In the not-too-distant past, families of children with special needs, particularly those with mental retardation, had few options other than institutionalization. Educational services were minimal or nonexistent, and those who were able to attend public schools were separated from other students.
“In late 1960s, this began to change,” says David Riley, then a college student inspired by the Civil Rights Movement. He also had personal reasons behind what was then a growing desire to enter the helping professions. Riley’s youngest brother, Jim, was born in 1951 with Down syndrome. “I watched my brother’s experience in the public school system, and that inspired me to get into the relatively new field of special education.”
After serving in the military, working as a United States Capitol police officer, then as both a radio reporter and newspaper journalist, Riley finally answered his calling to become a teacher and an advocate to improve public education for all students. He taught high school students with mental retardation in Connecticut, received his Ph.D. in Special Education Administration, served as a local school district director of special education, and, in 1979, with the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) still in its early years of implementation, Riley founded the Massachusetts Urban Project, a statewide network for urban special education leaders.
“The need for such an organization became clear. The legal, organizational, and program development demands on these school district leaders were becoming increasingly complex, outstripping their educational or experiential backgrounds,” Riley says. “If they were to meet the needs of students and their families, they needed to learn from one another. There were few formal training programs available.”
In 1994, he took the network national and founded the Urban Special Education Leadership Collaborative at EDC.
How have you seen special education change over the years?
In the course of my career, it’s gone from very little access to public school education for students with disabilities, to a point where they’re taking statewide assessments such as the MCAS (Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System). The expectations for these students were once very low, and now the vast majority is expected to take and pass state assessments, albeit with accommodations. They can earn their diplomas just like their non-disabled peers.
Special education classes used to be taught in the basements or closets of public schools. Or students were pulled out of regular classrooms and brought to resource rooms. That’s changed dramatically. Now students with special needs have greater access to rigorous curriculum. There’s been a great deal of reflection and restructuring of both general education and special education with regard to how instruction is delivered and expectations for diverse learners in the classrooms. Nationally, more than 50 percent of students with disabilities are receiving most of their education in general education classrooms.
What does the Urban Special Education Leadership Collaborative do?
We provide leadership development and networking opportunities for school district leaders. These are the people who implement federal and state policies regarding the education of students with disabilities. We provide them with opportunities to share what’s working in their districts so they can innovate and develop programs and services. We sponsor two national meetings a year to focus on a particular topic or theme. For example, our Fall 2007 Meeting will focus on increasing school completion and graduation rates among students with disabilities in urban schools.
How did you and the Collaborative come to EDC?
A colleague met (EDC Vice President) Nancy Ames and encouraged her to meet me to explore how my work could intersect with EDC. At that time, most of EDC’s work in special education was related to literacy or technology or professional development of teachers. We proposed developing a national version of the Massachusetts organization. This kind of work—fee for service—was new for EDC, but Nancy took the risk to underwrite its development. We got the Collaborative going in 1994 with 12 school districts; now we have a membership of 108 school districts across the country and in Canada and the U.S. Virgin Islands.
What is the Inclusive Schools Week initiative?
In 2000, we created National Inclusive Schools Week to help promote inclusive practices for students with disabilities and other diverse learners. The Week provides opportunities for educators, students, and parents to take stock: What still needs to be done to ensure that their schools continue to improve their ability to successfully educate all children? The response has been unbelievable. Literally tens of thousands of educators and family members from schools, school districts, and communities across the country and the globe participate in the event each year. The Week has grown to the point where we are considering the development of an international “inclusive schools network,” a virtual community of practice and a resource to those around the world who are working to make their schools more welcoming and capable of effectively educating students with disabilities and other diverse learners.
What’s the most interesting idea in your field right now?
New ideas are evolving about alternate ways to evaluate children. In the past, special education evaluations reflected the medical model rather than an educational one—seeking pathology within the child rather than helping educators better understand how to teach the child.
Now, a new method of determining the eligibility of children for special education services is being adopted. It is called “Response to Intervention” or RtI. It seeks to ensure that children are exposed to research-based curricula and high-quality instruction before they’re identified as having a disability. Recent changes to the federal special education law encourage this. The hope is that we can provide interventions to children earlier and, thereby, reduce the number of children who are inappropriately referred to special education. That’s very new to most school districts and families. A lot of what we’ve learned about educating students with disabilities is good practice for most other children. Response to Intervention promises to promote greater collaboration between general and special education professionals in new and exciting ways.
Do you think changes in education policy and practice help society become more accepting of diverse learners?
I know they do. The Civil Rights Movement is at the core of IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act) and other laws related to special education. These policies required professionals to change the way they serve students with disabilities. When school budgets are tight, we still hear some of the same arguments about tax payers wanting a greater return on investment in education—that it should somehow be maximized by putting money toward gifted or so-called typical children rather than those with disabilities. So we’re obviously not fully where we should be. It may take another generation of young people with disabilities to go through the school system, go to college, and join the workforce right alongside their non-disabled peers. Then, they may be perceived as being simply part of the natural diversity of our communities and society.
What’s the most satisfying aspect of your work?
I believe that we’re having an impact on the lives of children and youth with disabilities in urban schools. The Collaborative provides support and opportunities for growth for both special education and general education leaders. It’s through those leaders that we’re improving what these students learn in schools and we’re expanding their life’s opportunities. I couldn’t go to work every day if I didn’t believe that.