Education in America

Education in America: Arne Duncan Responds to Special Education Professionals

Mona talked about some of Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s statements about students who receive special education services a few weeks ago.  Recently, he worked with the Council for Exceptional Children to try to provide answers to special education professionals.

He addressed issues of merit pay, funding for IDEA, alternative assessments and transition strategies.  While I give him credit for responding directly to the professionals working most closely with students with disabilities, his answers were full of fluff and politi-speak, and I don’t think he really answered a single point.  You can read the full text of all the questions and his replies here: Ask Arne: A Conversation with the Council for Exceptional Children’s (CEC) Members and U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan.  I’ve pulled a few quotes below that I found particularly interesting, but I encourage you to read the entire piece if you have a personal stake in special education services.

On President Obama’s promise to increase IDEA funding conflicting with the apparent upcoming 13% cut to IDEA funding:

CEC: I saw that the president added $200 million to IDEA for FY 2012, but I also saw that the full funding dropped to 16.5%. What are you doing to ensure full funding for IDEA, including Part B, Section 619, Part C, and Part D?

Duncan: (excerpted) Both the president and I believe strongly that the general education system needs to serve students with disabilities to the maximum extent appropriate. The president’s 2012 budget request includes support for programs that will help improve outcomes for students with disabilities in the context of the regular education environment. This includes priorities such as:

  • $14.8 billion for the College- and Career-Ready Students program (formerly Title I Grants to Local Educational Agencies) to strengthen accountability by continuing to require disaggregated reporting of achievement data for students with disabilities, asking states to implement meaningful interventions in schools with the largest achievement gaps, and measuring student growth as well as achievement.
  • $350 million for the new Early Learning Challenge Fund, to make competitive grants to challenge states to establish model systems of early learning for children, from birth to kindergarten entry, including children with disabilities or developmental delays.
  • $185 million for the Presidential Teaching Fellows program, to support scholarships for high-caliber teaching candidates who will attend top-tier teacher preparation programs and teach in high-need schools, high-need subjects, and high-need fields, including special education.

These are all fantastic programs, but he doesn’t address the services that were cut, and the students who really need those services. These programs are ideal for the students who need mild to moderate levels of intervention to progress at the same rate as their typically developing peers, but they ignore the needs of those students who need intensive intervention. While funding has been found for these programs, related services including speech, occupational and physical therapies; specialized services for students who are deaf or visually impaired; and life skills programs for students who are pervasively cognitively disabled have been slashed.

On merit-based pay for teachers who serve students in other ways than by being a general education classroom teacher:

CEC: I keep hearing lots of information about linking teacher pay to student performance on annual state tests. How will all special educators, some of whom teach students who take an alternate version of this test or use accommodations, be included and rewarded in this system? How will related service providers who work with students in very specialized ways, often for varying amounts of time, be included? What research-based practices are you recommending to use to evaluate a teacher’s effectiveness other than student test scores? If principals are to be the ones to determine teacher effectiveness, how is the Department ensuring that they have the knowledge, skills, and evidenced-based tools in order to conduct high quality evaluations?)

Duncan: (excerpted) A teacher’s effectiveness in the classroom must be determined using multiple measures. These measures should include observations by trained evaluators who have knowledge about teaching, the subject matter, and the context. They could also include student and parental feedback and portfolios of student work. And the evaluations should include the academic growth their students make over the course of a year. Growth should be determined based on fair and objective assessments, but should not be based on the results of one test given a single day. States and districts should consider using results from district-developed assessments or portfolios of student work throughout the year graded against a consistent rubric.

Systems will have to recognize, of course, that a simple 25 -1 relationship of students to teachers isn’t the reality for many students and teachers. Sometimes this may mean giving multiple teachers recognition for the achievement gains of a student they both taught. Other times, it may mean using group-based measures for a team of teachers who work with overlapping groups of students. So states and districts should work with their teachers to determine which arrangements best reflect the reality of how teaching and learning happens in their schools. We recognize the prevalence and effectiveness of team teaching; for example, a regular education teacher and a special educator working together in the same classroom. Teacher evaluations have to support and reward teachers working in team teaching or other cooperative models.

