A term I heard, new to me, during COVID upended my view about special education: “General education students with IEPs.” Really? Who are these students? Do you know any?

Labeling students as disabled because they struggle is wrong, especially if our goal is to educate them better. Such mislabeling has even been called abusive! Mislabeled as Disabled: The Educational Abuse of Struggling Learners and How WE Can Fight It: Hettleman, Kalman R.: 9781635766394: Amazon.com: Books

Instead of plugging these students into an ill-fitting 45+ year old legal system — the IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, enacted in 1975 — and further bloating it with mind-numbing procedures, huge costs, amid decidedly mixed results — and now burdened by COVID compensatory services claims — we need a new way to think about and work with struggling students — especially post COVID. For true student success, we need a new “normal” by focus, focus, focus, with passion and commitment, on educating them in general education through high quality teaching and learning opportunities.

Far better to engage an army of excellent teachers than to continue to engage an army of bureaucrats and lawyers, as we have since 1975. Especially as, sitting right next to these students in our classrooms are “general ed students without IEPs,” many of whom are equally behind, equally hurt by COVID, equally at risk. The group without IEPs often includes at-risk students, immigrants, tuned out students, students in poverty, students lacking effective technology at home, non-English speakers, and others.

Can you tell the difference between these two groups? Probably not, especially as disability labels for students with “mild or moderate needs” are imprecise and may reflect parental advocacy and certain ZIP codes more than actual student needs.

Who are “general education students with IEPs?” Undoubtedly, they are among students with mild and moderate needs who make up 80–90% of today’s students with disabilities with IEPs. Other countries, like Singapore, Finland, and others, don’t label struggling students this way; instead, they focus on educating all students through early and targeted interventions. As do many successful US school districts.

Meanwhile back to our law. Notably, this skewing of percentages was not planned by the IDEA, which was enacted for students with severe and profound needs — who now make up just 10–20% of today’s students with IEPs. Let’s be clear. “General education students with IEPs” do NOT include these 10–20% of students. For them, the special education system should proceed as is. Indeed, many schools expended enormous funding and effort to bring those students back early during the pandemic to meet their needs.

Let’s focus instead on the many other students for whom, tragically, legal constrictions often impede great education, highlighted by the current crisis.

Within that legal framework, we hear that special needs students suffered during the pandemic. They did. No doubt. Many parents are suing their schools for “compensatory services” to make up for lost services. See NPR’s report, Families Fight Schools For The Special Education COVID Shut Down : NPR. Notably, the NPR report highlighted the 10–20% of students with severe and profound needs. Whether claims settle or go to due process hearings, they challenge schools. To meet that challenge, California set aside $100 million to help resolve these disputes. How California plans to deter costly special education disputes | EdSource.

In fairness, stop and think for a moment. Isn’t it also true and very real that, besides students with IEPs, many others fell behind during COVID. What about them? Sadly, as I see it, instead of a rational response to a public education crisis, we revert to the comfort (?) of the old law that ill-fits today’s reality. Couldn’t we better spend that $100 million?

For compensatory services claims for students with IEPs who missed therapies, placements, meetings, etc., we have an army of lawyers. These cases are easy to win. After all, our federal Department of Education refused to waive any requirements for schools due to COVID back in 2020. The students’ IEPs were NOT fully implemented. The Feds told us they had to be. Case closed. Next!

Billy is entitled to 50 hours of speech therapy, a private school, or whatever he missed. Schools, ordered to pay, will deplete their budgets. Note California’s $100 million pot to alleviate this burden.

But are we being smart or wise? Are these wins good for students or for public schools? Phyllis Wolfram, Executive Director of CASE (Council of Administrators of Special Education), warned that if schools pay out all that is owed through compensatory services, we may break the system of public education.

Ironically, providing compensatory services may further exacerbate the struggles of many general education students without IEPs. It may lead more parents to seek IDEA eligibility for their children — further bloating the special education entitlement with more “general education students with IEPs”. That’s the nature of an entitlement — those who have it, get. Those who don’t are on their own and may try to get in on the deal.

What shall we do instead? Focus on learning, more than labeling. See, e. g., excellent education in communities that implement a competency-based system (CBS) and work to meet all students’ needs with timely intervention — whether the students are struggling, advanced, or in between (About CBS / About CBS (westminsterpublicschools.org) ). Notably, Westminster’s motto is: “Services before labels.” Right on!

