Progress on SWD outcomes – half full or half empty?

Progress on SWD outcomes – half full or half empty?

(District of Columbia) The performance of students with disabilities is improving in more parts of the country than in previous years although about half of all states are still left failing to meet federal requirements for special education.

Annual determination letters on state implementation of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act were issued last week. This is the third time letters have been released since 2014 when student performance was considered with equal weight as compliance.

Historically, when states were only required to demonstrate compliance with IDEA, far more were deemed to have met their obligations, even if students were not improving.

“Focusing on compliance does not guarantee good outcomes for our students with disabilities,” John Riley, senior policy analyst for the National Education Association, said in an interview. “Instead of over emphasizing compliance timelines, let’s focus on how well these students are actually doing.”

Although IDEA was signed into law in 1990, it wasn’t until 2004 that the law was amended to require states begin developing performance plans and produce annual performance reports.

The 2014 determination letters marked the first time after that amendment that the U.S. Department of Education began to equally weigh student performance with compliance factors, which include sending parent notifications out on time or holding annual Individual Education Program meetings with all required members present.

Upon first glance, the latest determination letters appear to shed a positive light on outcomes for students age 3 through 21. Now, 26 states are meeting requirements under Part B of IDEA compared to 18 that met those requirements in 2014.

Part C, which covers infants through age 2, did not include performance until last year, during which time only 22 states met the requirements. This year, 30 states fulfilled their obligations.

Still, despite the fact that states have only recently had to prove that students with disabilities are making strides, IDEA has been the law of the land for almost 30 years – longer if you include its earliest form, the Education for All Handicapped Children Act, enacted in 1975.

According to Diana Autin, executive co-director of the Statewide Parent Advocacy Network, which provides technical assistance to federally-funded parent training and information centers for students with disabilities, there are a handful of factors that could still be holding schools back from meeting these requirements.

“Compliance with the requirements in IDEA requires that all school and district staff understand the requirements, know how to implement them and have the resources they need to do so,” Autin said in an interview. “There are many barriers, including staff and administrator turnover, failure at all levels to allocate sufficient resources to both the procedural and substantive provisions of the law, failure of our educator and administrator preparation systems to adequately prepare them to know how to implement the procedural and substantive provisions of the law, and lack of will to do so.

“And there is another contributing factor–there are no meaningful consequences for failure to implement IDEA,” she said.

If a state does not meet the requirements and is placed into the “needs assistance” category for two consecutive years, the Education Department can require the state access technical assistance, direct funds that have been set aside toward the areas in need of improvement, or designate the state a “high-risk” grantee.

If a state is labeled as “needs intervention” for three consecutive years, the Education Department can require the state develop a corrective action plan or compliance agreement in order to improve, or can withhold funding. It is exceedingly uncommon that states actually see federal money withheld due to noncompliance over procedural matters that contribute to these designations.

Currently, 27 states and U.S. territories have been considered as needing assistance for two or more years under Part B, including California, Ohio, Louisiana and New York. The District of Columbia has been labeled as needing intervention for 10 consecutive years, as has the Bureau of Indian Education for five years.

Under Part C, 22 states and territories have needed assistance for two or more consecutive years, and South Carolina has been deemed as needing intervention for six years in a row.

There are any number of conceivable difficulties schools may face in meeting these requirements for the 7 million students with disabilities, Riley said.

This can include underfunding, scheduling conflicts for IEP meetings, issues with teacher shortages and retention, turnover in administrative positions or a lack of highly qualified special education teachers and specialized instructional support personnel.

Despite potential roadblocks or hiccups in the process, Riley said the requirements still need to be met one way or another.

“I don’t say that to get school districts off the hook,” Riley said. “The very human nature of our work demands flexibility.” more