A New York Times headline warned last February "Pupils Seem to Disappear In Shambles of Special Ed," evoking the image of clusters of abandoned children drifting through a war-torn schoolyard. The ensuing article chronicled tens of thousands of missing student files, a 5,000-plus backlog of special education evaluations and a system that seemed to be ignoring New York City's 150,000 disabled students.
This became the public image of New York City Chancellor Joel Klein's effort to revamp the city's special ed universe, one component of his "Children First" campaign. But the story behind New York City's reorganization (which is going much more smoothly this year) embodies almost all of today's challenges in delivering special education in urban districts: making sure highly qualified special ed teachers are in the classroom, not busy with compliance paperwork; making sure they're using research-based interventions to improve outcomes and raise test scores; reducing over-identification by supporting kids outside the special ed designation; and including as many students as possible in the general education classroom and curriculum.
And while these problems seem to be the same across urban, suburban and rural districts, the context in urban districts makes fixing these systems much more difficult.
"The difficulty I see in some urban districts is not only do you have issues of special education needs to be served, you also have issues of poverty, cultural issues and more bureaucratic strictures," says Gerald M. Mager, professor in teaching and leadership programs at Syracuse University's School of Education. "If you're going to move them, you have to move more entities, move the thinking of more people."
Along with this, the percentage of students in urban districts with IEPs is increasing at a much faster rate than the national average. The Council of the Great City Schools, in its Beating the Odds IV study found that the percentage of students with IEPs in urban member districts increased from 10.8 to 13.0 from 1995 to 2003, versus the national average that stayed relatively stable at 12.7 in 1995 and 13.3 percent in 2003.
Of course, the impetuses behind all these reform efforts are two landmark education laws, IDEA and NCLB, and the confusing clash of the two.
"This has been an incredibly change-oriented period within our field, change wrought by IDEA 97 in combination with NCLB," says David P. Riley, executive director of the Urban Special Education Leadership Collaborative at the Education Development Center.
"They have accelerated the need to change, and presume a level of flexibility within organizations that generally have not been the hallmark of urban districts."
As the percentage of students deemed disabled began to creep far past the agreed-upon national norm of 10 percent, the economic and bureaucratic weight of providing special education became more than most urban districts could handle well during the 1990s. This led to court cases and consent decrees in cities like Baltimore, Los Angeles, Chicago and Boston, that had the aim of improving services and increasing inclusion, and in most cases added several more layers of compliance demands to the already over-laden systems. Faced with this, districts began to create pre-referral models to provide general education support to students. These early-intervention models provide help students need without triggering the compliance costs and stigma of a special education designation.
"The only sure way to solve most of the problems of poor special education instruction is to prevent most students with learning difficulties from entering special education in the first place," wrote Kalman R. Hettleman, an independent education analyst from Baltimore, and author of the Abell Foundation report, The Road To Nowhere: The Illusion and Broken Promises of Special Education in Baltimore City and Other Public School Systems.
Baltimore city schools began using this early-intervention process during the 1990s, one fallout of the settlement of Vaughn G. v. Pinderhughes, the city's landmark special education court case. Students having difficulties are first referred to the Student Support Team, which consists of the general education teacher, special education teacher, social worker, psychologist, parents and the student. This team looks at the problems and creates a short-term plan that outlines specific interventions and how these tactics will be implemented. Often the team turns to research-based intervention modules, like RIDE, a software tool that indexes problems and solutions by keyword, the Tough Kid Toolbox, from Sopris West (now Cambium Learning) to come up with a strategy.
"It became a matter of in three to six weeks we'd know whether or not this intervention was helping, or whether we needed to go back to the table," says Bob Solomon, director of Student Support Teams in Baltimore.
It was several years before administrators, teachers and parents understood and accepted the process, but 10 years later the number of students with IEPs has dropped dramatically, from around 20 percent to something less than 15 percent, Solomon says. The results can be seen in the bottom line.