See also programs that focus on hiring excellent teachers to build learning from the very beginning, so that students may not need any labeling. See, e.g., Harvard Education Publishing Group (hepg.org). And see the many communities where, surprisingly, harmony grew during COVID — and no compensatory services are claimed! These districts improved communication between home and school — building trust — through person to person, human connection, as they worked with students. Schools Up Communications Game During Pandemic (govtech.com)

In sum, the push for compensatory services happens seemingly automatically, by law, and since it’s an entitlement, dare we ask if there’s any science or rationality behind it?

Speaking of science — do we have evidence that an additional 50 hours of speech therapy, a year late, will help Billy? Is it the best use of scarce public resources? Does it make sense — or are we just filling a “right” — like automatons. Next!

Speaking of equity, fairness, wisdom, inclusion, and our public schools — Do we have any explanation to give to that student who has no IEP — of the reason we don’t focus on him?

We don’t. And we don’t.

If COVID didn’t shake us to our core, what will? Sure, 50 hours of therapy will be compensated. Public schools will pay. As “the only game in town”, more parents may seek IDEA “protection” for their children, further depleting general education programs and budgets. Advocates may rejoice. But is it good for America?

It is not. It’s time to change our path. Or, are we doomed to keep grasping that 45+year old system that ill-fits today’s challenges — because change is hard and powerful interests stand in the way? I hope not!

Let’s, at least, change the conversation and stop labeling general education students; let’s do something different for all students — with or without IEPs, as CBS and other effective programs already do.

It’s time to pivot toward all students who need good teaching, more than they need labeling, procedures, or rights. Far better than “compensatory services” for the few is real education for the many, especially those who fell behind during COVID. If we don’t pivot, that needy child without an IEP may learn less and less, more parents may lose trust in our public schools, and learning losses may lead to further watered-down standards. None of this is equity, reasonable, inclusive, equitable, or wise.

We’re overdue for a new “normal.” The question is: will we answer the COVID alarm and opportunity? The time for choosing is now.

This was originally posted on Medium

What’s the best thing that happened to you today? Victor Perton, the “Optimism Guy” asks us.

For me, it’s that I’m here in Australia (by ZOOM) at the Diversity and Inclusion Forum on February 3, 2021 (actually it’s February 4 already, in Australia) with Victor and another presenter. I was invited by my friend, Ivan Kaye, and am very grateful for that.

What an incredible world we’re in these days. Business and education leaders can “meet” half way across the world and discuss important issues from their diverse perspectives. Victor’s positive message is infectious. Check him out at the “centre for optimism” in Australia. The Centre for Optimism — Home.

Looking back now, a few weeks later, it was indeed a fun and rich Forum!

So, here’s what I said…..

As a public-school attorney half way around the world from Australia, I have the opportunity to share ideas with you, business & education leaders — with optimism, an open heart, and ZOOM!

First, let’s ask WHY. WHY do you have a business? What is your purpose? I’ll let you answer that.

WHY do we have public schools? WHY do you send your kids there? What is the purpose? Alas, we have many different purposes, different values, that compete sometimes…. My answer (which may differ from yours) is that the purpose of public schools is to educate all children — average students, students with disabilities, advanced students, & everyone else — in academics — skills and knowledge — as well as social, emotional, & behavioral skills — in appropriately diverse and inclusive settings — so they can become competent adults & citizens! Competence is the goal in all of the above. With my definition for education, I would rename the conference, the “Diversity, Inclusion, and Competence Forum.”

I’m all for inclusive practices that align with excellent teaching and learning in our diverse schools. Unfortunately, they don’t always align. We often lack appropriate balance among competing values, which detracts from reaching that competence goal.

Today, I’ll focus on US schools and students with disabilities — 14% of our students. We expect that percentage to grow because of the learning gaps and lost opportunities created by the COVID pandemic’s school closures.

What do you do in business if it fails? Hopefully, you pivot.

In our COVID and post-COVID era, what should we do in public schools with poor outcomes for many students, including students with disabilities — as we have in the US & I’m reading, even in Australia. We should pivot!

But do we have the political will to do so? Are we able to harness diverse values for a common goal? Will we be able to steer diversity and inclusion to also focus on competence for all students? Those are big questions, going forward.

Disappointing student outcomes? For example, the 2019 TIMMS (Trends in International Math and Science Study) show that gaps in US schools are widening — even before COVID. Education Week, February 3, 2021.

Of course, there are many reasons for disappointing student results. They may relate to multiple in-school practices and failures, as well as in-community realities of poverty, family breakdown and dislocation, non-English immigrant experience, and many others. All are worthy of focus.

But, for today, let’s focus on how inclusion as practiced in the US may lead to disappointing student outcomes.

First, what is inclusion? Did you know that inclusion in schools has different meanings in different countries? And that it’s controversial — “contentious” as a 2013 Australia report calls it? And that the definition is evolving? And that we have no unified definition?

