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 Article of Interest - Organizational Comments

Learning Disabilities Association (LDA) Comments on the Report of the President’s Commission on Excellence in Special Education

August 2002, LDA of America Online <http://www.ldaamerica.org>

Visit LDA of America online at: http://www.ldaamerica.org/index.shtml

 

The Learning Disabilities of America (LDA) applauds the formation of the President’s Commission on Excellence in Special in Special Education (the Commission) and the vision of encouraging “every child to learn to his or her full potential” that it seeks to advance. The Report is the result of nine months of listening, reading, questioning, discussion, and writing that resulted in nine Findings and three Major Recommendations accompanied by seven sections containing additional recommendations and narrative. The Report addresses a variety of topics related to the education of children with disabilities and designed to guide the Re-authorization of IDEA-97.

LDA is a non-profit organization of over 40,000 volunteers across the country including individuals with learning disabilities, their families, and the professionals who work with them. LDA is dedicated to identifying causes and promoting prevention of learning disabilities and enhancing the quality of life for all individuals with learning disabilities by:

encouraging effective identification and intervention,
fostering research, and
protecting their rights under the law.

LDA’s comments and response are based on review of the Report, along with direct involvement by several dozen LDA members over the past nine months. At least one LDA member attended each of the 13 Task Force meetings held across the country to listen to the invited panelists, provide oral comments and submit eleven more extensive written comments on the specific meeting topics. LDA extends its thanks to these volunteers for the time, energy, and financial commitment they made during the public comment process, as well as to those on the LDA Public Policy Committee, all of whom contributed to this report.

A. Overall Strengths of the Report

LDA supports Major Recommendation 1 to the extent that IDEA’s focus on results should increase and become more balanced with attention to process. At the same time, LDA reiterates the need for continued federal monitoring for compliance with processes that must be in place if improved educational results are to occur. To ignore process is to jeopardize positive results.

LDA recognizes and values Major Recommendation 3, urging that “children with disabilities” should be considered as “general education children first,” because it could foster a feeling of joint responsibility between general and special education personnel. Concerns remain, however, about the effects of policies, practical implementation, and procedural protections, as well as funding costs and flexibility, that might result from such an approach.

LDA strongly supports the Report Recommendations that address the need for recruiting, training, and publicly reporting the performance of teachers. Highly qualified teachers, along with similarly high quality administrators and related services personnel are critically necessary. LDA notes, however, that adequate resources and a supportive administrative environment are also vital for the continued progress toward improved educational outcomes of our students with disabilities.

LDA strongly supports the value of early screening, identification, and research-based instruction in early reading as an important foundation for reading and lifelong learning. LDA strongly opposes any suggestion that such efforts will prevent learning disabilities or that currently proposed alternative assessment/identification approaches will guarantee elimination of “wait-to-fail.” However, LDA has consistently expressed support for carefully structured and evaluated research into a variety of alternative assessment/identification models in order to determine whether any of them offer improved results over currently used models.

LDA supports the Report’s Recommendation that data be gathered and analyzed to assist in determining the true excess costs of special education across states.

LDA strongly supports Report Recommendations in the area of dispute prevention and resolution through parent empowerment and availability of a range of avenues to foster amicable agreements.

LDA recognizes the potential value of simplified transition requirements, interagency cooperation, and higher education involvement to smooth and improve the transition to post-secondary education and work. Thus, LDA strongly supports the Report Recommendations related to Post-Secondary results, with the hope that practical details of implementation can be put in place.

LDA supports Report Recommendations concerning paperwork reduction that encourage the use of clerical support, technology, and targeted technical assistance, as well as carefully defined, time-limited waivers for selected states to determine appropriateness and effectiveness prior to approval of large-scale changes.

LDA supports the Report Recommendations providing direction for needed research-based information about assessment, identification, intervention, teacher training, minority over-identification, and a host of other questions raised in various areas of the Report. A strong research base is required prior to mandated changes in IDEA and its implementation.
B. Overall Areas of Great Concern

LDA was disappointed to find gross oversimplification and over-generalization in the Report’s proposed solutions to very complex and human problems. Some of these generalizations ignore or inaccurately reflect the testimony of expert witnesses. A related problem was the tendency to use terms without sufficient definitions, which made it impossible to understand proposals and react logically to them.

LDA is greatly troubled by Major Recommendation 2, which focused on the narrow and poorly documented area of promoting a model of prevention to replace the current model of failure. LDA is very supportive of new models and approaches offering improved educational outcomes for the nation’s students with disabilities. However, the proposed reform depends on early identification and quick scientifically based intervention to prevent failure, although there is not yet research evidence that such a model improves educational outcomes when implemented in large-scale, diverse settings. Equally of concern is the suggestion that massive reforms in K-12 schools, teacher education, and program supports would also be based on such an untested and unproven model.
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Unfortunately, LDA also found that the Commission appears naïve about how government agencies function. This is particularly evident in the many structural and relationship changes that are implied in the Recommendations and narrative throughout the Report. These include those between general and special education, within OSEP, and among the many agencies involved in providing comprehensive services for children birth through 5 and individuals with disabilities beyond age 21. There is also a failure to recognize the difference between federal and state level requirements and their practical implications, or even whether the requirements are to be set at the national or state level. For example, state to state comparisons are of little value when federal standards for compliance, performance and state to state comparisons are established, but each state uses its own standards and accountability measures.

LDA also notes with considerable alarm, that both the Report narrative and recommendations often reveal a lack of knowledge about the details of what IDEA-97 and NCLB actually do or do not require and an unfamiliarity with what OSEP and OSERS have actually initiated since 1997. The result is fuzzy generalizations that do not reflect reality. In a similar way, many Commission Recommendations are based on perceived problems with IDEA, but no specific statute or regulations are cited as the source of the difficulty, nor is any alternative language recommended to correct them.

When LDA compared the six facts used by the Commission to justify “an urgency for reform that few can deny” (Introduction) with the Report content, none addressed decreasing dropouts, increasing graduation rates, meeting grades 3-12 needs, or ensuring a smooth transition. Instead, there was a consistent focus on early identification and intervention in reading—an area already addressed through NCLB. LDA also noted with concern the major focus on what are termed “high incidence” disabilities while the needs of “low-incidence” disabilities were largely ignored except to suggest “risk pool” financing, support safety-net funding and advocate targeting through full funding of IDEA.

