Jul 6, 2011

Serving Students With Special Needs [Or, I Was Never A Teacher So You Shouldn't Listen To Me]

Nathan Levenson is Managing Director of the District Management Council, a firm focused on helping public school districts raise student achievement and improve operational efficiencies. Prior to joining the District Management Council, Levenson was Superintendent of the Arlington (MA) Public Schools. He began his career in the private sector and was twice elected to his local school board.

SF: As a country, overall, how are we doing at educating our children with special needs? Where have we improved and what can we do better?

It is a mixed bag. Over the last 30 years the country has made significant progress in integrating students with disabilities into the general education setting. Gone (mostly) are the days of students with disabilities in run down rooms in the basement with scant supplies and no curriculum. The attitude towards students with disabilities has also improved. They are more accepted by their peers and often active in the school community. Despite these gains, overall it is hard to be pleased with the state of special education in America. Despite much caring, and even more spending, students with special needs achieve at unacceptably low levels, and too few are prepared for college, work, or independent living.

SF: What percentage of a district's budget typically goes toward special education? Is that money usually spent wisely?

Strangely enough, no one knows for sure how much is spent on special education. Few school budgets accurately track this. For example, legal bills for IEP disputes are often charged to the legal line item, not special education. The same is true of some transportation expenses, which aren't credited to the special education budget. One recent study indicates total spending on special education has risen from 4 percent of district budget to 21 percent from 1970 to 2005. Some districts in Massachusetts, New Jersey, and other high spending states, spend over 30 percent of the budget on special education. None of these figures include the cost of classroom space and facilities. Since special education spending isn't tracked in detail, it should be no surprise that often it isn't tightly controlled. For example, general education class sizes are tightly managed, but in many districts caseloads for special education teachers and therapists are completely unknown. Equally surprisingly, in many districts some special education staff are (unknowingly) assigned many more (or less) hours of work than their colleagues. Even worse, too often the services and programs funded just aren’t helping kids learn! This is unfair to both students and taxpayers.

SF: What role do early intervention services play in helping students with special needs succeed and how costly or efficient are these programs?

I like to simplify this topic, and assert that only three things really matter in early intervention -- reading, reading, and reading. The stats are clear -- reading is the gateway to all other learning. Children who struggle in reading are over-referred to special education and often never catch up. This is especially sad, since we have "cracked the code" on how to teach reading. The National Reading Panel and the What Works Clearing House spell it out. Some districts feel they don't have enough money to implement a best practice reading program, but our studies have shown that typically it costs 1/2 to 1/5 as much as the current mish-mash of elementary support programs. The obstacles aren't dollars, but focus, turf battles, silos, and other organizational self-imposed barriers.

SF: In your paper, you suggest a need for more closely integrating special education and general education programs. Can you explain your views and offer some practical advice on how a district could do this?

This is perhaps the most obvious and controversial point in the paper. The idea is simple; students who struggle to learn math need two things: a great math teacher and extra time with this great math teacher. While hardly a complex idea, it is quite common for students with special needs to experience just the opposite. It is far more typical that a special education teacher, who has little or no training in math will be either the only teacher for a special needs student, or will provide all the extra help. Unintentionally, we have systematically shifted the responsibility of teaching math, English, and reading from content expert general education teachers to non-teachers (paraprofessionals) or teachers not trained in reading, math or English (special education teachers).

The most direct solution is to have general education teachers provide both core instruction and the supplemental extra help. The math department should be responsible for students learning math, even students with disabilities, rather than the special education department.

SF: You point to areas where the federal law can be improved to benefit special education services, such as mandating new rules around teacher quality. Can you discuss this and also highlight approaches state and local policymakers can pursue?

State and federal policy reinforce two of the most troubling aspects of how we serve students with special needs. The first is a relentless focus on inputs rather than outcomes. It's against the law if services aren't provided or spending is reduced, but it's basically OK if the services and funds don't result in a child that can read! Grant rules also make it hard to combine funds into one effective, robust program, and encourage many smaller, less integrated efforts, all in the name of closely monitoring the inputs (grant dollars).

The Highly Qualified requirement of the No Child Left Behind Law has also been interpreted by many states in a way that unintentionally hurts students with special needs. It seems that a general education student requires a teacher steeped in math content, training, and expertise, but that very same teacher can't instruct a student with special needs, because a special needs certificate is required. In fact, a student with special needs can be (and often is) taught math by someone with no training or expertise in math, yet they are still deemed "highly qualified".

SF: If there are ways to raise student achievement and lower costs, why aren't more districts doing this?

I think there are two obstacles: compassion and fear. Rightfully so, no one wants to take away anything from students who struggle. Out of love, we have lowered expectations, shielded students from rigor, and propped them up with paraprofessional support. This is well intentioned, but it hasn't actually helped many students with mild to moderate disabilities succeed.

Too often we are fearful of acknowledging that what we are doing isn't good enough. This fear is compounded by the concern that improving outcomes will cost more money. Only by combining compassion for students and a commitment to improve special education without siphoning resources from other children can districts raise achievement for students with special needs.

To see Levenson's report click here: Rethinking Special Education.

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