For example, inclusion may mean that all students have the right to be included in public education — whether in mainstream schools, special programs, or special schools. See, for example, Singapore’s practice that defines inclusion as providing education for all students, as well as Australia’s earlier practice which, is undergoing changes. Or, for a different perspective, see Finland’s example, where students are not labeled with a disability for special services. All students who need them can receive interventions. One statistic that stands out for me is that by the age of 16, 60% of students have received “special education.” Essentially, inclusion is a non-issue. Education is personal and special for everyone.

So, what are we talking about in schools? It’s rather impossible to clarify the term, inclusion, as it means different things to different people in different countries at different times. A moveable concept.

In the US, inclusion grows out of the 1975 special education law’s “least restrictive environment” requirement. It has come to presume that students with disabilities are educated together with their peers who are not disabled in the same general education classroom according to their age, unless they can’t make it in that setting, even with aides & services, and need a more restrictive setting — which often turns out to be a drawn-out, litigious process. To make inclusion work, schools try many approaches, such as providing 1:1 aides and paraprofessionals, curriculum adaptations, accommodations, modifications, differentiated instruction, technology, multi-tiered systems of support, and other approaches.

Helpful as these are for some students, as I see it, the US definition distracts us from our schools’ primary purpose — which is education, ensuring that students graduate as competent adults. In spite of good intentions and massive efforts by devoted and often excellent professionals, inclusion often does not enhance learning for all, especially students with disabilities. As well, we lack objective fact-based data to really know what works and what doesn’t. Much of our current “research” is advocacy-driven. Reports are often shrouded in incomplete or misinformation — raising the term, the “honesty gap”.

Sadly, many of the practices used to make inclusion work kill trust — which is vital. Schools often overpromise, but under deliver. This is especially so, as the focus of inclusion is on the students who need additional support to meet grade-level standards — not on all students, including those who are at or above grade level already. What about those students and their parents? Where is the “all” in all students?

Yet the beat goes on. Many educators and administrators pride themselves in having “inclusive” schools. But again, as I see it, they often fail to focus on the primary purpose of schooling for all students — to graduate competent young people.

Here’s a story about how far this imbalance is going, taken from my book, Special Education 2.0.

I recently spoke with an elementary school principal about this. He was a kind, soft spoken man, proud to share that he has an “inclusive school.” I asked if he knew of any research about inclusion from the perspective of general education students. He did not. What he has are anecdotal stories — many of which touch the heart.

When asked if general education teachers or parents of general education students complain that inclusion is not working for them, he said they do. But, and this shocked me, he tells parents who don’t like it that they can pull their kids out and send them to private school!

I asked one of many obvious follow-up questions — is he putting the interests of students with disabilities ahead of others? He acknowledged that he is, saying we have to educate all students!

I was speechless. I felt that he did not appreciate the irony of what he had said. Which students are “all” students?

There you have it. Inclusion at work in one elementary school. I was left to wonder how common this principal’s attitude is.

What to do instead? I believe we must focus on all students, on proven approaches that balance learning and inclusion. As one of many examples, check out Competency-Based Education (CBE). There, all students are taught and flexibly grouped by current needs in multi-age settings, and by age or interest in some content areas. “Services before labels,” is the motto in Westminster Colorado, a CBE school district. All students receive personalized interventions. The schools focus on competence for all students — with inclusion taking a supporting role. CBS / Homepage (westminsterpublicschools.org)

See also the work of the Aurora Institute, a national organization for CBE. Aurora Institute — A New Dawn for Every Learner (aurora-institute.org)

For other promising approaches, see Nate Levenson’s advice to the new Biden administration, Advice to the Biden administration on improving special education. More money isn’t enough — or most important. | The Thomas B. Fordham Institute

In closing, let’s go back to WHY — schools should help students become competent young adults, with strengths, ready to flourish in their worlds. For that, make learning, not just inclusion, work by aligning academic learning and inclusion far better than we now do. This will also rebuild trust in our schools.

Westminster, CO (near Denver, in our beautiful Rocky Mountains) is a CBE — Competency-Based Education school district. Pamela Swanson, its superintendent, says that the most important day for students is the DAY AFTER GRADUATION! I love that! Graduates are ready to meet their lives! It’s purpose-driven! Congratulations Westminster!

Today, let’s be optimistic. I believe that an open discussion of these concerns will help us to build better schools & maybe even better businesses!

This was originally posted on Medium

School crossing signs. See US in bottom right corner!

This was originally posted on Medium

Many, many thoughtful and concerned people are asking this vital question. Let me set my thoughts –as of right now. I’ll write more about this, of course.

