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Opinion | Melissa Corto

Changing special education from the bottom up

Globe Staff; Adobe
Globe Staff; Adobe

Nearly 15 years later, I still vividly remember my first day of teaching high school in New York City. I was woefully unprepared. I learned that one of the 33 students in my class was on the autism spectrum, one had dyslexia, two had ADHD, another had a processing disorder, and five had varying degrees of other learning and behavioral challenges. I was expected to help each of them to reach their full potential. I was 23 and completely overwhelmed.

This is the reality for thousands of teachers in American schools, and the consequences are dire. Suffering from stress and burnout, half of new teachers leave the profession altogether after just five years. Special education teachers are especially vulnerable, and their numbers nationally have declined 17 percent in the past decade. Yet students with disabilities and learning challenges need teacher support the most: They are 200 percent more likely to be suspended or expelled, up to 40 percent in some states do not graduate on time, and 33 percent of arrested juveniles have a diagnosed learning disability. How did we get here?

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The root of the problem dates back to the 1970s, when the federal government passed legislation to ensure that students with disabilities had equal opportunities for learning. The cornerstone of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) has always been the Individualized Education Program. The IEP is a compliance document that captures a student’s diagnosed disability and outlines the goals and accommodations the student will need in order to learn.

I am not suggesting that we abandon compliance. The IEP requirement is well-intentioned to serve as a foundation for equity. Along with mandates that require schools to place students with disabilities in the least restrictive environment (LRE) along with their general education peers, the IEP was the catalyst for an important shift to including more students with special needs in general education settings. However, in practical terms, the IEP requirement today simply no longer works.

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The IEP, directed top-down by federal mandates, has become a compliance-driven administrative task for schools that has very limited connection to what actually happens in classrooms. Until recently, that was acceptable, or at least tolerated. As long as schools created and updated an IEP for each student with a disability, they were fulfilling the IDEA’s mandate. Whether students actually made progress wasn’t taken into account — neither was whether teachers have the tools or training they needed to teach students with IEPs.

This all changed with the Supreme Court’s 2017 ruling on Endrew F. v. Douglas County School District . The court ruled that school districts must do more than just produce an Individualized Education Program; they must now also create a plan that is “reasonably calculated to enable each child to make progress appropriate for that child’s circumstances.”

The implications of this ruling are profound and create, for the first time, an opportunity for real improvements in special education. This change is long overdue. What was once the only requirement — creating and updating an IEP — is now just the first step in the process of giving every student a chance at making academic gains. Districts and schools must now ensure that teachers not only understand the details of each student’s IEP, but also that teachers have what they need to execute on this plan and support students with disabilities so they can make progress. What’s more, according to the US Department of Education guidelines published in the wake of Endrew F., districts should document what teachers are implementing in the classroom — and note what works for each student.

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For more than 40 years, school districts have only had to create and maintain this compliance documentation, but now that has to change. This shift to results-driven, hands-on compliance will not be easy, and will take time. While the Supreme Court ruling was in 2017, we are just now seeing the effects trickle down to local departments and classrooms. And we still need fresh perspectives and strategic vision to creatively fix the broken system that was finally called out directly in Endrew F.

This new strategy must start from the bottom up, and must steer clear of what has traditionally been driven from the top down. What needs to be considered is what it actually takes to implement an IEP in day-to-day instruction in schools. We need to consider what tools and resources teachers actually need to do their jobs — and what school and district leaders need for insight and visibility into what is being done in classrooms. We must understand what they are currently doing to evaluate how programming, accommodations, and practices outlined in the IEP are being implemented, and how these actually affect student performance.

I taught special education for nine years, and from this first-hand experience, I know that teachers need easy access to information that helps them understand their students’ varied diagnoses. Teachers need help interpreting the IEP itself — to understand each student’s learning goals, which accommodations they need based on the diagnosis, and what data needs to be collected to show progress. Schools need help organizing all of this data and professional knowledge in a single, easy-to-access place. We need to include them directly in the conversation.

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We will begin to see meaningful progress only when we can implement a bottom-up approach that takes into account what is needed to meet the 2017 court-mandated requirements. Districts have no choice but to better support teachers to implement a reasonably calculated plan for every student. Like other industries that evolved with technology and workflow tools for optimal efficiency (such as accounting or health care), we will begin to see meaningful change in special education only when we consider what is right for both teachers and students. Leading organizations, like the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, have begun to take steps to include educators in conversations such as procurement and technology decision-making. The same should be done for the special education system.

The change that is long overdue in special education must include those who are on the ground, in classrooms and schools. It won’t be easy, but if we start with them, we will begin to realize the progress that truly benefits all stakeholders in special education.


Melissa Corto is cofounder and CEO of Education Modified and a Solver with MIT Solve. To register for Tech for Equality, the opening plenary of Solve at MIT, go to http://bit.ly/TechForEquality.

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