LDA views with alarm the lack of financial sophistication in the Commission’s Report. For example, the Commission suggested that full funding be available for the severely handicapped, while reduced or “projected” funding was seen as adequate for children with so-called high-incidence disabilities who are mildly handicapped. At various points, poorly defined proposals recommended that funds for birth through 5, for general and special education, and for birth through 21 be pooled; and that 90 percent of state funds be “passed through” to localities. Never mentioned, however, was how IDEA protections would be preserved, compliance would be ensured, or needed services would be maintained or improved.

LDA found both the Report Recommendations and narrative to be disconnected, disorganized, and repetitive as they are reiterated throughout the document. This was especially evident for SLD identification processes, early reading intervention, excessive regulation and paperwork, scientifically-based information and general/special education collaboration. In contrast universal design in accountability and unified services for birth through 21 received brief discussion and recommendations without any reference in the Report’s formal Recommendations.

LDA identified numerous inconsistencies within the Report. For example, the Commission makes frequent negative comments about local variation in identifying and serving students with special needs across states. Yet Commission support is offered for “state flexibility to use IDEA funds” and universal screening that is “locally driven…is associated with better outcomes…for all children” (p.20).

From LDA’s perspective, there is little understanding on the part of the Commission that time is required for the scientifically-based research and careful planning that will lead to successful change in national policy and practice. LDA knows from experience how disastrous quick fixes that seem so obviously right, can in fact, become disastrous for a generation or more of children. Time is a critical factor in the careful, considered, and thoughtful steps that must be taken to ensure that promised positive change will actually enlarge educational opportunities for America’s students with disabilities.

While LDA agrees that the Re-Authorization provides an important opportunity to review past progress, evaluate current status, and move toward continued improvements. However, LDA also agrees with the recent testimony of former Congressman William Goodling, under whose stewardship the 1997 reathorization was accomplished. In his testimony before the House Education and the Workforce Committee, Mr. Goodling stated that the focus of this re-authorization should be on minor refinements in implementation through the regulations, rather than on “creating additional federal mandates in the statute.

LDA reviewed the Reports’ seven sections, including Recommendations and narrative which accompanied those sections. LDA’s comments on each section are provided below.


A. FEDERAL REGULATIONS, MONITORING, PAPERWORK, and FLEXIBILITY

1. Change monitoring from technical assistance (TA) and process to a focus on performance and results

LDA supports the use of the focused monitoring process adopted by OSEP to allow stakeholders to give advice on priorities that include both process and results, along with continued use of the existing Continuous Improvement Monitoring system.

LDA opposes replacement of or major changes in current monitoring and technical assistance until all states have had the opportunity to complete at least one cycle under the continuous improvement monitoring model.

LDA notes the following concerns and suggestions related to the Recommendation and narrative:

Consideration should be given to providing for graduated sanctions that may be employed by OSEP to encourage compliance.
If the case outlined by a New York official is accurate, a difference between state regulation wording and OSEP’s suggested wording illustrates the frustrations of focus on process. However, it also suggests why the monitoring of New York state required more than three years.


The suggestion to replace current monitoring of state policies and procedures to ensure that conditions of the statute are met, with a requirement “that states provide assurance that they are in place” (footnote, p 13), would not ensure that states actually meet IDEA requirements. The Report seems ambivalent about the appropriate relationship between OSEP monitoring and technical assistance functions (p. 15). Additional data-collection and input from stakeholders, including SEAs, LEAs, local administrators, and parents must be studied carefully prior to decisions about separation, partnering, or combining these two functions.


The Commission recommendation seems to be at odds with a basic tenet of NCLB that no state can improve teaching or produce positive results until a technically sound, high quality process for assessing students and holding schools accountable is in place. Further, NCLB provides for non-compliance agreements, withholding, sanctions, and limitations on waivers. In the same way, ensuring parent involvement, legal IEPs, competent teachers, quality supports, access to related services and similar process elements must remain basic tenets of IDEA.
Technical assistance is critical to both effective processes and successful results. Rather than additional funds, adjustments in the format and content; expansion of the audience; and use of formative/summative evaluation may be more important. Without practical, accurate technical assistance, a kind of folklore and fear of litigation can lead to denial of appropriate services, as well as the addition of requirements at the district and state levels that are far beyond federal requirements. Many complaints about excessive paperwork, meeting time, and assessment sessions could be lessened through effective technical assistance.

2. Reduce and simplify regulatory and paperwork requirements; increase flexibility

LDA recognizes that federal requirements are often cited as the cause of paperwork burdens. However, LDA strongly believes that currently required IEP components and timelines form a vital cornerstone of the parent/teacher/administrator partnership that leads to improved educational outcomes. While many parents and professionals initiate ongoing contact, others need specific requirements to ensure awareness of changes in settings and services.

LDA believes that there are several ways in which regulatory and paperwork burdens can be reduced, including the following:

Parents, educators, and administrators need to be made much more aware of the simplicity of federal IDEA paperwork requirements. Teachers need more thorough training in how to write IEPs. Wider dissemination of existing federal guidelines and materials like A Guide to the Individualized Education Program (OSERS, 2000) that clearly outline a simplified legal IEP would also reduce unnecessary effort and paperwork.
A major factor in the increased regulatory and paperwork burden on teachers is the escalating caseload. Each piece of paper from every meeting is multiplied by the ever larger numbers of students for whom a teacher is responsible. Increasingly, that responsibility includes students in collaborative, inclusionary, resource, and intensive instructional settings. In contrast, the Reading First Initiative often reported caseloads as one staff person per three students per day, with a maximum of eight students per year.


The use of clerical support staff to assist with record keeping, data collection, scheduling meetings, assuring notifications, distributing required forms, and circulating copies is a very appropriate and practical way to increase teacher instructional time, while reducing paperwork burdens. Interns, community volunteers, and retirees who can meet confidentiality and privacy requirements could serve in such a capacity.


Specific IDEA funds should be earmarked for the purchase of hardware and software to support electronic IEP case management that (1) reduces teacher time, effort, and paper, and (2) encourages individualization and updating.


States should be encouraged to develop IEP processes that use secure websites and to consider the use of PDAs to record, analyze, and report real-time student performance data for early reading assessment and instruction.


