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The Long Struggle to Balance Special Education Compliance and Performance

Tuesday marked the deadline for states to deliver to the federal government the first part of their detailed, five-year blueprints for how they plan to boost the academic achievement of students with disabilities, the latest in a series of attempts to use federal authority to nudge schools, districts and states in the direction of preparing students with disabilities for successful adult life. 

These "state systemic improvement plans" mark a shift away from focusing on the voluminous rules of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. States must still comply with the law's due-process protections, but they have also been asked to develop broad, interrelated reforms to improve graduation rates, test scores, and early-childhood outcomes among students in special education. 

The issues that special educators are struggling with now, such as balancing the rules of the law with its goals, are the same challenges that Education Week explored in a package of stories in 2000, 25 years after the law was enacted. 

Even from the beginning, there was skepticism that IDEA could meet the expectations of students and parents. President Gerald Ford was one of those skeptics. "Even the strongest supporters of this measure know that they are falsely raising the expectations of the groups affected," he said in 1975, before signing the measure then known as the Education for All Handicapped Children Act.

As the full package of stories shows, concerns have persisted throughout the lifetime of the law, related to funding, equitable access, and achievement gaps. But at the same time, Virginia Copeland, a former special education director in a surburban Houston district, was quoted as saing she was a "firm believer" in the law. Former students said their lives had been changed for the better by having the access to education that the IDEA requires. 

It's too early to predict what this latest federal monitoring shift will mean for students in special education, but federal officials say this latest move marks a shift in their own monitoring efforts. For too long, they say, the federal government has been tightly focused on compliance. 

Thus, while states and districts have done better on following the procedures set out in the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, students with disabilities are still dropping out of school at greater rates than their typically developing peers, and earning standard diplomas at a lower rate.  

"We need to focus our energies on the areas that are most in need of improvement," said Melody Musgrove, the director of the office of special education programs, back in 2013.

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