The State of Special Education in the U.S.

EPE Research Center director Christopher Swanson moderated a lively and wide-ranging discussion among leading experts on critical issues shaping special education in the nation’s schools.

November 3, 2008

The State of Special Education in the U.S.

  • Candace Cortiella is director of the Advocacy Institute, a non-profit organization dedicated to improving the lives of people with disabilities.
  • Patricia Guard is the deputy director of the Office of Special Education Programs, the division of the U.S. Department of Education serving the needs of children and youth with disabilities.
  • Patti Ralabate is the Interim Associate Director for the Education Policy and Practice Department at the National Education Association, the nation’s largest teachers’ union.

Christopher B. Swanson (Moderator):

Good afternoon, and welcome to’s Live Chat. Today we are kicking off the first in a monthlong series of chats devoted to critical issues facing special education in the nation’s schools. Joining us live are three of the nation’s leading experts on the issues: Candace Cortiella of the Advocacy Institute, Patricia Guard of the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Special Education Programs, and Patti Ralabate of the National Education Association.

I’m Chris Swanson, director of the EPE Research Center here at Editorial Projects in Education and also the author of a newly released report entitled “Special Education in America.” It will be my honor to moderate today’s lively discussion between you and our invited guests. Since we have already received a tremendous number of questions for this chat, let’s get started.

Christopher B. Swanson (Moderator):

I am actually going to start by exercising the the moderator’s imperative to throw out the first question (which I posted in advance to our guests). With the election in its closing hours, we are all looking ahead to 2009 and beyond. What, in your view, are the three top priorities for special education that the new administration and new Congress should address?

Christopher B. Swanson (Moderator):

Here’s Candace’s response:

This is Candace Cortiella. I’ll start my reply by quoting from your report issued today: “The disabled population is clearly not monolithic.” This statement could not be more true. So, in both policy and practice, I’d like to see us stop approaching this population as such, and stop characterizing students who receive special education as the “can’t do” segment of school-age students. This, also, is not correct!

We need to look at new policies and approaches that blur the lines between general education and special education – including (1) equipping all teachers to deliver high quality instruction to a growing population of diverse learners (including ramping up the use of approaches like universal design for learning and response-to-intervention practices, which help all students) This will require more funding to support both ESEA and IDEA (2) continue to hold schools and districts accountable for the performance of students with disabilities as is now required under No Child Left Behind, including not providing any further mechanisms that lower expectations for these students (such as more ‘alternate assessments’ options) We need to ensure that all students have access to the same high expectations and challenging curriculum (3) find fast, effective, efficient ways to get research into practice. We have an abundance of research on how to effectively teach students with disabilities – be they sensory, behavioral, cognitive, or physical – but we aren’t getting them into classroom practice. This would also involve holding teachers, schools, and districts accountable for implementing ONLY proven practices that deliver results.

Question from Leah Wasburn-Moses, Assistant Professor, Miami University:

How have special education teacher preparation programs (including alternative licensure programs) influenced special education? What can teacher educators do better?

Patti Ralabate:

A chronic, significant shortage of special education teachers has existed for nearly 20 years. It’s important to understand that the shortage is due to two main factors: (1) growth in demand for special education teachers as more children are diagnosed as disabled and in need of special education services (one estimate indicates that the growth rate in demand is at least 47% over the last 17 years), and (2) attrition due to special education teachers leaving the field, retiring, or transferring to general education positions. Special education teacher preparation programs are doing a good job of recruiting new teacher candidates using tuition reduction incentives that are often funded by teacher preparation grants from the Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP). We still need to ensure that incentives, such as loan forgiveness programs, are available. The shortage has also been addressed by an expansion of alternate route programs catering to mid-career and second-career applicants.

However, to address the teacher retention part of this issue, there is still much that needs to be done. Special education teachers’ jobs vary considerably. So do their working conditions. Teacher educators need to do more to (1) prepare new special education teachers to fulfill multiple roles, (2) ensure that special and general education teacher candidates have collaboration and culturally responsive teaching skills before they enter today’s diverse classrooms, (3) hold all new teacher candidates to rigorous standards, including those graduating from alternative route programs, (4) link new teacher candidates with effective, veteran teachers who can serve as mentors, and (5) encourage new teacher candidates to view themselves as part of the entire school community participating as a full member of the “school team” and expecting support and resources comparable to what all other educators receive.

