Every Student Succeeds Act

State ESSA Plans Fall Short on Spec. Ed., Advocates Say

By Christina A. Samuels — October 09, 2018 3 min read

The Every Student Succeeds Act required each state to write a plan describing how it would implement the new federal education law—and when it comes to students with disabilities, they missed a chance to be rigorous and comprehensive, says a special education advocacy group.

The National Center for Learning Disabilities analyzed each state’s plan under three key areas: holding districts and schools accountable, helping struggling schools, and collaborating to support all students.

In an analysis released Oct. 3, the organization noted:

• Thirty-three states do not separate out the performance of students with disabilities in their school rating systems, leading to concerns that a school could receive a good rating while still doing a poor job with special education.

• Only 18 states chose to have the same long-term academic goals for students with and without disabilities.

• Only 10 states have detailed descriptions of interventions meant for students with disabilities.

• Most states provided “very limited or no discussion” about English-learners who also have disabilities.

There were some bright spots. Minnesota was identified as a state that has strong and ambitious goals for all students, including those with disabilities.

Kentucky was lauded for how quickly it says it will intervene with low-performing schools to offer a comprehensive set of supports. And Oklahoma stands out in a positive way for how it linked its ESSA plan to teacher training the state is already doing as part of mandates under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

But those positive examples were not widespread. More than half of states don’t plan to intervene with schools until they have demonstrated three or more years of low performance with a particular subgroup of students, such as students in special education. And long-term goals for students with disabilities are weak.

Significant Shift

The ESSA plans marked a significant shift in the role of the federal government in creating education policy. Congress made it clear that states are supposed to take the lead in developing plans that work for their states.

“They didn’t do a good job in embracing it,” said Lynn Jennings, the director of national and state partnerships for Education Trust, and a member of the expert advisory panel for NCLD.

“What we would hear is, ‘We’ll do it’ "—support students with disabilities—" 'we just don’t want to write it down in a plan.’ And that’s so problematic,” Jennings said.

Advocates are particularly concerned that the plans generally made no connection with other federal special education mandates. Under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, all states have been required to create “state systemic improvement plans” that outline comprehensive and ambitious goals to boost school performance for students with disabilities.

That work has required states to gather information from stakeholders, analyze data, and create plans for implementation.

“We were hoping states would use that [systemic improvement plan] as a way to improve instruction for all kids, including kids with disabilities,” said Melody Musgrove, also a member of the NCLD advisory council. “I think that was a real missed opportunity.”

Currently a faculty member at the University of Mississippi, Musgrove served as the director of the federal office of special education programs from 2010 to 2016 under the Obama administration. It was under her leadership that the systemic improvement plan took shape. The Trump administration has not yet appointed a director of OSEP; the position is currently held by a career staffer.

Musgrove said she was also deeply concerned that many states haven’t set the same goals for students in special education as they have for general education students.

“It fundamentally undermines the principles of the IDEA, as well as the principles of what states say they stand for, which is that every child can learn,” she said.

Paying Attention

The group says that advocacy will play a big role in how these plans are actually put into action. In particular, advocates need to pay attention to the school improvement plans that will be drafted by school districts, the organization said.

In order for districts to access federal funds under the programs included in state ESSA plans, they must submit their own plans to the state about how they would use the money in compliance with federal law. States have the responsibility to review and approve the district-level plans.

“The message we’re trying to push is this is really a marathon that we’re in,” Jennings said.

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A version of this article appeared in the October 10, 2018 edition of Education Week as ESSA Plans Fall Short in Spec. Ed. Arena, Advocacy Group Says

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