The recommendation that up to 10 states waive federal paperwork requirements based on their proposed paperwork reduction strategies shows promise, but is too broad. Clearly defined pilot small-scale projects, undertaken in a defined time period, should be undertaken first. Close monitoring and evaluation of these pilot efforts by stakeholders, including parents, must precede either statewide waivers or adoption.

3. Improve OSEP use of staff and resources to implement Federal law and improve Technical Assistance.

LDA supports ongoing efforts designed to use OSEP staff and resources effectively. LDA notes that both IDEA-97 and subsequent reorganization of OSEP in 1999 were directed toward improving technical assistance, increasing staffing, and using Monitoring and State Improvement Planning (MSIP) to focus on collaborative rather than adversarial aspects of compliance and technical assistance. These changes should be allowed sufficient time to become fully operational before major changes are mandated. Specific recommendations and concerns identified by LDA include:

The Annual Report to Congress should be expanded to include reports of state performance compared to their own performance standards, as well as those of other states.


OSEP data documenting the time elapsed between monitoring exit meetings and issuance of the monitoring report should be made public.


Development of a coordinated intra-agency and inter-agency accountability system across educational programs should be implemented. The goal would be to reduce multiple data reports, site visits and other duplicative efforts, while maintaining the functional integrity of agency programs and responsibilities.

4. Expedite implementation in 12 months with timetable for each section of re-authorization

LDA is extremely concerned that the implementation timetable be directly related to the complexity of changes in statute and regulations. In view of the recognized complexity of IDEA and the many changes that were only recently introduced through IDEA-97, continuing the trend toward improved educational outcomes must not be sacrificed to a perceived need for speed. Speed must never become the measure of success.

LDA identified the following specific recommendations and concerns:

Professional training to ensure needed competence in such areas as general/special education collaboration, universal screening, early intervention in scientifically-based reading, measurement of response-to-intervention, intensive multi-sensory interventions, and transition support must be developed and implemented. Time for needs assessment, trainer and resource development, actual training, and the integration of competencies into the culture of a specific setting will also be required.


Developing, conducting, analyzing, and evaluating possible alternative approaches to SLD assessment and identification will require considerable time as small-scale, clinical efforts are undertaken; piloted in large, diverse settings; and again evaluated across many factors, including educational outcomes.


Many structural and relationship changes are incorporated as recommendations throughout the Report, such as those between general and special education, within OSEP and among numerous agencies outside of the Department of Education. Time will be required, if implementation of such changes are to truly enlarge educational opportunities and life success for students with disabilities.
Early Childhood Programs

LDA supports, in principle, the concept of a seamless system for children with disabilities from birth through-21 suggested in the Commission narrative (p 19). However, LDA believes many important questions must be answered before major changes are seriously considered.

LDA notes the following specific suggestions and concerns:

LDA strongly recommends that a GAO study be initiated to carefully review the widely varying goals, eligibility, comprehensiveness , services, revenue sources, service providers, and advisory groups among the agencies involved, as well as other administrative, programmatic and accountability issues associated with development of a practical seamless system. Only after such information is obtained could the planning begin that might lead to eventual legislative action.


LDA is concerned that increased state flexibility in use of Part C, Section 619, and Part B funds would require study of existing expenditures, development of financial provisions, and piloting of models in which the needs of ALL students are appropriately met, well in advance of any implementation.


LDA notes with great concern the necessity for any unified system to include provisions ensuring the identification that triggers IDEA protections, effective assessment prior to services, positive outcomes at all ages and smooth transitions between programs.


States should be permitted to retain the existing lead agency if programs have been demonstrated to work well, with changes occurring only when data indicates a lack of success.


Monitoring and evaluation of early childhood programs should be data driven to ensure compliance in both process and results. Careful study must also be given to which agency should be responsible for the monitoring and data-collection processes.

B. ASSESSMENT AND IDENTIFICATION

1. Identify and intervene early using research-based programs.

LDA strongly supports the value of early screening, identification and intervention in order “to better serve children with learning and behavioral difficulties (p. 20).” LDA firmly believes that early intervention, including the use of research-based instruction, is critical to building a strong foundation in reading, whether in general or special education, for improved lifelong learning. However, the Report is vague about how such early intervention would actually be implemented.

LDA’s specific comments include the following:

As discussed in the Report, the concepts of assessment and services are misunderstood, overly simplified, and generalized. Neither assessment nor service is a unitary concept describing a single activity. Assessment includes a range of activities such as: (1) changes in lesson plans and instructional groupings based on teacher observation and evaluative tasks in regular classrooms; (2) scores on standardized tests of development, ability, or academic achievement interpreted by diagnosticians or other specialists; (3) qualitative and clinical interpretation of performance on standardized, diagnostic, and informal instruments conducted by competent professionals; (4) classroom observation, interviews, and portfolio reviews integrated with other data; (5) parent interviews and observations; and (6) trial teaching, curriculum based measurement, and response to intervention carried out by personnel with competencies in those areas. Possible services include a similar range, referred to in IDEA as a continuum of services, such as: general education class without or with accommodations, general education class with varying degrees of added intensive help, highly intensive instruction with some general education attendance, and continuous intensive instruction throughout the school day. Without appropriate assessment activity, the choice of instructional interventions and services cannot be expected to improve educational outcomes.


Suggesting that a mantra of “services first, assessment later” will improve educational outcomes for students with LD, shows a lack of understanding of students with disabilities. Children with severe disabilities, including some with learning disabilities, must be referred, assessed, and identified through Child Find, early childhood programs, or kindergarten programs, so that appropriate individualized specialized services, including research-based interventions can be initiated prior to to first grade. For children with suspected disabilities, well-intentioned, but inadequate and inappropriate services will, unfortunately, precede the assessment and appropriate intervention services needed for educational progress. These children will still be victims of a “wait to fail” process.


While access to the best in early screening, referral, assessment, and intervention can minimize some effects of learning disabilities, it cannot prevent learning disabilities, which are lifelong and neurologically based (e.g., just as blindness and mental retardation cannot be prevented through educational interventions).

1. Simplify and clarify identification, especially of [early reading problems in students with] high-incidence disorders.

LDA supports the Commission’s overall recommendation to “orient assessment toward the provision of services,” but is concerned that any changes intended to simplify assessment and identification be carefully researched and piloted, prior to any changes in law or regulations. Any changes must also clearly demonstrate improved educational outcomes and reduce mis-identification.

