Alison Yin/EdSource
Students in special education should be included in general education classes as much as possible, according to the PACE report.

Special education in California should be overhauled to focus on the individual needs of students, with better training for teachers, more streamlined services and improved screening for the youngest children, according to a compilation of reports released today.

Those were some of the recommendations proposed in “Special Education: Organizing Schools to Serve Students with Disabilities in California,” a package of 13 reports and a summary produced by Policy Analysis for California Education, a nonpartisan research and policy organization led by faculty from UC Berkeley, UCLA, University of Southern California and Stanford University.

“By almost every indicator you look at, special education in California is in dire need of improvement,” said Heather Hough, PACE’s executive director. “We need to rethink the way we organize schools, so students with disabilities are at the center and not at the fringes.”

The research papers looked at dozens of ways to improve special education, including how to recruit and train teachers, better ways for schools and other agencies to coordinate services for disabled young people and how schools can help special education students with career and college planning.

Funding shortfalls are a major concern in special education, especially as the number of students in special education increases, but the report did not look closely at financial matters because that topic was partly addressed in a recent PACE report called Getting Down to Facts, Hough said. In addition, West Ed, a consulting firm, is working on a separate report on special education funding in California, she said.

Researchers praised districts such as Sanger Unified in the Central Valley and the Orange County Office of Education that are already taking steps to improve special education services and can serve as models for the rest of the state.

Their recommendations come after years of concern about the state of special education in California, which currently serves more than 725,000 children with a range of physical and intellectual impairments, including autism and specific learning disabilities like dyslexia.

In his proposed budget last month, Gov. Gavin Newsom described the state’s special education system as “a crisis.”

“I try not to use that word or overuse that word, but it’s a crisis and it’s a real shame,” he said.

Newsom is proposing a “three-phase, multi-year process to improve special education finance, services and student outcomes.” This includes a new formula for allocating special education funds and increasing funding for special education by $250 million on top of last year’s increase million of $645 million.

Last year, almost 1 in 8 California students in K-12 schools were in special education, an increase of almost 14 percent from 2014-15. Much of the increase is due to more diagnoses of autism, although the majority of students overall in special education have learning disabilities.

Some parents are not happy with the state of special education, either. California’s rate of parent complaints to the U.S. Department of Education, for a school’s alleged violation of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, is triple the national average, according to federal research cited in the report.

Although many parents say individual teachers are dedicated, compassionate and hard-working, the system itself is confusing and uneven, especially for families who are low-income or whose first language is not English.

According to the report, in general the state should do more to integrate special education with K-12 education for non-disabled students, which researchers refer to as “general education.”

The academic and social-emotional needs of special education students should be weighed equally with those of non-disabled students. And all students benefit when schools address students’ individual talents and challenges, regardless of their physical or cognitive abilities, Hough said.

The report also emphasizes the importance of teaching, especially the need to train general education teachers in how to address the needs of disabled students. This issue is increasingly important as more disabled students are included in regular classrooms.

“We don’t have enough adults in schools generally, and the adults we do have aren’t always adequately trained to address students with special needs,” Hough said. “If inclusion is the goal, that means general education teachers need to know how to teach students with disabilities.”

Several of the reports focus on the importance of early childhood screening for disabilities, which can help children’s development and long-term outcomes, according to the research.

Most of the PACE recommendations hinge on funding, a major obstacle for schools trying to improve their services for disabled students. Districts’ costs are rising as the number of disabled students increases, along with the number of students with severe disabilities, according to the research.

“The costs for districts are escalating, while revenues are not,” Hough said. “Districts are forced to make some really tough decisions.”

Interested in hearing from PACE researchers directly? Sign up for a three-part webinar on the series examining the research and recommendations to improve special education. The first webinar is scheduled for 1 to 2 p.m., Feb. 27.

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  1. Bill Pelter 4 months ago4 months ago

    Thank you...Thank you...Thank you...for your well written and resourced article on Special Education reform. For the past 4 years I have been on a committee trying to increase the numbers of individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities in the workforce. Among the factors listed in your article is the fact workplace learning is not universally available to all special education students. This creates avoidable challenges students face once the enter the "adult system" … Read More

    Thank you…Thank you…Thank you…for your well written and resourced article on Special Education reform. For the past 4 years I have been on a committee trying to increase the numbers of individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities in the workforce. Among the factors listed in your article is the fact workplace learning is not universally available to all special education students. This creates avoidable challenges students face once the enter the “adult system” e.g. supported employment. Work is a catalyst for all the student has learned and will learn. These reforms are much needed so all California’s students have a fair chance to become contributing members of their community.

  2. el 5 months ago5 months ago

    There's an initiative to "recruit and train" more special education teachers but IME we have a real problem with retention – that is, it seems to be a serious challenge to keep the teachers who have the special ed credentials happily teaching special ed. I've seen several seek assignments back in a regular classroom or leave the profession, even though they were lauded as being excellent and successful with the kids. I'm not close enough … Read More

    There’s an initiative to “recruit and train” more special education teachers but IME we have a real problem with retention – that is, it seems to be a serious challenge to keep the teachers who have the special ed credentials happily teaching special ed. I’ve seen several seek assignments back in a regular classroom or leave the profession, even though they were lauded as being excellent and successful with the kids. I’m not close enough to know, but I hear about time-consuming paperwork that feels like an act of compliance rather than a service to the kid, a lot of meetings, and other frustrations that leave them feeling that they can’t serve the kids the way they wish.