Here’s today’s conversation starter.

Today’s headlines tell us two very critical and disturbing facts about our public schools.

First, that student enrollment is down — across the board, with special declines at kindergarten levels. Parents are not sending their children to school. They are seeking and creating other options for them.

Second, that funding for public education is far down. All those businesses that were forced to close because of the pandemic, all the stay-at-home orders are leading to less tax revenue — in fact, many businesses are, instead of contributing to the general funds, receiving funds from public sources. As a result, funding for public schools is less available. And… pre-pandemic, there was already some movement toward less support for public schools CITE! For all children.

So in this time of turmoil, what is happening in special education? Special education is the federal program for students with disabilities that started in 1975 at the federal level with the IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act). Today, that law provides services for some 14% of US students. The costs? It’s hard to estimate, as, to date, Congress has not demanded an accounting. So, by estimates, the costs for special education services are around 21% of school budgets and for educating students with disabilities — accounting for both the general and special education services they receive –are estimated at 40% of school budgets. Think about that!

Yet, even in these dire times, it appears that special education lawsuits continue and that bureaucratic requirements have not budged. A brief discussion with a data analyst revealed that nothing has changed — the same numbers are still being crunched as in pre-pandemic days. As well, my quick informal inquiry about the two types of lawsuits that are typically being brought now illustrates for me the essence of our overwhelming challenge: Whither special education after the pandemic?

The first type of lawsuit grows out of the reality that many school districts now serve only the neediest students in person — while keeping most students are remote. Not surprisingly, parents of children with milder needs are bringing claims to have their child in school also — claiming that the child is more disabled than the district had determined.

The second type of lawsuit concerns compensatory education — the lawsuits we’ve been expecting. Such lawsuits attempt to make up for lost services and lost skills and knowledge during the pandemic. It is clear beyond doubt that many students with disabilities have suffered learning loss and that many services were not provided. Undoubtedly true. Therefore, these are generally claims that will prevail!

But, a fact overlooked too often in our discussions about special education, is that such types of loss are also true for many general education students, especially poor, non-English speakers, homeless, etc. Yet, only students with IEPs are entitled by law to compensatory education. Phyllis Wolfram, the executive director of CASE — the Council of Administrators of Special Education — warns that if we pay all compensatory services that may be owed to students with disabilities, “It would break the system of public education.” Think about that! Is that what we want for any or all of our children?

What is the essence I cited above? Special education, the law of rights through the labeling of a small group of students as entitled under that law — can expect that group to ever expand until the system breaks down. As I see it, we are there now.

In many ways, the law of good intentions has grown beyond recognition since 1975 — and become ever more expansive in terms of the student labels that it now includes, costly, complex — and I daresay, intrusive on the continued effective functioning for our schools for all students.

What to do instead? I suggest we return to a sensible program by acknowledging the obvious. Even during this pandemic, many school districts acknowledged that there are in essence, two groups of students with disabilities –those with mild/moderate needs (who make up 80–90% of the students covered by this law, and those with profound/severe needs (who make up 10–20% of the students covered by this law). Schools have started to serve this latter, smaller group in person. This division also tracks the 2017 Supreme Court decision, Endrew F. v Douglas County. We do have two distinct groups of students with disabilities — now served under this one law. The fit is not great. We need to do something about that!

I believe that we should consider that the vast majority of students with disabilities with mild and moderate needs, and general education students, need schools to more than ever — provide better general education. Better teaching. More focused lessons. Personalized as needed. These students need education more than they need “special” education.

Luckily, we have some superb models. Please check out competency based education, as practiced in Westminster Colorado. — Where Education is Personal. https://www.westminsterpublicschools.org/cbswps. And see, in general, the Aurora Institute. https://aurora-institute.org/our-work/competencyworks/competency-based-education/

Another model is the reading contract — whereby schools promise to get everyone to read and to keep at it until success is achieved. Please check out Nate Levenson’s work and his new book, Six Shifts to Improve Special Education. Since most students with mild or moderate disabilities enter the system because they did not learn to read, this approach is promising. Be direct. Teach reading!

There are many other promising models and fabulous professionals working across our nation for all students. They need our support. As I see it, the special education law should no longer include these students as the system has become dysfunctional — and is not even helpful for the students it seeks to help. See, for example, the fact that labeling a student in order to serve him — is not helpful — in fact, damaging to many. It’s time for them, as well as all students to get the best general education services possible. See, for example, Kalman Hettleman’s writings. https://www.baltimoresun.com/opinion/op-ed/bs-ed-op-0326-special-education-20190320-story.html

For the 10–20% of students with severe or profound needs — yes, our society owes them an appropriate education. Perhaps a task force of all stakeholders can develop a better way forward — that focuses on appropriate education more than compliance or legal procedures.

