Panel: How to improve special ed

“At first glance, the notion of blending these laws has an incredible intuitive appeal. I mean, it’s the ultimate goal—the total seamless education and full integration of students with disabilities. [But] I think it’s a lot more complicated than that,” said Marilyn Friend, a professor of education at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.

ESEA mandates the scrutiny of academic achievement for whole subgroups of students within a school or district, while IDEA requires close measures of individual students, Friend explained. What’s more, IDEA focuses on more than just academic achievement, such as the social and emotional requirements of special-needs students.

“It seems that instead of debating one law or two, our time really is best spent … focusing on the critical issues that data and experience inform us. These are issues that we should tackle,” Friend said.

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For instance, she said, policy makers and education leaders should work to raise the quality of instruction among both general and special-ed teachers, as well as increase the focus on Universal Design for Learning (UDL) and ensure access to—and appropriate uses of—technology in the classroom.

“And then, of course, … we really must insist on full funding, appropriate funding, for [IDEA], to be sure that all the different aspects of it can be addressed in a way that’s actually valid—because if we don’t have adequate resources, that’s not possible,” Friend said.

IDEA stipulates that the federal government pay for up to 40 percent of the cost of providing special-ed services for students with disabilities, but estimates show that federal spending typically covers only 15 percent to 20 percent of these costs—leaving states and local school systems to foot the rest of the bill.

One area of alignment between ESEA and IDEA that panelists seemed to agree on was including language on Response to Intervention (RtI) in the new version of ESEA. RtI is a method of intervention designed to provide early assistance to children who are having trouble learning. Originally intended as a way to identify special-needs students early on in the education process, it has become an effective tool for educating all children, panelists argued.

Posny noted that 6.6 million students with disabilities are learning alongside their peers at a neighborhood school, up from 1.7 million in 1975. Of those 6.6 million, 60 percent graduate with a regular high school diploma, and half of those students enroll in a postsecondary program.

“The bottom line [is], IDEA has resulted in improvements as we come to learn more about how best to educate students with disabilities,” Posny said.

But Doug Fuchs, Nicholas Hobbs Chair in Special Education and Human Development at Vanderbilt University, disagreed.

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