Revamping special education

Print More
Renee Grant Mitchel

Renee Grant Mitchel

Skeptics wonder if the reauthorized federal law on special education will improve services in a district that faces a host of obstacles to educating children with learning disabilities.

Each year, hundreds of Chicago Public Schools students are placed in special education because of learning disabilities—often in 3rd grade and later, which experts say is too late to make a real improvement in their education.

Each year, several hundred special education teaching jobs sit vacant, at a time when such jobs are even more critical. That’s because CPS, like other districts, needs the best-trained teachers to help raise the achievement of special education students to meet mandates of the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

And each year, several thousand special education students are suspended, cutting short instruction for students who can least afford to miss school.

The reauthorized Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act, known as IDEA, is meant to help Chicago and other districts improve special education services. The law goes into effect July 1.

As Catalyst went to press, public hearings on draft regulations for putting the law into practice were scheduled to be held in downtown Chicago.

But already, special education advocates question whether the new law, especially those provisions regarding student discipline, will end up benefiting children.

Checkered track record

The new IDEA does not include additional funding for schools. Elliott Marks, a resource and information specialist for the reform group Designs for Change, says limited funding already hampers efforts to create effective services for all children in special education. Marks, who trains parents to advocate on their children’s behalf with the district, says the school system “is set up to keep [parents and children] from achieving their goals.”

“Is CPS qualified to implement [the new IDEA]? That would be about the biggest joke in the world,” says Johnny Holmes, a parent advocate for Parents United for Responsible Education (PURE). Holmes notes that CPS has a checkered track record on special education and is still subject to a federal consent decree stemming from a 1992 lawsuit charging the district with illegally segregating special education students.

“They didn’t [fully] implement that,” says Holmes. “What makes you think they’re going to do this law?”

Policy changes stemming from the new law will be hammered out by the Illinois State Board of Education by early 2006, and districts will have until June 2006 to put those changes into practice.

Christopher Koch, assistant superintendent for special education at ISBE, is confident that CPS will be effective with the reauthorized IDEA. “They have many positive things that they can build on and expand.”

More help or more mislabeling?

To show the challenges special education students face and gauge the potential impact of the new law, Catalyst traced the school histories of four learning-disabled children.

Three of the four students had at least one roadblock in common: A late diagnosis of their learning disability. The new IDEA aims to push schools to identify learning problems earlier by using a new approach called response to intervention, designed to make sure children who are at risk of failing in the primary grades receive research-based help as early as possible, according to the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association.

With the new model, teachers would be required to use proven, research-based reading programs with children who are having trouble learning to read (the primary signal that children have learning disabilities) before referring them for a special education evaluation.

Under the current model, schools typically rely on what is called the discrepancy formula, which compares a child’s standardized test results with his or her expected performance based on IQ scores. If the difference is more than two years, the child is referred for special education.

But the two-year gap in achievement typically doesn’t show up until 3rd grade or later, leading to late diagnosis.

By that time, “[learning] problems are much harder to remediate. It would benefit kids to have their issues addressed sooner rather than later,” says Sue Gamm, an education consultant and former chief specialized services officer for CPS. “What the research says is, if you really get the kids early, and give them the kind of intervention they need, almost all kids will catch up. The ones who don’t are the ones who truly have a learning disability.”

The discrepancy formula also doesn’t explain why the child isn’t performing, says Matthew Cohen, an attorney who represents families in legal disputes with the district over special education services.

“They might be sick. They might not have been taught properly,” Cohen explains. “If you haven’t been taught algebra, you’re not going to perform well on an algebra test. It has nothing to do with your intelligence or whether or not you have a learning disability.”

The draft federal regulations give states the power to decide whether or not to force districts to adopt the new model. Koch says ISBE is not likely to do so, but adds that “it’s something we certainly would want to encourage.” ISBE will probably offer professional development and incentive funding for districts that sign on, he says.

Renee Grant-Mitchell, chief specialized services officer for CPS, says the district wants schools to adopt the new approach.

“We believe in response-to-intervention. Philosophically, we are right there,” Grant-Mitchell says. “We just have to figure out how to get schools to implement it. We’re going to really have to plan carefully and train well.”

But some see drawbacks to the new method.

It may not be appropriate to identify a child as learning-disabled simply because he or she is not responding to early reading intervention, notes Kathleen Gibbons, senior assistant general counsel for CPS, who earned certification in special education and is a former Catholic school teacher. “If the main concern is the child can’t read, I really do think you need to give the child more time,” Gibbons says. “They could just be a late bloomer. That’s my concern—that we’re going to have so many more little ones [mis]labeled.”

Cohen notes another concern. “Very few teachers have been trained in these research-based methods, so schools don’t have the capacity to provide the service. And it will be many years until they do.”

