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State ESSA Plans A 'Missed Opportunity' for Special Education, Says Advocacy Group

Washington

The National Center for Learning Disabilities has reviewed what each state's Every Student Succeeds Act plan says about how the state will meet the needs of students with disabilities—and for the most part, the organization is not happy with what it sees.

According to an analysis unveiled at a news conference Oct. 3: 

  • Thirty-three states do not separate out the performance of students with disabilities in their school rating systems, leading to concerns that a school could receive a good rating while still doing a poor job with special education.
  • Only 18 states chose to have the same long-term academic goals for students with and without disabilities. 
  • Only ten states have detailed descriptions of interventions meant for students with disabilities. 
  • Most states provided "very limited or no discussion" about English-learners who also have disabilities. 

The findings are laid out in a report, "Assessing ESSA: Missed Opportunities for Students with Disabilities."  

The ESSA plans marked a significant shift in the role of the federal government in creating education policy. Congress made it clear that states are supposed to take the lead in developing plans that work for their states. 

"They didn't do a good job in embracing it," said Lynn Jennings, the director of national and state partnerships for Education Trust, and a member of the expert advisory panel for NCLD. "What we would hear is, 'We'll do it''"—support students with disabilities—"'we just don't want to write it down in a plan.' And that's so problematic." 

Advocates are particularly concerned that the plans generally made no connection with other federal special education mandates. Under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, all states have been required to create "state systemic improvement plans" that outline comprehensive and ambitious goals to boost school performance for students with disabilities. 

That work has required states to gather information from stakeholders, analyze data and create plans for implementation. "We were hoping states would use that [systemic improvement plan] as a way to improve instruction for all kids, including kids with disabilities," said Melody Musgrove, also a member of the NCLD advisory council. "I think that was a real missed opportunity." 

Currently a faculty member at the University of Mississippi, Musgrove served as the director of the federal office of special education programs from 2010 to 2016 under the Obama administration. It was under her leadership that the systemic improvement plan took shape. The Trump administration has not yet appointed a director of OSEP; the position is currently held by a career staffer. 

Musgrove said she was also deeply concerned that many states haven't set the same goals for students in special education as they have for general education students. 

"It fundamentally undermines the principles of the IDEA, as well as the principles of what states say they stand for, which is that every child can learn," she said. 

NCLD says that advocacy will play a big role in how these plans are actually put into action. In particular, advocates need to pay attention to the school improvement plans that will be drafted by school districts.

"The message we're trying to push is this is really a marathon that we're in," Jennings said. 


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