What are the problems with the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) and students with disabilities and/or gifted students?
First, A Little History
Politicians have never wanted to pay for special education. Everything you see today in the way of policy and rhetoric concerning the instruction of students with disabilities and/or gifted students springs from that statement.
Reformers chipped away at P.L. 94-142 which provided parents with options—a continuum of services—first, with the IDEA 97, and then with IDEA 2004, tied closely to No Child Left Behind. Both re-authorizations involved cuts to special education services with claims that all students were served better in the general education classes.
But students, with P.L. 94-142, had never been denied placement in those classes, unless they had difficulties that required more individualization. Teachers always worked to mainstream students if they could.
Now you will find students with special needs denied services.
Students with Disabilities and Standards
If the new ESSA bill ultimately passes, and unfortunately it looks like it will pass, students with disabilities will have to reach the same standards as students without disabilities, unless they have severe cognitive disabilities—but even then, the standards are supposed to be aligned with state academic content (49, ESSA).
This is probably Common Core State Standards, although the ESSA is careful to note that states don’t have to do CCSS (825 & 843, ESSA). But we all know that even if a state calls it something else, it will most likely be CCSS.
And this will also mean the number of students assessed with an alternative test will not exceed 1% of students in each state (61, ESSA). Alternative tests are frowned upon.
This all sounds good on paper to those from associations that have hyped accountability-for-all.
In practice, it will ignore the special needs of many students who have no safety net if they cannot understand the goals they are supposed to reach—or when they fail the test.
And if they take the alternative test they will be punished. These students will get special diplomas or no diplomas on graduation day (62, ESSA). That is if they make it to graduation day.
Gifted and Talented
There is much “everyone can be gifted if you have the right program” talk out there now, and this new bill does little to initiate anything to change that. If you are a teacher, you will be pushed to make everyone gifted, with the idea that high expectations and just the right kind of teaching will make it so.
There is nothing new in the ESSA bill for gifted students (638, ESSA). It will probably be more of the same lackluster, once-a-week pull-out programs that have rarely addressed the needs of gifted students. And there will continue to be the privatized-like AP or IB classes for others.
The kind of gifted education a student gets will depend on whether a state or school district values gifted students enough to do something for them.
By the way, I believe the gifted and talented labels should be separated. These labels need serious consideration. But no one talks about this.
It is also interesting that the bill mentions, in regard to gifted, “peer tutoring.” Many parents complain that their gifted students are used as tutors during the school day. While some tutoring might be nice, gifted students deserve to learn the way they learn best. They should not be used as fill-in teachers.
Assessment and Special Education
Along with most students being made to follow the same standards, they will have to take the same tests too—online. We learned this over a year ago. Education Secretary Arne Duncan and his ilk repeatedly hype “raising the bar” for students in special education, and that means taking the same tests.
Some parents love this. It makes them believe that their child is on their way to a worthwhile future.
But getting all students to work in the narrow framework, the one-size-fits-all curriculum, is a cheap way to ignore differences that might make a student stand out in a good way. I’m thinking about the loss of the arts in some schools and what that means to a student with disabilities who thrives in the arts! There might be jobs in the arts too!
Personalized Learning—Technology Instead of Real Teachers
Overshadowing everything about students with disabilities and/or gifted students is technology. Personalized learning is—and will continue to be big—sticking students with disabilities on computer programs at their level (469, ESSA). This matches the assistive technology talk (assistive technology can be helpful) and the Universal Design for Learning B.S. we hear so much about in relationship to Common Core.
Students with disabilities will get lower level work and gifted students will get more difficult programs online. Ultimately, the goal is to move to all charter online schools. If you haven’t figured this out yet, well, surprise.
Teacher Education and Special Education
If you look around you will also see a cheapening of the kind of teachers students get, and that includes students with special needs. We now see Teach for America working in special education. Can you believe it?
Take a good look at university teacher preparation programs that are caving to the fast track groups who focus on assessment and data and the one track highway to the same goal destination. The ESSA bill is all about this, using the “effective” teacher talk we’ve come to know from the Gates Foundation (300, ESSA).
This dismantling of many College of Education programs in major universities seriously affects teacher education in special education. Tell me how many universities still provide a total program for teachers interested in working with students who have mild learning disabilities. Parents of students with dyslexia are some of the most vocal critics about this.
The ESSA bill talks a lot about academies to prepare teachers and leaders (302 ESSA). I find this troubling.
Credentialed teachers will not be what one would expect. We already see Wisconsin weakening what it will take to be a teacher. But one could argue, who needs teachers when all they will be required to do is plug students into the computer or iPad?
Charter Schools and Special Education
Also, watch for more vouchers to charter schools that are schools for only special education. You will find NO inclusion. This bill supports charters. My guess is there will be more technology at those schools in order to get rid of qualified teachers.
Will there eventually be no need for an IEP? I think so, unless it is used to justify services for students with serious disabilities. Please check out Julie’s Education Lessons From a Sparkly District as she documents The End of Special Education.
So while many jump up and down about their state now being in the driver’s seat, and that NCLB has finally died, and many actually are feeling sorry for Education Secretary Arne Duncan, like he has personally lost something precious with this bill, the celebration will be short-lived.
There is little I see in this bill that will bring back quality to public schools that we all dream of—especially in the area of special education.
One of my favorite quotes involving special education came from the late psychologist, researcher, and founder of the Autism Research Institute, Bernard Rimland. He wrote in 1995 about his son who had autism. He said, He has come along much farther than we ever dared hope, and we are quite confident it is because he was always in special classes, taught by experienced, skilled, caring teachers, exhibiting monumental patience, who had gone to great lengths to train themselves in methods that would help Mark and children like him achieve their full potential (Bailey, 289—91).
That kind of teaching takes serious preparation and won’t come about from any computer program.
I am sorry to be gloomy, since we’ve got enough gloom, but ESSA continues to facilitate the stepping backwards for students with special needs. It focuses on narrowing what schools offer children.
A restrictive, one-size-fits-all curriculum will not open doors for any child—it will not highlight the differences that make everyone special in their unique way—and it will take America back.
Every Student Succeeds Act. Final Conference Report pdf.
Bailey, Nancy. Misguided Education Reform: Debating the Impact on Students.