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Special Ed. Policies for Online Schools are Inconsistent, Unclear, Says Report

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By Sean Cavanagh. This story originally appeared on the Marketplace K-12 blog.

San Antonio

State and local policies around serving special-education students in virtual schools are highly inconsistent-and in many cases it's largely unknown whether the online programs are complying with federal disabilities law, a new report finds.

The findings were released Wednesday at iNACOL's Blended and Online Learning Symposium, a major ed-tech gathering being held here this week.

The Center on Online Learning and Students With Disabilities, which released the report, is charged by the U.S. Department of Education with researching trends and positive and negative outcomes of special-needs' students participation in different online-education programs.

A pair of researchers associated with the center, James Basham and Skip Stahl, outlined the results, which are the latest version of a report released annually, drawn from detailed reviews of state policy and other data and analysis.

The report concludes that many states do not provide clear direction regarding who should provide special education services in virtual or online settings, or who is supervising those activities.

And it also suggests many teacher-education programs may be falling short in training future educators on how to work with special-needs students in virtual environments.

"It's often hard to extract data from these systems, to know what's working in what circumstances," Stahl told the audience at iNACOL, or the International Association for K-12 Online Learning.

Given the uncertainties about the quality of special-ed services in virtual settings, why do students end up there?

In a strong majority of cases, the choice to enroll students is heavily pushed along by parents, as opposed to school officials or others, Basham and Stahl told the iNACOL attendees. Many families are dissatisfied with public school services for special needs students, and decide to look to online programs.

Among the report's findings:

  • Thirty-eight states don't offer any clear guidance on who should be providing special education services in virtual/online schools;
  • Of 55 states and territories studied, just 21 have state-mandated applications for vendors serving online schools that specifically mention services for special-needs students.
  • Seventy-five percent of the states/territories studied have unclear policies or holes in policies closely associated with the federal Individuals With Disabilities Act;
  • Teacher colleges lack standards for teaching students with disabilities in online environments; and
  • In many virtual schools, teachers of special needs students leave their jobs at higher rates than general-education teachers, though the causes for that higher turnover are not known.

These results build on longstanding concerns about the ability of teacher colleges to prepare aspiring educators to use technology effectively in classrooms.

Many ed-tech advocates believe those programs are falling short. But Basham and Stahl said that for the special-education community, the ability to train teachers to help students with specific needs, and retain that specialized talent, is a major concern.

If online education is going to be a sustainable option for students, "it must also be a sustainable activity for teachers," Basham said.

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