If we don’t fix this, I see our public schools imperiled. We’ll see more parents exit. We’ll see less public support for public education. Already, those trends have started. Ultimately, my fear is that broken policies that keep on keeping on and don’t focus on ALL students will leave our public schools evermore for the have nots. Such a development would be tragic — as public education is the backbone of our democratic republic. We need a new model that will make the current one obsolete, to quote Buckminster Fuller. I’ve set out one controversial path. What is your path?

As a passionate supporter of public education, I see the pandemic as the opportunity to finally fix our very broken system and build schools that can work for all students. Our nation needs that now more than ever.

After the pandemic: whither special education? What do you think? Your thoughts? Your plan? Your suggestion? I’d love to hear!

This was originally posted on Medium

Getty Images/Tomwang112

Anne DelfosseMiriam Kurtzig Freedman


This spring’s school closures have challenged us to look at many things differently and to be open-minded, creative, and brave about moving toward necessary change. As we consider reopening schools in the fall, let’s hold on to that mindset and ask what should special education become? Does the forty-five-year-old federal law (IDEA) need a thorough redo? We believe it does.

There is much to celebrate about all that public schools now provide for students with disabilities. We’ve certainly come a long way since 1975, when the law was enacted. Yet, especially as this crisis has revealed, special ed’s plethora of services, costs, and procedures have produced unintended consequences and missed opportunities.

At the start of the closures, Philip Howard’s USA Today discussion of cumbersome regulations included this: “Schools are a hornet’s nest of legal rules. Soon after New Jersey closed its schools…a parent of a special education student complained that it violated his rights.”

The parent was surely right. The closure also violated the “rights” of innumerable other students, with and without disabilities. Yet this parent was onto a key feature of our current quandary: While other students may have a theoretical “right” to an education, his child has a statutorily enforceable and uncapped entitlement! The crisis lays bare this difference.

Nationally, about 14 percent of today’s students — identified as disabled — are entitled by federal law to a “free appropriate public education” (FAPE). Nobody else is. Having an entitlement is a big deal because it ensures that a government program will provide eligible recipients (here, students with disabilities and their parents) with a specific set of services, rights, and other benefits — no matter the circumstances, school budget constraints, or what their peers get.

Now more than ever, this entitlement challenges schools. The national coronavirus crisis turned upside down the education of more than 50 million public school students, including 7 million with disabilities. Educators, students, and parents have struggled on a steep learning curve relative to distance learning, virtual classrooms, etc.

How can schools provide a FAPE for some while trying to innovate for all students? How are they supposed to implement burdensome special-ed regulations, including timelines and meetings, always working under the fear of litigation, during this trying period? Even before the crisis, special ed teachers spent much time on meeting bureaucratic requirements, leaving a reported 27 percent of their time for actual instruction. Many chose to leave the profession. One can only wonder what the crisis has been doing to teachers.

When schools reopen, we can expect that most students will have regressed in academics and other skills. (If they don’t, why have schools?) Schools will face this challenging reality as they work to support all students to catch them up and help them learn anew. Despite this reality, however, only special education students will be able to assert legal rights and file due process claims against their schools for compensatory services to make up for any regression, to say nothing of complaints for missed timelines, services, and other requirements. Schools expect a barrage of such claims.

Really? Yes, under current law.

Notably, special education is the only entitlement program in our public schools — rights that are enforceable through due process hearings and in court. Since 1975, Congress has wisely chosen not to create new entitlement programs in the K–12 realm.

Who are these students? The law was written to provide access to public education for students with severe and profound needs. Today, however, estimates are that those children make up only 10 to 20 percent of the students enrolled in special ed. The vast majority (estimated at 80 to 90 percent) of today’s students with disabilities have mild or moderate needs. They are educated mostly in general education classrooms. Yet the law, rights, and regulatory requirements for these two very different groups are the same.

In 2001, writing in Rethinking Special Education for a New Century, Tyce Palmaffy posed a key question: “The question of why learning disabled children are more deserving of extra help than everyday low achievers is one that LD advocates have never quite answered.” Nor has it been answered nineteen years later.

It’s also time to ask: Do students with full access to public education still need “protections”? And what about the law’s opportunity costs? For example, how can America’s prosperity and leadership position continue when so many other students, including advanced students, are underserved? How can we get teachers to focus on instruction instead of compliance? How can schools better spend scarce resources?

