Special education needs a ‘do-over,’ state panel told


Marin County parent Alyson Sinclair said it was difficult to find information that clearly explains the options available to students in special education. Credit: Jane Meredith Adams, EdSource

Eight minutes into a public meeting on how to reform the state’s vast special education system, the woman who ran special education in California for nine years came up to the microphone. Alice Parker was blunt.

“I wish I could have a ‘do-over’ for the 45 years I worked in special education,” Parker, who retired in 2005 as director of the California Department of Education’s Special Education Division, told representatives of a new Statewide Special Education Task Force at a public forum Monday. Parker regretted a system that she said has a history of labeling children as barely able to learn, rather than revamping the way teachers provide instruction in reading, writing, speech and math – particularly for the vast numbers of students with learning disabilities.

In an interview after the meeting Parker, who also served as an assistant superintendent of public instruction in the state, added: “Our kids aren’t disabled, our system is.”

Parker and many of the 25 parents, teachers and advocates who attended the  forum on a rainy afternoon in Redwood City strongly urged the task force to press forward with its work of re-envisioning how the state educates nearly 700,000 children in special education. Those students make up about 10 percent of all public education students and have a wide range of disabilities, including dyslexia, speech impairment and autism.

The three-hour meeting at the San Mateo County Office of Education was the second of seven public forums scheduled by the 34-member task force, which was formed in November at the request of State Board of Education President Michael Kirst and Stanford School of Education Professor Linda Darling-Hammond, who also chairs the California Commission on Teacher Credentialling. The task force is charged with recommending policy and legislative changes to address areas including finance, teacher preparation and the delivery of special education services.

In its project summary, the task force called attention to the persistent achievement gap among students in special education and the prevailing view that special education should operate as a separate system, isolated from general education programs that teach the vast majority of the state’s students. The group noted that some school districts across the state are providing what research has established as more effective systems of integrated supports for disabled students, but that this was far from the norm. The group is expected to make its recommendations to the State Board of Education, the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing and the California Department of Education in late 2014.

Representing the task force were its co-executive directors – Vicki Barber, a retired superintendent for El Dorado County, and Maureen O’Leary Burness, a retired assistant superintendent of Folsom Cordova Unified – and Brooks Allen, deputy policy director of the State Board of Education. Allen works with the task force in conjunction with Beth Rice, education programs consultant to the State Board and an ex-officio task force member.

Learning disabilities such as dyslexia and dyscalculia (difficulty learning math) represent the largest category of California students in special education – about 45 percent – followed by the categories of speech and language impairment (18 percent) and autism (10 percent.) Less prevalent categories are health impairments such as leukemia or Tourette syndrome, intellectual disabilities, emotional disorders, hearing or vision impairment and traumatic brain injury.


Vicki Barber, co-executive director of the Statewide Special Education Taskforce, speaking at a public forum in Redwood City. Credit: Jane Meredith Adams, EdSource

Repeatedly, speakers at the meeting praised the task force’s efforts to change an education culture that they said often sent the message that students who receive special education services aren’t capable of achieving.

Sue Digre, a retired second grade teacher and the parent of a now-grown child with Down syndrome, said that she was often told in special education meetings not to expect that her child could learn much. “Too often, it’s a ceiling,” Digre said. “You’re told, they’ve met their potential.”

Alyson Sinclair, a Marin County parent of a student with disabilities, echoed the call for improved training for all teachers – both general education and special education. And she said that superintendents could do more to demonstrate that students who receive special education services are first and foremost students in the school, the same as any other students.

“It’s the adults who are stymieing the children,” she said.  To the task force members  she said, “I applaud everything you all are doing.”

As described in an outline of the task force’s mandate, a key issue that it will take on is how to transform special education “from being a place where students go to receive more or different services, to a viewpoint that includes special education services as one of many programs of support under the umbrella of general education.”

But Sean Henry, a school psychologist in Pajaro Valley Unified in Watsonville, voiced concern that bringing special education services under the umbrella of general education would dilute legally mandated specialized services for students with many needs.  “There’s a lot of concern and fear that dramatic changes will do more harm than good,” Henry said. He said that integrating special education services and general education could put funding for special education programs at risk.

Task force co-executive director Barber responded that the group was focused on improving special education services, not diluting them. Making those improvements, including providing effective instruction for students with potential reading and math disabilities before they become labeled as special education students, requires changing practices in general education, she said.  “If you’re going to change special education, you can’t do it in isolation,” Barber said at the outset of the public meeting. “You have to make sure our general education folks are with us.”

The next public forum of the task force will be in Riverside on March 17.

