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Fall 2002 Table of Contents
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President's Commission on Excellence in Special Education Publishes New Report

By Edgenie Bellah, Family Specialist, Texas Deafblind Outreach

On October 2, 2001, President George W. Bush created the Commission on Excellence in Special Education. The Commission was charged with the responsibility to continue the President's educational vision for America _ "an America where every public school reaches out to every single student and encourages every child to learn to his or her full potential." In order to recommend reforms for the special education system, the Commission heard from hundreds of families, educators, and communities through public hearings and written comments. On July 1, A New Era: Revitalizing Special Education for Children and their Families was published based on that input. Following are the Commission's findings as they appear in the report:

Finding 1:

IDEA is generally providing basic legal safeguards and access for children with disabilities. However, the current system often places process above results, and bureaucratic compliance above student achievement, excellence, and outcomes. The system is driven by complex regulations, excessive paperwork, and ever-increasing administrative demands at all levels—for the child, the parent, the local education agency, and the state education agency. Too often, simply qualifying for special education becomes an end-point—not a gateway to more effective instruction and strong intervention.

Finding 2:

The current system uses an antiquated model that waits for a child to fail, instead of a model based on prevention and intervention. Too little emphasis is put on prevention, early and accurate identification of learning and behavior problems, and aggressive intervention using research-based approaches. This means students with disabilities don't get help early when that help can be most effective. Special education should be for those who do not respond to strong and appropriate instruction and methods provided in general education.

Finding 3:

Children placed in special education are general education children first. Despite this basic fact, educators and policy- makers think about the two systems as separate and tally the cost of special education as a separate program,not as additional services with resultant add-on expense. In such a system, children with disabilities are often treated, not as children who are members of general education and whose special instructional needs can be met with scientifically based approaches, they are considered separately with unique costs—creating incentives for misidentification and academic isolation—preventing the pooling of all available resources to aid learning. General education and special education share responsibilities for children with disabilities. They are not separable at any level—cost, instruction, or even identification.

Finding 4:

When a child fails to make progress in special education, parents don't have adequate options and little recourse. Parents have their child's best interests in mind, but they often do not feel they are empowered when the system fails them.

Finding 5:

The culture of compliance has often developed from the pressures of litigation, diverting much energy of the public schools' first mission: educating every child.

Finding 6:

Many of the current methods of identifying children with disabilities lack validity. As a result, thousands of children are misidentified every year, while many others are not identified early enough or at all.

Finding 7:

Children with disabilities require highly qualified teachers. Teachers, parents, and education officials desire better preparation, support, and professional development related to the needs of serving these children. Many educators wish they had better preparation before entering the classroom as well as better tools for identifying needs early and accurately.

Finding 8:

Research on special education needs enhanced rigor and the long-term coordination necessary to support the needs of children, educators and parents. In addition, the current system does not always embrace or implement evidence-based practices once established.

Finding 9:

The focus on compliance and bureaucratic imperatives in the current system, instead of academic achievement and social outcomes, fails too many children with disabilities. Too few successfully graduate from high school or transition to full employment and postsecondary opportunities, despite provisions in IDEA providing for transition services. Parents want an education system that is results oriented and focused on the child's needs—in school and beyond.

The report sets forth recommendations addressing each of the nine findings. Following is an excerpt from the report, which outlines the Commission's three major recommendations:

Major Recommendation 1:
Focus on results—not on process.

IDEA must return to its educational mission: serving the needs of every child. While the law must retain the legal and procedural safeguards necessary to guarantee a "free appropriate public education" to children with disabilities, IDEA will only fulfill its intended purpose if it raises its expectations for students and becomes results-oriented—not driven by process, litigation, regulation, and confrontation. In short, the system must be judged by the opportunities it gives and the outcomes achieved by each child.

Major Recommendation 2:
Embrace a model of prevention not a model of failure.

The current model guiding special education focuses on waiting for a child to fail, not on early intervention to prevent failure. Reforms must move the system toward early identification and swift intervention, using scientifically based instruction and teaching methods. This will require changes in the nation's elementary and secondary schools as well as reforms in teacher preparation, recruitment, and support.

Major Recommendation 3:
Consider children with disabilities as general education children first.

Special education and general education are treated as separate systems, but in fact share responsibility for the child with disabilities. In instruction, the systems must work together to provide effective teaching and ensure that those with additional needs benefit from strong teaching and instructional methods that should be offered to a child through general education. Special education should not be treated as a separate cost system, and evaluations of spending must be based on all of the expenditures for the child, including the funds from general education. Funding arrangements should not create an incentive for special education identification or become an option for isolating children with learning and behavior problems. Each special education need must be met using a school's comprehensive resources, not by relegating students to a separately funded program. Flexibility in the use of all educational funds, including those provided through IDEA, is essential.

The Commission believes that the same principals of the No Child Left Behind Act should be the driving force behind the reauthorization of IDEA. These principals are results oriented accountability; flexibility; local solutions for local challenges; scientifically based programs and teaching methods; and full information and options for parents. As IDEA is considered for reauthorization, it is anticipated that this report will have a strong influence in moving IDEA towards reform. Parents and professionals involved in the special education system may wish to become more familiar with the President's Commission on Excellence in Special Education's report in order to continue having a voice on what is decided. The entire report, which is 89 pages long, may be found at www.ed.gov/inits/commissionsboards/whspecialeducation/reportspcesefinalreport.pdf.

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