Yet the special education beat goes on. Even during this crisis, school administrators and attorneys spend inordinate amounts of time and effort on how to provide for special education students and how to comply with legal mandates when other students get far less than they should. Parents of special education students spend effort, often with great anxiety, to “fight” for their child against their public school, which the current statutory arrangement reinforces. These dysfunctional responses cannot be what the good folks who wrote this law had in mind.

This civil rights law was designed to provide individually-planned access to public education for students with disabilities — not to create a semi-separate system serving one subset of students. Regarding compensatory services for students with mild or moderate needs, if their parents, advocates, and attorneys prevail in demands for special services while their classmates do not receive any, how is that fair, equitable, or wise? It is not — and it’s not what this law intended. If and when that happens, public support for special education will surely decline. Most people understand crisis, fairness, and its opposite. Be careful what you wish for.

When this crisis abates, our world will look very different. The crisis has shed a bright light on many failings of American education, including inequalities, one of which is the inequitable distribution of rights and entitlements to education.

What to do? For starters, we believe it’s time to divide the special education student body into two very different groups: the far larger group of students who have mild and moderate needs and are mostly educated in general education classrooms and the smaller group who have profound and severe needs. In so doing, we take guidance from the Supreme Court’s 2017 decision, Endrew F. v. Douglas County School District. The Court highlighted the reality of two different groups of students with disabilities — those who are pursuing general education goals and those, generally with severe or profound needs, whose education is individualized according to their circumstances.

For the larger group, the entitlement has completed its mission of providing access to education and should end (or be capped or otherwise limited), especially as it has also become increasingly dysfunctional and has brought great opportunity costs. Instead, it is time to build appropriate systems for these students within one interconnecting mechanism referred to as “general education.” Students with mild or moderate needs should be served through quality, individualized regular education — as should all other students. Dispute-resolution avenues should be provided for all students.

Some may argue that, rather than extracting some students from an entitlement, all students should have one. We disagree. The last thing we need is more lawyers, lawsuits, regulations, and bureaucrats running our schools.

For the smaller group of students with more severe and complex needs, it’s time for a thoughtful taskforce to propose how to proceed. Should these students retain an entitlement, or is another approach to ensure services more appropriate? Should the law mandate that other social service agencies step up to serve students who often have complex and costly needs? Should their education remain a school district responsibility, or should the state, through other agencies, become a mandated partner?

In short, special education claims and rights that go beyond reasonableness and fairness, all exacerbated by this crisis, face us squarely. We can no longer ignore them. They present the opportunity to question the continuing need for the forty-five-year-old entitlement for millions of students with mild or moderate needs and to work to establish a better way forward for students with severe and profound needs.

When schools reopen, maybe, just maybe, we will finally confront the fact that it’s time to end or limit the entitlement for many students with disabilities and devise a system that is leaner, rational, equitable, and more effective for all students. It’s time to build anew.

Anne Delfosse is a speech pathologist and former special education administrator. She has served students with disabilities, their families, and professional teams for forty-two years. Currently, she works as a consultant, mentor, and coach to professional educators.

Miriam Kurtzig Freedman is an experienced school attorney, author, and reformer. Her most recent reform book is Special Education 2.0 — Breaking Taboos the Build a NEW Education Law. For more information, please visit SchoolLawPro.com.

© 2018 The Thomas B. Fordham Institute

This was originally posted on Medium

Violent Students Keep Coming Back

Joanne, thanks for highlighting this the real-world example of a misplaced common good. Here’s her story and my comment.


Violent students keep coming back


Violent students can assault teachers and classmates, then return to class a few days later, report Brittany Wallman and Megan O’Matz in the South Florida Sun Sentinel. They blame mainstreaming of children with emotional and behavioral disabilities and inadequate support staff trained to deal with their problems.

In school after school, students are erupting with violence. They stab or beat teachers. They throw furniture. They stalk and attack classmates, turning schoolrooms into danger zones where the rights of violent students with disabilities trump all others.

. . . State and federal laws guarantee those students a spot in regular classrooms until they seriously harm or maim others. Even threatening to shoot classmates is not a lawful reason to expel the child.

Federal law guarantees students with disabilities the right to be educated in the “least restrictive environment,” Wallman and O’Matz note. Florida law requires agreement “from the parents, or a judge, before transferring a disabled child to a special-needs school with more therapeutic services and smaller class sizes.”

Reporters found more than 100 students who threatened to kill their teachers, classmates or themselves in an 18-month period, they write. “Nearly half of the youths had histories of mental disorders, and more than half had access to guns.”

“Students with violent tendencies have more rights than the students that they endanger. Just ask Nikolas Cruz,” one schoolteacher told the Sun Sentinel.

