After nine months of labor, the President's Commission on Excellence in Special Education has given birth to a stunning report. If it's allowed to grow up into public policy, rather than be strangled in its crib, it would effect a much-needed overhaul of the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA)-and much else.
You should read all 90 pages for yourself and make up your own mind, of course. (The report is available on the Internet at http://www.ed.gov/inits/commissionsboards/whspecialeducation.) But allow me to recap some of its key points.
The Commission demonstrates that, while IDEA has done much good, the educational attainments of disabled youngsters remain weak. They're more apt to drop out of school, less apt to attend college, etc. Minority kids are overrepresented in this educational cul-de-sac from which few ever emerge. Half of all children in special ed are there because of so-called "specific learning disabilities" and yet, in the Commission's estimate, eighty percent of those youngsters (i.e. 2 in 5 of all those in special ed) are there "simply because they haven't learned how to read." Worse, once in special ed, they are unlikely to catch up with their peers in reading or other core skills.
The Commission found "a system in need of fundamental rethinking, a shift in priorities and a new commitment to individual needs." Its key assumption is that, in special as in "regular" ed, "accountability for results matters, parents desire maximum input and educators want to see efficiency melded with compassion and improved outcomes." Perhaps the key sentence in the entire report is this: "The ultimate test of the value of special education is that, once identified, children close the gap with their peers." As soon as you accept this view of the proper criterion by which to gauge IDEA's success, everything else begins to shift.
In examining the current program's operations, the Commission settled on nine "findings," mostly centering on the proposition that a "culture of compliance" dominates the program instead of an obsession with academic outcomes. The Commissioners, therefore, set out to bring IDEA into the era of "No Child Left Behind," to conform our thinking about special ed to our thinking about education in general, i.e. to the realization that what ultimately matters is not what's done but what's learned.
This reasoning led the Commission to three broad reform propositions: Shift the focus from process to results. Embrace "a model of prevention not a model of failure." And instead of segregating special-ed kids and isolating their funding, meld special ed with general education into a single delivery system tailored to the learning needs of every youngster.
The Commission set forth 33 detailed recommendations under half a dozen major headings. The only two that seem to be gathering media attention are a limited voucher proposal ("allow state use of federal special education funds to enable students with disabilities to attend schools or to access services of their family's choosing, provided states measure and report outcomes for all children benefiting from IDEA funds") and the Commissioners' refusal to embrace the conventional definition of "full federal funding" for special ed. (On this latter point, the report provides-on pages 28-32-the clearest, sharpest exegesis of special-ed funding that I've ever seen.)
Though you'd never know it from the press coverage, some of the Commission's other proposals are far more revolutionary. These span a wide array of special ed issues, including research, teacher preparation and such knotty topics as how to handle special ed in charter schools. The Commissioners would replace the compliance mindset with bold deregulation of the means by which special education is provided to children, combined with the specification, measurement and reporting (at the individual child level, state level, etc.) of "annual outcomes and results." They would enforce results-based accountability at all those levels, integrating it with the adequate-yearly-progress approach set forth in No Child Left Behind. They would jettison the present "deficit model" for identifying disabled youngsters, one that (for many girls and boys) waits until they've begun to lag in school before deciding that they need help, and would replace it with early identification, prevention and intervention. Moreover, they would include in the determination of a child's need a close review of the instruction previously tried with him and how it worked. Tucked away on page 25 is this bombshell:
"A key component of the identification process...should be a careful evaluation of the child's response to instruction. Children should not be identified for special education without documenting what methods have been used to facilitate the child's learning and adaptation to the general education classroom. The child's response to scientifically based interventions attempted in the context of general education should be evaluated with performance measures, such as pre- and post-administration of norm referenced tests and progress monitoring. In the absence of this documentation, the Commission finds that many children who are placed into special education are essentially instructional casualties and not students with disabilities."
Read that last sentence again. It's basic. It suggests that America should come to view the educational inadequacies of millions of its daughters and sons not in terms of organic problems inherent in the children but rather as the fallout from unsound, inept or ill-conceived instruction by adults. This doesn't mean that nobody has a "true" disability. Millions do. And there are many mixed situations, where true disabilities interact in complex ways with how and what a child is taught or with other school-connected experiences. So be it. But that doesn't contradict the Commission's main message: Start to view special ed chiefly in terms of preventing and remedying education gaps rather than as a system for coping with children who were born with problems that schooling can do little about.
Will the Bush Administration and the Congress take this advice to heart in the upcoming IDEA reauthorization? Don't count on it. Myriad adult interests are already rallying to prevent this kind of fundamental rethinking-and on behalf of more money poured into the current, flawed program. We already knew that reform comes hard to "regular" education. It will be markedly harder in special ed. What the Commission's excellent report now needs, above all, are some champions, influential individuals (the President, the Secretary of Education, key members of Congress) who will show real leadership on behalf of these reforms despite the slim political reward for doing so. Reconstructing IDEA may not get one thanked at the polls. It will, simply, be the right thing to do on behalf of millions of America's neediest children and on behalf of an education system that probably cannot be successfully reformed until we are ready to tackle this part, too.