Rethinking Special Education

Douglas, an 11-year-old 6th grader from Massachusetts, has dyslexia and Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). He struggled in school from kindergarten through 4th grade, feeling frustrated in a learning environment that did not meet his individual needs and caused him to question his ability to succeed.

Douglas recently wrote President Trump and asked, “How can you as our president help kids like me get the right tools so they don’t get left behind?”

I met with Douglas and his parents on behalf of the president and the U.S. Department of Education this spring when his family visited Washington. We discussed his previous struggles and frustrations as well as his parents’ determination to get Douglas the help he needed to succeed in school.

We must rethink special education in America for students like Douglas. “Rethink” means everyone questions everything to ensure nothing limits any student from being prepared for what comes next. That begins with acknowledging the unique needs of each child and then finding the best ways to prepare each individual for successful careers and a meaningful life.

As a former high school special education teacher and state special education director, I have learned that delivering on the promises we have made to children and parents will not be achieved by merely tinkering around the edges.

Rethinking special education will require an unwavering commitment to address barriers that stand in the way of improving opportunities and outcomes for each child, and to make needed changes at the federal, state, and local levels. We must be willing to confront anything that does not facilitate needed improvement. That includes structures that limit opportunities for children with disabilities; practices that put the needs of “the system” over the individual needs of a child; policies that, no matter how well-intentioned, do not have the impact of improving outcomes for students; or laws and regulations that constrain innovation. We cannot ignore the challenges that students, parents, teachers and schools face.

Any policy that could deny education services to a student who needs them would be a failed policy. So we must root out anything that separates students from the individualized education they deserve.

The Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services is committed to confronting these—and any other issues—that stand in the way of a child’s success. We will partner with parents and families, individuals with disabilities—anyone and everyone who is focused on raising expectations and improving outcomes for individuals with disabilities.

This commitment means acknowledging that states, school districts, and parents know the needs of their students better than we do. Our goal is to provide them with as much flexibility and support as possible so that they can ensure their students’ needs are being met.

Douglas’ parents told me it wasn’t until Douglas was tested, properly diagnosed, and enrolled in a school that understood his unique traits and addressed his needs that things began to get better for him. In a different school, Douglas told me he feels comfortable and confident. He said, “I’m getting the right tools I need and learning how my brain works.”

Every student deserves the same opportunity and the same individualized attention that Douglas has. To be sure, this is and will continue to be hard work. However, it’s not just about working hard. It’s about working differently and more collaboratively, because meaningful and effective collaboration with all those who have a stake in the success of individuals with disabilities is critical to improving the outcomes that we envision.

The changes we need won’t happen overnight or only through the commitment of a few; but the work is worth it, because at the heart of all our efforts are the individuals we serve and their futures.

It is unacceptable for us to watch another generation of kids fail to achieve the outcomes they could have achieved just because the adults around them would not commit to solving difficult issues. We must demonstrate the courage and persistence necessary to achieve the goals that we, and most importantly the individuals we serve, envision.

No two children are the same, so no two children’s learning experiences should look the same. A personalized, student-centered education empowers students with disabilities and gives them the hope of living successful, independent lives, while a one-size-fits-all approach to education only limits students’ potential. Each child’s education should embrace his or her diverse traits and aspirations.

As we start this school year, I ask you to join me in rethinking special education in our country. While we all have a stake in the success of children with disabilities, no one has more of a stake in their success than they do.

The work is too important, the need is too urgent, and the stakes are too high for us to settle for anything less than whatever it takes to deliver on the promises we have made to children and families in our country.


 

Posted by
Assistant Secretary Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services United States Department of Education

38 Comments

  1. The IDEA and ADA were originally developed to give people with disabilities equal footing with those who are not disabled. The whole thing has become a mess with parents suing and threatening to sue us every time they don’t get something they want. I spend all my time filling out legal documents and going to meetings instead of actually teaching children. I think that IEP’s should be eliminated and SPED teachers should be returned to the classrooms, where they belong. Disabled children should receive what general education children receive, whether they are fully included or on a “pull-out” basis. Teachers should not be expected to be lawyers.

