May 7, 2014

Twenty Years of Progress

Experts look back at two decades of gains for students with disabilities

Educational outcomes for students with disabilities are far better than they were 20 years ago—but there is still a long way to go to make sure that schools are inclusive, relevant places of learning for all students. That was the conclusion of a panel of education experts at the spring member meeting of EDC’s Urban Special Education Leadership Collaborative, now celebrating its 20th year.

The early fears about inclusion policies, said Harvard University Professor Tom Hehir, simply have not come true. Hehir, who is also a former director of the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Special Education Programs, recalled that detractors initially predicted that the policy—to promote the education of students with disabilities in classrooms with their typical peers—would fail. Instead, the past two decades have shown that given the right supports, students with disabilities can succeed, even in a rigorous academic environment.

The panel discussion kicked off three days of presentations, speeches, and concurrent sessions for the 275 teachers, administrators, and student-support staff in attendance from 69 school districts across the United States.

Speakers pointed to the 1997 and 2004 amendments to the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) as important milestones in helping to increase the expectations and services for students with disabilities. But despite recognizing the major gains in the education of special needs students since the mid-1990s, several panelists identified areas where more improvement was needed.

One area of concern was the above-average high school drop-out rate for students with disabilities, particularly students with autism or developmental delays. Graduation rates for these students have lagged behind those of general education students even as the inclusion model has expanded throughout the states.

Students’ social and emotional needs are more complicated now, too, said Cathy Jackson, a special education teacher from Brockton, Massachusetts. She sees this as a call to action.

“Twenty years from now, what’s going to happen if students don’t get the right interventions and support systems, and if we don’t engage the parents as much as we should?” she asked the crowd. “That’s major to me.”

Kay Seale, manager of special education and intervention services for Worcester Public Schools, echoed these sentiments, adding that academic and behavioral support systems must extend far beyond the walls of a single classroom.

“Schools that make it work really look at all the resources they have to meet the needs of all kids,” she said. ”We’re always pushing the academics, but we need to take a step back and look at the social and emotional wellness of our kids, too. If our kids have healthy minds, we are going to have phenomenal outcomes.”

Overcoming disparities

Panelists also talked about the disparities in inclusion models across Massachusetts and the sometimes fractured relationships between special education and general education teachers.

“We have some districts in the state where 100 percent of students with Down syndrome start out in inclusive classrooms, and others where 0 percent start out in inclusive settings,” said Bill Henderson, a retired principal. “How do we allow that disparity to occur?”

He offered that a shift in cultural attitudes was still needed for all students to receive fair and equitable access to education.

Seale stressed the importance of systemic improvement so that general education teachers, special education teachers, and administrators are all on the same page about how to help a particular student.

“Inclusion isn’t a place—it’s a service,” she said.

Audience member Nkenge Bergan, an administrator of student services with the Kalamazoo, Michigan, public schools, identified with the struggles presented by the panelists—especially with respect to the lower outcomes for special education students and students of color.

“We’re still so far behind the eight ball,” she said, adding that a lack of coordination between general education and special education teachers is a significant obstacle to improving outcomes.

However, joining with her colleagues from around the country has left her optimistic about the future.

“I’m excited that we are brainstorming together,” Bergan said. “I’m more excited that we get to go home and do something about it.”