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Special Education Opinion

A Chance to Raise the Bar for Special Education

By Richard Lee Colvin — April 11, 2017 5 min read
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In its recent decision declaring that students with disabilities have a right to services that—to the greatest extent possible—enable them to acquire the same knowledge and skills as their peers without disabilities, the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed the legal basis for federal education policies stretching back to 1997.

That’s when Congress first said the expectations for students with disabilities should be substantially the same as those for other students. In 2001, Congress passed the No Child Left Behind law, which required states to begin assessing all students except those with the most severe cognitive impairments the same way they assessed non-disabled students and to publicly report the results. It also required schools to identify what was holding these students back, and to use federal funds to provide individualized instruction to help them catch up and graduate from high school ready for college and the labor market.

A Chance to Raise the Bar for Special Education: Schools and districts can preempt costly litigation by improving education for students with disabilities, writes Richard Lee Colvin

The 2004 reauthorization of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act strengthened the rights of students with disabilities to an education based on rigorous academic standards. Ten years later, the Obama administration, under which I served in the U.S. Department of Education, raised the bar for states in the annual-performance reports required by the IDEA. In addition to considering whether states were in technical compliance with the law, the Education Department began giving equal weight to student outcomes. The year before that switch, the department reported that 41 states and territories met requirements; the new criteria brought that number down to only 18.

The Every Student Succeeds Act, which replaced NCLB and goes into full effect this coming fall, gives states greater flexibility in how they measure student and school performance as well as in devising a plan for improving outcomes for all students. But it also requires states to ensure that the individualized education programs for students with disabilities be designed to help them master grade-level standards.

Several analyses of the Supreme Court’s decision in the recent Endrew F. v. Douglas County case predict it will spur more costly litigation, as parents seek more and better services for their children. Avoiding those lawsuits will require a concerted effort by the federal government, states, school districts, teachers, and institutions of higher education. The money that might otherwise be spent on lawyers would be better used fully implementing the aspirational policies of the past two decades. More students with disabilities are being taught in regular classrooms, and more are graduating from high school than in the past. But much more still needs to be done before the promises of the IDEA are fulfilled.

Much more still needs to be done before the promises of the IDEA are fulfilled.

Districts can impress upon all of their personnel their responsibility for all students, regardless of disability status. They can provide technology tools that allow general education and special education teachers, as well as school psychologists, social workers, principals, and parents, to all have access to data on every student. They can build in time for these teams to collaborate on interventions that work for each student and also to monitor those students’ progress and change course if necessary. They can provide teachers with professional learning opportunities to better understand how to adapt challenging lessons to the needs of their students, and they can assign other teachers to make sure that students with disabilities who are in regular classrooms receive the specific help they need.

Parents are students’ first teachers. They have to be engaged as advocates for their children, and school districts must help them better understand their children’s needs. Schools should treat parents as important partners, taking their input seriously and altering teaching methods as needed.

State policy and practice matter as well. State policymakers should use ESSA as an opportunity to build a statewide consensus around high expectations for all students, including students with disabilities. States can work to change the beliefs of some educators that students with disabilities cannot be expected to learn challenging material, even with modified teaching methods. They can help districts identify evidence-based practices that will meet students’ needs. In addition, they can change teacher licensing requirements so that all general education teachers are knowledgeable about the needs of students with disabilities, and all special education teachers are familiar with the state academic standards and curriculum.

The federal government and U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos also are on the hook. DeVos, who famously said during her confirmation hearing that she would leave enforcement of the federal IDEA up to states, did not get off on the right foot. She later clarified her views in a letter to a Republican senator, saying she would bring “a sense of urgency” to implementing and enforcing the law at the “federal, state, and local levels” and would work to strengthen IEPs. She also said she would push to make vouchers available for parents to send their children with disabilities to private schools. However, the programs she cited require parents using the vouchers to give up their rights to sue if their children are not well-served.

What she should do instead is direct the Education Department to continue including student progress in its yearly monitoring reports. She should ensure that states’ accountability and improvement plans, required by ESSA, include most students with disabilities in their assessments and commit to addressing their specific needs. She also should push the Trump administration to increase federal spending on special education, to allow states to provide those services.

More than 40 years after the first federal law requiring schools to meet the needs of students with disabilities was passed, it remains a work in progress, as it always will. Over that period, our understanding of what even students with profound disabilities can learn has changed significantly. The Supreme Court ruling is an admonishment that we have more work to do to build educational systems that recognize these students’ potential. And we must do our best to help them reach it.

A version of this article appeared in the April 19, 2017 edition of Education Week

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