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The Next Challenge

As districts begin to work through the varied requirements of No Child Left Behind, one of the most challenging sections deals with educating special ed children.

A year ago, little Peter Ciaccio, a 7-year-old from Wilton, Conn., rarely listened or followed directions. The Tilford W. Miller School student has Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder tendencies but was never formally diagnosed.

Peter was held in first grade another year and put in special education. With an occupational therapist working with him, Peter, without the use of medication, can now focus on tasks and finish work, according to his mother, Nancy Ciaccio. Peter chews gum while doing homework to channel his movement. Before he has to concentrate on work, he does chair push-ups by placing his hands by his sides and pressing against the seat to move up and down. And he lays on his stomach and pulls his chest from the floor to strengthen his diaphragm and stomach muscles and keep him in control of his body.

"I think that when you increase expectations for a group of students, it's challenging." -Doug Carnine, Professor of education, University of Oregon

"He still has periods where he's very active. But he's definitely better," Nancy Ciaccio says."I don't care if he ever goes to Harvard, as long as he has good self-esteem and feels good about his accomplishments."

Miller School Principal Cheryl Jensen says students with similar needs benefit from her school's intense use of occupational therapy and specific-needs assessments of students. If one method doesn't work or show improved results, another method is considered until the child responds, she says. "We constantly look at that every year, we revisit the individualized education [plan] and ensure children are in fact receiving the services that are still appropriate for them," she says.

But how well will Peter and others in special education perform on standardized tests--which require sitting and thinking for long periods--every year to meet the requirements of No Child Left Behind? The new federal mandate calls for testing in grades 3-8 in reading and math starting in 2005-06. And it requires that in every school, every subgroup of children, including special education students, pass and improve with every successive year, or that school can be considered failing.

"Under the law, every student and every group of students--regardless of the special challenges they face or the disabilities they shoulder--will be able to learn to higher standards," says Undersecretary of Education Eugene Hickok. "If they do not make the progress they should, families and communities will know, through this new, transparent system of accountability."

Alternative achievement standards will be used only for children with severe cognitive disabilities--or about 1 percent of special education children. Some experts say the new federal law is a challenge, to say the least.

"For students with disabilities and without severe cognitive disabilities, they are expected to reach grade-level standards. That will be challenging," says Doug Carnine, a professor of education at the University of Oregon.

"There is no way that in the short run, we could avoid having kids with disabilities have a pretty tough time meeting those requirements," says Bruce Hunter, director of public policy at American Association of School Administrators.

Hunter goes on to say that if you look at standards of proficiency according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, which assesses what students know and can do in certain subjects, they are very high. In order for children to read proficiently, they must make inferences about themselves and life. "Special education kids are supposed to be moving to proficiency" under No Child, Hunter says. "By definition, they have a disability that hinders their education."

Hunter says that he believes the short-term goal will be "huge staff development" for regular and special education teachers to improve student performance academically. "In the short run, a lot of schools will be low-performing" regarding children with disabilities, he says.

"In the long run, it's about research and how the kid's brain works and how to facilitate learning," Hunter says. "It's years of research and figuring out how to apply it. We're just starting to figure out how the brain works and how kids learn."

Brighter side

On the other hand, Carnine says the law's purpose is worthy--to motivate districts to do more, intense early intervention so students get help earlier to reach grade-level achievement standards.

Districts should ensure instruction fits a child's skills and is based on scientific practices, adds Carnine, who is also a consultant to the U.S. Department of Education. More time on task is key so teachers should work with smaller groups of children, such as two or three, as opposed to eight. And districts need progress monitoring systems so teachers, parents and administrators know if a student is progressing toward grade-level achievement.

