Special Education

Get to Know Alexa Posny, Head of OSERS, Part 2

January 22, 2010 6 min read

We wanted readers to get a chance to know Alexa Posny, who has held the role of assistant secretary for special education and rehabilitative services since the Senate confirmed her in October.

So Education Week submitted questions to Posny, the former Kansas education commissioner, and she sent back written responses, which we will print in this column in a few installments.

President Obama nominated Posny to the key federal post in July. The job has meant a return to Washington for Posny, who was director of the Education Department’s office of special education in 2006-07. She had been the Kansas commissioner of education since June 2007.

For part one of the interview click here.


Q. How will you approach the new job?

A. The current iteration of Elementary and Secondary Education Act--No Child Left Behind--has shone a stark spotlight on longstanding problems within our education system. Coupled with the infusion of money for addressing those challenges, that spotlight has stirred up a sense of urgency around education reform across the country. It’s also stirred up a strong sense of possibility and enthusiasm. Now is our chance to make some of the changes we’ve long been hoping to make. It’s a tremendous opportunity.

With this opportunity, however, comes heavy responsibility for making smart, sustainable investments that translate to lasting, positive outcomes for our kids. The money currently available, while incredible, is also finite. It will run out.

And, if current investments don’t yield significant results, the education community will be hard-pressed to convince lawmakers that financial resources are the solution to our continued problems.

My approach toward the job of assistant secretary mirrors the dynamic of the current education reform landscape. I’m approaching the role with a sense of urgency, enthusiasm, possibility, and responsibility.

I am also thrilled to be back among a great group of people at the Education Department who I know share these feelings. Everyone here is truly giving their all, every day, to make the changes our students, schools, districts, and communities need. It’s a pleasure to be back.

Q. What are your goals for your time in Washington?

A. To improve alignment between special education, rehabilitative services, Secretary Duncan’s reform priorities, and other education and workforce policy, including the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

President Obama offered a compelling vision for education. He recognized that education is now a prerequisite to employment and that the U.S.'s position in the global economy hinges on how well we prepare people for competitive jobs. I often refer to his quote, “The countries that out teach us today will outcompete us tomorrow.”

Both the president and secretary of education believe strongly in the critical relationship between education and a strong, lasting economic recovery. Secretary Duncan’s roadmap for reforms reflects a cradle-to-career trajectory with necessary supports provided to young people along the way. This strategy calls for much closer collaboration between education, including postsecondary education, and employment, including vocational rehabilitation.

The Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services is really unique in that we provide funding for research and services across that continuum, which means that there are many places for us to improve our collaboration and alignment between education and employment and those who work in both fields.

During the near term, I’ll be working with colleagues in the Office of Elementary and Secondary Education, the Office of Planning, Evaluation and Policy Development, and other offices on the ESEA reauthorization.

For the past 30 years, we’ve been trying to negotiate the connections between general and special education systems. By raising national expectations for all students--including students with disabilities--to achieve high standards, NCLB marked an important step towards welding these systems into one serving all students.

And, it’s working. A National Center for Educational Outcomes study in 2005 revealed that state officials are seeing students with disabilities make gains in achievement. They attribute gains to better alignment of Individualized Education Programs to state standards, improved data collection, requirements for students with disabilities to achieve at grade level, increased access to standards-based instruction, greater participation in assessments, and the desire to avoid NCLB sanctions.

When people, policies, and systems work together, students with disabilities perform.
There’s still further to go, though, and the upcoming ESEA reauthorization provides an opportunity to take another big step forward. We want to make sure that the reauthorized law is appropriately flexible for specific situations, but that it continues to hold students with disabilities to the same high standards as their peers.

Another goal I hold is to contribute to the paradigm shift in education, toward a focus on meeting each child’s unique needs through a continuum of multi-tiered supports and interventions.

At its core, Secretary Duncan’s plan requires changing the education platform from one focused on instruction to one focused on learning for each individual child. It’s a shift for which I’ve advocated for a long time.

There’s no such thing as a cookie-cutter student, so we can’t offer cookie-cutter solutions. Each and every child has special needs that must be met every day. In the special education community, we’re experiencing the shift as moving from eligibility for services to entitlement to a high-quality education, because that promise is one that this country has made to all students.

It doesn’t matter if the child is disadvantaged, disabled, disengaged, disenfranchised, or otherwise. It doesn’t make any difference what they’re labeled. We have promised that all students will acquire the same essential knowledge and skills and that those students who have trouble gaining that knowledge or those skills will receive help in doing so.

The conversation needs to focus on what level of support and intervention each student needs to be successful at every point along the trajectory from birth to a competitive job, regardless of their socioeconomic status, language background, or disability.

In Kansas, we had great success using a “multi-tiered system of supports,” including response to intervention, early intervening services, and transition planning.

It worked for many of our districts to forge a really strong system of supports, but what’s even more important is that it worked for our kids, who showed tremendous gains in reading and math, a reduction in the achievement gap between white and minority students, and achievement rates among special education students that ranked in the top 10 in the country.

I look forward to being able to use the position of assistant secretary to promote the possibility of connected, coherent systems of academic and social supports.

Some of the things for which we are advocating--or requiring in upcoming competitive- grant programs--require not only a change in practice, but in the culture of state education agencies, districts, and schools.

The more support we can offer states as they try to navigate these change efforts, the better. For us in OSERS, this ranges from clarifying requirements to offering ideas or examples of best practice that will help them think out of the box to get the highest return from the investment of American Recovery and Reinvestment Act and other funds.

Coming from a state leadership position, I realize how critical this support is. And it’s one of my goals to make sure we do our best to provide it.

Photo of Alexa Posny, Director of The Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP) at the Department of Education, laughs during a staff meeting on Dec. 21, 2006, in Washington. Christopher Powers/Education Week-File

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

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