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Monday, January 26, 2015

Three Big Wins for Special Education in 2014

From the HuffPost Education Blog

By Matthew Lynch, Ed.D.

January 5, 2015

The way that K-12 learners are taught is in rapid flux, particularly when it comes to students in special education programs. These are the students that need the most help and support and the ones where a push for higher parental involvement does not always bridge the academic gap. These students need highly-trained teachers and program resources designed with them in mind to succeed.

Because of this, special education researchers, practitioners, and activists are always looking for innovative ways to serve those students that need the help the most. This year was one of many wins for special education students and the start to many great initiatives in the future.

U.S. Education Department raises special education benchmarks.

Earlier last year, the U.S. Department of Education announced that the way it determines if states are meeting the needs of their students with disabilities is going to change. Factors like state graduation rates and test scores will now be considered more heavily when determining what states are helping, and what states are failing, their special education students.

States that are unable to meet the new benchmarks set forth for three years or more could face losing some of their special education funding.

"To put it in perspective, 41 states met the requirements of the old system. Under the new requirements, only 18 states meet the standards."

So just how different are the new requirements, and how difficult will it be for states to achieve the benchmarks when it comes to special education students? To put it in perspective, 41 states met the requirements of the old system. Under the new requirements, only 18 states meet the standards. It is estimated that 6.5 million children in the U.S. have disabilities.

Bill East of the National Association of State Directors of Special Education says that he is not discouraged by the initial dip in states meeting requirements, because he expects states to adapt and come out successful in the end.

I'm interested to see how these standards pan out over time. Will we see higher special education achievements as a result? Or will we see more frustration from teachers, parents and the students themselves?

Study supports the idea that special education preschoolers learn more in mainstream settings.

A study released this year out of Ohio State University found that preschoolers categorized as having special needs or disabilities learned more with at least some time in mainstream classrooms than outside of it.

To reach these conclusions, 670 preschool children enrolled in 83 different programs were observed and analyzed. Of those numbers, half had a disability. Classrooms with a combination of special education and mainstream students, as well as classrooms with 100 percent special education students were studied and compared.

In the classrooms where special education students were placed among more highly-skilled peers, language scores were 40 percent higher at the end of the preschool year than those in special-needs only classrooms.

The study also found that the mainstream students were not negatively impacted by the presence of special needs students, and showed the same levels of improvements as previous classes with no special needs students.

According to the U.S. Department of Education, about half of the nation's special needs preschoolers are in classrooms with higher-skilled peers, but as this study points out, all preschoolers could benefit from the inclusion.

With the right support programs in place, more mainstream learning opportunities for special needs students could really make an impact. It is nice to see that the traditional "separate, but equal" stance when it comes to special education students is starting to fade, and to the benefit of all students.

New guidance is considered to protect students with disabilities.

The Education Department's Office of Civil Rights is working to clarify anti-bullying protections for students with disabilities.

Assistant Secretary of Civil Rights Catherine Lhamon sent a letter during National Bullying Prevention Month with new legal guidance to the country's public schools. The letter was an attempt to explain that federal anti-bullying protections extend to around three quarters of a million more students than schools believe.

Prior to the letter, the Education Department's latest guidance on anti-bullying protection was in 2013 from its special education office, which oversees the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. However, about 750,000 students with disabilities are not protected by IDEA - but are entitled to special education services under Section 504.

The new letter intends to clear up the uncertainties and extend protection to more students. Under federal law, most students with disabilities have a right to a "free and appropriate public education," but in some instances, bullying can prevent them from receiving it, the letter says - pushing schools into the realm of noncompliance.

I am pleased that the Obama administration is reaching out to inform public schools of the gross misunderstanding about the number of students who are adversely affected by bullying. My hope is that through the distribution of this letter, more students with disabilities will be able to attend public school and learn without the fear of being bullied.

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