Spe­cial ed­u­ca­tion in need of over­haul, re­searchers say

Rec­om­men­da­tions in­clude im­prov­ing teacher train­ing, co­or­di­nat­ing ser­vices, aid­ing ca­reer, col­lege plan­ning

The Mercury News - - Local News - By Carolyn Jones

Spe­cial ed­u­ca­tion in Cal­i­for­nia should be over­hauled to fo­cus on the in­di­vid­ual needs of stu­dents, with bet­ter train­ing for teach­ers, more stream­lined ser­vices and im­proved screen­ing for the youngest chil­dren, ac­cord­ing to a com­pi­la­tion of re­ports re­cently re­leased.

Those were some of the rec­om­men­da­tions pro­posed in “Spe­cial Ed­u­ca­tion: Or­ga­niz­ing Schools to Serve Stu­dents with Dis­abil­i­ties

in Cal­i­for­nia,” a pack­age of 13 re­ports and a sum­mary pro­duced by Pol­icy Anal­y­sis for Cal­i­for­nia Ed­u­ca­tion, a non­par­ti­san re­search and pol­icy or­ga­ni­za­tion led by fac­ulty from UC Berke­ley, UCLA, USC and Stan­ford Uni­ver­sity.

“By al­most ev­ery in­di­ca­tor you look at, spe­cial ed­u­ca­tion in Cal­i­for­nia is in dire need of im­prove­ment,” said Heather Hough,

PACE’s ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor. “We need to re­think the way we or­ga­nize schools, so stu­dents with dis­abil­i­ties are at the cen­ter and not at the fringes.”

The re­search pa­pers looked at dozens of ways to im­prove spe­cial ed­u­ca­tion, in­clud­ing how to re­cruit and train teach­ers, bet­ter ways for schools and other agen­cies to co­or­di­nate ser­vices for dis­abled young peo­ple and how schools can help spe­cial ed­u­ca­tion stu­dents with ca­reer and col­lege plan­ning.

Fund­ing short­falls are a ma­jor con­cern in spe­cial ed­u­ca­tion, es­pe­cially as the num­ber of stu­dents in spe­cial ed­u­ca­tion in­creases, but the re­port did not look closely at fi­nan­cial mat­ters be­cause that topic was partly ad­dressed in a re­cent PACE re­port

called “Get­ting Down to Facts,” Hough said. In ad­di­tion, West Ed, a con­sult­ing firm, is work­ing on a sep­a­rate re­port on spe­cial ed­u­ca­tion fund­ing in Cal­i­for­nia, she said.

Re­searchers praised dis­tricts such as Sanger Uni­fied in the Cen­tral Val­ley and the Or­ange County Of­fice of Ed­u­ca­tion that are tak­ing steps to im­prove spe­cial ed­u­ca­tion ser­vices and can serve as mod­els for the rest of the state.

Their rec­om­men­da­tions come af­ter years of con­cern about the state of spe­cial ed­u­ca­tion in Cal­i­for­nia, which cur­rently serves more than 725,000 chil­dren with a range of

phys­i­cal and in­tel­lec­tual im­pair­ments, in­clud­ing autism and spe­cific learn­ing dis­abil­i­ties like dyslexia.

In his pro­posed bud­get last month, Gov. Gavin New­som de­scribed the state’s spe­cial ed­u­ca­tion sys­tem as “a cri­sis.”

“I try not to use that word or overuse that word, but it’s a cri­sis and it’s a real shame,” he said.

New­som is propos­ing a “three-phase, multi-year process to im­prove spe­cial ed­u­ca­tion fi­nance, ser­vices and stu­dent out­comes.”

This in­cludes a new for­mula for al­lo­cat­ing spe­cial ed­u­ca­tion funds and in­creas­ing fund­ing for spe­cial ed­u­ca­tion by $250 mil­lion on top of last year’s in­crease of $645 mil­lion.

Last year, al­most 1 in 8 Cal­i­for­nia stu­dents in K-12

schools were in spe­cial ed­u­ca­tion, an in­crease of al­most 14% from 2014-15.

Much of the in­crease is due to more di­ag­noses of autism, although the ma­jor­ity of stu­dents over­all in spe­cial ed­u­ca­tion have learn­ing dis­abil­i­ties.

Some par­ents are not happy with the state of spe­cial ed­u­ca­tion, ei­ther. Cal­i­for­nia’s rate of par­ent com­plaints to the U.S. Depart­ment of Ed­u­ca­tion, for a school’s al­leged vi­o­la­tion of the In­di­vid­u­als with Dis­abil­i­ties Ed­u­ca­tion Act, is triple the na­tional av­er­age, ac­cord­ing to fed­eral re­search cited in the re­port.

Although many par­ents say in­di­vid­ual teach­ers are ded­i­cated, com­pas­sion­ate and hard-work­ing, the sys­tem it­self is con­fus­ing and un­even, es­pe­cially for fam­i­lies

who are low-in­come or whose first lan­guage is not English.

Ac­cord­ing to the re­port, in gen­eral, the state should do more to in­te­grate spe­cial ed­u­ca­tion with K-12 ed­u­ca­tion for nondis­abled stu­dents, which re­searchers re­fer to as “gen­eral ed­u­ca­tion.”

The aca­demic and so­cial-emo­tional needs of spe­cial ed­u­ca­tion stu­dents should be weighed equally with those of nondis­abled stu­dents. And all stu­dents ben­e­fit when schools ad­dress stu­dents’ in­di­vid­ual tal­ents and chal­lenges, re­gard­less of their phys­i­cal or cog­ni­tive abil­i­ties, Hough said.

The re­port also em­pha­sizes

the im­por­tance of teach­ing, es­pe­cially the need to train gen­eral ed­u­ca­tion teach­ers in how to ad­dress the needs of dis­abled stu­dents. This is­sue is in­creas­ingly im­por­tant as more dis­abled stu­dents are in­cluded in reg­u­lar class­rooms.

“We don’t have enough adults in schools gen­er­ally, and the adults we do have aren’t al­ways ad­e­quately trained to ad­dress stu­dents with spe­cial needs,” Hough said. “If in­clu­sion is the goal, that means gen­eral ed­u­ca­tion teach­ers need to know how to teach stu­dents with dis­abil­i­ties.”

Sev­eral of the re­ports fo­cus on the im­por­tance of early child­hood screen­ing for dis­abil­i­ties, which can help chil­dren’s de­vel­op­ment and long-term out­comes, ac­cord­ing to the re­search.

Most of the PACE rec­om­men­da­tions hinge on fund­ing, a ma­jor ob­sta­cle for schools try­ing to im­prove their ser­vices for dis­abled stu­dents.

Dis­tricts’ costs are ris­ing as the num­ber of dis­abled stu­dents in­creases, along with the num­ber of stu­dents with se­vere dis­abil­i­ties, ac­cord­ing to the re­search.

“The costs for dis­tricts are es­ca­lat­ing, while rev­enues are not,” Hough said. “Dis­tricts are forced to make some re­ally tough de­ci­sions.”

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