Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Children with Special Needs Left Behind -- Again

I have a confession to make.

Many people have told me my blog is one of their most important resources to keep up to date on disability issues. The blog was even named one of the top resources for special education teachers.

But I have to confess that the only reason I started this blog -- and the only reason I keep it going -- is to support my daughter and people like her. Yes, it may help inform other people, raise awareness, and support important changes. But it's really all about her. My only expertise in education is from my attempts to navigate the system as a parent.

My 6-year-old daughter has autism and a seizure disorder, and she is non-verbal. She's also a student, and as a student she has a legal right to an appropriate education.

I try not to be partisan in this blog, but as a Democrat, it was easy for me to criticize the Bush Administration's policies in education (and so many other areas). It's harder for me to acknowledge that under the leadership of Secretary Arne Duncan, the Obama Administration's education policies appear to be more of the same (or worse), at least as they relate to children like my daughter.

My wife reminds me that our family is in the minority -- most children in the United States are not disabled. For most of them, focusing on the need to increase test scores and get into the best college makes sense. Unfortunately, the single-minded focus on test scores and academic achievement means that my daughter and others like her are positioned as obstacles to progress, as opposed to welcome members of the education system. They are undervalued, underserved, underfunded, and "left behind" in the truest sense of the term.

I'd like for my daughter to attend college one day, but today her schoolwork is focused on teaching her to care for herself, to pay attention to her surroundings, and to match shapes and colors. If you are a parent of a typical child, maybe even a child in a Gifted and Talented program, imagine these two scenarios:

1. Your child's school is judged solely on students' academic performance -- test scores and college readiness. The higher your students' performance, the more federal and state money and other benefits your school will receive. You are punished for low test scores. Do you want my daughter to attend your child's school?

2. Your child's school is judged on students' academic performance and its ability to incorporate children with disabilities, children who are still learning English, and others with special needs -- so they can learn from typical peers, and vice versa. The federal and state governments reward your school and provide incentives for incorporating these students and teaching them important life skills. Now do you want my daughter to attend your child's school?

Occasionally, Secretary Duncan does talk about special education. What he says is that more students in special education should graduate. That's nice for the children who have the ability to achieve at that level. But what about the many children who don't? Are non-diploma students who also have a right to an education on his radar at all? Or they mere obstacles to his legacy as a reformer?

Sadly, when asked about special education, even after being in office for more than a year, Secretary Duncan punts the question. It seems that he hasn't considered these questions himself, and you have to wonder if he considers special education a necessary evil that comes with his job. Education Week reported recently, "Rep. Robert E. Andrews, D-N.J., asked [Duncan] how the department would like Congress to revamp assessments for English-language learners and students in special education. A number of schools in his districts are not meeting the achievement targets in the NCLB law because of those groups of students, he said. Secretary Duncan said that he thinks that might be the toughest question the department has to tackle in reauthorization of the ESEA. He said he has tapped Alexa Posney, the assistant secretary for special education and rehabilitative services, and Thelma Melendez, the assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education and a former English-language learner herself, on how best to measure those students’ progress."

It's good that he's asked his assistant secretaries to look into "the toughest question" regarding reauthorization. But when you roll out a comprehensive reform plan, isn't it time for some answers? And some leadership?
Post a Comment

Disability Scoop

Special Ed News (Education Week)

Special Education Law