Question from Helen Gale, Transition - Griffin-Spalding County:

Will there be any changes in the future as to how schools may assess students with disabilities?- especially if the test determines whether or not a school meets AYP. (graduation test or CRCT)

Patricia Guard:

It would be difficult to predict what changes to NCLB a new Administration and Congress might make. Currently, under the Title I regulations, states have the option of developing alternate and/or modified academic achievement standards for the appropriate assessment of eligible students with disabilities. For purposes of calculating AYP, a state and LEA may include the proficient and advanced scores of students with the most significant cognitive disabilities assessed against alternate academic achievement standards for up to 1% of all students in the grades assessed, and for students with disabilities assessed against modified academic achievement standards for up to 2% of all students in the grades assessed. We have seen progress in the number of states and schools meeting AYP for the subgroup of students with disabilities and according to the 2006 National Assessment of Title I, in 2004-2005, of schools that had the minimum number of students with disabilities necessary for AYP to be calculated for this subgroup, only 9% of them missed AYP solely for the achievement of students with disabilities.

Question from Sylvia Phillips, Coordinator, Bullock Co. AL:

Is NCLB really fair to students with special needs?

Candace Cortiella:

I think I probably showed by position toward NCLB and students with disabilities in my opening comments about the next administration and Congress…let me add that The Advocacy Institute – the advocacy organization I direct – has researched and authored two reports on this topic for the National Center for Learning Disabilities. The findings of each show clearly that students with disabilities who receive special education services are benefiting from NCLB’s accountability provisions – probably more than other ‘subgroups’ of students. Finally, this group is being included in regular state assessments – or alternate assessments, as allowed under NCLB, for the first time. More details are available in the report, Rewards and Roadblocks: How Special Education Students are Faring Under No Child Left Behind available at:

Equally important, now that schools and districts are held accountable for the participation and performance of students with disabilities, we are seeing dramatic improvements in instruction – including use of evidence-based practices. We took a look at two schools and three districts that are substantially improving academic performance for students with disabilities in the most recent of these two reports, Challenging Change: How Schools and Districts are Improving the Performance of Special Education Students available at:

While there is much discussion about the “fairness” of all aspects of NCLB – to both students and schools, I believe one thing is clear: it is much more fair to students with special needs than is the “soft bigotry of low expectations.”

Question from Philip Mead, Ph.D. Psychologist Winnisquam Regional School District, Tilton, New Hampshire:

With a new (and hopefully favorable) administration coming to Wash., do you think it might be possible to move Congress to pass a law, mandating the funding for IDEA 2004? It seems incredible to me that a mandated act, is supported by discretionary funding through congress.

Patricia Guard:

Historically, there has not been much interest in either the Executive Branch or the Congress in mandatory funding because it limits one’s ability to allocate funds in accordance with current priorities. The IDEA establishes maximum levels of funding, like other discretionary programs. It does not mandate Congress to reach those maximums. Moreover, because States are not required to participate in IDEA, it is not regarded as an unfunded mandate.

Question from Philip J. Spottswood, Ph.D., Director, Kazakhstan International School, Almaty, Kazakhstan:

As a school administrator and a father of a high school age special needs child with Asperger’s Syndrome, why can’t we design high school curricula for special needs students that tie directly into vocational training programs for those students who do not have the ability or interest in pursuing a collegiate education?

Patti Ralabate:

What a great question! We’ve learned that a “one-size-fits-all” approach actually restricts choices for students. Indeed, not all students are headed for a college education. We need to ensure that students have choices that fit their interests throughout their school career.

Larger districts often have a variety of program options available by offering public schools or programs that have a special focus. That should include vocational preparation and transition supports for all students who need or want them, including students with disabilities.

During the next few years, we should invest in transforming our high schools so that they can meet the needs of all students, even if it means creating schools-within-schools and specialized technical/vocational programs within larger schools. And, we need to support the technical-vocational schools that currently exist as an appropriate option for students who aren’t interested in a career that requires a college degree.

Question from Ann Benjamin, Professor, University of Massachusetts:

What legal obligation do independent (non-public) schools have to provide services or accommodations to students with disabilities? If the evaluation policies and procedures of an independent school clearly disadvantage college-bound, high school students with disabilities, what recourse, if any, do students or their parents have?

Candace Cortiella:

The U.S. Department of Education has provided clear guidance on the obligations of private schools as required by IDEA. That information is available at:

Private schools that accept federal funds of any kind are also required to access and serve students with disabilities by Section 504 of the Rehab Act.

