There really is no magic about special education. Many parents and teachers believe that once a child is identified, and an IEP (individualized education plan) is written, that magically a child will get what she needs. There is nothing further from the truth. To understand what really happens, we have to go all the way back to 1975. That was the year that Public Law 94-142 was passed. This groundbreaking federal legislation (now known as Individuals with Disabilities Education Act or IDEA) ensured that every child would be educated in the public schools of the United States. Every child. Before that time, it was common practice for kids with special needs to be turned away from their neighborhood schools. Imagine being the parent of a kid with Down’s Syndrome told that your kid was not smart enough to be part of school. That’s what was happening before 94-142, and is still happening in other countries around the globe today. So, this legislation was needed and welcome. But, what is happening now is threatening to bankrupt our schools and undermine much of needed school reform.
Over 13% of our children have been identified as special education students. This means that we believe that a typical education program will only meet the needs of 87% of our kids. The great majority of special education students (currently over 40%) fall into the category of “learning disabled.” While specific learning disabilities are a very real thing, they are not nearly as common as one would suspect. In fact, in the late 1990’s, when our mandated standardized testing was beginning to get completely out of control, the percentage spiked to more than 46. That’s right, over 46% of students (over 6% of the total population) with IEPs, were supposedly learning disabled.* This got the government’s attention since the feds were responsible for funding much of the services for special education students. So they put in place something called RTI, Response to Intervention, which is now mandatory for all school districts. Before referring a student for an evaluation that may lead to identification in special education, the school must document multiple instructional and/or behavioral interventions for the student. Imagine that; if the kid isn’t learning, try something different. The problem with this approach is that kids who REALLY need services are being delayed for months or even years, while the school goes through the necessary gyrations to warrant an evaluation.
Teachers and parents really push to get the evaluations completed and have students identified. Getting a student identified as learning disabled usually just means demonstrating a gap between the student’s ability and achievement. In other words, if the student is behind in reading, but has no lack of intelligence, the student is learning disabled. It never occurs to us that perhaps the education the child has been receiving is lacking. Parents and teachers believe that once the child is labeled, there will be some magic that will “cure” their child and make her able to learn. They think that once a “special education” teacher is assigned, their child will make incredible gains and all will be well again. Nothing could be further from the truth. While there are many incredibly good special education teachers, many don’t have much more to offer than mainstream teachers. In fact, there are huge numbers of special education teachers who have attained their certifications through “emergency” or “alternate” routes. They may have only taken a class or two, or are in the process of doing so. The surge in special education students has led to a shortage of special education teachers, so states have put emergency provisions in place to keep them in compliance with the mandates of IDEA legislation.
I have been working with special education students since 1982, and gotten to know thousands of kids. Out of all of these kids, I can think of a small handful who had real learning disabilities. Almost all of the students I have known with this label had no disabilities at all. They were simply suffering from a lack of appropriate instruction, mostly in the area of reading. Once I was able to provide quality, direct instruction in phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, and comprehension, they were miraculously cured of their afflictions. In math, social studies, and science, I just needed to modify instruction slightly so they could use their strengths to become successful. If they had behavioral issues, I needed to find ways to adjust the learning environment, and/or modify their behavior, so they could learn. In other words, I had to be a good teacher and employ the multitude of tools and strategies I had learned over the years to meet the individual needs of every individual student. This is not magic. It is just good teaching. The answer to helping special education students is to help teachers become better at what they do. We need to stop labeling kids, and start improving teachers’ skills so that all can be more successful.
The seismic shift did not occur this week when our new Chancellor was announced. It started much earlier, sometime in the summer. That was the time when each of the city’s schools became part of 60 “Children First Networks (CFNs)”, designed to provide integrated operational and instructional support to schools. This less centralized model has been tested over the past several years, and is thought to be the most effective way to do things in the world’s largest school district. Prior to the summer, each school belonged to what was called a “School Support Organization (SSO).” There were many different models around the city, each with a different focus or approach. Some SSOs provided operational support, while others depended on more centralized services through the ISCs (Integrated Service Centers). So, as the summer approached, the majority of ISC personnel found themselves scrambling for operational positions within the CFNs. Most CFNs grew in size in order to provide all of the new services they were now required to provide, causing huge shifts in office space and resources.
Now that CFNs are in firmly in place, each one answering to one of 6 “clusters,” which are overseen by the Division of School Support and Instruction (DSSI), it is apparent what is happening. The NYC DOE is putting its house in order. It is creating more consistent policies and procedures for schools, and insisting upon absolute compliance. This district, arguably considered one of the nation’s leaders in innovation and reform, is settling into a top-down, mandate-driven bureaucracy. This is fascinating because as recently as a year ago, the running “joke” was that you couldn’t mandate schools to do anything in NYC. Now, just a blink-of-an-eye later, not a day goes by without a new deadline or mandate being announced to schools through the CFNs.
I guess I should have seen this coming. In my fairly long educational career, I have experienced similar evolutions in many school districts across a dozen states, and they always follow a similar pattern. A perceived crisis prompts those in power to encourage innovation and experimentation in an effort to improve results. Brave educators, community partners and others, excitedly exercise their new freedom to do what kids really need. The bureaucrats either give explicit waivers to, or turn a blind eye to, rules and regs to allow these empowered individuals do some great new things. There is great fanfare about encouraging results, and lots of media attention. Then bureaucrats become concerned about schools breaking the rules, and order is once again restored through mandates and compliance regulations. Until the next perceived crisis.
I am wondering about federal programs. This is the money the United States Department of Education doles out to states, which then distribute the cash to local schools. Both non-public and public schools are eligible for this funding. Each program is designated for a very specific purpose and has lots of strings attached. Part of my job at the moment is assisting and supporting (read forcing) schools to meet the compliance requirements of federal programs. I have always known how much time and money is spent on this type of requirement, but it is really hitting me in a big way this year. The requirements have become more and more burdensome to individual schools and school districts over the years. When I was the head of school of a non-public school I chose not to participate in federal programs. We could have qualified for a little money, but when I read the fine print regarding reporting and auditing requirements, I determined that our little school would need to hire additional personnel to meet the requirements, negating any positive fiscal advantage to each program.
Now that I am back in the public school world, I am wondering just how much each school and school district spends on compliance for these programs and if it is worth the price. Financially, how much better off (if at all) is a school or school district when it accepts this money? But, perhaps more importantly, how much energy is drained from the school organization to deal with the nonsense that accompanies the money? My principals are tired. Really tired. Nearly every day - no literally every day - someone from a central office contacts them to tell them of a deadline or requirement they must meet. Almost everything revolves around federal programs. People in Arne Duncan’s office would probably reassure us that we were ensuring that kids in poverty get the help they need through these programs; that we are working to level the playing field for them - to which I would say, “Hogwash!” These programs have been in effect for decades now, and despite the increasing compliance regulations, they have nothing to show for them. Our national results have been getting worse during the same time period that we have been making these ridiculous requirements of schools.
If the United States Department of Education really wants better results, it is time to really focus on JUST results. Use the Common Core State Standards as the benchmarks, and focus on developing authentic assessments systems that will do a better job of seeing what our kids can do. And then PLEASE get out of the way of educators who are on the front lines and let them focus on instruction instead of filling out forms.