Monday, October 19, 2009

Duncan Outlines Federal Role in Education, Offers No Specifics on Special Ed

On Friday, Education Secretary Arne Duncan gave a speech he titled "Partners for Success" to the National Association of State Boards of Education in Cincinnati, in an attempt to build support for his plans to bring more innovation and accountability to our education system.

There's a lot to like about the speech, including an interesting overview of the federal government's historic role in education, even though (as he points out), "the Constitution doesn’t mention education, and...the provision of education has always been a state and local responsibility." But he goes on to say that our nation's leaders have "always believed that a strong and innovative education system is the foundation of our democracy and an investment in our economic future." And he lists examples, including the leadership of Presidents Lincoln, Roosevelt, Eisenhower, and Johnson.

He then lays out the core principles of his and President Obama's vision for creating the world's best education system by 2020:
- Creating high standards to prepare students for college and careers.
- Ensuring that every classroom has highly effective teachers.
- Implementing data systems to accurately track students from grade to grade.
- Turning around the nation's lowest performing schools, which Duncan called "2,000 dropout factories" that account for half the nation's dropouts and three-fourths of minority dropouts.

It's a good speech that clearly outlines his vision and his commitment to partner with teachers and all levels of government, but every time Sec. Duncan speaks, I look for a glimmer of hope that special education is even a remote priority for him. And once again, in a speech of nearly 3,000 words focused on K-12 education, the number of references to "special education" was an even ZERO.

At one point, he did briefly talk about the federal government's historic role in providing education for children with special needs, but only in a dismissive fashion. "Some have suggested that the federal government's primary responsibility is to provide money for the education of low-income students and children with disabilities. But the federal government needs to do more than that. We need to ensure that those students are receiving the education they need to prepare them for success in college and the workplace."

Michelle Diament of Disability Scoop put a positive spin on this single reference. Her article was titled "Education Secretary Won’t Accept Status Quo For Students With Disabilities." Maybe I'm just sensitive because I'm preparing for an IEP meeting for my daughter tomorrow, but I didn't see it the same way. Special education is more than a path to create more taxpayers. It's a fundamental right that our secretary of education does not seem to take seriously, unless it supports his rhetoric about standards and outcomes and achievement gaps.

That one reference in a speech of nearly 3,000 words -- with no specific plans -- does not diminish my disappointment in President Obama's selection of Sec. Duncan. I'll give him credit for appointing some very good people in his department, who I suppose are toiling away quietly maintaining federal programs that support students with disabilities, but those students and those programs don't seem to be on Duncan's radar. Sadly, the Children Left Behind in this administration seem to be those who require special education.

Read the transcript of his speech and see what you think. If I'm overreacting and you feel more positive about Duncan, please tell me.
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