Top 10 Trends in Special Education
With the New Year upon us, it’s time for special education leaders and practitioners to reflect and develop a plan that takes into consideration the changing landscape of special education and the impact these changes may have on current and future practices. Here are 10 trends that you should continue to keep your eyes on as you develop your strategic plan of action in 2015:
1. Redefining, Rethinking, Redesigning and Reinventing Special Education
The majority of students with disabilities are now served in general education as we embrace inclusive practices in our schools. There will be continued conversations regarding the students we serve, and how and where we best serve them as we continue to reflect on the question, “What is special about special education?” There is now a stronger call for special education to step up and improve efficiency, implement evidence-based practices, and provide greater accountability on key performance indicators that support successful academic and post-school outcomes for students with disabilities. This shift gained impetus with the 2001 publication Rethinking Special Education for a New Century by Chester E. Finn, Andrew J. Rotherham, and Charles R. Hokanson Jr., which envisioned changes for the reauthorization of the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Later, the Fordham Institute for Advancing Educational Excellence’s publication of Shifting Trends in Special Education by Janie Scull and Amber M. Northern escalated the conversations regarding trends in student membership by disability categories and highlighted disparities in incidence ratios and staffing patterns across the nation. This was followed by another publication from the Fordham Institute, Boosting the Quality and Efficiency of Special Education by Nathan Levinson, in 2012, which looked at how districts are spending their special education dollars. Does spending more translate to better results for students with special needs? The results of this report based on the information reviewed did not confirm this hypothesis and led to recommendations for improvement that have generated a lot of discussion and diverging points of views from many professional organizations in the education community while concurrently elevating the topic of special education to the national conversations taking place on educational reform. This past year, the Office of Special Education Programs announced a paradigm shift towards Results-Driven Accountability (RDA) with a rationale of focusing on results-driven indicators to improve outcomes for students with disabilities. State Education Agencies, Local Education Agencies, and school administrators, teachers, and support personnel are beginning to understand the implications of this RDA change and are taking action to align their practices toward this shift.
2. Providing Specially Designed Instruction Within a Multi-Tiered System of Support (MTSS) Framework
The MTSS framework has had a significant impact on addressing the needs of struggling subgroups of students, including students with disabilities served in general education settings, as evidenced by declining incidence rates for certain disability categories (e.g., learning disabilities, language impaired, emotional behavioral disabilities). There is an emerging paradigm shift toward recognizing that specially designed instruction needs to be provided within an MTSS framework in order to address individual students’ high and low needs, regardless of setting, along with guidance on what this looks like and how best to make it actionable, as reflected in examples on the Florida Problem Solving and Response to Intervention Network.
3. Implementing Evidence-Based Practices, Interventions, and Standards-Based IEPs
The Common Core is creating greater pressure on developing individualized education programs (IEPs) to ensure that goals are written and aligned to the standards and assessments that are being developed. There will be a stronger focus on professional development for all stakeholders that is focused on developing standards-based IEPs with measurable objectives that are aligned to the Common Core and address evidence-based practices and interventions for students with IEPs while monitoring and documenting measured student progress with resources such as these, which are available for training from the California Department of Education.
Technology will continue to transform special education classroom instruction by enhancing individual learning opportunities and enabling greater flexibility and personalization through the implementation of blended learning, virtual or video conferencing, the use of tablets, and web-based evidence-based practices as districts continue to create more “bring your own device” (BYOD) policies. Special education teachers will have a greater need for exposure and training in these areas during pre-service and after employment in order to be confident facilitators of personalized learning that integrates technology into the instruction of the students on their caseloads.
Learning coding will become a necessity for all students, including students with disabilities (SWDs). Following a standard course of study to remain competitive after graduation in this world where knowledge of computer science is critically essential. Even elementary school students are beginning to be instructed in the use of available coding software to make original pieces so that this skill becomes second nature to them. Students and their teachers are delving into this experience through websites such as http://code.org/.
