Special Education

Overhaul Urged to Aid Special Education in California

By Christina A. Samuels — March 24, 2015 6 min read
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Members of a task force that spent two years studying special education in California used their final report to recommend sweeping changes to the state’s entire pre-K-12 system in hopes of improving achievement for students with disabilities.

Virtually every major element of education policy—including early-childhood education, special education finance, teacher training, and accountability—was wrapped into the final report from California’s statewide task force on special education. The report was presented to the state board of education March 11.

The next question, now that the report is done: Are those recommendations achievable in a state that accounts for about 1 in 10 students with disabilities nationally?

“This is the time for a major leap forward, and I think a lot of people feel strongly that this is a better time than some false starts in the past,” said Carl A. Cohn, a former superintendent for the Long Beach Unified district and the chairman of the task force.

The proposals, if all implemented, would require action from classroom teachers all the way up to the federal government. But members of the panel say that the opportunity for major change is possible.

Mr. Cohn said the state can take advantage of the changes wrought by an improving financial picture for the state, as well as the shift to Common Core State Standards.

Retooling the System

California’s statewide task force on special education worked for two years on a comprehensive set of recommendations that it says would not only improve special education statewide, but boost academic achievement for all students. Its recommendations fall into seven categories:

Early Learning: Improve access to and coordination of high-quality early care and preschool for all students, but particularly for children with disabilities, children who grow up in poverty, and children who are dual-language-learners.

Evidence-Based School and Classroom Practices: Develop a multitiered system of supports throughout the state, incorporating both academic and behavioral learning.

Educator Preparation and Professional Learning: Prepare and authorize all special education teachers to instruct and provide any needed support to general education students.

Assessment: Create and disseminate samples of standards-aligned individualized education programs, along with comprehensive training on adapting those examples or models for use in IEP meetings.

Accountability: Create a consolidated and integrated special education data system that identifies and eliminates duplicate reporting, especially in the areas of suspensions, expulsions, and postsecondary outcomes.

Family and Student Engagement: Establish clear and specific guidelines and reinforcement for students’ involvement in their own IEP meetings and student-led IEPs.

Special Education Financing: Overhaul the special education financing system to give schools and districts more control over how they spend their money and to hold them accountable for adequately meeting the needs of students with disabilities.

Source: California’s Statewide Task Force on Special Education

Alice Parker, the state director of special education in California from 1997 to 2005, testified before the task force when it was seeking community comment.

“What I’m so excited about from the task force is that people came together and thought, ‘It’s not good enough in California,’ ” Ms. Parker said. An education consultant, she and others helped write the report, but did not contribute to the final proposal. “We’ve got to stop the practice of saying, ‘This is a child with a disability, so send them to Alice because she’s a special educator.’ We need to work collaboratively.”

Heavy Hitters

The task force was the brainchild of Stanford University colleagues and education heavy-hitters Michael W. Kirst and Linda Darling-Hammond. Mr. Kirst, the president of the state board of education, is a professor emeritus of education and business education at Stanford; Ms. Darling-Hammond, an education professor, is the chairwoman of the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing.

In an interview, Mr. Kirst said that special education was caught up in managing legal requirements.

“All that ever came before the [state] board were compliance documents to send in to Washington,” Mr. Kirst said. “And yet we kept hearing very difficult things about how the students were doing.”

Mr. Kirst and Ms. Darling-Hammond pitched their idea for a statewide task force in the fall of 2013, eventually getting four foundations—the Charles and Helen Schwab Foundation, the Stuart Foundation, the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, and the Dirk and Charlene Kabcenell Foundation—to support its work.

The task force found statistics that supported its impression that California lags other states in serving its 600,000 students in special education.

For the class of 2012, the passing rate for students with disabilities on the California High School Exit Examination was 56 percent by the end of their senior year, compared with 95 percent for students without disabilities.

To make matters worse, California is below national averages when it comes to including students with disabilities in general education settings. For the 2011-12 school year, about 22 percent of California students with disabilities spent 40 percent or less of their school day in general education, compared with 14 percent for students nationwide.

Students in segregated settings often miss out on academically rich instruction, experts say.

“Instead of opening a door to a brighter future, special education for many students is a dead end,” the report said.

But the task force said there is still a place for students with certain disabilities who may be served better in separate settings, said Vicki L. Barber, a co-executive director of the task force and the retired superintendent of the El Dorado County Office of Education.

“We’re not talking about eliminating the state school for the deaf, or the state school for the blind. It is a recommendation that we need to make sure all students have the opportunity to be with non-disabled peers, and that’s not happening across every setting,” Ms. Barber said.

Wide-Spectrum Approach

The task force report, “One System: Reforming Education to Serve All Students,” offers a glimpse into the philosophical underpinnings of its recommendations.

It starts with early-childhood education, saying that better services for all children will help children with developmental delays. The report also says the state needs to create a “family friendly” protocol for transferring students from preschools that serve children with disabilities to elementary school, so that their needs continue to be met.

The report also delves into the education that students receive at school, and recommends a comprehensive push for what are called multitiered systems of supports. These are instructional practices that identify students with specific learning or behavioral needs, and then provide progressively intensive interventions to help them address those needs.

Matthew J. Navo, the superintendent of the 11,000-student Sanger Unified district in California’s Central Valley, was the chairman of the subcommittee that made recommendations on the evidence-based practices. Sanger Unified credits its implementation of a response-to-intervention model, or RTI, for turning around the academic performance of the entire school system, both in general and special education.

The task force recommends that the California Department of Education take up the banner for multi-tiered support systems statewide.

Superintendents are ready to do that work, Mr. Navo said. “There’s no district superintendent I’ve talked to who doesn’t want to implement something so that all their kids’ needs are met,” he said. Where the state can help is to take “responsibility to support the capacity building and to create a common framework,” he said.

The task force report also recommends revamping the way the state supports special education by giving schools and districts more control over how they spend their money. They would then be held accountable for student achievement. This funding model would be coordinated with the state’s shift to its local control funding formula, which has loosened many of the controls the state had on how education funds could be used at the local level.

Next Steps

The commission’s report has received a positive response from Thomas A. Torlakson, the state superintendent of public instruction. The committee members are now giving presentations on the report to other education groups.

Committee members say that some of the report’s broader recommendations can be implemented relatively quickly, such as revamping teaching credentials. Other recommendations would be a heavier lift, such as lobbying the federal government to provide more money to California and the rest of the country through the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

“The worst thing a superintendent can do is take this document and hand it to the special education director,” said Mr. Kirst, a move that would give the impression that this is only a special education issue.

Ms. Barber concurred. “It is our hope that it doesn’t become a report that sits on a shelf and someone says, ‘That was a good effort.’ ”

A version of this article appeared in the March 25, 2015 edition of Education Week as Special Education Task Force Urges Overhaul for California

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