By James Aycock
Millions of students with disabilities (SWD) are receiving substandard educations. So says the Obama administration, which recently announced a major overhaul in special education accountability. Officials in Tennessee applaud the change.
To understand the shift, a little history is helpful.
Special education law originated in the Civil Rights era—1975 to be exact. It should be no surprise, then, that it’s a rights-based program. At that time, over a million children with disabilities were not being served in public schools, so the emphasis was on access to a free and appropriate public education (FAPE). This led to an accountability system based on compliance and paperwork.
This creates tension because more recent education law is focused on outcomes.
Over the past 25 years, there has been increased attention on test scores, but special education has not kept up with this trend. The result is a considerable achievement gap between SWD and their nondisabled peers, and it’s a gap that is not closing.
I’m not going to argue against the rights-based approach. It’s certainly a good and necessary piece to special education. But I do think that it’s time to expand our definitions of “rights” and “appropriate education.” Simply put, SWD have a right to a quality education that challenges them and pushes them to achieve a high level of success.
And this is why the shift in special education accountability is so important.
No longer will it be acceptable for SWD to progress through school without learning how to read. No longer will it be okay for SWD to be put on a less rigorous course of study that does not prepare them for college. Schools and districts will be held accountable, not just for compliance and paperwork, but also for educational outcomes.
This seems uncontroversial, so why is there so much controversy surrounding this development?
First and foremost, the new accountability system has teeth. States stand to lose some of the $11 billion of federal funding they receive for special education if they can’t improve outcomes for SWD. And that loss of funding will surely trickle down to districts and schools.
Beyond the dollars involved, there is a widespread misunderstanding around special education and disabilities.
When most people, even in the education world, hear “special education,” they think of what kids can’t do. In reality, though, the vast majority of students receiving special education services (around 40% nationally and within Tennessee, although that number is closer to 50% within Shelby County) are diagnosed with specific learning disabilities (SLD). These are kids with average IQs who are performing in a subject significantly below what would be expected of someone with the same IQ. As I have written elsewhere, most of these kids (about 80%) were diagnosed with a disability because they never learned to read.
Another large group of SWD (just over 20% nationally, but closer to 15% locally) have speech or language impairments (SI/LI). Still another group (about 10% of SWD) are classified as other health impairments (OHI), which includes ADHD, sickle cell, etc. Again, these kids have average intelligence.
A smaller group (around 9% of SWD nationally, 6% locally) consists of physical, visual, and hearing impairments, as well as emotional disturbances. And, again, these kids have average intelligence.
In short, around 80% of SWD (over five million nationally, over 100,000 statewide, and over 15,000 locally) have average intelligence. These kids should be exposed to rigorous instruction and be able to perform at high levels. As such, it should not be controversial to hold schools and districts accountable for outcomes for these students.
(There is legitimate debate about the other 20% – and this is a debate we need to have. But it’s important in our discussions about special education to make the distinction between the 20% and the 80%, for there should be no debate about the latter.)
Granted, the new accountability measures are more difficult to meet – only 18 states meet the new benchmarks, compared to 41 that met the old benchmarks. But, with such a high dropout rate among SWD and such low proficiency rates in this population, it is essential that we raise the bar.
We know that these 80% of SWD with average intelligence should be able to achieve grade-level proficiency. Contrary to popular opinion, these kids’ disabilities aren’t preventing them from success in school; with the proper accommodations and rigorous instruction, they can meet the same high standards as their nondisabled peers. It’s time to expect as much. It’s time to demand as much.
Fortunately, Tennessee is already ahead of the game. For several years now, the state has included the four major achievement gaps (income, race, language, and disability) in its accountability measures. The state has also seen more SWD served in the general education classroom and more SWD taking the standard assessment (e.g., TCAP-ACH rather than TCAP-MAAS, the modified version). As a result, graduation rates are up, and dropout rates are down, for SWD.
We still have a way to go, however. Proficiency in SWD is not improving, and so these students are not catching up to their nondisabled peers. This can be attributed to some degree to the switch for many SWD from the modified assessment to the more rigorous standard test. But the problem goes beyond that and into classrooms.
The new Response to Instruction & Intervention (RTI²) initiative, which I’ve described previously , is a good start in closing the achievement gap between SWD and their peers. The widely popular Common Core trainings are helping as well.
Still, we must do more. Our SWD can’t wait.
Have something to say about the new accountability measures? Tell us about it in the comments section below!