These provisions are designed to provide students with disabilities in private schools access to needed evaluations and programs, so as not to put them at a disadvantage. Parents who feel that their students are being deprived of needed services have recourse under Section 504, administered by the Office for Civil Rights (OCR) at the U.S. Dept. of Education.

Question from Julia Rogers, Director, Archdiocese of Baltimore:

How does IDEA funding for Special Education affect private schools?

Patricia Guard:

It is important to note that the LEA’s obligations to children with disabilities who are placed by their parents in a private school, including a religious school, are different from its responsibilities to those enrolled in public schools or to those placed in a private school by a public agency as a means of providing a free appropriate public education. Parentally placed children with disabilities do not have an individual entitlement to services they would receive if they were enrolled in a public school. Instead, the LEA where the private school is located is required to spend a proportionate amount of IDEA federal funds to provide equitable services to this group of children. Therefore it is possible that some parentally placed children will not receive any services. For those who receive services, the type and amount of services may differ from the services the child would receive if placed in a public school by the parents or in a private school by a public agency. LEAs are required to consult with private school representatives and representatives of the parents during the design and development of special education and related services for these children. In terms of the amount of IDEA funds a private school receives, as the Federal IDEA funds increase, the proportionate amount for equitable services in private schools will increase.

Christopher B. Swanson (Moderator):

Here is the second answer to my question on top three special education priorities for the next administration and congress. From Patricia Guard:

We have seen significant progress over the past decade; however, much remains to be done to ensure access to a high quality education for each student with a disability. I would propose focusing attention on these three priorities:

1. Implementation of school-wide approaches to providing evidence-based academic and behavioral interventions to struggling learners before they are inappropriately referred for special education. Under IDEA, districts can use up to 15 percent of their federal special education funds to develop and implement early intervening services that can reduce academic and behavioral problems in the general education environment and reduce inappropriate referrals to special education. Response to Intervention provides a framework in which schools can deliver early intervening services. States and districts need guidance and support to successfully implement these requirements.

2. Improve assessment and accountability for students with disabilities by ensuring that these students participate fully and meaningfully in state assessments. Currently, under the Title I regulations, states have the option of assessing a small group of students with disabilities based on alternate and modified achievement standards. These achievement standards must meet high quality standards and promote challenging instruction so students with disabilities can reach the highest possible levels of achievement. States need continued support in the development and implementation of these assessments.

3. Ensure that every child has access to highly qualified teachers. Most students with disabilities are being educated in general education classrooms for a large portion of the school day. With increased rigor in the curriculum and public accountability, there is an urgent need for highly skilled teachers, both general and special education teachers who know content and use curriculum and assessments aligned with State standards.

Question from Ramona Quirion, Special Education Teacher ,Niskayuna High School:

What is research telling us about the pros and cons of co-teahing (specifically a special education teacher and a content area teacher)in regard to high school student’s with disabilities?

Patti Ralabate:

Co-teaching is a very complex process that is not easily replicated. No two schools or classrooms do it exactly the same way. As a result, relevant research on co-teaching, particularly at the high school level, is difficult to conduct.

Having said that, there are some promising results reported in recent research. Among the positive results reported in the research literature are: (1) improved academic and behavioral performance of students, (2) preventative benefits that decrease inappropriate or unnecessary referrals for special education evaluations, 3) significant professional growth of those teachers who co-teach, (4) increased use of research-based instructional strategies, (5) implementation of more creative, inventive teaching practices, and (6) teachers who feel more empowered as education decision-makers.

An expert on collaborative teaching models, Marilyn Friend, has described the characteristics of collaborative teaching or co-teaching which need to be in place to assure success. Without considering these elements, co-teaching can be disasterous for students and teachers alike. There needs to be adequate time for joint planning and collaborative team skill building, administrative support and reasonable class sizes and caseloads. Mutual respect is critical and each teacher’s role must be active and meaningful.

Question from Richard Spiegel, Co-director, Ten Penny Players Inc.:

Are any school districts using alternative certification to hire adults with disabilities who possess artistic talent and may serve as role models in the classroom to young special education students?

Candace Cortiella:

A: Interesting question, Richard. I’m not aware of any alterative certification routes designed specifically to hire adults with disabilities who possess artistic talent. Remember that all teachers must pass a state certification process and satisfy the ‘highly qualified teacher’ provisions of No Child Left Behind.

There are, of course, many programs and events that across the country that showcase successful adults with disabilities as an inspiration for students -- be they successful artists, actors, business leaders, etc.