    • AMEN, Janet! Thank you for stating this (and for being a teacher)! I’m the parent of a son with Down syndrome (who didn’t receive an education in public school but is on grade-level as a freshman at a local private school) and an experienced Volunteer Advocate, and I am CERTAIN that teachers, students and parents would be so much more satisfied with the results if students with disabilities were placed in the general education classroom and everyone spent their time and expertise ensuring that ALL students were provided an education that resulted in academic progress. (This is what my son has received at Chattanooga Christian School.) Let’s get rid of “special education” and support our teachers in TEACHING!

  2. As a special educator, I am often hamstrung by administrative busy work, saddled with excessive paperwork (40 page average per IEP), and stretched so thin I cannot possibly carry out the services promised in the IEP.

    Firing teachers and fining schools is not a solution. Few people are going into special education, so firing current staff will only exacerbate the issue.
    Fining a school that is underfunded will not improve special education services.

    I proffer no solution, but suggestions for improvement such us fully funding special education. Fully funding our programs may mean more staff to help meet the needs of our students?

    We as a nation have a major decision to make, military power, or better education. Military and military-related spending is well over 60% of our budget. Education is nowhere near that. Pick your priorities.

  3. As parents of students with disabilities, we are writing to you regarding the Department’s new framework to “rethink” special education. Our children attend or graduated from nonpublic special education schools in Maryland and on their behalf, we are committed to ensuring that the full continuum remains intact. We applaud the Department’s support of local decision-making and partnership with parents as opposed to federal mandates and agree that public school is not always the best option for all children.

    Our children are being appropriately served in the least restrictive environment. An outcomes study documented the success of children in nonpublic schools and demonstrated that they are able to achieve better outcomes than a broad sampling of US students with less severe disabilities. MANSEF Post School Outcome.pdf. The specialized programming in the schools our children attend ensures their full participation and inclusion in our communities and neighborhoods and gives them substantial equal opportunities to achieve success.

    Parents play a vital role in the education and decision-making process. The law requires that parents have a voice in the IEP process and that their positions are valued and considered before decisions are made. The experiences of our children are evidence that a one-size-fits-all philosophy does not work. Many of our children simply could not thrive in large public programs, which is why the nonpublic options remain so critical.

    We are aware that public school administrators making placement decisions look to public schools as the first option. However, when a student is unable to achieve a meaningful education in the public system based on his or her disabilities, the law affords that student access to an educational program that is appropriately ambitious in light of his or her circumstances. For each student, an “appropriate” education may be different. As Justice Roberts stated in the Endrew F. decision, “The adequacy of a given IEP turns on the unique circumstances of the child for whom it was created.” We would like to ensure that while allowing these school decisions at the local level, that parents and children are also afforded protection and consistency in guidelines for school districts who may seek to hinder access to the meaningful educational benefit and often superior outcomes afforded at nonpublic schools.

    During your process of re-thinking special education, we respectfully request that you include the perspectives of parents of students in nonpublic special education schools. We invite you to visit any of the 80 schools in Maryland to see first-hand the incredible work that is taking place.

    Sincerely,

    Jennifer Berzok Michelle Jarvis
    Co-chair Co-chair
    Friends of MANSEF Friends of MANSEF

  4. The issue with special education is not as complex as everyone likes to make it seems. On every blog, at every school event, at every advocacy or legal aide office you hear the same violations happening repeatedly. A significant to these wrongs could be corrected by the following.

    1) Develop IEP training for parents that is provided by the advocacy groups funded through grants from the government. This training should be provided at the time that the parent requests an evaluation (Part I- assessments and evaluations), once the assessment reveal a disability step II training ( Accomodations, rights, goal development and monitoring compliance) should take place before the first IEP meeting to develop a service plan. Many parents are taken advantage of from day one trusting the school to have good intentions, only to find out three years later that their child has been cheated of their education, or labeled with incorrect diagnosis that allowed the school to receive maximum funding with minimal effort.

