Thought Leaders Meet to Explore Education Reform

TASH continues to be the prominent national voice pushing for the full inclusion of  students with disabilities in education – in fact, not only is this one of the five core areas of the TASH National Agenda, but it’s also a central focus throughout the 2010 TASH Conference here in Denver. In addition to the many presentations here devoted to inclusive education, today a group of the nation’s preeminent thought leaders in education policy came together to discuss national education reform. This group, comprised of TASH board members, members and officials from the U.S. Department of Education’s Office on Special Education and Rehabilitative Services (OSERS), as well as the Administration on Developmental Disabilities (ADD), kicked off a dialogue on education reform that will continue throughout the conference and into 2011. TASH thanks OSERS Deputy Assistant Secretary Sue Swenson and the ADD Commissioner Sharon Lewis for being part of this conversation.

The meeting started with a discussion on the current policy, regulatory and structural barriers that prevent or limit the effective implementation and enforcement of IDEA provisions at the local educational agency and state educational agency levels. A common critique of IDEA is that given the small number of performance indicators that are actually used by the Department of Education to evaluate how states are doing in implementing and enforcing IDEA, too little attention is being paid to the development and completion of consistent outcomes for students. For instance, local education authorities (LEAs) may focus on reintegrating students who were original placed outside of an integrated classroom environment early on, the data collected by Dept of Education on placement does not capture the number of students with special needs that reside in the school district but may never have even gotten their foot in the door.  Thus, when schools assess their compliance on least restrictive environment, they’re only reporting data from within their school. This creates a gap where students who have left aren’t being counted. To this extent, the LRE model isn’t a wholly inclusive one.

Ongoing personnel development, training, mentoring and supports are another critical component of meaningful reform.  Around half of all special education teachers leave the profession within their first five years on the job. Is this because they aren’t receiving appropriate support and guidance? We can do better by supporting teachers that often feel alone in their work. By establishing peer support networks and mentor relationships, we can help foster a generation of special education teachers that better serve our students. But the shortfalls aren’t limited to schools and teachers.

One of the issues this group of opinion leaders attempted to tackle were the legal barriers that continue to hinder the realization of inclusive education for students with disabilities. Many parents feel pressured, overwhelmed and underprepared when advocating for their child. In part, it is because IEP/IFSP issues can be difficult to navigate without sufficient preparation and support. There isn’t enough information available to many parents, so negotiations can be intimidating, leaving parents with a sense of helplessness. Legal advocacy barriers can play into this as well. The truth is, there just aren’t enough pro-bono attorneys to go around, and lay-advocates are mostly removed from assisting parents in IEP/IFSP discussions. There’s also the matter of judges that oversee education cases who may not be in tune with current realities. An unprepared or uneducated judicial system only perpetuates the barriers that are currently prohibiting access for students with disabilities into inclusive educational settings.

Another important question discussed pertained to feedback on the use of positive behavior interventions and supports and whether or not the implementation of PBIS was resulting in more inclusive opportunities for students with low-incidence disabilities and also improving the quality of responses to intervention practices. How are local and state educational agencies implementing PBIS and RTI practices in ways that affect opportunities for inclusive education? For one, functional behavioral assessments are often only conducted after the removal or expulsion of the student. There is a tendency for schools to point to behavior that isn’t acceptable without actively looking for the cause of it in the first place. We have to consider the students’ perspectives and improve person-centered planning.

Although we covered some important ground, the reality is – the scope of the issue is too great to cover in one meeting … or in 10 meetings or even 100. But if we don’t start somewhere, we’ll never reach our goal. TASH will continue this work and we invite you to be a part of a wider dialogue on inclusive education.