LDA’s specific comments in this section include the following:

The suggestion to reduce categories from 13 to three, while seeming to be an easy simplification of “the eligibility determination process” which “bears little relation to intervention” (p. 20), actually has nothing to recommend it. While general education instruction can often benefit most students with disabilities, most will also require specific individualized services at various times during their school years. Additional accommodations; intensive interventions; specialized supports, assistive technology; and programmatic guidance from professionals with very specific competencies must not only be available, but must be matched to each student’s special needs. The disability categories ensure a practical focus on a reasonable range of interventions and services, as well as the specific professional competence enabling each child to truly learn to his or her potential. Thus, the “complexity of IDEA” noted by the Commission (p. 20) has actually emerged from both the highly unique nature of human differences and the recognized necessity of the resultant categorical identification.


The proposed three categories are confusing. Deaf-blindness is placed under sensory disabilities, but multiple disabilities under physical and neurological disabilities. SLD, which is recognized as neurologically-based, and BD are both categorized as developmental disabilities. What was intended to simplify the eligibility process actually provides new complexities which are acknowledged as “not perfect” (p 21)
LDA finds it difficult to understand how the Commission can state that it “found compelling evidence supporting the existence of …[SLD, ED, mild MR, SLI] and ADHD,” yet it also “could not identify firm practical or scientific reasons supporting the current classification in IDEA” (page 21).


LDA considers the effort to define the three proposed categories as “high incidence” versus “low incidence” as unworkable, since some students classified as in high incidence categories, have severe disabilities.
Whether disabilities are based on “objective” or “subjective” criteria, LDA strongly believes that assessment and identification must be a prerequisite for the appropriately specialized services that keep the “individual” in IDEA. For example, the sensory disability of visual impairment (VI) may seem clearly identifiable “on the basis of vision tests” (p. 21). Actually it is “a matter of degree on several dimensions,” since some VI children simply need access to large print materials as services, while others require specialized mobility and Braille training.


LDA strongly believes that SLD students require assessment and identification as a prerequisite for appropriate services if they are to profit from educational opportunities. Without appropriate assessment, SLD students, who are marked by varying patterns of skills (1) within each individual, (2) across academic subjects of reading, mathematics, language, written expression, and spelling, and (3) among indirect areas such as behavioral, social, and organizational areas, cannot logically have their highly individual instructional needs met. IDEA-97 recognized the importance of sharing information about how a child learns by requiring that a member of the IEP team be “an individual who can interpret the instructional implications of evaluation results” (20USC 1414 (d)(1)(B)(y).


While early reading intervention may assist the 80% of SLD students that the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) identifies as having reading problems, the intervention may not be of the intensity, fidelity, and timing needed to develop reading skills. Indeed, in NIMH studies of early intervention 5-6% remain “treatment resisters” even after early intervention in reading. For some SLD students, even high quality reading instruction will not provide intervention for emerging math, spelling, or writing difficulties. As too many parents know, some SLD students have learning disabilities that create major and recurring interference in the later acquisition of the academic, social, and vocational skills needed for adult independence. Early math computation difficulties reappear in mathematics reasoning and still later as problems in maintaining budgets, keeping checkbooks, and paying bills on time.


To deny the need for assessment as a precursor and guide to appropriate identification and instruction is tantamount to declaring that someone complaining of chest pains be provided with digitalis, a pacemaker, and quadruple bypass surgery. Following these services, the patient would receive an EKG and other tests to assess whether additional services were needed.


LDA notes that the discussion on increases in OHI, OI, and SLD categories presents interesting, but selective information that distorts the conclusions. SLD is the category with the least growth of the three (36%), yet is targeted as needing the most drastic change in “the current methods of assessing the presence of SLD(p. 24).” Questions arise about the basis upon which SLD is selected as the area in need of change, especially when several factors other than assessment methods (as noted below) have contributed to growth in the SLD category.


The Commission attributes the 10-year growth in OHI (319%) to increases in identification of ADHD, which a physician’s signature is “sufficient to trigger” based on “clinical judgment using very specific criteria” (p. 23). The Report then adds that many [ADHD] children are “not adequately evaluated” and schools “cannot establish eligibility” (p.24). Therefore, it is difficult to see how changing SLD assessment to use “clinical judgment using very specific criteria” can be expected to improve identification and reduce mis-identification.
The increase in SLD (36%) is suggested to be the result of prematurity without “neurological anomalies”, which has caused a three-fold increase. However, there is no acknowledgement of two other important factors: (1) the change in MR IQ criteria, which created a lower threshold for “normal” ability and resulted in a concomitant increase in the SLD population; and (2) the increase in secondary school SLD students whichclosely mirrors the decrease in SLI high school students.


LDA supports the alignment of NCLB and IDEA with respect to intervention collaboration between general and special education, but is concerned about the implications of joint responsibility only for early intervention.
LDA strongly supports better training for regular education teachers, but opposes the open ended use of IDEA funds for non-special education services. Under IDEA-97, LEAs already can use up to 20 % of excess IDEA funding for non-special education use.


1. Adopt Response to Intervention and Progress Monitoring Models and Use Data to Assess Special Education Progress
LDA has consistently expressed support for continued exploration of alternative eligibility and identification models, including problem-solving and response-to-intervention, for students with disabilities, including those with SLD. This support, however, includes several concerns, some of which seem to be supported by the Commission.

LDA strongly supports the recognition and continued use of on-going classroom assessment and diagnosis as a guide for adjustments in intervention. For more than thirty years, diagnostic teaching, direct instruction, curriculum based measurement, and behavior analysis have been components of general and special education instruction. More recently, newer approaches, such as computerized progress measurement have become common classroom assessment tools.


LDA strongly opposes hasty and ill-considered changes in IDEA’s SLD identification and eligibility criteria. LDA opposes the adoption of processes that do not demonstrate the hoped for improvement and actually produce unintended consequences that serve as a setback to student outcomes. Carefully designed research and pilot projects must prove any alternative to be more valid, prompt and accurate in identifying all students who are truly LD as distinguished from those underachieving for other reasons. Acceptable alternatives must also be demonstrated as effective in large-scale, diverse settings; less expensive; reducing paperwork and litigation; providing guidance for instruction; and improving educational outcomes.