"If you're not running 20 percent of your population through special ed processes and services, you're going to save money," Solomon says.
Inspired by this kind of success in other cities, two years ago the Miami Dade Public Schools created its own School Support Team structure.
"A lot of students were being referred because it looked like that was the only option when a student was not functioning where they ought to be," says Brucie Ball, assistant superintendent for Miami's office of exceptional student education.
Miami's SSTs are actually a more multi-disciplinary cohort than their child study IEP teams, with the SST often including a reading or math specialist. The new approach underscores that students don't have to qualify for exceptional education in order to receive support services.
As of September, 93 of Miami's 365 schools have SSTs in place. In those schools there was an 18 percent decrease in the number of referrals for special ed evaluations last year. And those students who eventually did receive special education evaluations were more likely to be found disabled, as post-referral eligibility rose from 60 percent to 70 percent.
Going Beyond Compliance
The new accountability demands of NCLB are forcing districts to shift their focus from technical compliance back to high-quality classroom instruction.
"Over time we have been so focused on making sure we are implementing IEPs correctly, our focus has been on compliance," says Charlene Green, associate superintendent for student support services and other programs at Clark County Schools in Las Vegas.
"We are now shifting that whole piece to look at whether or not we are providing good instruction."
Winston-Salem/Forsyth County, a 48,000-student, 70-school urban district, shifted its focus from compliance to instruction with the creation of software and a relational database that dramatically reduces teachers' paperwork burden, and gives administrators in-depth information about special ed needs.
"We found 370 state and federal rules that had to be monitored, things as simple as the date of the initial evaluation has to precede the first day of service," says Sam Dempsey, director of exceptional children's programs, for Winston-Salem/Forsyth County schools. "By dealing with each of these hundreds of rules and embedding them in the software, we provide teachers with the support that guides them through the process."
By reducing the burden of compliance, teachers spend less time on paperwork and have more time for preparing high-quality instruction. And if the district has to spend less time monitoring procedural questions, district personnel can spend more time training teachers. Quantified results include:
57 percent decrease in the length of IEP meetings
Decreasing the time needed to prepare and draft IEPs from more than an hour to 15 minutes
Trained new, non-certified staff to produce compliant IEPs after only a three-hour orientation
Eliminated 95 percent of IEP procedural compliance issues.
The software, created by 4GL School Solutions also allows principals to run reports detailing any cases that are out of compliance, or nearing deadlines, and tells exactly how many hours of each kind of service are required for each student. This allows Dempsey to equitably distribute workloads and resources.
"Principals love it," he says. "It means for the first time they don't have to come and buy me lunch or buddy up to get what they need. It gives a measure of predictability that never existed in special ed before."
Focusing on Research
New York City's special education reorganization had two major goals: to get special ed teachers back in classrooms and to thoroughly train them in research-based interventions. This plan put psychologists in charge of the full-cycle evaluations, as is preferred by the national model, says Linda Wernikoff, deputy superintendent of Special Education Initiatives on Special Education Reform. This freed up scores of certified special education teachers who previously spent all of their time on evaluations. The second tactic was the hiring of 200 special education instructional support professionals, each responsible for providing professional development for teachers in six schools. Along with this, the city selected two research-based programs to be implemented system wide: Wilson Reading Systems and Bank Street College's "Urban Schools Attuned."
"We have over 1,700 people in 500 or more schools that are now trained in Wilson reading, and close to 1,000 staff trained in Urban Schools Attuned," Wernikoff says, noting that this training includes both special ed and general education teachers.
This laser-like focus on research-based interventions is one of the most urgent demands in urban special education, argues Hettleman in The Road to Nowhere.
"Without adequate training, IEP team members don't know of research on the most effective instructional programs for students with learning difficulties," Hettleman says. "Failure to specify the design of essential instructional elements typically results in IEP goals and objectives that are too low and often meaningless."
Rebecca Sausner is a freelance writer based in Brooklyn, N.Y.