However, your question raises a bigger issue – the under representation of people with disabilities in the field of education, along with minorities and males. We need more people with disabilities in the teaching profession – be it in general education or special education. They not only serve as role models for students with disabilities – they also have a deep understanding of the challenges faced by students with disabilities. Yet people with disabilities who want to enter the education field are sometimes forced to deal with issues related to accommodations—for example, the hard of hearing teacher may need to have her classroom in a quiet area of a school building, or the teacher who uses a wheelchair may need an accessible building. We can’t afford to lose qualified individuals – and potential “role models” – because of an inability to provide the needed accommodations.

The Council for Exceptional Children has a Educators with Disabilities Caucus that serves as a national network of pre-service students, teachers, researchers, and administrators with disabilities and others interested in the topic of educators with disabilities. Established more than 10 years ago, the Caucus is a continuing and vital forum for exchanging information on recruiting, hiring, and supporting teachers or related services personnel who have disabilities. See: for more information.

Question from Katie Cole, ESE Teacher, Leila Davis Elementary:

Why don’t we have one format of IEP documents that are used nationwide? The discrepancies between states, and even counties, are frustrating and seem to make us work harder, not smarter.

Patricia Guard:

The IDEA doesn’t require that states use a specific form or format for IEPs. Because states use different terminology and in some cases have additional IEP requirements beyond what is in the IDEA, we do not believe it’s appropriate to mandate any specific form or format. However, IDEA as reauthorized in 2004, required that the Department develop a model IEP form, as well as a model procedural safeguards notice and a model prior written notice. We recommend that states use these models as the basis for their state forms. The model forms can be found at:

Question from Mary Kaye Carlson, Adjunct Instructor in Special Education, University of St.Thomas:

Special education teachers have been required to do more and more due process paper work over the past 20 years. These teachers have less time for individual instruction and curriculum collaboration. What do you see as trends or models for the future?

Patti Ralabate:

A positive approach has been to streamline paperwork with effective electronic options, such as digital IEPs that can be developed and shared through a school intranet system. Another effective model is to proactively link all of the school’s databases and electronic communication systems and provide educators with the professional development they need to use these systems efficiently. Also, universally designed curriculum and instructional materials saves a tremendous amount of time because special education teachers don’t have to spend as much time on retro-fitting materials and providing accommodations - they are built-in from the beginning for all students, including students with disabilities.

Question from Cindi Neverdousky, Retired Director of Special Education:

One of the challenges from over-identification stems from inappropriately identifying students in elementary. Districts have begun to address this systemic issue in elementary but the problem will persist in high school for several years to come. How can we address these students without jeopardizing their graduation especially in the environment of high stakes testing?

Candace Cortiella:

It is true that students identified in elementary school as needing special education during many years of overidentification - particularly in the category of Specific Learning Disabilities - are now in high school and continue to perform poorly. This was pointed out in the new report released today by the Editorial Projects in Education Research Center. It is also a clear finding of the work done under the National Longitudinal Transition Study 2 - much of that work is cited in the Ed. Projects report.

,p>There are districts that are implementing RTI in middle and high schools with good results... these practices can both support students already eligible for special education AND students who are struggling at the high school level.

I think you will learn more about these practices in upcoming chats here at EdWeek.

Question from Tom, teacher, Michigan:

What are the guidelines for awarding a student a Certificate of Completion rather than a high school diploma?

Patti Ralabate:

The guidelines for a Certificate of Completion are state-specific. You’ll need to check your state department of education website for that information.

Question from Patrick D. Walters, Principal/Associate Principal, Flood Brook Union School, Londonderry, Vermont:

Please discuss the conundrum between high expectations for students with disabilities, individual state assessment standards for these same students, and IEP goals and objectives.

Patricia Guard:

Both NCLB and IDEA have the same goal of improving academic achievement through high expectations. NCLB focuses on school accountability by ensuring that schools are held accountable for educational results, including those of students with disabilities. IDEA complements these efforts by focusing on how to best help students with disabilities meet the academic goals. IDEA requires schools to provide special education and related services to meet the individual needs of each student. The IEP maps out what achievement is expected and what services are needed to help the child meet the expectations. Assessments used for accountability purposes must be aligned to state standards and have related achievement standards. The IEPs of students with disabilities should be aligned with the state content standards.

Question from DTiller, Special Ed. Middle School Teacher, Michigan:

How do we balance giving special education students help in the regular classroom (inclusion programming) and still remediate their academic needs? Middle school students are so concerned with peer perceptions and getting any type of special ed. assistance.

