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Where's Innovation for Kids Who Need It Most?

Note: Robin Lake, director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education (CRPE) at the University of Washington, is guest-posting this week.

It's been a real pleasure to air some ideas with you this week. Sincere thanks to Rick and the AEI team for lending me the space. Thanks also to my CRPE colleagues whose work and ideas fed these posts. Finally, thanks to readers for all the Star Wars comments! May the force (of evidence) be with you... If you like, follow our work at crpe.org or @crpe_uw.

For some final thoughts, I'm turning to an issue that's of personal importance. Like many people, I used to think of special education as somebody else's problem. It seemed like a complex, politically sensitive, and frankly unsexy topic for policy and research. The day my son qualified for an Individualized Education Program (IEP), however, I began to learn about special ed from the inside out.

Folks, it's not pretty.

The sad reality is that special education is in desperate need of reinvention. Special ed parents are constantly on the hunt for a school that fits their child's needs. They are rabid advocates and often desperate for options. Every school year is a new adventure, with teachers who don't get your kid or administrators who want you to stop asking for services. Parents have good reason to be aggressive: in most states, staying in special education all the way through twelfth grade amounts to an academic death sentence. In my state, Washington, only 8 percent of students designated special education in 10th grade are proficient in math. Yes, that's eight percent. Many parents find themselves in a horrible bind: public schools can't serve their kids, and private schools won't take them.

Kids served by special ed are the neediest of the needy. Yet they also have abundant promise to contribute to society in major ways. Some of the best policy analysts and activists I know were diagnosed with ADHD as kids. Many of the best researchers and entrepreneurs are brilliant Aspergians. A public school system, however, is too often unequipped to deal with kids who are fascinated with physics but struggle with basic math, or who can't sit still for ten minutes, much less hours on end. Although many kids with disabilities thrive in public schools, the one-size-fits-all public model often fails kids who are more than one standard deviation away from the norm.

We need a third way, one that reinvents special ed through choices like charter schools and new learning technologies. Charters often come under fire for not serving enough kids with special needs. In some cases that criticism is fair, and charter advocates need to address those problems head-on. But let's not pretend that the current public school system is a paragon. I learned this week that Seattle Public Schools did not admit my son to the school we believe best fits his academic needs because the school doesn't provide the level of special education supports he qualifies for. Our choice is: stay in a failing neighborhood school or move.

There are many charter schools that are doing right, and then some, by kids with special needs. We need more of them. These schools are channeling their assets--a reliance on teamwork, autonomy from traditional regulations, and a sometimes annoying determination--to set new standards for how public schools can provide special education.

A book I edited, Unique Schools Serving Unique Students, explores how several charter schools are making an impressive impact, going well beyond their legal obligations to create meaningful, inclusive experiences for special ed students. At the CHIME Institute in California or the Charyl Stockwell Academy in Michigan, this means meeting kids' sensory and emotional needs first, so that learning can take place effectively without heavy reliance on drugs or pulling kids into segregated special ed classrooms.

A friend of mine recently enrolled her daughter, who has significant physical and cognitive disabilities, in an Aspire Public (charter) School. Her school district had for years paid for home hospital service instead of an adequate education. Now her daughter is thriving in a typical 6th grade classroom and has a committed and responsive IEP team. The school worked with the family to develop a customized program of intensive supports modeled after the CHIME Institute, which allowed this student to participate in a classroom setting for the first time.

Another potential game-changer is, of course, technology. A slew of new programs are designed to address everything from speech impediments to social skills training to executive function skills. These tools reduce the need for every teacher to be expert in every disability or intervention, and they empower students and their parents by providing options.

Parents of unique kids don't care whether a school is called "charter" or "virtual" if their child is successful there. The need to advocate and stay vigilant never ends, whether one's child is in a district school, a private placement, or a charter school. But for kids who learn in different ways, more choices are better than few or none.

A number of school districts, such as Denver and Los Angeles, are working with charter schools to take more kids with special needs while also providing adequate funding and extra supports, such as risk pools, a form of insurance that schools can pay into and then draw from when a high-needs (and thus expensive) student enrolls. New York City is actively working with technology providers to craft solutions for their neediest students. But improvement can't start and end with district-by-district experimentation. If we are ready to admit that we must reinvent special education, we need a national research and development agenda to document and replicate these efforts. We need creative, proactive policies to replace outdated special ed regulations, which now focus almost entirely on managing compliance rather than fostering innovation.

In some urban school districts, one in five students receive special ed services. Yet when was the last time you heard any of the big-name voices in the education conversation--policymakers, advocates, journalists--really address special education? It's time we pull special ed out of its policy silo and recognize that customized learning via charter schools and educational technologies is the new frontier of public education. The kids most in need of choice and customization should be first in line to benefit.

--Robin Lake

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The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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