    2) Create a centralized national database that generate evidence based IEP Plan recommendations and that also captures racial demographics. The system would not use race in determinations, but would be able to track and flag a School who data shows disproportionality in the services provided to minorities.

    3) When schools are found to violate the law, they should be made to pay a fine to a legal fund that assists families who seek to peruse their grievance legally. Most cases are never heard simply because the family can not afford to hire a lawyer and most law firms require $10k retainer to litigate these cases.

    4) Mandate the termination of employees who fail to follow the law in this matter. The system creates a coat of immunity where employees are protected by their boards and sovereign immmnity is repeatedly used to avoid accountability for what often amounts to child abuse, through illegal restraint methods, bullying and harassment, retaliation and making false reports againsts students. There should be mandatory criminal charges for employees who falsifies records. (This happens a lot and when it’s discivered nothing happens).

    5) Seperate the oversight. The LEA, SEA, OSE are all ultimately under the same employer which is the state. The current law allows the state to oversee its own non-compliance, which it never admits. Even when a parent has prevailed, the school is then given another opportunity to correct the matter and the student is simply given additional instructional time, which places even greater academic strains on a student who already struggles. Many parents are instructed at every interval to file a due process if they don’t like the schools decision, only for the parent to have little evidence. Schools present to parents that the IEP Team has authority and minimize the parents power in the meeting often noting parents concerns in the comments or meeting notes if at all. Parents are repeatedly bullied and told the same message until the give up fighting in complete exhaustion. Parents should not have to file a lawsuit just for educational agencies to perform their duties.

    6) Develop a national special education legal network where attorneys in neighboring states will represent parent in other states. Most attorneys won’t represent parents with vigor in their current state of residence due to fear if reprisal by the school district against their kids. Many who do take your money often concede to the schools demands if too much pressure is felt from the state. This has happened with legal aid, private attorney’s and private educational assessment providers.

    7). Have statements sent to parents annually with recommended accommodations based upon the goals reported in their IEP and disability annually.

    Overall, the execution of IDEA, process monitoring and pro-active compliance efforts need to improved in order for any real change to occur. If this happened, less money could be spent on investigations and litigation, and on providing students with services and ensuring that an environment that ensures academic gains instead of increased restrictive settings, exclusion from standardized test, and pipeline to prison policies.

    End the systemic abuse of students and parents!

  5. Johnny! Please continue to do everything you possibly can to get the help these children need. I know how difficult it must be to get beyond all the bureaucracy in Washington, to get the necessary wheels rolling in order to see improvement. Know that I am praying for you, and all those who desperately need a man of your caliber to get them the help they so desperately need.

  6. Rethinking Special Education is needed, and it should start with one obvious challenge — this has been done several times over the last 16 years, with virtually no gains. We have worked with thousands of students and the challenges include: a wait to fail evaluation system; an RTI process that is consistently inconsistent; IEPs that meet minimum standards, but are not designed to get a child back to grade level; no real focus on Success by Third Grade; and a rejection of those who think outside the box.
    A real effort to Rethink Special Education needs to include those inside the system and some mavericks, who desperately want the system to succeed, and recognize it will take a different approach to significantly improve outcomes

    • Sadly are correct!
      My 13yr old son has and still is being swept under the rug. IEP meetings usually end with me in tears.The sad part is No Change is coming!

      • Pam Atkinson I feel exactly the same way you do. The system needs a true overhaul especially in the state of Georgia!!

  7. As a parent of an adult student with a disability, I appreciate the thoughts expressed in this blog. The recent framework was encouraging and will inspire hope for parents like me everywhere.

    The reality is that the big roadblock to success for our children is the system itself, yet somehow the “states know best”? That is how we got where we are today, by allowing states and schools to make decisions with no accountability to anyone.

