Duncan’s special education plan: ‘square root of stupid’

Recently, Education Secretary Arne Duncan announced that the federal government will be changing the way in which it allocates federal money for special education services to states. Secretary Duncan wants to tie test scores for special education to the amount of money a state receives from the federal government for reimbursement of special education services.

The logic is simple: States that send back high special education student test scores will get more money, those with lower scores will get less or even no money. Surely this will improve student learning, right?  Clearly No Child Left Behind’s (NCLB) emphasis of tying student test scores to federal money was a major success! Cloning NCLB tools for special education students sounds like a real winner.

Secretary Duncan argued, “We know that when students with disabilities are held to high expectations and have access to a robust curriculum, they excel.” If only teachers knew this was the magical brew to student success! Obviously teachers have never held special education students to a robust curriculum and high expectations, right?

I find Secretary Duncan’s statement quoted above deeply offensive. Its connotation is deeply misleading for it implies that special education and general education instructors do not already hold these students to high standards.

As a special education teacher working side by side my general education colleagues I can attest that staff bend around backwards to accommodate and adapt for individualized needs. Mr. Duncan’s connotation that this isn’t happening is not only wrong, it’s just plain offensive.

Let me be clear here: I share Secretary Duncan’s general belief that all students, special education students included, can make progress toward their academic goals. However, special education students, by definition, have a disability which adversely affects a student’s ability to be successful in academic progress in comparison to typical peers. As a result, these students generally do not progress at the rate of their peers. If they did, there would be no need for special education services.

This doesn’t mean that special educators and general education teachers lower our expectations for these students; on the contrary, we bend over backwards for these students in an attempt to accommodate for individual student needs and accelerate their learning to bridge the gap.

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However, having high expectations also doesn’t mean that we expect a student reading at a first-grade level to independently read Shakespeare’s “Othello” and write an analysis of racial connotations within the text. Instead, we instruct the student at a level that is challenging, but not unattainable.

Thus the reason why Secretary Duncan’s plan is the square root of stupid. We already know that these students are behind. If they weren’t, they wouldn’t be receiving special education services. We also know that these students are already being monitored for growth of their IEP goals on an individual level to measure growth, not a set proficiency score, and that monitoring growth is a much more logical way to monitor student achievement.

Tying federal dollars to these scores is reckless. How does withholding dollars for special education services improve student learning? Maybe more learning will take place with less qualified teachers in the classroom because of reduced budgets? Perhaps districts’ inability to order new curriculum materials because there is no money in a reduced budget will accelerate student learning? Surely students will enjoy yet another high-stakes standardized test!

We have already seen the devastating impact NCLB’s policy of withholding dollars to the neediest schools. Educators have firsthand witnessed the horrors associated with being in Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) jail. Instead of investing additional resources in the most challenging populations, schools are financially abandoned.

Data demonstrating a total failure in tying dollars to high-stakes tests isn’t anything new or particularly shocking. Indeed, the respected Cato Institute reported in 2007 that NCLB’s strategy was a total bust.  NCLB is such a colossal failure that the federal government has resorted to given out waivers to individual states because Congress has refused to rewrite the law.

Yet, despite study after study confirming these findings, somehow Mr. Duncan continues to believe this strategy will work for special education students. What was it Einstein said about the definition of insanity?

This policy has no place in our nation’s schools. It puts our most vulnerable students in the crosshairs of political brinkmanship. These students deserve better, much better.