The Impact of Special Education Laws
on Equity & The Classroom
Dr. Tom Hehir, Professor of Practice and Director of the The Leadership Program at Harvard University, Graduate School of Education made an informative presentation.
Kim Sweet, Executive Director, Advocates for Children of New York City, and Linda Chen, Principal of P.S. 165 in New York City, were panel participants. Dr. Jay Gottlieb, of the New York University Steinhart School of Education, moderated the panel.
Dr. Hehir served as Director of the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Special Education Programs from 1993 to 1999. As Director, he was responsible for federal leadership in implementing the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). He also served as Associate Superintendent for the Chicago Public Schools prior to joining the U.S. Department of Education.
Dr. Hehir said tremendous change has happened in special education due to informed testing, utilization of due process, and better teacher training. In 1987, the National Longitudinal Transition Study looked at a nationally representative sample of high school students with disabilities in 1987, and did a follow-up, three years later. The results found that disabled students were dropping out at higher rates, approximately double to that of their non-disabled peers. Those who did drop out faced difficulties with getting a job, got in trouble with the law, and became unwed mothers.
Michael Rebell, Executive Director of Campaign for Educational Equity:
“The Campaign for Educational Equity is about a commitment at Teachers College here at Columbia, to try to organize all the resources of the institution to promote educational equity, which we think is a major education issue of the 21st century. We try to do that by extensive research, by holding symposia, like this, by taking policy positions, by publications to understand what the problems are and go from there to shape messages and keep promoting equity.”
The findings in the study influenced the 1997 re-authorization of the IDEA, which mandated change. Disabled students were taught the same subjects of their non-disabled peers. Children with disabilities were given “more accountability” in the general education system. There was a greater emphasis toward “inclusion” into the system.
A follow-up study conducted in 2003 found positive gains for children of middle and upper middle class families. 70% of disabled students completed school. More youngsters went on to postsecondary education (32%), double the 1987 rate.
More kids were employed, a 70% employment rate among those who had been out of school up to two years, an increase of over 50%.
The findings of this study showed that disabled youth from low-income backgrounds did not show the same academic improvement, and employment gains.
Dr. Hehir believes legal intervention can improve changes in districts. But, he points out, in their zeal to effect change, advocates for the disabled have a tendency to seek too much, and the school district resists the effort to change.
Kim Sweet is an attorney for a group that represents the disabled. She said her agency gets almost 4,000 calls a year from parents with children of disabilities. She said her office can only represent a fraction of those calls. She noted that the sheer number of substantive and procedural issues that need to be addressed by large school districts, like that in New York City, is completely overwhelming. She stressed that early evaluation of a disabled child is paramount.
Linda Chen, a Principal at a NYC public school said more emphasis should be placed on training educators to help in early intervention of a student who might be disabled. She noted that building the capacity and creating communication among all parties: the students, parents, advocates, litigants, and school administrators is critical.#