An Interview with Peter Bittel: Transforming Special Education

Mar 1, 2013 by


1) Peter, you and Dr. Nick Young have just co-edited/co-authored a book entitled “TRANSFORMING SPECIAL EDUCATION PRACTICES: A PRIMER FOR SCHOOL ADMINISTRATORS AND POLICY MAKERS.” What brought this about?

From a personal perspective, we have been educating children and adults with disabilities much of our lives. From a more global perspective, the United States is doing something no other country has ever done: a commitment to provide a free public education for all children including those with disabilities. Although this effort is visionary, morally driven, and laudable we know that we could be providing much better services to both the students and the citizens who support this work. We must look at the circumstances of adults with disabilities in our society: adults represent the success, or lack thereof, of our special education. Unemployment among adults with disabilities is above 60%; more than 50% of the U.S. prison population has disabilities, and home ownership for adults with disabilities is less than 5%. To the degree that data on their adult counterparts constitute a valid metric, students with disabilities do not achieve the equal access to civil rights and the American dream that we had wished.

The United States is currently spending more than $160B a year in support of special education in grades K through 12, yet identifying successful results is a challenge. The intention of our book is to help reflect upon:

• How do we improve services to students?
• What performance metrics need to be instituted in order to evaluate effectiveness of staff and programs?
• Why are supports to children more successful when the entire school community is responsible and not just the special education silo?
• How can outcomes improve when we shift from an adult-centered culture to a student-centered culture?
• How can we improve the engagement of parents? Children are the responsibility of K-12 for 20 years, but often the responsibility of parents for another 30-40 years. Yet, we spend few dollars and often create significant barriers to the engagement of well-trained and well-informed parents.

Transforming Special Education Practices does not purport to have all the answers to the improvement of this very complicated delivery system, but instead seeks to raise consciousness to lead us in that direction.

2) Peter, I have seen what I consider to be MASSIVE, GARGANTUAN changes in special education since I studied in my undergraduate and graduate years. In your mind, have the changes been positive, negative, or paperwork laborious and tedious?

There have been significant changes in special education over the last 20 years. To name just a few:

• The paperwork is overwhelming many professionals, due to increased regulation and fears of litigation, and appears to draw more time from providers with a concomitant increase of costs to the delivery system. Each provider will have a point of view as to whether this helps children learn.

• Students often present with more complicating learning challenges. There is a change in the kind of child we are seeing, especially when staff may have limited training and much of our professional development has been eliminated. For example, there has been more than a 70% increase in students on the autism spectrum. These students require learning environments with well-trained staff and well-planned school inclusion programs.

• Litigation, mistrust, and antipathy characterize many of our meetings that should be collegial forums for all stakeholders to support students; in many districts, lawyers and advocates are routinely present. This may have created a higher level of support for children, but the positive results in children’s lives are not clear. This trend is consistent with our society’s disaffection with the support systems in our communities (e.g., churches, banks, government, etc.). Schools are often the “point of the spear” in addressing societal concerns.

• We could do a much better job communicating with parents in a more transparent fashion, thereby promoting the parents’ role in the education of their children. The parents will be teachers, if not caregivers, for life (unlike those of us who leave these children when they are 21). Hospitals have learned over the last 30 years the importance of patients’ families in healing, and schools need to accept that parents play a similar role in education.

• Technology is largely untapped as a support system because of economics, limitations in staff capabilities, and our inability to ask the right questions. We have been familiar for many years with technological support to assist in movement, communication, and interaction. Now, there is much more emphasis on learning through technology that can actually be demonstrated—the exciting work of children with autism who use IPods, for example. The work at the MIT clinic with children on the autism spectrum encourages us to model new approaches.

• Institutionalized thinking by the special education workforce remains a challenge because much our work in special education is isolated and parochial. We could benefit from wider acceptance of inclusion, transparency in special education costs and budgets, identification of metric performance that defines best practice, and a culture between special and general education that is more collaborative than oppositional.

3) It seems every few years, someone else comes along with some great idea to “transform special ed”. First it was Regular Ed Initiative, then accommodations and modifications, and then differentiated instruction, with technology thrown in as another either silver bullet or band-aid. What is your perspective?

There are no great ideas in special education that will transform all of special education because so much of the work is in “gray” areas. Special education addresses the needs of very different leaners, which by definition require differentiated instruction, accommodations, and other specialized supports. Assuming one set of solutions in special education is short-sighted.

In our book, we encourage decision makers to be conversant with the complexity of special education by breaking down the tasks needed to help children. Leadership needs to continuously ask the questions “How does this help kids?” and “How do we prove that this helps kids with evidence and not emotion?”

The field has seen burgeoning ideas over the last few years that help us rethink how we go about our work, including the examples in your question. There are writings and commentary on policy. One example is Nicholas Kristoff’s article in the New York Times that questions the impact of Social Security Disability payments because they lock children and families “in place”; our social policy often supports poor results and a lack of movement. Thomas Hehrig of Harvard urges practitioners to consider the concept of “ableism” to expand our views of diversified learners; much of our view of disability resides in our bias as to how kids should learn. John Covington, Chancellor of The Educational Achievement Authority of Michigan—the first “new” school district in 50 years—pushes us to answer, “Why aren’t all children in inclusion programs?”

Unfortunately, new thoughts and questions often have a difficult time penetrating the barricades of federal and state bureaucracy, embedded and rigid behavior of our learning communities, and unwillingness of poorly-trained staff to approach student learning differently. We keep doing the same thing over and over again, often with no accountability or performance metrics, and routinely find schools with no expectation that students will ever leave special education. We routinely find team chairs, the persons chairing the IEP meeting, concerned about ‘compliance’ and less concerned with student progress or the effectiveness of instruction and services.