LDA supports the use of Part D funds to research and pilot alternative identification and assessment models. LDA supports research into scientifically-based interventions to ensure genuine improvement in outcomes and to meet other criteria as outlined in LDA’s response to Recommendation 3, above.


In light of reported widespread school district use of an IQ/achievement discrepancy formula as the sole criterion for SLD eligibility and identification, LDA strongly supports improved technical assistance and monitoringto ensure that parents, LEAs and SEAs understand that IDEA-97 prohibits the use of any single assessment criterion, including an IQ/achievement discrepancy formula. Further, IDEA requires that “observation of academic performance in the regular classroom (§300.542)” be considered in such decisions. In addition, the current regulations encourage the use of problem-solving and other pre-referral approaches that could maximize learning, and minimize mis-identification.


1. Incorporate universal design through accommodations and modifications, into accountability tools.
LDA supports the Commission’s concern about the continued exclusion of students with disabilities, including SLD, and/or their scores from statewide testing programs and therefore, from accountability data. LDA also has the following specific comments related to the Recommendation:

LDA believes that the appropriate use of accommodations incorporated into the IEP on an individualized basis, coupled with test instruments that adhere to universal design principles are useful approaches to solving the exclusion problem.


LDA is concerned that there is some confusion about the use of modifications, which generally refer to curricular adjustments, and would raise questions about test validity if they were permitted on statewide accountability instruments.


LDA strongly supports the expectation that the accountability testing incorporated into NCLB would apply to all students, whether disabled or not and whether in general or special education, but questions whether an amendment is necessary.

C. FINANCE

1. Increase Part B funding up to a threshold percent of “excess cost”

LDA appreciates the efforts of the Commission to clarify the actual costs of providing special education to children with disabilities. LDA supports efforts to determine true excess costs, rather than relying on expenditure data that may not be comparable from state to state. Other concerns are as follows:

When LEAs allocate the cost of all services for students with disabilities to special education, the special education costs are not true costs (e.g. all students with disabilities are transported on special buses, even though students in regular education are also provided this service).


LDA recommends that the Department of Education develop and implement clear guidelines for the allocation of costs of educating students with disabilities in regular education, special education, and other federally funded education programs.


1. Link future funding increases above the threshold percent to state accountability plans
LDA’s support of the concept of rewarding SEAs and LEAs for improved student results (which is similar to a proposal by Representative Pete Stark, R-CA) is tempered by concern about possible unintended consequences. Some of LDA’s concerns are included below:

How will such funding plans affect the performance outcomes for students with disabilities in states or localities that do not show the required improvement?


Although the Commission suggests that data to justify such increases should “replace, not add to existing data requirements,” there is a high probability that increased paperwork would be required at several levels.

 
1. Target funds for direct services, with 90 % of IDEA flow-through going to LEAs
LDA is very concerned about the effects of the recommendation to mandate 90% of IDEA state set-aside as flow-through directly to states and that the remaining funds be used to supplement risk management pools and for “discretionary, administrative and high-need student reimbursement purposes” (p. 35). Some of LDA’s additional concerns are outlined below:

Each state would be very limited in its ability to provide in-service and parent training.

Opportunities to implement innovative model programs suited to state needs would be limited.
Very limited financial support would be available to meet critical needs important to a given state.
1. Increase Part C and Section 619 funding
LDA supports increased funding for Part C and Section 619, but strongly opposes open-ended flexibility in the use of IDEA funds. In addition, LDA strongly urges increases in Part D of IDEA.

As written, this recommendation (p. 28) does not incorporate the earlier narrative which recommends that “states be given flexibility to use IDEA funds to support early intervention programs and to combine IDEA funds with other sources of federal support for these programs" (p. 22).

Increased Part D funds are needed to provide the research and dissemination, personnel preparation, and parent training centers essential for implementing the long-term commitment to using research-based and scientifically-validated practices at all levels of the education system, including educating students with disabilities.

Current law allows LEAs to (1) combine IDEA and ESEA funds for school wide programs and supplementary services and aides to students without disabilities when also providing for a child with a disability, and (2) use up to 20% of increases in IDEA funding for programs other than IDEA. This level of flexibility would seem to be sufficient.

5. and 6. Increase state and local flexibility and focus on high need children

LDA supports the recommendation to provide for high cost students through safety net funding and risk management pools. Provisions for safety net funding are preferable, but it is recommended that model programs such as the Washington State Safety Net Committee/Audit Team, be piloted in large scale prior to widespread application of such funding patterns.


D. ACCOUNTABILITY, FLEXIBILITY and PARENTAL EMPOWERMENT

LDA supports the four Commission major recommendations in this area, but with additional specific suggestions and/or concerns in each of the areas.

1. Set high expectations for special education

LDA also strongly supports high expectations for teacher quality.
Data should be collected on participation in Advanced Placement, upper level high school core courses, and parent reports of post graduation outcomes with disaggregation of the data for students with and without disabilities. Both aggregated and disaggregated data should be collected and made public.


As implementation of IDEA-97 continues, LDA expects that an increasing number of secondary school students will have had extended access to the general curriculum and intensive remediation. For students with learning disabilities, the result should be a continued increase in the graduation rate and decrease in the dropout rate. LDA believes that both general and special education must take responsibility for continuing this progress.


The Report suggests that IDEA should define “Adequate Yearly Progress” (AYP) in the same way that NCLB expects AYP for students with disabilities. But it is unclear how progress toward both NCLB’s state reading/mathematics assessments and IDEA’s “ambitious additional…goals…using… graduation rates, post-graduation outcomes, and parent satisfactions surveys“ (p. 36) could be consistent with NCLB’s requirement that students without disabilities only show AYP on reading/mathematics assessments. LDA is concerned that the result would be dual AYP expectations for those with disabilities, but only one set of expectations for other students, instead of the same learning standards for ALL students.


LDA believes that careful study must be made of current diploma requirements and options among the states and their impact on students with disabilities. As noted by the Commission, the choice of “either diploma or graduation certification” (p. 39); leaves many students with learning disabilities without accurate documentation of their abilities. Entrance into competitive employment and apprentice-based occupations can be permanently closed when students fail to meet all standards-based state-wide test requirements. Ways must be found to strongly encourage completion of a standard high school diploma, while recognizing the value of an official document that verifies mastery of basic academic and performance skills sufficient for competitive employment and post-secondary skill training.

