Focus on results for educating children with disabilities

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Less than 10 percent of all eighth graders with disabilities scored at or above proficient in reading and math on the 2013 National Assessment of Educational Progress. In that same year, 41 states met compliance standards with the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). To be clear, protecting the rights of children and families is essential, but evidently compliance alone is not enough.

In enacting IDEA, Congress held that “improving educational results for children with disabilities is an essential element of our national policy of ensuring equality of opportunity, full participation, independent living, and economic self-sufficiency for individuals with disabilities.”

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The critical question is, how can we leverage more than 30 years of research and funding to produce better outcomes for students with disabilities? The answer: We become laser-focused on improving the educational results of children with disabilities. 

We know that states can rise to expectations. For the past seven years, the Department of Education has worked extensively with states to improve compliance with the procedural requirements of IDEA, and we have noted significant improvements in areas like the quality and timely submission of data, and timely evaluations of students with disabilities.

However, we are not seeing corresponding improvements in outcomes for children with disabilities. The performance of students with disabilities on assessments in reading and math is persistently and unacceptably low. The achievement gaps between students with disabilities and all students are appalling despite the fact that the vast majority of students with disabilities do not have significant cognitive impairments that inhibit their ability to learn rigorous academic content.

To that end, and in keeping with the purposes of IDEA, this year, for the first time, the Department of Education included measures of educational outcomes to determine the effectiveness of state efforts to educate children with disabilities. Only 18 states and territories met requirements. This change in accountability represents a very significant and long-overdue raising of the bar for special education. 

The department is not asking states to do more, but rather to do things differently. 

We have reduced the reporting burden on states and instead we are asking them to use their data and engage stakeholders in a thoughtful and thorough analysis of the performance of children with disabilities. Are children attaining the knowledge and skills necessary to be ready for college and career? What are their greatest needs? How are we training and supporting teachers and principals to effectively serve students with disabilities? 

We then ask states to develop a comprehensive, data-driven state improvement plan to implement evidence-based practices that will improve outcomes for students with disabilities.

This is difficult work, and the department stands ready to support states and school districts. In fact, we just announced that we will invest approximately $50 million in technical assistance to support states in this effort. After all, we have a shared responsibility to ensure all of our children succeed.

Surveys show that four out of five high school students with disabilities say their primary goal is to go to college, just like their peers. They and their families have the same hopes and dreams for the future: the opportunities to learn, work and live the lives they choose. By turning our collective attention toward the educational results for students with disabilities and focusing limited resources on ensuring that students receive high-quality supports and services, our nation can ultimately realize the ideals of IDEA: equality of opportunity, full participation, independent living and economic self-sufficiency for individuals with disabilities.

We must have higher expectations for our children, and hold ourselves as a nation accountable for their success.

 

Yudin is the acting assistant secretary for Special Education and Rehabilitative Services at the Department of Education.