The same laws that protect disabled students make it difficult for schools to remove a student like the profoundly disturbed Cruz, who was obsessed with hurting others before he killed 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland on Feb. 14, 2018.

“You cannot get the child out of the classroom,” former teacher Patrick Jovanov said. “You can get him out of the classroom for a day or two or three, but the child comes back.”

Increasingly, teachers are told to leave an out-of-control student in the classroom, while evacuating the rest of the class, writes Max Eden on Quillette. “Room clears” are “designed to protect the rights of troubled students, often with little regard for the rights of their classmates,” charges Eden.

Disruptive or violent students, often labeled as having an “Emotional and Behavioral Disability” (EBD), need “specialized attention in separate settings,” he argues. Assigned to a mainstream class, they can “become virtually untouchable.”

The rise in room clears is directly related to policy initiatives aimed at stamping out so-called “restraint and seclusion.” In the past, as a student’s misbehavior escalated, a teacher might ask the student to leave the room, put a hand on a student’s shoulder to try to get him to calm down, or — if need be — direct him by the arm away from a tense situation and possibly call security to remove him from the classroom area. But as policymakers take these options off the table, teachers have little recourse but to remove every single other student from the classroom before someone gets hurt.

“Teachers report feeling powerless to enforce order and ensure the safety of their students,” Eden concludes.

Laura Waters, who blogs at New Jersey Left Behind, is the mother of a son with special needs. Eden is wrong, she responds. School districts aren’t “powerless,” she argues. They’re too cheap to hire and train support staff. A one-on-one aide can escort a disruptive student from the classroom to a “calming space” and call in a therapist or social worker, if necessary, writes Waters.

Students who misbehave aren’t “untouchable,” she writes. “Many districts train aides and special education teachers in strategies like Handle With Care, which (according to this New Jersey policy manual) uses ‘physical restraint to control a student’s behavior to protect the student and/or a member of the school community from imminent serious physical harm’.”

And here’s my comment:

As a school attorney, citizen, parent, and grandparent, I tend to view the issue more as Max Eden does. I also carefully read Laura Waters ‘ comments — based on her experiences with her son. They both raise valid points.

The debate goes on and on, even as, as I see it, we lose sight of the big picture for our nation — our nation’s public schools that are supposed to serve ALL students. A minimal requirement is that all students can feel safe there. That is the most basic fundamental need.

Alas, we’re far from meeting that need right now. While good people like Ms. Waters and Mr. Eden can debate on and on with good arguments on all sides, as I see it, utltimately, it matters not because of that OPEN BACK DOOR — which almost invites parents to vote with their feet OUT of our public schools altogether.

We can argue forever about the current (I believe flawed) inclusion and room clear policies… while parents (especially those with means who we want engaged in public education) vote with their feet out of the public schools altogether. Not for my kid. It’s not safe. My kid gets no attention. Etc. Etc. Etc. These parents, too, have good arguments.

It’s happening. We know that the percentage of wealthy students who have left public education for private schools or home schooling continues to grow. As I see it, that does not protect rights. Instead, it’s very bad for our nation.

Continuing on our current path further dessimates our public schools. It’s us vs. them. It’s in or out. it is the individual vs. the other students. It’s disruption, fear, uncertainty. It’s not good.

The bottom line is that current policies belie the fact that ALL KIDS MATTER ALL THE TIME. Schools have to be safe and serve ALL OF THEM. Flawed inclusion policies and room clear policies send the wrong message —in a word, that all students DON’T matter. Many parents see that and take action for their own children. They opt- out. They leave.

So tragic — while our government dithers and can’t figure out how to protect and educate ALL of our students, the back door swings wider.

Predictably and tragically, we’ll reach a tipping point when more schools than we already have seen in some troubled inner cities will be ever more for only the have-nots. Sad .Sad. Bad. Bad. Not good for America.

What to do? Instead of our current rights-driven approach for some students, focus on ALL students from the get to. Invite ALL general education parents and teachers to all of the planning tables from the get go . All means ALL. Focus on the rights to education in safe schools that all kids have. Move fast to reign in policies that disrupt the education for all students.

As long as these policies focused on some (but not all) students and their debates continue, it ain’t happening. Sad for all of us and for our nation.

This was originally posted on Medium

The IMPOSSIBLE Special Ed Fix!

The IMPOSSIBLE Special Ed Fix!

We’ve heard about the “IMPOSSIBLE burger” — making burgers from vegetables, not beef. Some people think it’s actually yummy!

So how about the IMPOSSIBLE Fix for special education!

