transparency report

City has released only scarce data from early special ed reforms

A slide from a Department of Education presentation shows only limited information about the effects of the pilot of special education reforms.

Advocates for students with disabilities who have been defending the Department of Education’s special education reforms in the face of mounting criticism are coming to the end of their rope.

They have been calling on the city for years to integrate more students with special needs in mainstream classrooms and were cautiously optimistic in 2010 when the department launched a pilot aimed at doing just that.

But two years into the pilot, with the ambitious initiative set to scale citywide this fall, no one outside of the Department of Education has any solid idea how the initiative has worked so far. Even after extending the pilot for a year, the department has released scant information about what has happened to the schools and students involved in it.

“We’ve been asking for more information forever, essentially,” said Maggie Moroff, who heads the ARISE Coalition of special education advocates, which this week sent a letter of concern to top department officials.

Details have come out in dribs and drabs. One slideshow that department officials have presented shows that attendance and test scores for students with special needs in the pilot schools did not improve. The data points the department touts most often is that students in the pilot schools were referred to special education less frequently and moved into less restrictive environments more often than in comparable schools not participating in the pilot.

But those data points say only that schools did what they were asked to do: aim for placing fewer students in special education classes, for less time. When it comes to more complex and, according to advocates and special education experts, more meaningful data points, the department has been mum.

Has the move toward inclusion affected all kinds of students equally? the advocates have asked. Have suspensions of students with disabilities declined in the pilot schools? Are parents more satisfied with their children’s placements? How have teachers in the pilot schools been trained? What is the department learning about instruction for students with special needs? How has implementation varied from school to school?

So far, they have not gotten answers. The silence is one of the chief reasons that the ARISE Coalition formally informed the department this week of its concerns about schools’ readiness to handle new expectations about how they serve students with special needs. Among the requests in the letter is for a thorough and public review of the initiative’s first phase.

“There are certain questions that we have asked again and again and again,” Moroff said. “The members of the coalition are really concerned and they really need to have these questions answered.”

Moroff said multiple meetings with top department officials have given her confidence that the special education reforms were conceived with students’ best interests at heart. And she said the department has responded to some of the coalition’s suggestions, for example setting up an information hotline for parents of children who are turning five and entering the public school system for the first time.

But she said coalition members are growing increasingly alarmed that the next phase of the reforms is approaching and the department has not come forward with more substantive results.

Department officials say a detailed review of the pilot’s second year is underway and that a review of the first year’s results suggested that changes to how students with special needs are evaluated had resulted in students who might mistakenly have been classified as having a disability in the past not being placed in special education classes.

“We know that when students with disabilities have greater access to the general education curriculum and their non-disabled peers, they have a higher likelihood of succeeding academically,” said Deidrea Miller, a department spokeswoman, in a statement.

But some special education advocates say they suspect the department’s silence masks bad news.

“Knowing this administration, if they had something something good to report they would report it,” said Carmen Alvarez, the UFT’s vice president for special education. The UFT is one of the ARISE Coalition’s 45 members.

Alvarez said teachers are reporting widespread confusion about what they will be expected to do differently this fall as more students with special needs begin to enter their classes. Elizabeth Truly, another UFT official who works on special education issues, said the department would not even tell the union how many schools have sent teachers to special education training sessions at Columbia University’s Teachers College.

Members of the Citywide Council on Special Education, an elected parent group, are hearing similar concerns from families who have gotten mixed messages and, sometimes, incorrect messages from schools, according to member Lori Podvesker.

“So many of the teachers don’t know what’s going on,” Podvesker said. “There is lots of rhetoric out there that’s not correct because they’re not getting information from central.”

The advocacy community is torn about what to do about the department’s silence. On the one hand, advocates have long pushed the city to include students with disabilities more robustly in general education settings, and they are hesitant to derail that shift once it has begun. The elected parent council for Manhattan’s District 2 has alone formally asked the department to slow down the reforms until more information is available about their impact and schools’ readiness to move forward.

But advocates are also concerned that the department is rushing headlong into change and not examining whether the special education reforms could be implemented in a way that’s better for students with special needs.

“We’re worried that schools don’t get what’s expected of them and that they have not gotten the support they need — and that they are not going to get the ongoing support that they need,” Moroff said.

The City Council’s education committee is holding a hearing about the special education reforms June 12.

a 'meaningful' education?

How a Colorado court case could change how public schools everywhere serve students with special needs

Dougco headquarters in Castle Rock (John Leyba/The Denver Post).

The U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday grappled with the question of what kind of education public schools must provide students with disabilities, hearing arguments in a case that originated with a complaint against a suburban Denver school district and that could have profound implications nationwide.

The case involves a student diagnosed with autism and attention deficit/hyperactive disorder. His parents pulled him out of his Douglas County elementary school, saying he wasn’t making enough progress and the district’s response was lacking.

They enrolled the boy in a private school for children with autism and asked the district to reimburse them for the tuition, arguing their son was due a “free appropriate public education” as required by the 1975 Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

The law spells out the requirements states must meet to receive federal money to educate special-needs students. The district declined, saying it had met the standard of the law.