Candace Cortiella:

This is a challenge. However, providing students with disabilities access to the general education curriculum at the middle and high school level pretty much requires that these students be in general ed. classroom taught by teachers who know the content. Remediation can be part of the instructional program, along with accommodations and use of technology to support student learning. The place to start is by developing a ‘Standards-based IEP’ that addresses BOTH the student’s skill deficits, strengths, and is designed to get them to grade-level content.

Watch the archive of this great Webinar, then access more resources:

Christopher B. Swanson (Moderator):

A question from Michael Neiman, Ph.D. Futures HealthCore/American International College: In the report released today, it states that the rise in the special education population is largely attributable to the rapid growth in the OHI and SLD subpopulations. However, isn’t the rise of students in the autism population also a significant contributing factor as well?

Swanson: I’ll field this one. There has certainly been a tremendous proportional increase in the number of students diagnosed with autism sprectrum disorders in the past decade (or more). So as far as rate of growth is concerned, this is probably among the (if not THE) fastest-growing diagnoses. However in terms of sheer numbers, autism accounts for fewer students than a number of other categories (especially SLD - specific learning disabilities).

Question from barb Cherem, Professor Special Ed. U of MI- Flint:

What is the latest ruling on the 2% exemption from AYP, and how will the suggestions for re-quthorization be proposing this change--- while still keeping accountability for most students in special ed. to take their state assessments.

Patricia Guard:

The Title 1 regulations permit states and districts to develop alternate assessments based on modified academic achievement standards and to count for purposes of AYP up to two percent of all students that are assessed in that grade as proficient. It is critical that these students be appropriately included in the State’s accountability system. The Administration’s NCLB reauthorization proposal recommended incorporating this provision into the statute.

Question from JaNice Marshall, Director of Student Success, Lansing Community College:

What data do you have regarding students who access special education services and their transition to the community college? What best practices can you share to ensure student success from access to graduation? Are their community colleges that have best in class transitional services for this student population?

Candace Cortiella:

First, we know that far too few students with disabilities (who access special education services) are completing high school, earning a regular high school diploma, and moving on to postsecondary education. And, when students do move on to postsecondary education, their rate of persistence (ability to earn a degree) is also low. While somewhat dated, a good study on this topic was done by the U.S. Dept. of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics – “Students With Disabilities in Postsecondary Education: A Profile of Preparation, Participation, and Outcomes” – available on the web at

The good news is that there are several recent developments that should work to improve postsecondary education success for students with disabilities. The new Higher Education Opportunity Act – the newest version of the Higher Education Act – was recently passed by Congress. It provides a host of new initiatives designed to help colleges and universities provide needed supports and accommodations for students with disabilities, including broadening the access for students with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

Some states are investing in dual enrollment programs that enable students with disabilities to take classes on community college campuses while maintaining IDEA eligibility in their school district. For more information on transition planning and practices for community colleges, see these resources:

Specifically, see this resource:

The new report issued today by the Editorial Projects in Education Research Center also contains information about transition planning and college success. Of particular note is the report’s recommendation that we do a better job at preparing for dual transitions for students with disabilities – most of whom will pursue BOTH postsecondary education and employment, just as those without disabilities.

Question from Dan Berrett, reporter, Pocono Record:

Students with IEPs struggle on state tests under NCLB. Last year in Pennsylvania, about 14 percent of 11th graders with IEPs tested at or above grade level. The IEP sub-group has particular trouble meeting AYP targets, which can affect the status of their schools. What do you see as the impact of these trends on students and families with disabilities, and what risks does it pose for schools in trying to meet AYP?

Patti Ralabate:

We have seen the negative impact of the current AYP system on the students with disabilities subgroup. Initially, some thought that students with disabilities would be included in general education classrooms more - that did happen in some places. Others cautioned that students with disabilities would be segregated more because of their potential impact on a school’s ability to meet AYP. That also happened in some places. Overall, there have been some positive impacts because, generally, students with disabilities have increased access to the general education curriculum and are being held to higher expectations. But, the potential risk is that the students with disabilities are viewed as “scapegoats” for the poor performance of the entire school. Personally, I feel strongly that a student growth model approach would be more accurate and productive for all students, especially students with disabilities and their families.

Question from Kay Davis, Ed.D. Director of Special Education, City of St. Charles School District, St. Charles, MO:

How do services for students with Autism Spectrum Disorders vary across states? Which service delivery models have the best outcomes for students with Autism?