"The special education law [IDEA] has been in place for about 30 years," Carnine says. "It provided a tremendous service to bring children with disabilities into public schools. But it is time to go beyond bringing them into schools to looking what their achievement is. Having children with a disability in an accountability system, should be, on balance, very good for them, as it increases expectations and intensity and the amount and quality of instruction. I think that when you increase expectations for a group of students, it's challenging. It's discipline. From that perspective, there may never be the perfect time for this. But I think it's time to make that move. ... To say we have no expectations for them would be a disaster. The message to the world would be, 'We don't have to produce with these kids, so let's ignore them and hope for the best.' "

"By 2012, every kid has to be proficient," he says. "It's a terrific goal to work toward." Some districts have already been recognized as having worthy early intervention programs that first and foremost, catch students before they would need special education at all.

Jack M. Fletcher, who served on the President's Commission on the Excellence in Special Education, says that data on special education academic achievement can show "good gains" if instruction is adequately intensive, "meaning that it's more than babysitting and time away for instruction."

Small group instruction, scientifically based curriculum and progress monitors will help such students achieve, adds Fletcher, who also works in the Center for Academic and Reading Skills at the University of Texas' Health Science Center at Houston.

Ahead of the game

Elk Grove Unified School District in California saw a decrease in special education students from 16 percent to 8.8 percent--which is under the California state average--over 12 years after an intensive basal reading curriculum.

"What we used to do was wait until the kids were far behind [in reading] to have them put in special education," says Superintendent David Gordon. "By the time they were in the third or fourth grade, it was too late."

When Gordon came on board nearly 12 years ago, he says he first went to the state Board of Education to allow his district to work with and use special education money for children from K-2 to try to avoid special education altogether. He also stopped segregating aides and teachers and had Title 1 reading people and aides help any child having difficulty reading, not just those in special education.

The state also changed its funding system to create an incentive to identify more children in need of help to again have them avoid special education.

The district was able to help children with reading difficulties. The district is now dealing with "more expensive handicaps," such as autistic children or profoundly physically disabled. "Now we're left with a small spectrum of children with more severe disabilities and needs," Gordon says.

Elk Grove already started testing children in the past three or four years as the state requires testing grades 2-11. He says the district tests children in first grade and kindergarten. "We have been testing and tracking the vast majority of kids as required by No Child," he says. "We have pretty strong data about the subgroup to better help them acquire the skills they need for adequate yearly progress. It's not easy. No Child is more stringent."

Every child in special education started out in regular education classes and most of them spend time in both regular and special education classrooms, proving how vital it is that both teachers collaborate. "Once they get over that hurdle of deniability, you can make progress," Gordon says.

The second hurdle is to ensure "everyone is up to speed on standards." Teachers use many practice tests for children, who might find the format of tests as a barrier to simply understanding the questions, Gordon says. "The more practice they can get to address the different formats of tests the more it will help them demonstrate what they know rather than it being a lack of understanding," he says.

And lastly, using data from prior student performance will help address weak areas. A Web-based system allows teachers to see all student performance on exit exams and classroom assessments, for individual students or subgroups over time. "What we're looking for teachers to do, as they use different strategies, is look at what is working with different subgroups of disabled students," he says. "That will help them network with one another. "

"We're kind of ahead of the game," he says. "It's a new era, and we will hold special education students to rigorous standards."

Five years ago, NCLB was born in Pueblo

In 1998, administrators at the Pueblo School District 60 in Colorado made a commitment to ensure all children reached proficiency, according to Superintendent Joyce F. Bales. The focus started on reading. In 2000, the district, which was nationally honored at the White House's anniversary celebration of No Child Left Behind, made the second greatest gains on the Colorado Student Assessment Program. This progress was accomplished even with four times the percentage of children on free and reduced lunch programs as the district with the highest gains on CSAP.

U.S. Secretary of Education Rod Paige praised Bales and District 60 in 2002, saying schools can look to the district "to see how to improve student achievement."

Standards-based curricula in Colorado require every district to identify what a child should know and be able to do in reading, writing, math, science, social studies, visual and performing arts, health and physical education.

When the first CSAP tests were administered in 1996-97, Pueblo's fourth graders did not do well in reading or writing. With federal Title I money, the district made reading the main priority and started a professional development program.

