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'Critical Friends' Review Districts' Special Ed. Programs

Looking at the numbers, the leaders of the Tacoma, Wash., school district knew that the 30,000-student district was not serving students with disabilities as well as it could.

About 12 percent of the 30,000 students in the district are in special education. But among those students, four in 10 attend special programs that are housed outside of their base schools, a trend that goes against current best practices, which push for inclusion whenever possible. The district was also failing to meet proficiency targets for students with disabilities.

The district invited the Urban Special Education Leadership Collaborative to conduct a qualitative assessment of its program, the results of which were released in February. And David P. Riley, the executive director of the collaborative, says to expect more districts to take a hard look at their special education programs as they work to meet the requirements of the Common Core State Standards, now adopted by all but four states. "Tacoma is not unique in pursuing this kind of comprehensive review," Riley said in a phone conversation, noting that the collaborative has conducted 30 similar reviews in school districts over the past five years.

Special education programs in districts are monitored closely, but a continuing complaint is that the attention is focused on compliance and paperwork-type issues, and not on issues related to student learning (The U.S. Department of Education has pledged to improve in this area.)

Districts remain hungry for a more qualitative look at their programs, Riley said, saying that the collaborative, a network of special education leaders nationwide, serves as a "critical friend" to districts. A team from the organization reviews student data, staffing patterns, and organizational structures, among other issues. Team members also talk with teachers, principals, parents, and others who have a perspective on what's working in a district—and what's not.

Washington has adopted the common core for its district, so the final report from the district assessment team focused on that issue. Riley said that breaking out student performance by students with disabilities has led to a positive change in the conversation around these students. The superintendents and school principals are looking for more information, not just special education leaders or parents of students with disabilities. That's a good thing for districts like Tacoma that may be hampered by educational structures that are too "inefficient" for today's academic challenges, borrowing language that Tacoma used to describe itself after the review.

"The attention needs to be on building capacity at every school," Riley said.

For a district perspective, be sure to read the The Tacoma News Tribune, which ran an article on just what that capacity-building may look like.

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