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Special Education Reform Is Entering a New Era

Nate Levenson is managing director at District Management Group, a consulting firm that helps schools and districts raise achievement, manage scarce resources, and deal with challenges like improving special education. Nate has also been a superintendent (in Arlington, Massachusetts) and school board member. This week, he'll be writing about the new era of special education reform and who's making it possible. Nate can be reached at [email protected].

Something very exciting is happening in the world of special education. Good news and special education don't often go together, but a grassroots effort is starting to take hold that is helping kids, teachers, and taxpayers alike.

I think of this as Special Education Reform, Phase 3. The first reform was President Ford signing the precursor to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) in 1975, guaranteeing the right to a free and appropriate education for students with disabilities. This was the start of a new, hopeful, and more just era. The second phase of special education reform began one day after President Ford signed the bill. While the intent of the law and subsequent legislation has been noble, the reality of special education has not fulfilled the promise. Far too few students with disabilities read on grade level, master math, or graduate from college. These disappointing results are doubly depressing given that so many caring teachers work hard to help and that districts are spending ever more, even as budgets tighten. This second phase of special education reform, much of it led by legislators, lobbyists, and advocates, has left a trail of disappointment and frustration in its wake.

In my travels across the country, working with hundreds of districts and speaking to thousands of teachers and administrators, I have witnessed the birth of a new phase in the effort to improve the lives of students with disabilities and the staff who teach them.

This third phase of reform is hopeful and just, but it differs from past ones in many ways. Perhaps most importantly, it's a grassroots effort, led by special education directors, teachers, chief academic officers, and the like. Regulation is following, not leading. The reform effort is grounded in best practices (thank you, John Hattie and What Works Clearinghouse) and shuns many historically common practices. And finally, the reform effort is often referred to as common sense, but not common practice.

Key to this new approach are three shifts in thinking and practice:

1. More general education, not more special education

2. More time to learn, not less to learn

3. Higher-skilled adults, not more adults

More general education, not more special education

The first shift toward a greater reliance on general education teachers, content, instruction, standards, and class time restores the original intent of IDEA legislation. The idea was to welcome, support, and include all students into the school, not segregate them into a parallel world called special education. It was supposed to open doors to the classroom, not to a corridor leading to a special wing with special teachers and "special" curriculum. Sure, inclusion has moved most kids into the general education classroom, for most of the day, but too often in name only.

Based on studies by my firm, District Management Group, students with mild to moderate special needs typically receive less general education (core) instruction than their peers. Such students often miss a third to half of their daily reading/ELA lesson. Rather than getting extra help, they get instead of help. This includes being pulled from the core reading block for special education reading, being pulled from math for speech and language therapy, or having a special education co-teacher provide much of their instruction rather than the classroom teacher. A growing number of districts are establishing a "nonnegotiable" commitment that goes well beyond any state or federal law: They are guaranteeing nearly all students receive core instruction from their general education teacher. If we don't teach kids grade-level material, how can we expect them to master it? Certainly, some students need a more specialized program.

More time to learn, not less to learn

The second key shift also finds its roots in the original IDEA legislation. Kids with disabilities need more than their peers—more services, more supports, more time to learn. Receiving 100 percent of core general education instruction is a good start, but it's not enough. Kids who struggle to learn (with and without disabilities) need extra instructional time to fill knowledge gaps from prior years, to revisit this year's content, and to preview tomorrow's lesson. Schools are creating daily intervention periods to provide this needed support.

Higher-skilled adults, not more adults

The last shift flips 40 years of regulation and practice on its head. Kids who struggle need highly-skilled teachers who are strong in content and have a wide array of teaching strategies. They need the most skilled teachers in the school, not just any teacher and definitely not non-teachers. Somewhere in the decades of rewriting special education legislation and funding rules, the idea developed that any certified special education teacher was better at teaching math than a great math teacher, and a non-certified special education paraprofessional was more helpful than a certified reading teacher. Some special education teachers have deep expertise in what they teach, but many are asked to teach three, four, even five subjects a day. Some were trained to assess disabilities or manage behaviors, not remediate reading or math gaps. The new reform effort squarely puts highly-skilled teachers in front of students with disabilities all throughout the day.

Taken together, these three shifts bring common sense and best practices to special education. It is not surprising that front-line teachers and special education administrators are leading the way because they have seen the shortcomings of the previous approach firsthand. Happily, parents, principals, superintendents, school boards, and legislators alike are lending their support as well.

On Wednesday, learn how these shifts are helping improve teacher morale, and on Friday how they are good for the budget, as well as student outcomes.

Nate Levenson

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