In 1998, a summer program kicked off for teachers to learn strategies of writing, math and reading, Bales says. They use the Lindamood-Bell model, or a multi-sensory approach, to reading, spelling, language comprehension, math and visual motor skills. The process-based education programs are for those ranging from severely learning disabled to academically gifted, age 5 through adult. They have to see a word, hear it and announce it. The process helps children visualize the meaning of words, the superintendent says.

"We use our data constantly to come up with new strategies," she says. "Here's where the children are now. How do we get them from there to here?"

Teachers also undergo professional development on weekends throughout the year. "We are probably one of the districts that has had a lot of success in special education, and it has everything to do with the effectiveness of the teacher," Bales says. "We put together our own professional development model. ... We test 95 percent of the special needs children in our district."

Now, every elementary school has a preschool program. Diagnostic tests are given to preschoolers to determine what they know. "We track the progress of children in preschool and test them at the end of third grade," she says. This past year, 1,057 special education children were tested in grades 3-10 in reading, and 43 percent were either partially proficient or above, compared to 85 percent for the district. And 76 percent of South Park Elementary School's special education students tested at partially proficient or above in reading. And 80 percent of the special education students were partially proficient or above in math. At Beulah Heights School, 70 percent of the special education students were partially proficient or above in reading.

In the works is a reading clinic for the district to address any intensive intervention necessary, the superintendent says."It's a success story because basically in the past, students were probably not expected to learn and probably were not given instruction, such as diagnostic testing, intervention and post-testing to see how they were doing," she says.

Good news, bad news

The bad news is that tests scores will be disaggregated, says Sue Gamm, former chief of the specialized services office in Chicago public schools and now special counsel. But the good news is, well, that scores will be disaggregated. "The good news is that people will pay attention, and usually when you pay attention, you improve," she says.

"The bad news is that performance won't be as high as we wish it would be," Gamm says. "I think that's a challenge of urban America."

Chicago schools use school-based problem solving where administrators discuss in focus groups with teachers about what is working, what is not, how to galvanize resources and how to support teachers so they are not left alone, Gamm says. Like Elk Grove, Chicago has an early reading program, taking scientifically based standards and conducting reading activities with 300 reading coaches spread across 300 schools to help children. Another 50 schools paid for their own reading coaches using discretionary dollars in their budgets, Gamm says.

The district first strives to ensure that teachers learn how to teach reading in early years. Smaller student groups and longer periods, such as 90 minutes of reading as opposed to 20 minutes, also help. In addition, "a ton of professional development is used with teachers and teams to really take the scientifically based models and fuse them with what they are teaching" in higher grades, Gamm says. On a different track, 30 Chicago schools will start next fall using data collected on student disruptions. For example, if children get in trouble in hallways and end up in the principal's office during a class when they should be learning, a school administrator can decide that more supervisors are needed in hallways to ensure kids won't have a chance to get into trouble.

"A lot of data shows that ... those kids that are most disruptive at some point are later identified as a special education kid," Gamm says. "The more preventative measures we have before disruptions, the more kids have a more positive performance."

Progress Monitoring

In Minneapolis, administrators are already using and improving a progress monitoring system, which tracks student growth in special education in grades K-8. If children are not growing, teachers modify instruction, according to Doug Marston of the special education administration department. Teachers need a variety of strategies, which are reinforced in staff development, including phenomic awareness, fluency building, vocabulary development and comprehension.

"Under the law, every student and every group of students-regardless of the special challenges they face or the disabilities they shoulder-will be able to learn to higher standards." -Eugene Hickok, Undersecretary of Education

Minneapolis is also using national reports and recommendations, including those from the Center for the Improvement of Early Reading Achievement, which is a national center for research on early reading. As far as No Child is concerned, Marston says, "It's going to be a challenge. But it's one we're going to meet head-on. We think we have a good start."

Angela Pascopella is features editor.