Patricia Guard:

An individualized education program (IEP) is developed by a team that includes the parents. The IEP team determines the appropriate services for that child. Each child with autism will have needs that may be as different from another child with autism as they are from the needs of a child who is developing normally. Services for each child must take into account known intervention strategies and be flexible enough to adapt those approaches to a specific situation. No one service model will “fit all” children with ASD.

The National Academy of Sciences recommends that services for children with ASD have the following characteristics:
• match individual needs with developmental level
• consider what is known about child development
• ensure services in core domains (communication, social/motional)
• evaluate consistency between valued outcomes and the process to achieve those outcomes
• consider the cultural values and priorities of the family
• select interventions that support quality of life for children and families

See the National Research Council’s Report “Educating Children with Autism” funded by OSEP for comprehensive recommendations.

Question from Heidi McDaniel, Teacher, University School of Jackson:

Is there a program that makes it easy for teachers to acquire a special education license? Are there funds to help a teacher who wants to go back and get a special education license or degree?

Patti Ralabate:

There are a number of colleges and universities that have received federal grants to help educators attain a special education degree and, hopefully complete the licensure requirements for a state special education license or teaching certificate. Most of these programs cater to practicing teachers by scheduling their classes late in the afternoon or in the evening. Go to the website of the Personnel Center (housed at the National Association of State Directors of Special Education) to search their database of special education teacher preparation programs.

Question from Rachel Kleser, Graduate Student, George Fox University:

For students with Specific language-based Learning Disabilities (dyslexia), it seems schools focus on simply accomodating students’ needs in order that they may access the curriculum. In my district they don’t readily take on the responsibility of remediating the problem by incorporating research proven instructional methods for these kids. (Multi-sensory, systematic, sequential) I think this is more common than not. Why is this, and how can we change it?

Candace Cortiella:

Hi Rachel:

Thanks for this great question. I think you are correct that we focus too much time and energy – too early – on providing accommodations for students with reading disorders in place of serious, intensive, evidence-based practices designed to remediate the condition. Most poor readers can – particularly if provided with early and intensive remediation – become adequate readers. I’m not sure I know the reason for this (there are probably many), but I do think that the move toward strong school accountability for students with disabilities is helping make some changes in these practices. For too long, students with disabilities were allowed to participate in large-scale assessments via out-of-level testing – or excluded entirely for such assessment systems – which masked their lack of progress. Now, as we are including most students with disabilities in regular state assessments, we are getting real data on their performance. Only by knowing how these students are performing (on their enrolled grade level content) can we begin to provide better, more robust instruction to remediate skill deficits.

Along with information provide by assessment participation, we should move toward writing “Standards-based IEPs” that are designed to move students to grade level while addressing skill deficits. For more information on this, please see the guide that The Advocacy Institute prepared for the National Center for Learning Disabilities at:

Question from Ceasar Maldonado Jr, Moderate Needs Teacher, Aurora, Colorado:

Some special ed. teachers in my district feel with RTI, our role as special ed. teachers will gradually disappear. Your comments.

Patricia Guard:

Today the role of the special education teacher is more critical than ever. RTI provides a framework for identifying and providing interventions to struggling learners in general education before they may be inappropriately referred for special education. Progress is monitored to determine how well the students are responding to the interventions. As needed more intense interventions are provided. Students that do not respond over time may be referred for special education. This helps ensure that the right students are receiving special education services. The special education teacher can also serve as an important member of the school’s collaborative team that designs and implements the academic and behavioral interventions at all levels of intensity.

Question from Gail Perry, Special Education Teacher, Arlington, VA Public Schools:

Who advocates for needs of special education teachers? Increasingly, I am spending more time completing paperwork, i.e. IEPs, eligibility reports, calculator eligibility forms; testing students; and attending meetings, then actually teaching. Paperwork also includes documenting the implementation of accommodations for every students due to increasing numbers of parent lawsuits. All of this burden falls on the special education teacher.

Candace Cortiella:

Hi Gail:

The Council for Exceptional Children (CEC) is the leading organization that advocates for special educators as well as other professions involved with special education. The concerns you mention are ones that CEC attempts to work on via both improved policy and practices. Learn more about the work of CEC at: Question from Connie Taibi-Lewis, doctoral student, Fordham University, special education administrator, Mahopac Central School District, adjunct professor, Graduate school of Education, aAce University:

Given the promise of 50% finding from PL 94-142, high costs of special education, and the current recession, how does the US Dept of Education envision how local school districts will meet the costs of special education.

