Nan Austin

Nan Austin: High time to shift California’s special ed culture

Nan Austin
Nan Austin

Special education turned 40 over the weekend. The federal act that made education a right for students with disabilities has come a long way since 1975, but it continues to divide as well as serve.

“In the 40 years since this law was enacted, we have moved beyond simply providing children and youth with disabilities access to the school house,” Education Secretary Arne Duncan said. “Today, we want to assure that these students have no less than the same equal shot at the American dream as their nondisabled peers.”

To put the changes in context, consider that in 1970, only one in five students with disabilities nationwide went to school. Some were barred by state law from going to school because they were blind, deaf, emotionally disturbed or designated mentally retarded.

From there, the pendulum swung hard in the other direction, requiring not only that these children be allowed in school but that they be given special consideration and extra help. Their parents had to be consulted, their educational needs had to measured, and experts had to weigh in on what was best for them.

Special education spending and services continue to be overseen through independent agencies, reams of paperwork and layer after layer of bureaucracy. It takes one of every three education dollars, only a fraction of which the federal government pays. Local districts contribute on average 40 percent of the cost of special education services.

Through the recession, as school districts across the region lost nearly a quarter of their funding, no cuts could be made in special education services, an inequality now-retired Turlock Unified Superintendent Sonny Da Marto passionately disputed at oversight agency meetings in 2011.

The law changed over the decades, but its intent was always to serve students with disabilities, to make sure they were given every chance to make the most of their abilities and have a fulfilling adult life.

The goals are admirable. The implementation is where things get sticky. First, all children have abilities and challenges, with the differences and degrees spanning a very wide and very deep spectrum. At what point does a difficulty become a disability?

The legal definition is very specific, which in no way changes that it is utterly arbitrary. Much of what I would argue poorly serves students with and without disabilities starts squarely on that dividing line.

Special education, in practice, is often separate education. Some see that separation as essential for more personalized tutoring or to keep them safe from bullies. Others see it as a painful separation from siblings, neighborhood friends and a typical childhood.

For better or worse, separate is not equal.

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act started its fifth decade Nov. 30. The U.S. Department of Education marked the anniversary by issuing guidance, stressing that even students with challenges should have meaningful instruction, including grade-level content for all but the most cognitively compromised.

Take a moment to consider that key message. Nearly 14 years after No Child Left Behind mandated grade-level standards for all, there are still such disparities that giving grade-level instruction was the central point of the missive.

The issue comes up particularly for students who are not part of regular classes, since what are called special day classes usually combine students from multiple grades.

The department also unveiled a new “IDEAs that Work” website with information on developing effective individual education plans, better known as IEPs, information on testing, school climate and transition to adult life. There are tips for teachers, a link for parents and a blueprint for improving behavior using proactive, analytical methods.

Behavior is an issue at all schools. Those bullies the special education kids escaped? They are still there, just tormenting someone else. Removing kids with learning and coordination challenges does not improve school climate, in fact anecdotally it appears to work the other way.

Visit a school like Sonoma Elementary in Modesto, built to include children with physical disabilities, and hear students talk about how good it feels to help someone, how comforting it feels to include everyone. Not to say bad behavior never happens, but clearly these students have developed some empathy.

The advantages for nondisabled kids in inclusion cannot be considered – also in the law – when deciding what is best for the child with disabilities. But here is what parents are not told when given a recommendation to place their student with a disability in a separate class.

1. Yes, that teacher will have special training, but no, that does not mean the child will likely catch up and return to regular education.

2. Peer learning – what children pick up from each other – still happens.

3. Employers can teach tasks. What job seekers need to arrive with are communication skills and being socially appropriate.

California released a report in March from a blue-ribbon panel that first and foremost recommends special education rejoin the crowd.

“One System: Reforming Education to Serve ALL Students” makes the point that the existing system, for all its expense, is not creating better outcomes for special education students. Kids with the same disabilities in almost all other states are doing better, especially in states with more inclusive systems.

Moreover, California has so many kids with so many needs across the board, the existing two-tier system does not serve nondisabled students, either.

“The challenge is not that we don’t know what to do to fix it. Effective, research-based practices have been identified and promulgated for years. The most difficult challenge is always knowing where and how to begin, particularly when the complex system that needs changing contains multiple parts and players, disparate divisions that operate under no single governing force, ostensible sanctions that have no teeth, and often competing requirements and agendas,” notes the report summary.

It will take more extensive training for teachers – all teachers. It will require more staff on campus to better support teachers – all teachers. It will require adapting school buildings and rewriting a regulatory labyrinth. The report and its subreports lay out the how as well as the why to remake a broken system and let more students with challenges reach their full potential.

As the IDEA blows out its 40 candles, restoring its vision seems like the best present the Golden State could give.