    Their decisions affect our children’s futures based on their own very significant limitations. You have to both WANT and have the ABILITY to make change within a school system. I hope it is not a surprise to learn that schools do not make IEP, instructional, or placement decisions based on a students unique needs. If it is a surprise, please attend an IEP meeting soon!

    We need some leadership and action on this soon please. Thank you for your effort and immediate action to make change happen.

  8. Despite the fed’s and the efforts of Federalist Society politicians’ (who are in control from bottom to top now) to put out this message that they are doing something, I will not have faith until we actually see the effort and the fruit. We have had months now with nothing from Ms. DeVos targeting the improvement of reading, and the inclusion of students with disabilities, because they do not want the responsibility of enforcement at the federal level. They do not believe in it. So, there should be enforcement at the state level they say. However, that has usually NEVER happened. Parents who cannot afford attorneys or advocates are forced to spend more hours each night researching how to file complaints with DOJ, OCR, the OIGs in ever state, the Professional Standards commission, and sometimes with their local police.. and anywhere else they can find to get the services they need. Then, the District’s lawyers try to teach staff how to fight parents. These same lawyers are partners in firms with state legislators, so they KNOW the issues and know children are not being treated equally, as students without disabilities. In Georgia the GNETS (not a school) defrauds children, and abuse, neglect, segregation occurs every day as millions are spent on a program that has not worked for decades. We are tired of speaking out and seeing that no one does anything, even after lawsuits have been filed. This is fraud, waste and abuse of the highest order happening to our children, whom God has given us. They are our future, and they are the segment of our society that is under employed, and under appreciated by our society. God has called us to more. https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2018/10/01/georgias-separate-and-unequal-special-education-system

  9. As a resident of a state that put a limit on the number of students receiving special education services, giving them more decision making ability would be disastrous.

  10. “Rethinking Special Ed” is nothing more than continuing the DeVos agenda of eliminating all Federal oversight and turning special ed into the wild, Wild West! This will destroy the promise of a free appropriate public education and restore inequity and a bar of expectations that has no low!

  11. This is nothing but a poorly veiled attempt to eliminate all federal oversight and restore local control. Local control is code for inequity and the end of the promise of FAPE.

  12. As a resident of a state that blatantly limited students needing special education services, I can honestly say that giving our state more decision making authority is a horrific idea.

  13. Secretary Collette:
    If you have a sincere desire to improve literacy outcomes in this nation you will support initiatives to fund teacher prep programs that REQUIRE Science-Based Reading Instruction. You would support initiatives that REQUIRE reading and spelling skills to be taught in tandem. And, you would support an initiative to REQUIRE full funding of IDEA, which has been underfunded since 1975. Finally, you will REQUIRE everyone in the OSERS office read this publication:
    https://www.apmreports.org/story/2018/09/10/hard-words-why-american-kids-arent-being-taught-to-read

  14. Dear Assistant Secretary Johnny Collett,

    Please dig deeper.

    All the information you need is already available to you and to every education official in the nation.

    Two fundamental barriers prevent disabled children from receiving a high quality, equitable and inclusive education that prepares them for higher learning, employment and independent living:

    1) Less than half of all states are IDEA compliant (USDOE). Enforce and uphold compliance, accountability and transparency at the local, county, state and federal levels to combat our nation’s systemic failure to comply with IDEA;

    2) Parents are rarely, if ever, equal IEP team members. School officials in my community (Whittier, CA) for example, employ two SPED attorneys each of whom earns approximately $200,000 annually to protect the interests of the school and fight against our disabled children and their parents. Uninitiated parents – who lack SPED training, and the robust legal, financial and educational resources enjoyed by school officials – endure emotional, physical and financial duress in their attempts to access and enforce parental safeguards, protections and due process rights in mediation and formal hearings controlled by administrative law judges and teams of school officials and school attorneys.

    Parents need equal access to SPED training, education and legal support from education officials at the local, county, state and federal levels. With no equal access to the intensive training and legal resources that inequitably benefit school officials exclusively, “equal IEP team member” status for parents remains a fallacy.