1. Hold LEAs accountable for results

LDA strongly supports the recommendation that LEA’s should be accountable for the performance results of all students with disabilities and included in state accountability data. However, LDA’s concerns about practical details include the following:

Specifics are lacking in the recommendation, so it is unclear what “IDEA goals” are to be reported for each school and LEA. Is performance on IEP Annual Goals, performance on state-wide standardized tests, or performance on NCLB mandated reading and mathematics assessments in grades 3-8 to be reported, or some combination of these?


Every child should be included in state-wide assessments, unless reported as a “non-participant” with an appropriate rationale.


Students with disabilities should be included in district assessment data ONLY when appropriate accommodations are applied on an individual basis, determined in advance with parent/student involvement, and practiced in the general education setting.


Performance data should be provided in both aggregated and disaggregated form, as currently required in both NCLB and IDEA-97.


As with NCLB, LEA’s should report to parents whether or not a child’s teacher holds a certificate for the field in which they are teaching.


1. Increase parental empowerment and school choice
LDA strongly agrees that, as provided in IDEA-97, parents should continue to have meaningful information about their child’s progress, based on assessment results from educators and other service providers, at least as frequently as students without disabilities. LDA is very concerned, however, about how some of the additional recommendations would apply in practice.

The term “educational options” is not specifically defined. It could simply mean access to added needed related services or to other placements on a continuum of settings or it could suggest a broader range of options.


LDA is concerned that the Report suggests that IDEA should be consistent with NCLB by providing funds to parents who choose other services or schools [particularly] when a school has not made AYP under IDEA for three consecutive years. The word “particularly” is bracketed in the previous sentence, because it seems to indicate that a “school in improvement” is not an actual requirement for access to other options. Doesn’t NCLB already provide a school choice option for ALL parents when an NCLB school is “in improvement” for three years?


Of greater concern to LDA are general statements declaring that a “majority of special education students will continue …in the regular public school system,” and “IDEA should allow state use of federal funds to enable students…to attend schools or access services of their families choosing, provided states measure and report outcomes.…” Such statements, raise important questions including whether the protections of IDEA would continue, the implications for IDEA funds, and the possibility of availability to students with disabilities but not to all students.


1. Prevent disputes and improve dispute resolution
LDA is highly supportive of parent empowerment and processes that minimize or avoid conflict and promote agreement about instructional goals and services. Effective selection and training of mediators, arbitrators and hearing officers must ensure knowledge of applicable laws and regulations, as well as impartiality in decision-making.

Additional LDA concerns and suggestions include the following:

In view of the fact that IDEA-97 requires that mediation be made available, at least when a hearing is requested, the recommendation concerning mediation is not necessary.
Specific required steps must be in place to ensure that parents are fully informed about the range of options available to minimize or avoid conflict, foster amicable agreement, and encourage genuine parent/professional partnerships.


Access to binding arbitration, while a possibility, continues to be an unlikely option for either parents or schools from a practical standpoint. However, it should be available when a quicker resolution is determined to be worth waiving further due process appeals.


The suggestion concerning “IEP Facilitators,” who would be trained to guide IEP meetings toward positive solutions for both parents and school staffs, is a promising idea that should be explored further. One caution is that such a facilitator would further increase the number attending an IEP meeting, when simplified processes are being sought.

5. POST-SECONDARY RESULTS and EFFECTIVE TRANSITION SERVICES

LDA strongly supports the Commission’s recognition that “academic achievement alone will not lead to successful results for students with disabilities…[but they also] need educational supports and services…throughout their school lives…[which] may intensify during the transition years.’ (p.50). Additional LDA comments and suggestions concerning the recommendations include the following:

1. Simplify federal transition requirements

LDA supports the recommendation that IDEA transition requirements should be simplified. Too many LD students move through the transition years without the knowledge or supports to facilitate a smooth and productive transition from high school to post-secondary educational opportunities or successful competitive employment.

LDA notes the following additional suggestions and concerns:

For students with learning disabilities, it is especially important that attention to self-determination, self-advocacy, social, and organizational skills is begun before high school and not omitted as schools focus on academics.


Transition requirements in IDEA must be clearly described so that what is required and when it is required is not only understandable to educators, parents, and students, but also to others such as vocational rehabilitation counselors, occupational therapists, and college support personnel. Differences between the transition tasks at age 14 and 16 and between transition service needs and needed transition service must also be clarified, along with the possible impact of age of majority.


Strong reading, mathematics, and study skills are important keys to high school and transition success. Students, especially those with learning disabilities, must have access to intensive remedial instruction from highly qualified teachers so they will be fully prepared academically for appropriate post-secondary educational opportunities.


As students mature and their educational needs and career goals change, there are also changes in the role of accommodations. Thus, at different times, accommodations may have to be provided to students in ways that will maximize academic performance, assure accurate state-wide test achievement, and smooth transition to post-secondary education and high-end employment opportunities.


Schools must do a better job of working with parents and students to develop and implement an IEP that clearly specifies needed transition services and develops goals appropriate to the post-secondary expectations of high school students. Consideration should also be given to specifically addressing these needs in IDEA by extending the Individualized Transition Plan with a Secondary School Plan.


All secondary teachers should be trained in the basics of linking academics to future employment, encouraging self-advocacy, supporting self-determination, and fostering learning and behavioral independence, all of which enhance the possibility of post-secondary success. The secondary curriculum should also be sufficiently aligned with graduation requirements to foster successful transitions into post-secondary education settings.


Every secondary school must have an identified “LD transition specialist” who has specific added skills in addition to their professional training in teaching, counseling, vocational rehabilitation, or another related area. They should attend appropriate IEP/ITP meetings, share practical information about post-secondary educational and employment options, and guide course and experience selections to enable students to achieve their aspirations.


Clear, accurate and timely information must be provided to parents and students about possible linkages that exist to support a student who drops out of school and refuses to return.


In order to ensure comparable dropout data among states, a federal definition and guidelines for its implementation should be put in place.


1. Mandate federal interagency cooperation
LDA strongly supports the recommendation to strengthen the connections between federal and state special education and rehabilitation policy, and to improve cooperation among the many federal and state agencies housing programs relating to transition, training, higher education, and employment opportunities for students with disabilities. LDA is not only concerned that too many students drop out of high school without a diploma, but also that they are unable to access or navigate the maze of various programs that have the potential to provide assistance. The framework for success is available, but typically agencies do not work together to ensure effective and seamless implementation.