It’s time and it’s not complicated: focus on teaching and learning for all students, general and special education, not procedures, rights, due process, litigation, and the ever-present anxiety-laden fear of litigation that so wrenches today’s schools, teachers, students, and parents.

For the 80–90% of students with disabilities who have mild and moderate needs and are educated mostly in general education classrooms, and their general education peers, focus on learning in schoolrooms — not their parents’ fights in courtrooms.

Notably, in 2017, the Supreme Court, in Endrew F. v. Douglas County, acknowledged the existence of two student groups who receive special education. We know that 10–20% of them have severe or profound needs, and often require complex and costly services. For these students, I believe it’s time to convene a summit to plan a new way forward.

The IMPOSSIBLE Fix focuses on the 80–90% of students with disabilities who have mild or moderate needs and are mostly in general education classrooms. It’s time to substitute the entitlement and due process rights they have had since 1975 when the law was enacted to ensure that all students with disabilities receive education services. That goal was achieved long ago. We now educate more than 6 million students under this law — 13–14% of all students! The entitlement, the only one in our schools, is no longer needed, in my view. Uncapped, it is costly and has become dysfunctional, damaging, and often impedes good education practice.

Really? End the entitlement and due process? That sure is radical! Yes, and probably IMPOSSIBLE. But, let’s at least consider this path. I see it as the only way to fix the mess we’re in. And, if we can’t end it — let’s limit and cap it.

Imagine a 2nd grade teacher with 24 students — five of whom receive special education services. She knows she has to take care of those students first — lest a dispute or hearing arise! How does that help all students learn? How is that fair to those children and the other 19 in the classroom? How is that best practice?

I’ve been writing and speaking about reform at least since 1995. It seems like forever! My writings and presentations are usually well-received, and I often hear: “You’re doing important work. Keep at it.” “Good luck with that!” And the most poignant, “You’re saying exactly what I’ve been thinking and have been afraid to say….”

Yet, nothing really changes until, hopefully, now. Over the last 5–10 years I’ve sensed as new feeling… that more and more people are willing to consider real change. Here’s how we can get to where we need to be to focus on schooling and learning for all students, including the 80–90% of students with disabilities and their general education peers.

1. That table. Invite the right people — all stakeholders people to the table. Since special education students make up around 13–14% of all students, have them be that percent at the table. Fill the table with general education teachers, administrators, parents who work with and love -average students, advanced and gifted students, English language learners, students in poverty, students in wealth. You get the idea. All students. No more trying to fix special education by inviting only those in the “biz” with a sprinkling of others. Instead, invite 13–14% of stakeholders who work with and represent special education — teachers, administrators, parents.

Then, seek honest input from those at the table. Ask open ended questions. Build a summary that everyone takes back to their lives, shares, and revises, until you repeat that meeting at that table. And repeat until we fix the mess we are in.

2. The options. Create attractive options that will substitute for the cumbersome and burdensome system that, after all the paperwork, meetings, and other procedures leaves special education teachers with just 27% of their time for — you guessed it — teaching! Many leave the field as a result, creating a special education teacher shortage.

Creative attractive options already exist. Here are but a few examples.

Check out Vermont’s sweeping education reform. https://info.dmgroupk12.com/

And see excellent work in competency-based education in Westminster, Colorado. https://www.westminsterpublicschools.org/cbswps

I’m also eager to learn more about Karen L Mapp’s program for parent and family engagement at Harvard.

Oh, there are so many other examples of schools and others doing effective work for all students. It’s time to open the floodgates!

Instead of the time and money spent on nonsense –paperwork, compliance, litigation — nonsense because these do not improve student outcomes and, often, get in the way —

Instead of due process and litigation, seek the “the IMPOSSIBLE Fix” of dispute resolution options that are relationship and trust-building and do not involve litigation.

Instead of labeling students as gatekeepers to services, through the failed “wait to fail” model, provide early and steady interventions for all students — from the most needy to the most advanced.

Instead of endless focus on student weaknesses — what they can’t do — focus on their strengths and passions — what they can and love to do!

Instead of training parents to become mini lawyers to fight against the very schools that educate their children, train parents to help their children learn and benefit from all the gifts that schools offer.

3. The benefits. Treasure benefits that will result from implementing the IMPOSSIBLE Fix. These include more time for teaching and learning, better partnerships and more trust between schools and parents, fewer teachers abandoning the field, moneys spent on best practices in classrooms, not winning strategies in court rooms, and the best news of all: better outcomes for all students, as teachers will have more than a mere 27% of time for teaching.

It’s time to roll up our sleeves and get to work to make the IMPOSSIBLE — actually POSSIBLE! Let’s create the Impossible Special Ed Fix!

This was originally posted on Medium