Education
3:15 pm
Tue June 24, 2014

A 'Major Shift' In Oversight Of Special Education

Originally published on Tue June 24, 2014 6:14 pm

The Obama administration said Tuesday that the vast majority of the 6.5 million students with disabilities in U.S. schools today are not receiving a quality education, and that it will hold states accountable for demonstrating that those students are making progress.

Education Secretary Arne Duncan announced what he calls "a major shift" in how the government evaluates the effectiveness of federally funded special education programs.

"It's not enough for a state to be compliant if students can't read or do math," Duncan said. "We must have a system that will do more than just measure compliance."

The latest government figures show that the dropout rate for students with disabilities is twice that for nondisabled students. Two-thirds of students with disabilities are performing well below grade level in reading and math. By the eighth grade, that figure rises to 90 percent.

And yet, Duncan said, most states are doing exactly what the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act has required until now. School districts are required to create an "individualized education plan," or IEP, tailored to a student's needs.

School officials must show that these children are getting instructional support in a timely manner and that they have full access to the curriculum and everything else that goes on in school.

Under the new guidelines, Duncan says he'll require proof that these kids aren't just being served but are actually making academic progress.

"We know that when students with disabilities are held to high expectations and have access to a robust curriculum, they excel," Duncan said.

These are students with a range of disabilities, from ADHD and dyslexia to developmental, emotional and behavioral disorders. During his conference call with reporters, Duncan was joined by Kevin Huffman, Tennessee's education commissioner.

Huffman challenged the prevailing view that most special education students lag behind because of their disabilities. He said most lag behind because they're not expected to succeed if they're given more demanding schoolwork and because they're seldom tested

"In Tennessee, we've seen over time that our students with disabilities did not have access to strong assessments. So the results were not providing an honest picture of how those students were doing."

The Education Department has already targeted Delaware, California, Texas and the District of Columbia for federal intervention because special education students in these jurisdictions are not doing well.

Duncan says he is creating a $50 million technical-assistance center to help states comply with the new guidelines. States that fall short could lose federal funding earmarked for special education, which totals about $11.5 billion a year.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

From NPR News this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish. There are six and a half million students with disabilities enrolled in American schools today. But according to the Department of Education, the vast majority are not receiving a quality education. And so today, Education Secretary Arne Duncan announced what he's calling a major shift in how the government evaluates the effectiveness of federally funded special education programs. NPR's Claudio Sanchez reports.

CLAUDIO SANCHEZ, BYLINE: Secretary Duncan began his conference call with reporters by pointing out that most states are in compliance with special education regulations. The problem...

ARNE DUNCAN: It is not enough. It is not enough for a state to be compliant if students can't read or do math. We must have a system that will do more than just measure compliance.

SANCHEZ: The latest government figures show that the dropout rate for students with disabilities is twice that of students without disabilities. Two-thirds of children in special education performed below grade level in reading and math. These are kids with a range of disabilities from ADHD, autism, dyslexia to developmental, emotional or behavioral disorders. Until now, the U.S. Education Department has never required that states show whether these kids actually benefit academically from special education programs. The law has only required a paper trail showing that schools have come up with an individualized education plan tailored to disabled student's needs and that disabled students have full access to the curriculum and to everything else that goes on in school. Now, Duncan says, he'll require proof that these kids are making academic progress.

DUNCAN: We know that when students with disabilities are held to high expectations, have access to a robust curriculum, they excel.

SANCHEZ: Joining Duncan on today's call was Tennessee's education commissioner Kevin Huffman, who challenged the prevailing view that most special education students lag behind because of their disabilities. Huffman said they're behind because they're seldom tested or given more demanding academic work.

KEVIN HUFFMAN: In Tennessee, I think we've seen over time that our students with disabilities did not have access to strong assessments. And so then the results that came back were not providing an honest picture of how those students were doing.

SANCHEZ: Huffman called the new guidelines a step in the right direction.

HUFFMAN: Because it's a step in the direction of reality.

SANCHEZ: To help states, the Education Department is creating a $50 million technical-assistance center. States that don't comply could lose funding earmarked for special education, which to date totals about 11.5 billion dollars. Claudio Sanchez, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.