Using the intervention approach could also lead to more bias and, potentially, mislabeling and over-referral of minority children to special education, Cohen believes.

“If it’s up to a teacher, if they want to get rid of a kid, they can make a personal judgment on it,” he says. “They can give intervention, say, ‘He didn’t respond,’ and send him to special education.”

Any approach that could increase the possibility of bias troubles Holmes of PURE, who says his son—now a sophomore in college who is studying to go to law school—was mistakenly labeled as emotionally disturbed while in CPS, solely because he stuttered.

Mislabeling, Holmes says, “is a way to railroad and exclude minority kids.”

Making the shortage worse?

The reauthorized IDEA was rewritten to specify that special education teachers be “highly qualified” by June 2006, bringing the law in line with the No Child Left Behind Act. States have the power to set the standards, however. And Illinois may decide to go with a tough standard: Requiring special education teachers who teach self-contained classes in which multiple subjects are taught—typically, in middle schools and high schools—to have endorsements in every subject.

“Our inclination is, that’s how we’re going to have to interpret that,” says Koch, who concedes that doing so “would have a large impact.”

While higher standards would benefit students, says Gamm, “Teachers aren’t going to be highly qualified overnight. It’s really going to take collaborating and figuring out how to make this happen. The state has not had a good history in that.”

Cydney Fields, principal at Ray Elementary in Hyde Park, questions the value of requiring multiple subject-area credentials.

“Do you want someone who teaches special ed who’s got a lot of reading classes but not a whole lot of classes in strategies and techniques for learning? Or do you want someone who’s got a lot of education in how to diagnose problems and figure out strategies for students who have special needs?” Fields asks. “I’m not sure [subject certification] is going to make them better teachers.”

Tougher standards would also aggravate the persistent statewide shortage of special education teachers, which is especially acute in Chicago. Many special education teachers don’t have subject endorsements, Gibbons point out. And under this scenario, she adds, “self-contained instructional classes probably won’t exist” because teachers would not have the credentials to teach multiple subjects.

Grant-Mitchell says the issue is problematic. “I’m concerned about getting people up to where they need to be in the period of time we have to do it, because we do have shortages,” she says.But self-contained classes probably won’t be eliminated, Grant-Mitchell predicts. “I think we should always have a continuum of services,” she says, adding that CPS is working to move special education students out of separate classes in any event.

ISBE is considering a system that would allow veteran teachers to attain highly qualified status through a formula that would take experience and other factors into account.

Koch says the state is “looking at allowing for greatest flexibility. The reason for that is obvious: the shortage of teachers.”

But new teachers could well face the prospect of additional coursework, no matter what, because they would have to obtain general elementary or secondary certification.

Even that requirement, however, would be “a huge problem because most of our special ed teachers don’t have that,” Gibbons says. “The great fear is that, if they have to go back to school, they won’t.”

Chicago already has difficulty obtaining teachers with proper credentials, Koch notes.

“In our monitoring of Chicago, which is extensive, we have found classrooms that are not properly staffed,” he says. “We’re trying to work with them on recruitment efforts. But it’s a tenacious problem, and it’s a large problem, and one that every urban area in the country has.”

Poor behavior caused by disability?

In 2003, more than 7,000 special education students were suspended for violating the district’s Uniform Discipline Code, according to data from ISBE. Data from 2003 are the latest available, and ISBE officials say the state will no longer compile data separately for special education students.

Special education activists say the reauthorized law will lead to even more suspensions, and even expulsions, by making it harder for parents or other advocates for students to show that a student’s poor behavior is related to their disability. Doing so is often difficult, since misbehavior may not be directly caused by a disability, but may have an indirect connection. Many experts say special education students often misbehave out of frustration over their learning difficulties or as a reaction to being labeled and perhaps singled out for teasing by peers.

For one thing, Gibbons—an advocate of the new discipline provisions—says a school’s procedural mistakes will no longer result in a case being thrown out. “It absolutely brings it more into balance,” she says. “I just know the frustrations schools faced under the old one.”

But Cohen foresees greater frustrations for children and parents. “More kids are going to get excluded,” he says. The discipline process is already weighted in favor of schools rather than children, he says, “and it’s going to get worse. Many kids are going to be put into alternative settings or get expelled.”

Holmes agrees: “They are already shafting [parents] and ram-rodding kids through,” he says. “This streamlining just gives them extra ways to get rid of people they didn’t want in the first place.”

Fields sees a potential for frustration either way. “I’ve got mixed feelings about that one,” she says. “I don’t want parents to have the opportunity to use that as a scapegoat, but I also don’t want kids who really do have those kinds of issues to fall through the cracks and be kicked out of school. I’m pretty ambivalent.”

Senior Editor Elizabeth Duffrin also contributed to this report.

Ed Finkel is a Chicago-based writer. E-mail him at editor@catalyst-chicago.org.