The history of special education in America has deep roots in larger educational reform movements. Next year, we will celebrate 40 years of federal civil rights legislation for children with disabilities via the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, or IDEA. More recently, we have witnessed passage of other federal and state legislation such as NCLB, the growth of the charter school movement, and the national push to implement the Common Core Standards and the assessments that will accompany them. These laudable and forward-looking efforts, though not without flaws, have improved opportunities for all students.
Still, special education in many school systems remains largely segmented from overall improvement efforts. Special education is often about providing students with disabilities access to general education classrooms and curriculum materials. Access, as you likely know, is not enough. For students with disabilities to meet rigorous standards, they must be supported through a system of services and strategies that help each child progress through a high-quality general education curriculum with the specialized supports and assistance that they require.
Consider special education in the 1960’s. We only had programs/places for students with sensory disabilities: schools for the deaf or blind or hospitals where doctors, social workers, and sometimes family members, would say, “Put this child there, they can’t do anything, they won’t learn, they’ll be better off.” Some programs for the mentally retarded did exist, but few were consistently available and most warehoused those students. Speech and language services were available in some schools and systems, again not consistently. The Education for All Handicapped Children Act in 1975 changed the world for these children and their families. What occurred with the passage of this legislation was that for the first time more than 6.5 million students with disabilities went to school! These children finally had access but it was access to a place, not necessarily a quality education. Then and, sadly, now special education is far too often about finding a “place” to provide an education for students with disabilities. Outcome data show that educational supports for students with disabilities are not where they need to be. National graduation rates and academic achievement levels for students with disabilities are significantly lower than those of their nondisabled peers.
Until school systems finally accept that educating all students is their responsibility and students with disabilities are granted access to rigorous educational opportunities and expected to learn at high levels, we will not fulfill our promise to these young people.
In my work with school systems that are attempting to change how they support special education students, I focus on three seemingly simple beliefs.
- Instruction is the key. Teaching and learning strategies that lead to high levels of rigor and engagement are the best way to support all students.
- As members of the educational professional community, we are all responsible for all students.
- We must break down adult barriers to achieve systemic coherence so that all resources, programs, and policies support all students achieving at high levels.
Once we have mutually agreed on these three beliefs, we begin to answer several questions:
- Does the district or charter and its schools communicate high expectations for all students’ success?
- Do all students have access to an appropriately rigorous curriculum that is aligned to standards and assessments?
- Do all students have access to high-impact instructional strategies and performance monitoring that determines when there are problems?
- When students are struggling, do they have access to high-impact interventions designed and implemented with fidelity to address their specific needs?
- To what extent do all adults take mutual responsibility for all students’ success?
High-quality special education is about great teaching, differentiation, and access to the core curriculum with appropriate supports. Leadership and collaboration across all parts of the system are necessary to promote the best possible results for all students. Engaging an entire system of educators to support every student involves utilizing assessment data to inform instructional supports, as well as developing and consistently applying tiered interventions across the system to support all learners.
We can develop systems, policies, procedures, and practices that lead to improved outcomes for all of our students. It is not a matter of skill or of money. It is a matter of will and a clear focus and high expectations for all students. As our educational systems begin this work, our students with disabilities will rise to the occasion and amaze us all!