Filed under: High-Needs Students, Special Education, Student Wellbeing

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6 Responses to “Special education needs a ‘do-over,’ state panel told”

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  1. Andrew on Mar 11, 2014 at 7:26 am03/11/2014 7:26 am

    • 11100

    “It’s the adults who are stymieing the children,”

    It is the fault of the adults, i.e. the present hardworking special education teachers and administrators, that they haven’t somehow managed to add 40 IQ points to an IQ of, say, 60? Is it the fault of the teachers and administrators that a child with such a biological impairment isn’t going to master Algebra by 9th grade? Do we put that child in an Algebra class and expect the child to master algebra? Blame the teachers if the student doesn’t succeed? Do we slow down the rest of the Algebra class?

    Each child is of infinite worth, and should be educated insofar as possible to his or her reasonable potential. To achieve that, it might be necessary to realistically assess potential.

    But if I were in charge of crafting a hell for teachers, it would be one where it was assumed that children with IQ’s of 60 should perform like children with IQ’s of 100, in the same settings as children with IQ’s of 100, and where the teachers were blamed if the performance fell short.


    • Karin L on Mar 22, 2014 at 10:05 am03/22/2014 10:05 am

      • 000

      I don’t see the article or the task force saying anything about increasing a student’s IQ scores or performing at the same level. As the article stated, almost half the students receiving Special Education services have a specific learning disability. Students with the IQ range you are exemplifying (60) typically fall into the intellectually disabled category, a much smaller percent of the special education population. The task force is concerned about the students who are being identified for special education services, but haven’t been given the same opportunities for learning their grade-level peers have been. The difference between those with learning disabilities and intellectual disabilities is that there are evidence-based practices that effectively improve access to the general education curriculum for students with learning disabilities; these strategies often aren’t being utilized in many general education classrooms, hence the push by the Federal Government for a Response to Intervention Model (RTI) to address the needs of struggling students in a timely manner. When struggling students are taught using evidence-based strategies, instead of the way the top ten percent of students are taught (the best and the brightest) they can increase their performance on standardized assessments.

      Even students with significant cognitive disabilities are able to learn at some level and should be taught using the most relevant curriculum and strategies available. Those students should be challenged to grow and develop a love for learning in the same manner general education teachers are expected to develop in their students. In addition, these students are assessed using modified assessments in which growth can be shown from year to year.

    • Karen on Feb 17, 2015 at 12:58 pm02/17/2015 12:58 pm

      • 11100

      Andrew, you stated it beautifully! The whole agenda is designed to deny normal IQ distribution, and the limits that places on academic and other kinds of success. The special education system we had in place was well designed and met the needs of most students in special education. Please keep saying what you are saying. I have tremendous respect for those few willing to tell the truth.

  2. Jeff on Mar 10, 2014 at 7:24 pm03/10/2014 7:24 pm

    • 11100

    I clicked on this article because I was hoping that Ms. Parker would be talking about how legalistic and compliance-focused the world of Special Education is, rather than simply helping to students to learn better. Instead, it’s more absurd pronouncements about being shocked, shocked that students with learning disabilities don’t do as well on standardized tests as students without them. If a student in Special Ed is learning just as well as other students, he or she shouldn’t be in Special Ed since whatever learning disability he or she has isn’t affecting the ability to learn. Duh!

  3. Gina Plate on Mar 10, 2014 at 3:36 pm03/10/2014 3:36 pm

    • 000

    The special education task force has a unique opportunity as it brings together key expertise to make recommendations to transform a system that has historically separated students with special needs, and consistently held lower expectations for them compared to their typically developing peers. As a member of the task force, I am excited for the opportunity to join my colleagues in making recommendations to craft a new structure to improve California’s education system focused on inclusive education practices, high expectations for students and education leaders, and providing evidence-based instruction and learning supports so that all students have an opportunity to learn the standards in all core subject areas, which will ultimately lead to increased accountability and academic success for all.

    Gina Plate
    Senior Advisor, Special Education
    California Charter Schools Association


    • Brad on Oct 23, 2014 at 12:11 pm10/23/2014 12:11 pm

      • 000

      Thank you Gina for all of your hard work. I have a young daughter with Down syndrome whose entire life satisfaction and self-worth may depend upon the foundation your team builds. Please be compassionate. Please consider unintended consequences. Please create incentives for achievement rather than procedural compliance. Please make negative language and excuses for under-achievement less acceptable.

      But, please also create transparent data that helps parents understand how their school compares on achievement and parental satisfaction relative to peers. And please provide the funding and incentives for schools to want to create world-class systems, rather than finding world-class, high-achieving systems create under-funded, burdensome demand from transplanted parents.

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