I’m glad Duncan recognizes that teachers are a diverse group of professionals, and that creating a fair, accurate and meaningful system of evaluation is more than standardized test scores. I worry that in the inevitable concession process it will take to get such a system in place, the pieces that make a new evaluation system all of these things will be the first to be cut in favor of a quick and dirty system of Educational BMI.


This calls for a sassy animal break. Such as this sassy frog.



On using growth-model assessment tools for all students, including those with disabilities:

CEC: Are you recommending a growth model be used for assessing the progress of all students academically in the upcoming ESEA reauthorization? If so, how will it address students with disabilities? I understand that through federal grants new assessments will be created for states to use annually. How will these tests accommodate the full range of students with disabilities and when will they be available? NCLB has raised the bar for students with disabilities through inclusion on state and district assessments. However, students with average cognitive ability and severe learning disabilities continue to demonstrate low performance on assessments such as the NAEP. Is this being addressed with the reauthorization of NCLB? If so, how? And if not, why?

Duncan: (excerpted)  In order to win the future, President Obama has challenged us that we must enable every single American to reach their potential. Every child, regardless of income, race, background, or disability can learn and must learn, and our system of education must embrace this core belief every day in every way possible. We want to model the best practices that we know are most effective, and at the top of that list of best practices is one simple word: inclusion. When we set high expectations, students with disabilities can excel. Students with disabilities, like everyone else, must be college- and career-ready because we know that the good jobs of the future will require more than a high-school diploma. With a high-quality education, children with disabilities will be self-sufficient and will be able to live independently.

In President Obama’s Blueprint for Reform of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, states, districts, and schools will track individual student growth and school progress over time to guide local improvement and support strategies for schools. The focus on student growth will replace NCLB’s accountability system that is based on absolute performance toward the goal of proficiency. We want students with disabilities to be held to the same college- and career-ready standards as all students, and schools that are accountable for helping them reach these standards. We also want to recognize and reward growth. Under NCLB, when a 5th grade student goes from a 2nd grade reading level to a 4th grade reading level in one year, both the teacher and the student are branded as failures because the student is still not on grade level. Under our plan, that two-year growth is acknowledged as a great accomplishment because that student is on track to catch up to grade level.

Firstly, I can’t even begin to explain how much the phrase “win the future” bothers me.   What happens if we win the future? Does everyone else lose the future? What does that even mean?

Secondly, again, we’re ignoring the needs of the students who are not necessarily accessing their free and appropriate education in order to obtain a career.  Yes, many of our students who receive special education services who could be career- or college-ready are not either.  Absolutely we need to do all we can to make those futures brighter.  We can’t do it at the expense of the students who are in public school to learn how to feed themselves, or complete simple household tasks, or express their basic needs in a way peers and caregivers can understand.   We’ve only recently welcomed these students into our schools and communities, as recently as two short decades ago, their futures may have involved a lifetime commitment to a nightmare of a state hospital.  By bringing these students with pervasive cognitive disabilities into our schools, we’ve given them a much better shot at a meaningful and purposeful life.  If we take away the parts of school that are giving this particular group of students that shot at independence, what kind of future are we giving them?  Certainly not one full of this elusive “win.”

By [E] Selena MacIntosh*

Selena MacIntosh is the owner and editor of Persephone Magazine. She also fixes it when it breaks. She is fueled by Diet Coke, coffee with a lot of cream in it, and cat hair.

One reply on “Education in America: Arne Duncan Responds to Special Education Professionals”

I find most of what he said really encouraging. His addressing teaching performance assessment and special education issues is really meaningful to me, as someone who teaches, so even if every detail of these statements isn’t my fantasy policy, I’m pretty cheered in general here.

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