The family eventually filed a lawsuit against the district. Lower courts all sided with the district, reasoning that it had provided the child “some” educational benefit — the standard cited in the federal statute at issue.

Lower courts across the nation have varied in their definition of the proper standard. The high court arguments Wednesday centered on whether “some” benefit was good enough, or whether special-needs students deserve a more “meaningful” benefit.

Jeffrey Fisher, an attorney for the boy’s family, told the justices that as a general rule, individualized education plans for special education students should include “a level of educational services designed to allow the child to progress from grade to grade in the general curriculum.”

Throughout the arguments, the justices expressed frustration with what Justice Samuel Alito described as “a blizzard of words” that the law and courts have used to define what’s appropriate for special needs students.

Chief Justice John Roberts said regardless of the term used, “the whole package has got to be helpful enough to allow the student to keep up with his peers.”

Neal Katyal, an attorney for the school district, argued that providing children “some benefit” is a reasonable standard.

“That’s the way court after court has interpreted it,” he said. “It’s worked well. This court shouldn’t renege on that.”

Ron Hager, senior staff attorney for special education at the National Disability Rights Network, attended the oral arguments Wednesday and said he was optimistic the lower court’s ruling would be overturned.

He said if the Supreme Court does overturn the federal Tenth Circuit Court’s ruling and requires a higher standard, it won’t necessarily come with major financial costs for school districts. Instead, he said, it will nudge them to be proactive and provide teacher training and intervention services early on instead of waiting until problems — and the expenses associated with them — snowball later.

Marijo Rymer, executive director of the Arc of Colorado, which advocates on behalf of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, said she was heartened to see the case advance to the Supreme Court. Establishing a clearer standard on what constitutes a fair and appropriate education for students with disabilities is a civil rights issue, she said.

“It’s critical that federal law, which is what this is based on, be reinforced and supported, and the court is in the position to deliver that message to the nation’s schools and the taxpayers that fund them,” Rymer said.

Both Hager and Rymer acknowledged that even if the Supreme Court establishes a new, higher standard, it could be open to interpretation. Still, they said it would send a strong message to school districts about their responsibilities to students with disabilities.

Summer remix

Ten stories you may have missed this summer (and should read now as the new school year kicks in)

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Gabrielle Colburn, 7, adds her artistic flair to a mural in downtown Memphis in conjunction with the XQ Super Schools bus tour in June.

Labor Day used to signal the end of summer break and the return to school. That’s no longer the case in Tennessee, but the long holiday is a good time to catch up on all that happened over the summer. Here are 10 stories to get you up to speed on K-12 education in Tennessee and its largest school district.

TNReady is back — with a new test maker.

Last school year ended on a cliffhanger, with the State Department of Education canceling its end-of-year tests for grades 3-8 in the spring and firing testmaker Measurement Inc. after a series of missteps. In July, Commissioner Candice McQueen announced that Minnesota-based Questar will pick up where Measurement Inc. left off. She also outlined the state’s game plan for standardized tests in the coming year.

But fallout over the state’s failed TNReady test in 2015-16 will be felt for years.

The one-year void in standardized test scores has hit Tennessee at the heart of its accountability system, leaving the state digging for other ways to assess whether all of its students are improving.

Speaking of accountability, Tennessee also is updating that plan under a new federal education law.

The state Department of Education has been working with educators, policymakers and community members on new ways to evaluate schools in answer to the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA, which requires states to judge schools by non-academic measures as well as test scores.

Meanwhile, issues of race and policing have educators talking about how to foster conversations about social justice in school.

In the wake of police-related killings that rocked the nation, five Memphis teachers talked about how they tackle difficult conversations about race all year long.

School closures made headlines again in Memphis — with more closings likely.

Closing schools has become an annual event as Tennessee’s largest district loses students and funding, and this year was no exception. The shuttering of Carver and Northside high schools brought the total number of district-run school closures to at least 21 since 2012. And more are likely. This month, Shelby County Schools is scheduled to release a facilities analysis that should set the stage for future closures. Superintendent Dorsey Hopson has said the district needs to shed as many as two dozen schools — and 27,000 seats — over the next four years. A Chalkbeat analysis identifies 25 schools at risk.

Exacerbating the challenges of shifting enrollment, families in Foote Homes scrambled to register their children for school as Memphis’ last public housing project prepared to close this month amid a delay in delivering housing vouchers to move elsewhere.

The new school year has officially begun, with the budget approved not a moment too soon for Shelby County Schools.

District leaders that began the budget season facing an $86 million shortfall eventually convinced county commissioners to significantly increase local funding, while also pulling some money from the school system’s reserve funds. The result is a $959 million budget that gives most of the district’s teachers a 3 percent raise and restores funding for positions deemed critical for continued academic progress.

The district also unveiled its first annual report on its growing sector of charter schools.

With charter schools now firmly entrenched in Memphis’ educational landscape, a Shelby County Schools analysis shows a mixed bag of performance, while calling on traditional and charter schools to learn from each other and promising better ways to track quality.