Among the many reasons equity advocates are celebrating new leadership in Washington is the hope that President Biden and Secretary of Education-designate Cardona will do more to help students with disabilities. These kids struggled mightily in school before the pandemic, and no group of students has suffered more from remote and hybrid learning.
A cornerstone of candidate Biden’s education platform was to fully fund IDEA, the federal dollars earmarked for special education. Originally intended to cover 40 percent of a school district’s special education costs, actual funding has hovered below half that figure. So would an extra $20 billion a year in IDEA dollars change the lives of students with disabilities? It might, but there’s also the possibility that it might unintentionally harm them. In any case, other changes could help even more.
If history is our guide, more money hasn’t actually helped raise achievement or improve the post-graduation lives of many students with disabilities. Over the last few decades, special education spending has been rising, even when adjusted for inflation and for the number of students served. Special education staffing, a proxy for spending, has increased 19 percent since 2000, while students with disabilities increased just 6 percent. While the federal government’s share didn’t grow much, districts have been dedicating more of their operating budgets to support students with special needs. Despite ever more funding, however, fourth grade national assessment reading scores for students with disabilities in 2019 are lower than in 2002 when the data was first disaggregated, with just 12 percent of these youngsters proficient or above. That’s less than a third the proficiency level of students without disabilities.
In my new book, Six Shifts to Improve Special Education and Other Interventions (Harvard Education Press), I explain that how money is spent in this realm matters more than how much is spent. Special education definitely needs attention from leaders in Washington, but it needs attention more urgently than it needs additional funding for the same old same old. Here are six policy shifts that would help the most. They also don’t cost a dollar more.
Changes to special education policy don’t come easy. It can be tempting to just increase a line item in the next budget and declare mission accomplished. Fortunately, some of these shifts don’t need a rewrite of IDEA and others are small tweaks that can have big impact. Let’s start with the easiest shifts.
1. Allow, fund, and encourage general education teachers to provide some special education services. Who is best suited to provide reading intervention to a struggling reader or to deliver math support to a student struggling with fractions? Yes, some special educators are great at this, but many have no formal training in these subjects. The further students fall behind, the less likely they are to get extra help from teachers trained in the content they struggle with.
Current rules allow for IDEA dollars to be spent on general education staff if they are providing services in a student’s Individual Education Plans (IEP). That said, most districts and many SEAs don’t believe this is true. This uncertainty precludes all but the boldest districts from taking the common-sense step of having content strong general educators provide IEP mandated extra help. A clearly worded “Dear Colleague” letter could erase the confusion and open a flood gate of high quality support.
2. Focus accountability and assistance on outcomes as much as compliance. Federal and state oversight seems laser-focused on proper procedures and timely paperwork, not so much on teaching and learning. If you write an IEP a day late or miss a required reading intervention period, a lot of state and federal attention follows. But if you provide a low-quality reading intervention or have a student fall another six months behind, there is little or no federal outrage, much less enforcement or corrective action. During the pandemic, districts fell out of compliance and kids fell further behind. Where and why states and districts are singled out for corrective action this coming school year will speak loudly to district leaders.
As accountability plans are modified at the state level and reviewed at the federal level due to the pandemic, keeping the focus on learning, and not just compliance, can also redirect millions of staff hours of attention. If compliance is central to accountability going forward, that’s where the effort will flow.
Some high-impact policy shifts also need legislative revision, which isn’t likely to be near the top of anyone’s agenda, given the multitude of crises we face today. That said, many state education agencies see Covid-19 recovery as top priority, and encouragement from secretaries of education could nudge a few state-level reforms currently under consideration over the finish line in some states. The states could serve as pilot programs and ultimately influence future federal rules.
3. Guarantee full access to general education math, reading, and writing instruction, unless parents desire otherwise. Currently, parents approve IEPs that stipulate the services that their children must receive. These agreements, however, are mum on what students will miss in order to receive their IEP services. More than half of students with mild to moderate disabilities forgo substantial core instruction in math, reading, and writing. Sadly, struggling students get less core instruction than their non-struggling peers. Parents seldom understand this, and many wouldn’t approve their child missing math to get speech and language or missing regular reading instruction from their classroom teacher to get “extra help” in reading. Adding a single data point to the state developed IEP would be a game changer. Right next to where the document stipulates the service, the frequency, the duration, and the provider, the form should require listing what is lost, not just gained.
4. Close the certification loophole. An uncontroversial and powerful element of NCLB was that students deserved to be taught by staff who were certified in their field. Gone was the day of an English teacher being asked to cover a section of Algebra 1 because they had a free period. In practice, however, students with special needs have been exempt from this common-sense reform. Hundreds of thousands of non-certified paraprofessionals are asked to serve as teachers and tutors for students with disabilities. In many districts, a student with an IEP is far likelier to get extra help in reading, math, or other academic subjects from an untrained professional than from a certified teacher. Like their gen-ed peers, students with disabilities deserve highly skilled and trained teachers. Even certified special education teachers aren’t required to be certified in the content of the subjects that they teach.
The final two recommended policy shifts will have to wait for major legislation, but it’s not too soon to start the conversation. Both relate to broadening the definition of success as enforced through federal accountability regulations. I cheered when NCLB created high standards and expectations for all students, especially students with disabilities. This was much needed and long overdue. That said, with more than twenty years of experience with accountability systems, the following two tweaks could help many kids with (and without) disabilities.
5. Create a rigorous CTE pathway with a more aligned accountability measure. College readiness is a great definition of success for many students, including many with disabilities. Career and technical education (CTE) is getting more attention these days, but accountably systems don’t reflect the equal value of a technical education. This impacts all students, but it’s not uncommon for 50 percent or more of students in CTE programs to have special needs. For these students, their future career requires a set of technical skills, which include reading, writing, and math, but somewhat different reading, writing, and math than their college-bound peers. CTE schools are forced to teach two sets of standards in a single day, often leading to mastery in neither. Industry-endorsed, rigorous CTE standards should be an equally valid measure of student success that leads to passing marks on state accountability systems.
6. For students with the most severe disabilities, allow parents to select among more pathways for success. A small number of students with severe disabilities may have a very different path to a successful life. For some, it may be the ability to live independently or work in a sheltered environment. NCLB and ESSA recognized this, sort of. The accountability system, however, assumes that 99 percent of students are college bound and just 1 percent of students can take an alternative assessment. This is problematic for two reasons. First, 1 percent is arbitrary. In some districts it could be that 2 percent or a bit more are appropriate for an alternative assessment. Second, the alternative assessment, in theory, still measures math, reading, and science, not necessarily the skills of greatest value to these students. Perhaps the most alarming proof of the mismatch between the alternative assessment and the students taking it is that, in 2018 in Massachusetts, the alternative assessment was given 17,490 times, and only in sixteen instances did the student score as “needs improvement” or better.
Nothing could be worse than the return to low expectations for students with special needs or retreating from a free and appropriate education, but the accountability measures should measure what’s most important for each student. Parents should help set the goals, and federal accountably should monitor progress against these goals.
New leadership in the White House and at the U.S. Department of Education is a hopeful new beginning for students with special needs. And if the government releases a windfall of IDEA funds in the future—then, as a former superintendent and school board member, I wouldn’t say turn it down. But we still need to understand that more of the same won’t guarantee better student outcomes. However generous the funding, today’s approach to special education gives us no reason to believe that more students with disabilities will read on grade level, graduate, prosper in meaningful careers, or live independently.