4) Peter, let’s put money and policy aside for just a few minutes and talk about the anguish that parents feel when they find their son/daughter diagnosed with autism, or benign congenital hypotonia, or intellectual disability. In your mind, who should be providing the emotional support for these parents and helping them cope?

Speaking as a parent, I think we need significant improvement in how our system supports parents of people with disabilities. Many schools seem to think that parent engagement ceases when the IEP is signed, when in fact, most special education parents have significant responsibilities during and after school. These parents need support in what are sometimes overwhelming challenges. We often show little sensitivity to parents whose parenting responsibilities and connections do not end or change at the end of the school day or at age 21, but continue for the rest of their lives.

Uniformly across the country, we could do a much better job in preparing children and their parents for transition to adult based community services with different rules, regulations, and expectations from K-12. Although there are a variety of ways to provide support to the parents of adult children with disabilities, this issue tends to be under-emphasized.

5) Now, tough question—special education cannot CURE a child who is totally deaf or blind due to Charge or Usher’s Syndrome. Are the expectations for special educators, and indirectly general educators way out of line?

Although these are complex and often daunting conditions, every child is different. The focus for parents and educators should be on development, communication, and education. The individual’s ultimate success (i.e., optimal functioning) will be greatly enhanced by early intervention. Some children may need very little support, while some may require full-time support and individualized programs.

Collaboration among the parents, special education, and general education staff is vital to the success of the child in the educational setting. There are numerous people with severe disabilities (e.g., Usher’s Syndrome) achieving very high levels of success by any standards, including graduate degrees, high-profile leadership positions, artists, writers, entrepreneurs, actors, and scientists. I would argue that although the disability cannot be changed, should not the expectations of special educators and general educators be even higher?

6) THE IEP—nice concept—but who really ensures that it is reinforced and are we just spinning our wheels?

Too often, we find that IEPs are perfunctory: There is great focus on compliance and limited attention to performance metrics, entrance and exit criteria, and interventions. When students perform poorly, the combination of a lack of transparency, disparate practice patterns from building to building, and limited data significantly reduce the effectiveness of paraprofessionals, teachers, and therapists.

7) Let’s talk mystery now—this thing called a “learning disability.” Teachers recognize it, parents are frustrated by it, and the child is embarrassed and exasperated by it. For example, what do you propose to do with a child who is in the 8th grade, reading at a 2nd grade level?

There are many children who are reading dramatically below grade-level. Many schools lack a strong intervention process for not just “learning disabled” students, but for any student that is struggling through Response to Intervention (RtI). Recent legislation makes it very clear that congress believes providing better services to those students who need specifically designed instruction can strengthen special education services. The 8th grade student, reading on a 2nd grade level, falls into the WBFWR classification (Way Behind for Whatever Reason). Many student educational deficiencies may be attributed to non-disability factors such as parent neglect, unstable home environment, or family dysfunction. Schools need to strengthen their RtI programs to provide yet another element in their continuum of services; this intense instruction, which is outside the purview of special education, is designed to meet students at their current level, and build academic success.

In turn, this will make the special education program more effective because it will focus on providing services to students with “true” disabilities.

Students identified correctly as learning disabled must have instruction at their current instructional level, regardless of grade or age level. Teachers must be trained to provide struggling students with a variety of modifications that meet their needs. We cannot expect positive results by applying the same remediation strategies to a student with severe disabilities as we do to a student with moderate and/or low disabilities.

8) Let’s talk long term now. The child with a 30, 50, 60 I.Q. at some point has to leave the school and go on to the world of work. Who ensures that the school does an adequate job of preparing that person for “independent living”?

This is a major area of concern in our delivery system where we could do a much better job.

The Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP) in the US Department of Education is responsible for ensuring state compliance with the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA 2004). In turn, states are responsible for ensuring compliance by individual school districts. OSEP has historically relied on 20 Indicators to measure compliance with the IDEA. Only one Indicator, number 13, speaks directly to the issue of Transition or post- secondary “independent living.” Indicator 13 reads as follows: ”Percent of youth aged 16 and above with an IEP that includes coordinated, measurable, annual IEP goals and transition services that will reasonably enable the child to meet the post-secondary goals.”

In 2012, OSEP suspended individual state on-site compliance reviews using the 20 indicators. Its stated rationale: “The current system [of monitoring] emphasizes procedural compliance over student learning outcomes, and we believe a more balanced approach is needed to effectively impact educational results.”

Because it appears that no one on a system-wide basis has been measuring outcomes regarding transition services (e.g., “employment” and “independent living”), it is not possible to say that anyone can currently assure that the school does an adequate job of preparing students for independent living. OSEP’s shift from process monitoring and toward an emphasis on student outcomes is clearly a significant step in the right direction.

We have encountered some groups that have been arguing for transition programs to be performance based. For example, Wilson Resources in Florida in their work with Futures Education, guarantees paid employment for students in school and after they leave the district. Such thinking creates a much-improved delivery system.

9) Many parents (I think about 2 million is the latest figure) simply remove their child from the schools and do homeschooling. Is anyone listening to this message? Is anyone listening to the charter schools movement? Or the growth in private schools

The reality for most public school districts is the “cruel math” of special education. That is, programmatic, procedural, and legal mandates to provide special education services frequently outpace the available resources to provide these supports. Moreover, the myriad of supports under the auspices of special education frequently approach 20% to 30% of the district’s total operating budget to support approximately 13% of its student population. The reality of union laws, legacy costs (e.g., retirement), and circumscribed instructional paradigms create additional fiscal pressures that the charter and private schools do not need to content with. This fiscal and instructional freedom may be attractive to many families and their students, including those with disabilities. Until they improve upon their overall educational delivery system, public schools will continue to be at a financial disadvantage in facing a new wave of choice and competition.

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