Trusting states to do right by special education students is a mistake

Many special education students are isolated from their peers. hxdbzxy/www.shutterstock.com

Trusting states to do right by special education students is a mistake

On Sept. 20, the U.S. Department of Education released a new framework to “rethink” how the department oversees special education services for students with disabilities.

As part of this framework, the department plans to provide states with “flexibility” and to “acknowledge” that states are “in the best position to determine implementation of their programs.”

This flexibility relates to how states satisfy the provisions in the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act – a federal civil rights law known as IDEA meant to ensure all students with disabilities receive a free and appropriate education.

In my opinion, the assumption that states are in the best position to determine implementation of their programs related to the IDEA law is a faulty one. So is the notion that relaxing enforcement of these provisions would have a positive impact on students.

I make these arguments as a researcher who focuses on the best ways to serve students with intellectual disability and make sure such students are included in the general classroom to the greatest extent possible.

The Education Department’s plan to give states more flexibility is in line with the Trump administration’s broader view that the Education Department has too much power and that its role should be reduced.

In my view, the administration is wrong to single out IDEA as an example of federal overreach. In reality, IDEA is an example of how the federal government works at its best to ensure the rights of America’s most vulnerable citizens. Without it, the nation’s special education system would not exist.

Evidence of positive effects

The Education For All Handicapped Children Act – the predecessor to IDEA – was passed in 1975. This followed an outcry by parents of children with disabilities and advocacy groups about how nearly 2 million students with disabilities were not receiving educational services at all, and an additional 3 million were receiving educational services that weren’t appropriate for their needs.

The law’s passage was neither partisan nor controversial. In fact, it passed both houses of Congress with overwhelming bipartisan support.

Overall, implementation of IDEA has had a hugely positive impact on the lives of children and youth with disabilities. It has ensured that all children and youth with disabilities receive an education, and it has provided parents and the students themselves with a strong voice in designing Individualized Education Programs. However, this does not mean that all of the provisions of IDEA have been fully realized. Nor does it mean that it is time to relax federal oversight.

State implementation of some key IDEA provisions has been mixed. This underscores the critical need for continued and vigilant federal oversight.

Segregation is common

One particularly troubling example of how implementation of IDEA has fallen short relates to segregating students with disabilities in separate classrooms and schools.

A key provision of IDEA is that all students with disabilities should have meaningful opportunities to learn alongside their peers in general education classrooms. This is called inclusion. Inclusion is the best way for these students to gain critical social and communication skills, and to learn the same important academic material that is taught to all students. Furthermore, students with disabilities are held to higher expectations when they are included in general education classrooms, and students often rise – or sink – to teacher expectations. In addition, peers benefit by getting the opportunity to know someone they would not have otherwise met, increasing their acceptance of individual differences. More broadly, inclusive classrooms contribute to building a more inclusive society.

The law does not require all students to be included all of the time. Rather, it calls for schools to take an inclusion-first approach, treating the general education classroom as the default placement. Students are only supposed to be placed in specialized settings when there is a compelling reason. For example, it might be appropriate for a middle school student who struggles with literacy to receive intensive instruction on basic reading skills in a special education classroom, or for a high school student to spend part of the day at a community job internship that is consistent with her career goals.

Despite this federal mandate, there is little evidence that most schools are embracing an inclusion-first approach. A recent analysis of federal data shows that most students with intellectual disability spend most of their school day outside of the general education classroom. Only 17 percent spend at least four-fifths of the day in a general education classroom.

Perhaps even more troubling is the lack of progress toward more inclusive placements over time. Although there was some movement toward more inclusive placements in the 1990s, placement rates have remained mostly unchanged since 1997. In the last two years for which data are available – 2013 and 2014 – schools actually became a little less inclusive.

Room for improvement

Could progress have stagnated because schools have reached the upper limit of what is possible? There are a number of reasons why this is not the case.

First, educators have the tools to do better. Researchers have made significant strides in developing practices that promote effective inclusion for students with intellectual disability. There is solid evidence that practices such as peer support arrangements and embedded instruction enable students with intellectual disabilities to thrive academically and socially in general education classrooms. Peer support arrangements involve peers without disabilities providing academic and social support to students with disabilities in general education classrooms. Embedded instruction involves providing individualized instruction in the context of classroom routines.

Second, some schools have already demonstrated that it is possible to do much better. Entire states like Vermont and Iowa include most students with intellectual disability for the majority of the school day. And there are individual school districts that boast inclusion rates four times better than the national average.

The bottom line is that there is no good reason why schools cannot or should not be more inclusive. The problem is not a lack of strategies or successful models. The problem is a stubborn insistence on an outdated segregation-first approach that is both ethically and legally problematic. This problem is not perpetuated by any malicious intent, but instead by systemic factors that encourage the status quo. For example, once large urban school districts invest in building a separate school to serve students with severe disabilities, they are less likely to consider serving a student at a regular neighborhood school. Similarly, if a school has always served students with intellectual disability in a separate classroom, they are likely to continue to default to this placement option until parents and advocates push for change.

The U.S. Department of Education has an obligation to enforce IDEA provisions. The department must also ensure that inclusion is no longer a privilege afforded only to the fortunate few who live in a particular state or school district. All students with disabilities deserve the opportunity to benefit from inclusion. Similarly, all peers without disabilities deserve the opportunity to experience interactions with people who are different from themselves.

Become a friend of The Conversation with a tax-deductible contribution today.