Special Education

2017: The Year Everyone Started Caring About Federal Special Education Policy

By Christina A. Samuels — December 29, 2017 3 min read
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This year marked my 13th at Education Week covering special education policy. And while my ability to juggle acronyms like “SSIP” (state systemic improvement plan) and “CEIS” (coordinated early intervening services) has always been great fun at cocktail parties, it has sometimes felt a bit lonely. How special education plays out at the classroom level is always interesting. But who, besides a relatively small audience, knows and cares that much about federal special education policy?

Well, this year I found out that, given the right conditions, a lot of people are really interested.

Many of my most-read blog posts this year focused on topics that in previous years I would have thought far too crunchy for anyone other than nerds like me.

Clearly, most of this was due to the appointment of Betsy DeVos as U.S. secretary of education. A polarizing choice, DeVos faced pointed questioning related to special education during her confirmation hearing. Her responses set some advocates on high alert, and that has yet to abate. That high level of interest, however, has given me a chance to explain some fairly complex topics, as well as learn more about what Education Week‘s readers care about.

What will the new year bring? Likely more of the same—but now I can go forward with a renewed sense that some of these topics aren’t so esoteric after all.

My most-read blog posts of 2017, in no particular order:

Does Inclusion Slow Down General Education Classrooms? This blog post wasn’t about federal policy, but stories about classroom life and teachers always draw big readership. This one also touched on the hot-button issue of inclusion and its effects on classroom instruction. I suspect that this was also my most-commented-on blog post of the year, and reader responses are as interesting as anything that I wrote myself. Click through and have a read.

Betsy DeVos Faces Sharp Questioning on Special Education Policy: I thought that special education might only get a glancing mention during DeVos’ confirmation hearing. I thought wrong.

The IDEA Website Is Down (For Now), But IDEA Is Still Around: This is where I started to learn the depth of the fallout from the confirmation hearing. The Education Department website that hosted the text of the special education law and associated information was down for a while. The department blamed an old server and a lack of maintenance, but the outage engendered real concern.

Senators Seek Answers from DeVos on Special Education Website Outage: The leading Democrat on the Senate education committee, Patty Murray of Washington, hasn’t missed an opportunity to criticize DeVos’s education priorities. The website outage offered another chance.

Ed. Dept. Sweeps Away Old Special Education Guidance and Regulations: The distrust between special education advocates and the U.S. Department of Education was clearly evident in the aftermath of this regulatory move. Interestingly, the department’s indication that it wants to put the brakes on an Obama-era rule about minorities in special education has the potential to be far more widespread and impactful than doing away with old guidance documents. My blog post on that topic, however, didn’t crack the top 10—but I encourage you to read it anyway.

Ed. Dept. Explains Special Education Guidance Cutbacks After Outcry: After negative responses to the move to eliminate old guidance documents, the Education Department offered a fuller explanation of why they were on the chopping block.

What Should Special Education Teachers Know and Be Able to Do?: The Council for Exceptional Children and the CEEDAR Center (CEEDAR stands for Collaboration for Effective Educator Development, Accountability and Reform) developed 22 “high-leverage practices” that special education teachers should master.

Are High School Students With Disabilities Prepared for Life After School? The findings from this longitudinal study of students with disabilities offers a wealth of information about their postsecondary prospects.

DeVos Says Federal IDEA Mandates ‘Piled On,’ Don’t Match Funding: In retrospect, DeVos’s interview with my colleague Alyson Klein should have been a clue to me about regulatory rollbacks to come.

Minority Students Still Missing Out on Special Education: Are minority students overrepresented in special education, or underrepresented? The continuing debate received new fuel in this study by researchers who argue that minorities are not getting access to special education at the same rate as similar white peers.

File Photo: In 2015, paraprofessional Vicky Henderson works with a 3rd grader, Payton, during story time in his special education classroom at Clinch County Elementary School in Homerville, Ga.—Melissa Golden for Education Week

A version of this news article first appeared in the On Special Education blog.