Fixing Special Education — 12 Steps to Transform a Broken System
By Miriam K. Freedman
The special education law has outlived its purpose. It has accomplished its mission. We are now well into the quagmire of its unintended consequences. Let us celebrate what works and fix what doesn’t. How do we start? Here’s an approach.
What Works: Let us honor the success of this landmark 1975 law, now called the IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act). A product of the 20th century civil rights era, it ended the exclusion of children with mental, physical and other disabilities from appropriate education services. That was then.
Now, across America, more than six million students with disabilities receive a free appropriate public education — some 14 percent of all students. The law’s dramatic success is worth celebrating.
What Needs a Fix: Beyond its success, let us acknowledge that this powerful law — the only entitlement program in our schools — spawned an adversarial system that often focuses on procedures and rights, not educational outcomes. It has become ever more complex and burdensome for schools and parents. Its due process requirements pit parents against educators — without any evidence that such conflict and angst improves student achievement. Compliance costs often overwhelm school budgets. The law’s incentives are backward, focusing on rights, not education; inputs, not outcomes; the needs of the one, not the many; conflict, not collaboration.
Here’s How! Let us tackle challenges that are familiar to anyone with experience in America’s public schools by refocusing on the prize: improved outcomes for all students. “Fixing Special Education” presents 12 concrete, creative, and, yes, controversial proposals, including:
• Change the parents’ role and end the right to litigate a student’s services. Educators, not lawyers and judges, should manage educational programming. Parents should be partners, not law enforcers, as this adversarial law requires them to be. Rather than fomenting distrust, we need to build trust among parents, students, and schools, especially as most parents are satisfied with their children’s education (see accompanying piece). After years of costly and damaging case-by-case litigation, we need child-centered, not adult-centered, resolution innovations, like using an ombudsman, independent consultant, etc.
• Minimize paperwork that does not directly improve educational outcomes. Educators and parents focus too much effort on documentation, a corrosive, unsustainable system. Let’s do the right thing for students, not just “do the thing right.”
• Follow research, not dogma. For example: (a) Treat inclusion as a means to a good education, not a “right.” (b) Focus on the whole child: strengths and weaknesses, not just weaknesses. (c) End the (over)use of “accommodations.” They inflate scores, are unfair, and, sadly, let students and teachers off the hook. (d) Educate children without diagnostic labels. As eligibility gatekeepers, labels are often imprecise, inequitable, and unfair. (e) Teach reading. Instead of spending millions to diagnose learning disabilities, teach children how to read. Lack of reading skills fuels the growth of learning disabilities, the IDEA’s largest disability category.
• Confront the law’s impact on other students (at risk, average, advanced) and school budgets. This one-entitlement system cannot long endure and serve our nation well.
Having succeeded in providing access for all students with disabilities to a free appropriate public education, we need mission-change. Stop tinkering around the edges of this input- and rights-driven law and replace it with a 21st century outcome-driven approach. Focus on teaching and learning for all students, not on bureaucracy, procedures, and lawsuits. Finally, allow open and honest discussion to enact systemic reform. Our students and nation deserve no less. #
Miriam Kurtzig Freedman, M.A., J.D., is an attorney, author, speaker, and reformer. She is of counsel to the Boston law firm of Stoneman, Chandler & Miller, where she represents public schools. Her latest book, “Fixing Special Education — 12 Steps to Transform a Broken System,” is available through Amazon or http://www.parkplacepubs.com and http://www.schoollawpro.com. Contact Miriam at Miriam@schoollawpro.com.