The Next Big Thing: Fix Special Education

by Carol Kocivar | November 5, 2017 | 0 Comments
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"Deep Trouble"

When the president of the California State Board of Education says special education in California is in deep trouble, it's time to pay attention.

It's not that this is new news. The problem has been brewing for years. But there are now some signals that the time may have come for some big changes to special education.

So What's the Problem?

When kids struggle in school, they need help. Spotting challenges early and intervening with just the right help can make all the difference -- but the road can be bumpy. Anyone who has tried to help knows the system can be improved.

Many students with disabilities fall behind in school. They graduate at a much lower rate (60 percent) than students without a disability (78 percent). Falling behind is bad for kids, and bad for California communities. About 70 percent of juveniles arrested are identified as needing special education services.

The achievement levels of California students with disabilities are particularly low -- far behind students in other states. A Statewide Special Education Task Force Report does not mince words when it lays out what's wrong:

  • “Inadequate services prior to kindergarten,
  • Financing that often does not meet the needs of students and that is unequally provided throughout the state,
  • Short-sighted teacher preparation and licensing practices,
  • Chronically lowered expectations for many students with disabilities,
  • A failure within schools and classrooms to consistently use the very evidence-based practices that are being used successfully in other parts of the country.”

Add to this a severe shortage of staff to help kids with special needs and you can see why special education is in deep Trouble-with-a-capital-T. According to a 2017 survey by the Learning Policy Institute, 88% of California school districts are short of special education teachers.

Why Now?

California recently overhauled its education finance system, but special education was intentionally left out of it. Why? was way too complicated to fix everything in one swoop.

The Task Force recommends a more coherent system. In California, for many years, special education was treated as a separate system -- with its own rules and training and approaches -- where many children with special needs were excluded from students in general education. The Task Force envisions a system where:

“....all children and students with disabilities are considered general education students first; and all educators, regardless of which students they are assigned to serve, have a collective responsibility to see that all children receive the education and the supports they need….”

Now...this is a huge shift. And a lot of this thinking has to do with early intervention. Listen to Benjamin Franklin, folks:

"An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure"

The research collected by the Task Force shows that "well-timed and well-executed early intervention reduces the number of students with learning disabilities—by far the largest cohort in the special education ranks—and improves school outcomes for everyone. Those students who benefit from separate and specialized settings, in particular students who are deaf, especially benefit from early intervening services."

Learn More

Special Needs: Why Not Teach All Kids Alike?

We've just updated our lesson on special needs to help you understand how this system works. Go to Lesson 2.7 to learn more.

California Dyslexia Guidelines

In 2017, the California Department of Education released a detailed explanation of dyslexia and how California's education system supports students. (It's a long document. Jump to page 81 for practical advice about things you can try at home.)

Statewide Special Education Task Force Report

The Task Force studied the causes of the state's poor outcomes for students with disabilities. Its report includes specific recommendations.

Special Education Finance in California

This 2016 report from the Public Policy Institute of California recommends changes to how special education is funded. It looks at equity, adequacy, accountability and transparency.

What is your school or district doing to successfully support children with learning challenges?

We'd like to know! Please leave a comment.

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