries and made recommendations to the federal agencies working to improve programs for young children with disabilities. Lawmakers determined the agency and its recommendations were not being used effectively, said Ms. Garner, the former executive director of the group.
A ‘Gold Standard’?
Advocates for special education are concerned that the Institute of Education Sciences’ focus on what it has called the “gold standard” of research—randomized individual trials—doesn’t make sense for studying certain disabilities that occur relatively infrequently.
Valuable information can be gleaned from studying one child over time, for example, rather than trying to create a program for groups of students and then studying their progress against that of a control group, said Jamie Ruppmann, the director of government relations for the Baltimore-based TASH, an association for people with severe disabilities.
“There is absolutely no one standard of research that is a gold standard,” Ms. Ruppmann said. “It is our concern that kids will get lost,” she said.
Gerald E. Sroufe, the director of government relations for the Washington-based American Educational Research Association, said his organization has taken a wait-and-see attitude toward the change. Mr. Sroufe said he saw reasons to support the shift.
“What can be made of this has yet to be determined,” he said. “It can be positive.”
Ms. Garner said that the change would have to be monitored to alleviate the concerns of advocacy groups and researchers.
“There has to be good oversight once you move it over there,” she said. “We’ll be watching it.”
Researcher David W. Johnson, a professor of educational policy at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities, said he is waiting to see how or whether Education Department programs might change in President Bush’s second term.
“I don’t know what it means totally,” Mr. Johnson said of the change. “It’s a done deal. We’re waiting for further information about the leadership of the office.”
A version of this article appeared in the January 26, 2005 edition of Education Week as Revised IDEA Shifts Control of Special Education Research