Additional comments by LDA concerning interagency cooperation include:

Agencies and programs must work together to take a practical look at why students drop out of school and what is needed to ensure completion of the education that will lead to securing competitive employment.
Ways must be found to ensure that agencies develop coordinated approaches for youth who will not return to school and therefore, will lack access to the IDEA protections that otherwise continue to age 21. Of particular concern are students who have left school, but because of their age, cannot access WIA programs, especially the GED, the academic tutoring of the Youth Services Program, and the pre-college vocational training programs that are currently available.


Existing OSERS Interagency Agreements between SEAs and state Vocational Rehabilitation agencies must be strengthened, with increased time limits so that students who are just beginning to show progress are not left without a support system as they begin employment.


Agency personnel need training to ensure a basic understanding of learning disabilities, how it is often misunderstood and typical accommodations, as well as the characteristics and frustrations that often continue into adulthood. For example, it is important to understand that clients with learning disabilities often have quite different needs, skills, and aspirations than those who are physically or mentally challenged.
State flexibility to coordinating funds from federal agencies appears to be needed in order to create transition services that most effectively serve the students in each state. LDA is concerned, however, that critical practical specifics, such as oversight responsibility, service priorities, monitoring and performance outcome data remain to be developed. As is often the case with funding flexibility, the best intentions may falter and fail if effective guidelines and monitoring processes are not also in place.


3. Create a Rehabilitation Act Re-Authorization Advisory Committee

LDA strongly supports the recommendation that an Advisory Committee be formed to provide guidance for the upcoming re-authorization of the Vocational Rehabilitation Act.

LDA suggests that parents of students with disabilities, including learning disabilities, be included on such an Advisory Committee.


4. Help Higher Education faculty and administration ensure completed, quality Post-Secondary
Education
LDA strongly supports the recommendation that higher education faculty, administrators and auxiliary service providers find ways to provide the effective supports needed for completion of post-secondary education by students with disabilities. Many post-secondary institutions describe effective model support systems on paper, but when students are “experiencing” the program, they often do not truly offer the range of supports necessary for success. In addition, the existing student grants to fund post-secondary education are not effective if such funds are used for GED and remedial work in community colleges, so that mounting debt and depleted grant funds prevent students from entering four-year institutions.

1. TEACHER and ADMINISTRATOR PREPARATION, TRAINING, and RETENTION

1. Recruit and Train Highly Qualified General and Special Education Teachers

LDA supports the recommendation that new strategies must be devised to recruit teachers that are highly qualified to educate students with disabilities, supplemented by career-long professional development systems that are based on professional standards. LDA also recognizes that it is critical that licenses and endorsements for all teachers and administrators require training in meeting the needs of students with disabilities and in including parents as partners in improving educational outcomes.

LDA’s specific concerns and suggestions follow:

Current state licensure requirements vary widely in their criteria and level of expectation.
State license and endorsement requirements for principals must include experiences and competencies in understanding disabilities and special education. In each school the degree of knowledge, understanding and support for students with disabilities depends, in large part, on the building principal’s knowledge, understanding and support. When principals view all students as their responsibility, they see to it that teachers and support personnel receive the training and resources to improve learning outcomes for all students attending the school.


For students with learning disabilities, it is especially important that teachers are competent to help students develop such skills as self-determination, self-advocacy, social, and organization. Since these skills need to be established before high school and not omitted as schools increase the focus on academics, competencies in these areas are equally important for elementary, middle, and secondary school educators.


When new instructional initiatives are developed by SEAs or IHEs, coordination should be a pre-requisite to funding.


1. Create research and data-driven training systems
LDA strongly agrees that teacher education should incorporate existing research on student learning and teacher characteristics that produce improved student achievement. Equally important, however, is funding for additional research data and analysis, to guide factors such as certification routes, the selection of training components, competencies, exit assessment criteria, likelihood of continuing as a teacher and other criteria to improve systems for teacher education.

1. Ensure Ongoing Field Experiences

LDA agrees that quality field experiences are an important component of teacher education and must incorporate supervised experiences that provide a comprehensive view of the full continuum of service delivery models, in both general and special education settings.

It is very important that field placements provide positive experiences with teachers who are excellent role models and work in supportive settings recognized for positive educational results for students.
Field experiences should be supplemented with frequent supervisor feedback, reflective logs, reality-based case studies, videotaped micro-teaching, and similar experiences.


1. Require rigorous reading training
LDA strongly supports the recommendation that training of both general and special education teachers must be trained to implement appropriate research-based practices in reading, including systematic instruction in phonemic awareness, decoding, fluency, vocabulary and comprehension. At the same time, LDA notes with concern that these skills are necessary, but not sufficient to ensure that students with learning disabilities are able to continue to progress during their school experience, graduate and become successful in life.

In addition, LDA notes the following specific concerns:

Competence in teaching early reading is critical for elementary teachers. In addition, teachers at the middle and secondary levels, teachers must understand the relationship of reading skill to content acquisition and special education teachers must be able to teach basic reading skills to older students.


In addition to strong training in early reading, LDA believes that elementary level general and special education teachers also need to understand learning and language development and be highly qualified to teach in content areas such as science, and the social sciences.


LDA strongly believes that training at the elementary level should ensure strong training in all seven domains included in the IDEA definition of learning disabilities (listen, think, speak, read, write, spell, and do mathematical calculations), since many students with learning disabilities experience difficulty in areas other than or in addition to basic reading.


Middle and secondary level teachers must be able to integrate strategy instruction, content enhancement routines and similar methods into the general education curriculum (as noted in the testimony by Dr. Deshler at the Nashville Commission hearing). Learning disabilities teachers must be able to provide age appropriate intensive academic skill instruction to older students.


Learning disability specialists must possess competence in a range of instructional approaches, including intensive, specialized reading interventions supported by clinical or promising practices and/or data-based research, as well as instructional methods in the other six learning domains defined in IDEA. In addition, the collaborative skills needed to guide and assist general education teachers in implementing individualized interventions needed to master the general curriculum are especially important for successful learning in students with learning disabilities.


1. Require public reporting of performance of graduates
LDA strongly supports the recommendation that institutions training teachers, administrators, and related services personnel be required to collect and publicly report data from consumers that indicate the success of program graduates in educating students with disabilities.