Schools and community-based organizations serving students with autism spectrum disorders will continue their focus on creating and enhancing transition options for students and emerging adults with autism. There will be a stronger push by national organizations, such as the Autism Society of America, Autism Speaks, the Dan Marino Foundation, and others supporting the development of specialized programs that prepare students for employment while concurrently advocating and escalating the dialogue on the need for housing to address the rising tide of students with autism spectrum disorders aging out of the K-12 educational system. The recently passed legislation entitled Achieving a Better Life Experience Act (ABLE) was a victory for grassroots advocacy for parents and people with disabilities. The ABLE Act will allow for savings accounts for individuals with disabilities for certain expenses, such as education, housing, and transportation, without jeopardizing certain important federal benefits, such as Social Security and Medicaid. The funds saved in these accounts, if managed correctly, can be another tool in planning for the lifetime support needs of an individual with disabilities. Families will be able to put up to $14,000 a year into an ABLE account, with a cap of $100,000. The State of Florida also passed Senate Bill 850 last year, which creates Personalized Learning Accounts that will allow parents of certain special needs students (e.g., those with Down’s Syndrome, autism, spina bifida, or other designated disabilities) to customize their children’s education by providing access to Personalized Learning Scholarship Accounts modeled on Arizona’s Empowerment Scholarship Accounts. Parents receive an allocated amount, which they can use for private school tuition, educational therapy, private tutoring, or other educational expenses. The money rolls over from year to year and can be saved for college. Look for other or similar legislation that encourages education providers, such as private schools and tutors, to innovate and find ways to provide the same services for lower costs.
7. Addressing the Needs of English Language Learners Who Are Also SWDs
Addressing the assessment and instructional needs of English language learners who are identified and served by Special Education will continue to move to the forefront as this group of students gains a greater presence in our schools. There will be more research needed and information available on best practices for the assessment and instruction of this subgroup. It will also be necessary to recognize the need to implement evidence-based strategies that support second language acquisition through the IEP process. There will be greater scrutiny on districts that disproportionately over-identify ELL students as SWDs and a call for action to improve overall academic gains and outcomes for students with disabilities who are also English language learners.
8. The Growth in Charter Schools: Equity and Access for SWDs, Special-Education-Only Charter Schools, and Conversion Charters
SWDs continue to be a subgroup served in charter schools while the number of overall students enrolled in these choice settings continues to increase as referenced in the report from the National Center for Education Statistics. There appears to be a significant discrepancy evident in the overall enrollment trends of nondisabled students served in charter schools versus SWDs that continues to be of concern. In cities such as Philadelphia and Chicago, the growth in the number of students attending charters has prompted the mass closure of public schools — either because of lower enrollment destroying the district’s budget or because of pro-charter politicians supporting the expansion of this choice option. The SWDs enrolled and served in charter schools continue to be those with mild disabilities and do not mirror the percentages or disability categories of students served in public noncharter schools. Local education agencies (LEAs) will continue the increasingly complex process of monitoring compliance of educational services and IDEA requirements of SWDs served in charter schools while ensuring there is equity and access to these choice school options for all students. The authorization of special-education-only charter schools and the conversion of existing public special education center schools to charter schools, as is currently being discussed by the Broward County Public Schools for the Wingate Oaks Center, are recent developments. This may become a new special education phenomenon to watch, thus impacting school districts that are charter schools authorizers. As parental choice options continue to move to the forefront, these are challenging and redefining the historical dialogue about free and appropriate education and serving SWDs in the least restrictive environment. Parental rights and choice within the IEP are now topics of conversation as a result of passed or proposed legislation in some states that may have a significant impact on the IEP process.
9. Private Schools and SWDs
Proposed legislation on private school vouchers for SWDs will continue to be considered and debated in states across the nation. New legislation in this area may result in an increase in the number of private schools serving SWDs in states that authorize legislation on private school vouchers for SWDs. This may also have an unintended financial impact on school district assurances and IDEA obligations to private schools. Districts may be required to set aside a larger proportionate share of IDEA funds for eligible students with disabilities, since more may be served in private schools through these legislated vouchers. The discourse on vouchers, scholarships and personalized learning accounts continues as highlighted in this article on the website of redefinedonline.org, a divergent thinking organization with a view that is committed toward a new definition of public education.
Special education teachers will continue to turn to online donors for financial support to purchase materials, equipment and supplies for their classrooms due to limited funding availability for such purchases in school budgets. Donorschoose.org is one of the major players in crowdfunding for schools. Teachers can also use other sites, such as AdoptAClassroom and Indiegogo to help fund some of the most basic unmet needs to supplement instruction for their students.
Perhaps some of these trends are already in your area and are incorporated in your daily work. If not, this may give you some points to consider on what may lie ahead for 2015 and help inspire your future work. The one thing we can all take for granted in special education is that change is a constant, but those of us who work with students with disabilities are resilient and quick to respond with meaningful action.