    Yes, our schools are failing to teach our children with disability how to read, write and do math. In my community specifically, 2017 failure rates in language arts and math were approximately 80% to 96% (CAASPP). The systemic, pervasive and longstanding lack of importance and sense of urgency, and lack of accountability, transparency and compliance at the highest levels of school administration in my community drive the failures.

    Yes, another generation of kids are failing to achieve the outcomes they could have achieved because school officials (the adults around them) are failing to perform and solve difficult issues.

    Respectfully,

    Parent Advocate Group for an Equitable Quality Education (PAGE QE)

  15. You can start by removing the IDEA regulation that allows schools to remain out of compliance with IDEA for up to one year following identification of noncompliance. See 34 CFR 300.600(e) “…in exercising its monitoring responsibilities under paragraph (d) of this section, the State must ensure that when it identifies noncompliance with the requirements of this part by LEAs, the noncompliance is corrected as soon as possible, and in no case later than one year after the State’s identification of the noncompliance.”

    As for thinking local control will help students with special needs because “…states, school districts … know the needs of their students better” than USDE, think again. Just because a state or school district knows what a student needs does NOT mean they will actually provide what the student needs. They DON’T, and they WON’T.

    Ellen M. Chambers, MBA

  16. There is enough confusion and mayhem in the states’ interpretations of the regulations. Providing states with even more choices will only perpetuate the low quality of education in those states below 25th place in their providing acceptable education.

  17. Rethinking???

    Is it an honesty, good faith inquiry to bring educational services for students with disabilities in line with the technology, best practises, and current science or is it another attempt to cut the budget or advance a political agenda or maybe a little of both? The current , shrill ideological debate the drowns out the ability reason , making it hard to see the path, but it perhaps it can be a start

    ” the SpecialEdMarine”

  18. We need to rethink the role of the regular education teacher. They are all-too-often left out of the special education process – and they are the de facto special education teachers for the vast majority of all mild/moderate sped students.

    In my district, reg ed teachers teach 80% of the disabled students (some are severe) for 95% of the day. Our IEPs often state that both the reg ed teacher and the sped teacher are both responsible for the Specialized Academic Instruction. It would be nice if we reg ed teachers understood exactly what we are supposed to do. Instead, we often go months before we find out that a student in our class has an IEP. We are handed a truncated version of the IEP with little information.

    I went to an IEP training today. The presenter was a special education lawyer who has appeared before the 9th District Circuit – and won. She told us that despite the specific wording in the IDEA that the IEP team must include “a regular education teacher of the student,” the school district can invite any regular education teacher to the IEP meeting. Think about this. It would behoove a cash-strapped district to invite someone who won’t know enough to advocate for services, ask too many questions, or expect special training. And that’s exactly what happens.

    We need to train the regular education teachers so they can effectively help sped students meet their goals. If the mild/moderate sped teachers are too time-strapped to give the reg ed teachers basic information about sped students, then maybe they should just stick to their paperwork and let the reg ed teachers, who know their students best, do what they do anyway – teach every child.

    • Informed parents need to know that they can specifically request those particular teachers at the IEP prior to the IEP….and plan accordingly. It’s the law.

      • Dear Trish,
        Not so according to the presenter – parents cannot dictate which staff members to invite. She advised sped folks to list the LEA IEP meeting participants by their title only so that a different person could easily be subbed in. As a caring teacher, I have had to use a valuable personal day and come as an advisor of the parent – even though I was the only regular education teacher of the student. I filed a state complaint and lost on that part. California Ed Dept said that ANY reg ed teacher would do. It seemed to me that such a policy would violate the student’s right to confidentiality.

        • In our case we wish more general education teachers would attend the case conferences. We ask and beg for attendance and input for goals. We get minimal response from some!

