Special Education: Moving from Compliance to Results is not about Testing

I was so excited to see that Arne Duncan was talking about moving from compliance to results in special education in this country, only to be dismayed that the announcement immediately became a lightning rod for the anti-testing community. Granted, he is off-base when he states that the NAEP test should be used to monitor results in special education, but at least we are talking about the elephant sitting in the special education room!

I want to describe what the current compliance-driven system looks like in reality. The only thing that is inspected is paper work, so the only thing we make sure gets done right is the paper work. Now, if there was a strong correlation between getting the paper work right and student learning, this would be great. There is a strong correlation; unfortunately it is a negative one. The more time we spend trying to get the right words on the page, the less time we spend planning effective instruction. I’ve confessed this before and I’m confessing it here again; I got subs for special education teachers so they could get their IEP paper work in order. I wonder what would have happened if I had spent the amount of time and energy getting the paper work right on getting the instruction right.

Reality check. Here is a list of things I see and hear about all the time:

  • Special education students are pulled out of core curriculum simply because they have a goal. (Example: All students with Math goals go to the special education teacher for Math and do not go to core Math at all)
  • Special educations students are not allowed to access Title 1, At-Risk, or MTSS services because it is considered “double dipping” of special education funds. (Example: student is making some progress in Title 1, but still discrepant enough to be entitled. Student then stops going to Title 1 where teacher has a Reading endorsement and where students are grouped for instruction and goes to a special education room where the teacher is not highly qualified to teach literacy and students are not grouped for instruction)
  • When the regular education students get to go to the core teacher for MTSS time, the special education students have to get their help (specially designed instruction) from the special education teacher.
  • Instruction in special education classrooms is focused on homework completion.
  • Students in special education classrooms are not grouped for instruction. (Example: Eight students in the room from three different grade levels with various goals areas and needs for specially designed instruction)
  • Students with behavior goals are placed in classrooms with low academic instruction even though they do not have any academic goals.
  • Special education students are referred to as “those” kids and not “our” kids. Once students are entitled, they are owned by the special education teacher. (Example: special education students who are receiving a D or F in a core class are removed to the special education classroom for that class.)
  • Many special education teachers on conditional licenses and many of these teachers will move to a regular education position as soon as it becomes available.
  • Overuse of paraprofessionals, resulting in learned helplessness for students.
  • Haphazard use of co-teaching that is ineffective. (Example: Special education teacher has an open period so assigned to co-teach Science with no training and no collaboration time available)

Special education is part of the larger continuum of services a student receives. Students who are entitled should have access to all of the instruction on the continuum unless data supports that more instruction in the special education room is getting results.

And what results are we talking about? Is it a score on one standardized test? That could be one piece of data, but it can’t be the only thing we look at when we determine if schools are meeting the needs of students. Is it the gap between special education and regular education students? Again, this is a piece of data, but not the only piece. What about student growth? Shouldn’t students in special education be making rigorous growth at least? Yes!! And that growth needs to be measured on regular classroom assessments for the majority of special education students. We need to have the appropriate growth data to show what happens to learning for students after they are entitled to special education. I would bet a lot of money that an alarming number of students make little growth, no growth, or actually lose skills because of the lack of appropriate instruction that they are receiving.

There is a group of folks in Iowa represented by LEA, AEA, DE, and parents who are creating rubrics around what Specially Designed Instruction should look like. The rubrics are being created around diagnosis, design, delivery, and engagement. Can you imagine a site visit process that actually looks at what instruction students in special education are actually receiving and the results of that instruction?

We absolutely cannot continue to monitor the special education system by looking at IEP paper work and we have to figure out a way to measure meaningful results for student learning. It is also imperative that we do not throw money at the current system without requiring significant reforms around results. It will be a travesty if the critically needed reforms for special education become mired in a conversation about testing.