Task force unveils plan to overhaul special education

March 6, 2015

Updated March 7.

A statewide task force unveiled Friday a 222-page plan to dramatically improve education for students with disabilities, described as the crucial next step in education reform in California.

With schools in the state in the throes of adjusting to three new education reforms – the switch to local school district control over spending, the introduction of Common Core State Standards, and the roll-out of new student assessments – the Statewide Task Force on Special Education is calling for a greater integration of much of special education into the education system, including teacher training, early interventions, the use of evidence-based practices and data tracking.

“Instead of opening the door to a brighter future, special education for many students is a dead end,” states the report, “One System: Reforming Education to Serve All Students.”

Among the recommendations are a “common trunk” of preparation curricula for teachers and special education teachers, the equalization of funding for special education students across the state and state payment of costs now borne by districts for preschool for young children with significant disabilities.

The report states that early interventions for students at risk for learning, developmental or other disabilities would save “billions of dollars” in future costs. Shorter term savings would come from reducing the number of segregated special education classrooms that require separate teachers and pupil transportation, said Michael Kirst, president of the State Board of Education, in an email. Kirst and Linda Darling-Hammond, chairwoman of the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing, instigated the creation of the Statewide Special Education Task Force, a group formed in 2013 to study special education services and recommend changes in policy and practice.

But much remains unclear about where the funding will come for many of the proposals, which include  interventions for infants to 3-year-olds, preschool for more students, and additional professional development for teachers. Also proposed is that new or remodeled school facilities be designed to place special education classrooms in close proximity to other classrooms to allow peers to mingle.

“We are consulting with the Department of Finance about the financial implications,” Kirst said. He noted that the California Department of Education, the State Board of Education and the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing “already are working collaboratively on implementation options in response to the recommendations.”

While the report, titled “One System: Reforming Education to Serve All Students,” calls for the “seamless integration” of special education services into schools, Vicki Barber, co-executive director of the task force, made it clear in a February presentation that special education services and protections would not be diminished and that separate schools for students with relatively rare disabilities, such as blindness, would continue.

“This is not a restatement of the law, and not restatement of regulations,” Barber said. “This doesn’t take away any rights or any options for students.”

But the changes in how, when and by whom special education services are provided requires a shift in thinking about nearly every aspect of special education, from teacher training to funding, according to the report.

Teachers and special education teacher will be trained together in reading and language arts interventions, content standards, behavioral management and the use of data to monitor progress. Special education teachers, who will receive in-depth training in supporting students with disabilities, will earn authorization to teach non-special education students. Special education aides will receive professional development and opportunities to become credentialed teachers.

The state has been out of compliance with federal law for years by over-segregating special education students in separate classrooms. Having students spend more time in classrooms with their non-special education peers is both a goal and a mandate.

Connie Kasari, a professor in human development and psychology at the school of education at UCLA, said that in the Los Angeles Unified School District, 14,000 students have been diagnosed with autism. “The majority of those children can function in a general education classroom,” Kasari said. “They have the intelligence to do the academics, but the teachers are not prepared. The children might need some accommodations.”

Barbara Schulman, chairwoman of the Special Education Committee of the California Teachers Association State Council, voiced her support for the change with a quotation from playwright George Bernard Shaw: “Progress is impossible without change,” Schulman said in a statement, “and those that cannot change their minds cannot change anything.”

The report states that California has done a poor job of educating students with disabilities, who represent one out of 11 students in the state. Ninety percent of students receiving special education services possess the same range of intellectual ability as their peers but have speech, learning, hearing, mobility or other disabilities, according to the task force. The services they receive include specialized tutoring, behavioral counseling and medical assistance.

And as measured by graduation rate, academic achievement, college enrollment or career placement, California students in special education as a group are vastly underperforming. In 2011-12, about 40 percent of students with disabilities passed the high school exit examination as 10th graders, compared to 87 percent of students without disabilities. The achievement levels of students with disabilities in California are among the lowest in all 50 states, the report said.

“Instead of opening the door to a brighter future, special education for many students is a dead end,” states the report.

“The challenge is not that we don’t know how to fix it,” the report continues. “The most difficult challenge is always knowing where and how to begin.”

“These disappointing outcomes are not the result of any lack of desire or commitment,” the report says, noting that effective teaching practices have been talked about for years and teachers and specialists have worked hard to help students with disabilities learn. “But,” the report says, “California’s system of education is its own country: huge and complicated.”

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