  19. President Trump,
    I like the OSERS Framework. Can we please apply this Framework to improve healthcare organizations? People with special needs are also affected by healthcare institutional cultures that protect institutions and status quo over people and improvement.

  20. This is not about funding. Its easy to say its a funding issue. This is about what professionals believe and think about education. We need to think differently about how we educate ALL children and then we will have a system that supports individual learners. Currently the Special Education/IDEA practices are very specific, limiting and cumbersome. Also, these practices are “skill deficit based” and NOT pro-active nor compatible within most education systems. I say throw out the baby with the bath water and start over!

  21. It is nice to see that finally after 27 years of working on this— that the door to schools is finally cracked open. Getting the tools to our kids who struggle with reading may now be possible. Do not be too quick to label them. Disabilities limit our youth—inabilities that are corrected —leap frog them forward. These kids work very hard and yet hear words like “lazy” or “the small bus.” Once they get the help they need & books are back in their hands and fluency in reading can once again become a reality—those new labels might be “remarkable” “so smart” “who knew…etc.
    I say keep going we have just begun to make Change Happen for all!

  22. I agree. We need your help. Our programs are not funded to ensure the supports are available to put some great services in place. Our teachers are not prepared for the job coming out of college. There is a huge disconnect between gen ed and special ed. Why can’t it just be EDUCATION?? General education teachers MUST see all students as their students. Can we operate as specialists in student support vs “special” education??

    • I agree with Kim Adkins’ reply. Before and after diagnosis and the school accepts eligibility, ALL INCLUSION STUDENTS IN GENERAL EDUCATION whether identified or not, are affected by the educational culture of status quo and institution over progress and person.

      General education teachers and principals have no mandate, support, or financial incentive to learn special education. This must change to Make America Great Again.

    • I agree, the level of training a teacher requires should include more special education training, inclusion training, and training in modifying your classroom to teach multiple learning styles. As the saying goes, ”To be forewarned, is to be forearmed. “ This should be required in order for teachers to earn their degree. This training should be required through continued education credits for career teachers who have already completed their degree. A system which does not require all teacher’s to learn how to include student with special needs is a discriminatory policy that only seeks to address standards of equal education for no -disabled students. Just as the government would not allow unqualified teachers to teach students with disabilities, not requiring teacher’s to have this training is the equivalent of unqualified personnel for a child with special needs.

    • I agree. We beg to go to training and there is no money. We ask for more staff so we can identify more preschool aged children and it takes years to get even a portion of the staff we need. The best leave for other jobs because ten hour days destroy your own family and kids at home and any less and you cant even partially do your job. The population grows and grows and the staff numbers stay the same. The retirees in my county vote down every tax increase for schools. Kids who need speech therapy would benefit from daily therapy but we do once per week because it is all we can afford with the number of staff we are allowed to hire. All staff wants to do better. Until someone votes to give us more money to pay more people to teach special education, they will keep giving just above the minimum. That is the level we are staffed at. minimum. Please understand “the schools” are not the enemy here. It is the misunderstanding between those who fund the schools and those who vote for those who fund the schools that must change. We need easily twice the number of speech therapists for example. Twice the school psychologists. Half the students in classrooms (18 max in 6th grade may really change something instead of 30!) We need more teachers and more training (not messed up nonsense webinars that profit the service or the DPI but real training by those who work with kids and have the success to back it up!) Help us. Vote for whoever will put more money into education for all so we can do right by our students!!!!

      • I understand the lack of funding and training, however a little creativity goes a long way. Perhaps teachers could reach out to parents of children with disabilities and create a group and share techniques. Try getting the PTA involved and request specific funding for this training and programs.

        As a parent of a student with a disability I am very active in my son’s academics and school environment. Over the years I have been told numerous times how a technique I developed for my child And shared with his teacher was so successful that the teacher used it with other students within the classroom to support their learning.

        Just as every student is unique and amazing in their own way, so must our creativity in finding solutions to supporting these needs. If successful, it would allow for greater job satisfaction and more time with your own family! Win…win!

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