Patricia Guard:

The IDEA federal funds are intended to help states and districts with the excess costs of educating children with disabilities. The FY 2008 appropriation for Part B was approximately $11 billion. To reach full funding in FY 2009 would require an increase of $10.5 billion over the FY 2008 appropriation level. The President requested an increase of $337 million for Part B for FY 2009. If enacted, the request would represent a 78 percent increase over the 2001 appropriation.

Question from Dr. Kim Sopko, Executive Director, MOKO Educational Services:

How are special educators supported in their efforts to incorporate principles of Universal Design for Learning in inclusive classrooms?

Patti Ralabate:

Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is one of the most promising initiatives to develop in the last decade that benefits all students. First, here is a quick explanation - teachers who use UDL principles, provide students with (1) multiple means of presentation, (2) multiple means for expression, and (3) multiple means for engagement in the learning process.

Unfortunately, educators are just now learning how to use the UDL principles as a framework for making curriculum and instruction accessible and engaging for all students. Some special educators are making progress by showing general education teachers how to design their lessons so that all students in the classroom can understand the lesson, engage productively in learning, and show what they’ve learned.

A few school districts have conducted professional development for teachers and national organizations, such as the NEA, provide professional development opportunities, but most teachers are learning about UDL from their special education colleagues or via web resources. For example, the Center for Applied Special Technology (CAST) ( has examples and supports for lesson planning and adaptation of instructional materials, and the National Center for Learning Disabilities (NCLD) just held a on-line chat that is currently posted on their website ( with loads of resources and examples.

Question from Brian P. Cory, Vice Principal, Tenafly High School, Tenafly NJ:

Being a special educator and supervising special education departments for years, I have grown increasingly convinced that special education practices are simply good educational practices. Yet, we often hear that general educators have not been trained and hence experience difficulty in working with classified students. Worse,as a result, many struggling students are referred to the special education pipeline when in fact they do not need special services. Do you agree with this assessment and if so, how could our Nation’s schools do a better job of framing for their teachers and staff the effective practices and approaches that help ALL students succeed?

Candace Cortiella:

Hi Brian:

I certainly believe that many special education practices are simply good educational practices. I also believe that many good general educators can and do reach many students with special learning needs w/o any specific training -- this was my experience with my own child during many years in both general and special education classes.

My three priorities for a new administration and a new Congress are all designed to address the need for more effective practices and approaches to help all students and to begin to make special education eligibility a last resort instead of a first resort .... by implementing Universal Design for Learning, Response to Intervention, Schoolwide Positive Behavioral Supports...and other practices that have been proven effective through education research.

Question from Nancy Coppom, Parent:

In regards to RTI & Secondary Schools: are there really ample evidence-based curricula in place to support secondary students with dyslexia...who are just “now” noticed as needing extra support. My daughter is not allowed to be a part of the SPED program at her school because she has not participate in an intervention program. I don’t understand this - and I looked at the studies in the National Reading Panel: so few of them include middle school and high school students!

Patti Ralabate:

The research and examples of RTI in secondary schools are now being published but I can’t say that there are “ample” examples yet. Watch the website of the RTI Action Network for up-to-date resources in this area. The second part of your question about your daughter concerns me. RTI is a supportive and preventive approach. It is not supposed to be used as a barrier or hurdle that students must pass over before they are referred for a special education evaluation. Look to the resources on the web about RTI and I think you’ll find some support there to open up a discussion with the school team about your daughter’s needs.

Question from T. Leeth, Special Ed. Teacher, Chicago Public Schools:

Why are special education students are included on standardized tests. If students are functioning two to three years below their grade level, are they expected to do well on standarized test that is given on their grade level? In my experience, everytime I give standardize tests to sped. students, they get frustrated because they can’t read/comprehend the material being tested.

Patricia Guard:

It is critical that students with disabilities are included in the State’s accountability system to ensure that these students are provided high quality instruction to assist them in achieving to high standards. State assessments provide the best objective mechanism for determining whether schools have been successful in teaching students the knowledge and skills defined by the States’ academic content standards in reading, mathematics and science as required under NCLB. The Title I regulations provide flexibility for assessing a small group of students with disabilities based on alternate or modified academic achievement standards for purposes of determining AYP.

Question from Annette Romano, teacher (NBCT), Niskayuna CSD:

How is it that states can mandate that students with disabilities must take state tests when diagnostic assessment tools used for IEPs do a much better job of tracking growth and guiding instruction? Aren’t we wasting a great deal of time on testing and frustrating this population rather than guiding instructing and celebrating successes. Why can’t PL942 prevail?