Performance data of teachers, administrators, and related services personnel who graduate from IHE and private programs, should indicate the level of success in educating both students with and without disabilities.


Data from graduates of higher education programs concerning the degree of resources and other supports provided in their employment setting should be collected, analyzed and publicly reported.


1. Increase faculty in special education and related services

LDA supports the need for recruitment and training of additional highly qualified faculty to educate our nation’s future teachers and other professionals and prepare them to achieve improved results for diverse learners. Additional concerns include the following:

Faculty must possess the knowledge and experience to plan and implement pre-service and in-service programs that develop the specific, but differentiated competencies required by teachers in general education, secondary content areas, special education, and learning disabilities.
Faculty who will provide training in learning disabilities must possess advanced, in-depth knowledge of intensive, specialized interventions. Faculty who will provide training in general education must possess the knowledge and attitudes to transmit to intending and practicing teachers the ability to recognize emerging difficulties in students and to work collaboratively with a learning disability specialist to provide or supplement instruction.


LDA is concerned that both teachers and related service providers must be better prepared to effectively assist high school students in meeting the requirements of post-secondary institutions. Faculty must work collaboratively to ensure that general and special education teachers, guidance counselors, speech/language pathologists, and other professionals possess the knowledge and skills to help prepare students for transition out of secondary school programs.
1. Conduct research on critical factors in training that improve student outcomes.
LDA views this recommendation as essentially the same as the second recommendation, which is addressed above.


7. RESEARCH AND DISSEMINATION OF SPECIAL EDUCATION RESEARCH

LDA supports the basic concepts in the four recommendations in this section, noting especially the critical importance of research efforts that must provide guidance on several areas within the Report. These include, but are not limited to: efficacy of alternative assessment/identification models, determination of scientifically-based interventions, teacher characteristics that improve educational outcomes, extension of valid intervention approaches beyond early reading to other academic areas across grades K-12, approaches to reducing school dropouts and non-graduation, special education costs, consequences of various funding patterns and determining interagency coordination policies that improve transition outcomes.

However, LDA has specific concerns and questions about the practical aspects and possible impact of several recommendations, as indicated in sections below.

1. Change to a more scientifically rigorous grant review process.

The Report outlines eight proposed changes to the existing grant review process, primarily related to Part D programs. Some of the proposals are very specific, but others lack clarity about the nature of the changes and how those changes might contribute significantly to a more rigorous grant review process.

While the close and continuing involvement of qualified researchers must be a part of all proposal reviews, proposals focusing on implementation should include experienced practitioners in the review process.
Although it is noted that current statute requires that review panels include researchers, consumers, and practitioners, the Report goes on to caution that “non-researchers may not be able to address technical aspects of the proposal” (p. 64). Yet the proposed “national advisory committee” would include “practitioners, researchers, parents, and people with disabilities” to be responsible for establishing priorities and agendas, as well as review research for relevance to people with disabilities” (p. 65). Would this group be more capable of making such decisions? How would the panel’s activities fit into the overall review process and timetable for proposal review? If practitioners are unable to address the technical aspects during proposal review, how will they be expected to implement them in the field?


The lack of definitions, interrelationships among components, and practical details results in an uncertain picture of how a more rigorous grant review process would be established. For example, it is difficult to understand how numerous standing panels will be established, each chaired by “a senior researcher” that is independent of OSEP, and at the same time be similar to “internal review groups” used by NIH as a “separate institute for review” (p. 65). LDA wonders who would be defined as a senior researcher and how an internal review group would be independent of OSEP?


1. Improve coordination of special education research.
LDA agrees that special education research should not only be coordinated among the three OSERS offices, but efforts should be continued that foster and reward coordination with HHS and NIH and similar agencies with respect to developing priorities, requesting and funding proposals, and dissemination of results at both scientific and practical levels.

1. Support long term research priorities

LDA strongly agrees that many important research questions emerging from the Report demand longitudinal studies and will require sustained research priorities to achieve meaningful results that can guide practice.

1. Improve the impact of research findings

LDA strongly supports dissemination of research findings to meet a range of needs. These needs include an understanding of basic science, guidance for program and service implementation, and practical information. Such dissemination should provide direction, simplified information, and hands-on approaches for improving the abilities of teachers and families to maximize educational outcomes for all the nation’s children, both with and without disabilities.

LDA’s believes it is critically important that research and piloting of alternative models for assessment and identification be carefully designed and described, with data on educational outcomes made available for peer review. In short, the same scientific research standards must be met that are the basis for questioning the processes currently used and permitted.


LDA is particularly concerned that discussion of research needs in the Report seems to assume that research will focus on “bringing to scale practices that are identified as effective” (p 69). A more defensible approach is to move effective clinical research into a pilot phase in diverse settings that are gradually scaled-up to test continued effectiveness prior to large scale models that, if also effective, are ready for dissemination, adoption, and adaptation.


LDA notes with great concern that the Commission uses terms such as “evidence-based,” “research-based,” and “scientifically-based” instruction throughout the Report without defining the terms. While LDA advocates for instruction that is supported by quantitative research, LDA also recognizes the value of promising practices supported by experiential evidence, anecdotal reports, qualitative research, empirical data and similar research methods. Teachers need a repertoire of instructional methods available to individualize intervention, meet student needs and improving learning. Such an instructional repertoire should include both scientifically validated and promising practices.


LDA is concerned that the Report attempts to narrow dissemination efforts “largely…to scientifically based practices”(p. 69), “to disseminate scientifically-based information on research-based practices to parents and schools” (p. 70), and to “dissemination programs in OSERS that focus on the adoption of scientifically-based practices in the preparation of and continuing education for teachers (p.63). In contrast, dissemination of user-friendly materials to inform and up-date parents and teachers are dismissed with the statement that there should be “less emphasis on distributing information about the law and how to comply with it, and more emphasis on “what works” and “outcomes” (p.69).


To LDA it is vitally important that parents and educators understand the law and regulations in order to advocate for and obtain the practical services that IDEA promises. Often, ERIC is the only known source of answers to practical questions. ERIC material is not “largely redundant (p. 69), but rather is a relevant database of resources that others draw from. Funding for ERIC must continue, so that information so necessary for both parents and teachers continues to be accessible.

 

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