    There are no doubt other issues as well. But I wonder if we have a good handle on why people leave these positions and any thoughts to improve retention. Maybe some is unavoidable; maybe some can be improved with a clerk position to assist them with some of the pain points and keep everyone compliant with the law. Maybe there are other solutions.

  3. vicki 5 months ago5 months ago

    It's about time. Yes, early dx is important. And individual teachers are dedicated, compassionate and hard-working. The system itself doesn't have to be confusing and uneven for families who are low-income or ESL, especially when IEP team is as described above. When IEP has been developed and is in place and the law requires a transition plan, parents shouldn't have to file complaints or lawsuits to implement them. It doesn't cost anything extra for IEP … Read More

    It’s about time. Yes, early dx is important. And individual teachers are dedicated, compassionate and hard-working. The system itself doesn’t have to be confusing and uneven for families who are low-income or ESL, especially when IEP team is as described above. When IEP has been developed and is in place and the law requires a transition plan, parents shouldn’t have to file complaints or lawsuits to implement them. It doesn’t cost anything extra for IEP Team to put together a written transition directive for, say, a high functioning student with Asperger’s graduating from 8th grade going into high school, to outline a basic follow-through plan or guidelines to the new case manager, RSP teacher and new IEP team. This must include a suggested schedule continuing his speech and occupational therapies as well as mainstreaming tools that have helped him (and includes his 1:1 paraprofessional). If this kind of structure (and recall what this student needs to succeed – structure) is not in place then all the successful hard work that directed him to thrive will falter. The new case manager, RSP teacher, assistant principal should be made to sign this directive – that they will follow through with the IEP (with flexibility to adjust or improve as needed in future mtgs) and comply with law.

    No RSP teacher should get away with saying, “If he needs modifications then he shouldn’t be here.” Every student has a right to education especially a high functioning special ed student (who succeeded from previous school).

  4. Shanyn Warren-Kimsey 5 months ago5 months ago

    Special Education will never persevere with current curriculum, testing guidelines, teacher expectations and administration failures. I am a special ed teacher and have been for 20 years. I used to see results. That was at a time when teachers were allowed to teach using creative strategies that grabbed student attention and helped with long term memory maintenance. Like using sign language for spelling, acronyms and rap songs (music) for math. When teachers were … Read More

    Special Education will never persevere with current curriculum, testing guidelines, teacher expectations and administration failures. I am a special ed teacher and have been for 20 years. I used to see results. That was at a time when teachers were allowed to teach using creative strategies that grabbed student attention and helped with long term memory maintenance. Like using sign language for spelling, acronyms and rap songs (music) for math. When teachers were praised for dressing up as a Roman Princess and having students create skits and teach games the Romans played during Roman times to elicit interest in the Roman Empire studies that in 7th grade can sometimes be seen as boring or irrelevant to a 12 year old.

    Teachers, especially special education teachers, are being boxed into a complicated curriculum, quick timelines with no extra time for creative exploration that helps our students commit necessary facts and issues to memory. This also relates to the skills it takes to write a paragraph and phonetically sound out a word to inevitably read a sentence. There are fundamental steps, practice, retention, exploration, positive student experience needed for each. And we as spec ed teachers are not given the resources, time, exposure, or credit we and our students deserve to accomplish these basic necessities for our students to truly succeed in our communities.

    Because when it comes down to it, the higher-ups talk a good game but they really could care less about the population that they see as a detriment to their so important test scores.

  5. Ricardo Sosapavon 5 months ago5 months ago

    One item that would greatly help all California school districts is the creation and implementation of a statewide IEP for schools/school districts to use. Gather a group of teachers, administrators, parents, lawyers, and other interested persons to create this document. Once agreed upon, the California State IEP would help diminish the time spent on updating IEPs as a student moves from one school to another school, and it would also help decrease the number of … Read More

    One item that would greatly help all California school districts is the creation and implementation of a statewide IEP for schools/school districts to use. Gather a group of teachers, administrators, parents, lawyers, and other interested persons to create this document.

    Once agreed upon, the California State IEP would help diminish the time spent on updating IEPs as a student moves from one school to another school, and it would also help decrease the number of complaints related to IEP procedures/policies.

  6. Faye 5 months ago5 months ago

    I am a passionate supporter of Special Education. I almost stopped reading this article when I read, “We need to rethink the way we organize schools, so students with disabilities are at the center and not at the fringes.” I did stop reading it when I got to: Funding shortfalls are a major concern in special education, especially as the number of students in special education increases, but the report did not look closely at financial … Read More

    I am a passionate supporter of Special Education. I almost stopped reading this article when I read, “We need to rethink the way we organize schools, so students with disabilities are at the center and not at the fringes.”

    I did stop reading it when I got to: Funding shortfalls are a major concern in special education, especially as the number of students in special education increases, but the report did not look closely at financial matters

    Funding matters … especially in Special Education!

  7. Allison M. Steinmann. M.S. 5 months ago5 months ago

    Special Education requires overhaul in many facets. Our teachers and para professionals require ongoing PD together and separately. Parent and community meetings need to occur.

    Administration is required to understand and lead Special Education and General Education in concert – not separate. California needs to be the leader in offering the highest standards in Special Education linked to Community Based Learning, Vocational Education and life-long Life Skills.

  8. NinaLaZina 5 months ago5 months ago

    ‘Several of the reports focus … early childhood screening for disabilities, which can help children’s development and long-term outcomes.’ I think this is so important as this has long term impact and can make the family and child’s educational experiences more positive and rewarding. Early detection is key.