Candace Cortiella:

Actually, it is IDEA that mandates that all students with disabilities participate in state and districtwide assessments. The requirement is also part of No Child Left Behind. This participation is designed to ensure that students with disabilities don’t get ‘left out’ of system accountability. Participation in these assessments also provides information on how students with disabilities are performing again their enrolled grade level expectation -- the same expectation as students without disabilities.

So, including students in state assessments and using diagnostic assessments and IEPs are NOT mutually exclusive. In fact, they should compliment each other .... and provide BOTH the accountability for these students AND the individualized instruction they need (because of their disability) to benefit from their edcuational program.

I’ve written about this in a guide from the National Center on Education Outcomes available at: guide provides information about how NCLB and IDEA can work together to the benefit of students. I hope you will take a look!

Question from Cynthia Curry, Technology Integration Mentor, Maine Learning Technology Initiative:

What federally-supported strategies, policies, or resources are being implemented or considered to improve the skills and knowledge of general education teachers to meet the needs of students with diverse learning needs?

Patricia Guard:

This is a very important question. Over half (55%) of students with disabilities spend 80% or more of their school day in a regular classroom. Therefore, the knowledge and skills of both general and special education teachers are critically important to learning for these students. OSEP supports the improvement of the knowledge and skills of general education teachers to meet the needs of diverse learners in a number of ways, including training stipends, national centers and the development of state teacher licensure models for general and special educators. For example: • Nearly 1/4 (1,679) of all scholars (7,501) who entered OSEP-supported training grants in FY 2006 were from general education. These general educators were preparing to pursue a career in special education. • In 2001, the Council for Chief State School Officers’ OSEP-funded project, developed model state teacher licensure standards on what both general and special education teachers need to know and do to teach students with disabilities in their classroom. • OSEP support the IRIS Center, at , that provides free web-based training modules so that general education faculty and general educators, and others can learn evidence-based practices for teaching students with disabilities. • OSEP is co-funding the OESE-funded Comprehensive Center on Teacher Quality, which provides TA to State education agencies to support professional development for general education teachers to improve teacher quality for diverse learners in high needs schools.

Christopher B. Swanson (Moderator):

And now the third and final installment of our kick-off question on top 3 special education priorities for the next administration and Congress.

This time from Patti Ralabate: There will be many priorities to address as the new administration takes office. My wish list of priorities for students with disabilities includes these three among the top issues that should be addressed as quickly as possible:

(1) Full funding of IDEA and the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) – This is a long overdue promise of Republicans and Democrats alike and it’s time to make it a reality. Even with the financial crisis, full funding from the federal government will ensure that students have the educators and programs they deserve and need.

(2) Reauthorization of ESEA with a productive, proactive focus rather than the punitive one-size-fits-all approach that is currently implemented through the AYP accountability system. We need an opportunity to measure students against their own growth and progress rather than against an artificial “average” that is meaningless in measuring how much students have learned.

(3) Promotion of universal design for learning, response-to-intervention, and collaborative teaching approaches so that we can merge our knowledge and skills as educators to prepare all of our students to use the 21st century skills they need.

Christopher B. Swanson (Moderator):

I always hate to cut a great discussion short, but I’m afraid that’s all the time we have today. Thanks to everyone who joined the chat for sharing their excellent questions, many of which, unfortunately, we did not have time to answer. And special appreciation goes out to our guests - Candace Cortiella, Patricia Guard, and Patti Ralabate - for their time, insights, and enthusiasm. A transcript of this chat will be available on Education Week’s Web site shortly: If you would like more information about the EPE Research Center’s new report or this month’s series of chats on special education, you can find all of that here.

The Fine Print

All questions are screened by an editor and the guest speaker prior to posting. A question is not displayed until it is answered by the guest speaker. Due to the volume of questions received, we cannot guarantee that all questions will be answered, or answered in the order of submission. Guests and hosts may decline to answer any questions. Concise questions are strongly encouraged.

Please be sure to include your name and affiliation when posting your question.’s Online Chat is an open forum where readers can participate in a give- and-take discussion with a variety of guests. reserves the right to condense or edit questions for clarity, but editing is kept to a minimum. Transcripts may also be reproduced in some form in our print edition. We do not correct errors in spelling, punctuation, etc. In addition, we remove statements that have the potential to be libelous or to slander someone. Please read our privacy policy and user agreement if you have questions.

---Chat Editors

Related Tags: