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What’s Next For Special Education


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This spring Congress is expected to take up reauthorization of the nation’s primary education law — the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, or ESEA, now known as No Child Left Behind.

In an exclusive interview with Disability Scoop, Alexa Posny — the Department of Education’s top special education official — offers an insider’s take on what students with disabilities can expect and weighs in on academic standards, restraint and seclusion, teacher training, the future of inclusion and more.

Disability Scoop: Already 43 states have adopted the Common Core State Standards which call for students with disabilities to be “challenged to excel within the general curriculum.” Is this reasonable?

Alexa Posny: The goal is to hold everyone to high standards, and that absolutely I believe in. Now, when I think about kids who have significant cognitive disabilities — probably what we refer to as the 1 percent who are taking alternate assessments — they still need to be held to high standards. Will it look the same as kids who are at the same chronological age? The answer is no and it’s part of what we deal with when we work with students with disabilities. They’re receiving special education services and supports because they do not learn in a typical fashion. It does not mean that they can’t learn and that they are not going to learn at the same high level as everyone else.

Disability Scoop: Last year Congress considered a bill to restrict the use of restraint and seclusion in schools, which was ultimately unsuccessful. Do you believe that federal legislation is needed to address this issue?

Alexa Posny: The bottom line is that there should be no harm that is ever brought to any child. I wish we could count on people to do the right thing, but if that’s not occurring then we may need to legislate.

One of the things that’s already been put into place is we’re collecting data to show how many times a child has been secluded or restrained, so the data will be the first place to take a look at what other things should be done.

Disability Scoop: What can we expect to see in the upcoming ESEA reauthorization? What does it mean when people talk about aligning this law with the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, or IDEA?

Alexa Posny: I think some people are thinking: are these two laws (ESEA and IDEA) going to merge? Alignment of the two does not mean the merger of the two. IDEA will always remain the civil rights protection act for students with disabilities. We need to break down parallel systems.

ESEA has set high standards. Almost 60 percent of students with disabilities are in the general education classroom more than 80 percent of the day, so we have to think about the systemic effects on students with disabilities.

Disability Scoop: Nearly every state is in a budget crunch this year at the same time millions in stimulus funds are running out. What does this mean for special education?

Alexa Posny: The one thing about special ed. is that they (schools) must maintain the same level of funds year after year. The bottom line is they have to continue to ensure FAPE (Free Appropriate Public Education) and that’s not going to go away.

I know at the beginning when students with disabilities were finally being allowed in the regular school system, there was a feeling in general ed. that we in special ed. were taking away from them. I don’t want that to happen again.

Disability Scoop: Currently teachers who are just beginning their training through alternative programs like Teach for America can be labeled “highly qualified.” Do you believe this is cause for concern?

Alexa Posny: When we think about the teachers working with kids with disabilities, they need to be the most effective, the most highly qualified, the most skilled we have. If you can teach a child with a disability, I’ve always said you can teach any child.

What we’ve got on the other side, is we know that within five to ten years, the majority of our teachers who are special educators are probably going to retire. I believe we’re going to need 40,000 to 50,000 more special educators in the next ten years. That’s a big pool. We need to make sure that the alternative route programs have teachers just as prepared as anyone else.

Disability Scoop: Lately several disability-specific charter schools have popped up. What direction do you think education should be taking with regard to inclusion versus more segregated settings?

Alexa Posny: I would like to have a national dialogue about this. I’ll be honest, when I began to hear about the charter schools that are strictly for students with disabilities, that is not where I was headed at all, so it’s interesting. You always think things are black and white and they never are, especially when we talk about students with disabilities.

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Comments (10 Responses)

  1. deealpert says:

    The GAO and numerous P&As have done reports on the severe harm – including death – inflicted on kids with disabilities in schools via use of physical restraints and seclusion. If Assistant Secretary Posny is still questioning whether harm is being done via these behavior control modalities, it would appear that she is simply fundamentally unwilling or unable to accept that it is happening.

    Posny has previously shown that her real concern is protecting schools and educators from liability for the harm they cause disabled kids via the use of physical restraints and seclusion. Vulnerable kids deserve better protections and better “protectors.” It’s time for Posny to go – and be replaced by someone who is willing to admit what the data and research has already conclusively proved.

  2. californiafather says:

    Thank you for this interesting and important post. I wonder what Ms. Posny’s thoughts on special ed teacher evaluation are. I was also confused by her response to the ESEA/IDEA alignment question. Merge, align? What is the difference?

  3. jekvd says:

    The answer Ms.Posny gave to the budget question is unacceptable. Special ed has never been fully funded and has always taken from the general operating fund because we have to meet our students’ needs and ensure FAPE. Now with less money, we are cutting programs for typical students, but we still have to ensure FAPE. I believe in FAPE and have worked my entire career to ensure it, but it is unrealistic view that special ed is NOT taking away from general ed. If a student with a disability has an educational program that costs $100,000 and the amount of money overall is less, then yes, that student is taking away from the typical student. We have to be honest about it, and then do something. Fully funding special ed is an option, as is mandate relief at the state and federal level. Let’s just not put our heads in the sand.

  4. ksiek says:

    Posny certainly did a lot of bobbing and weaving in that interview. Too bad she couldn’t have given a direct answer to at least a couple of Michelle’s questions.

    Such evasiveness doesn’t instill a lot of confidence in the direction the department is headed on such crucial issues as seclusion and restraint and the “highly qualified” teacher controversy.

  5. mykidsmom says:

    Ms. Posny–Why did you qualify your answer about injury to children who have been restrained by saying, “IF CHILDREN ARE BEING HURT…THEN WE MAY NEED TO LEGISLATE.” Don’t want to talk about HR 4247, do you? Do you want to let teachers have the use of restraint and seclusion as a first option to deal with children who have special needs?

    Why the cowardly response to a wide-spread problem that is happening across the country in our schools. Children are routinely being restrained and YOU KNOW THIS. So does most Americans who can read a newspaper.

    Before republicans took over the senate a bill that addressed R&S had some headway. It’s a wait and see now, but ask your Congressional Representative to cosponsor the The Preventing Harmful Restraint and Seclusion in Schools Act (H.R. 4247). Parents need to step up to the plate and be more pro-active as leaders in the educational system like Ms. Posny who are supposed to be protecting our children are absolutely asleep at the wheel!!

  6. says:

    Very disappointing she would make these comments…”I wish we could count on people to do the right thing, but IF that’s not occurring then we may need to legislate.” – Seriously? Has she even read the GAO report on the abuse of seclusion and restraint? Or is it that she just doesn’t care? Or does she think it is acceptable to restrain and seclude kids? In my opinion, her answer to the question about seclusion and restraint is unacceptable. Her answer shows insensitivity and a lack of understanding of what is really happening to our kids. Maybe she needs to read the GAO report and talk to parents whose children have either been injured or killed because of the abuse of seclusion and restraint in American schools.

  7. ebdteacher says:

    As a special education teacher for students who display significant and chronic violent and aggressive behavior I have several concerns regarding Posny’s comments. First: Testing – It is NOT just the 1% of students with severe, multiple cognitive difficulties who should be considered when meeting standardized testing requirements. Many of my students have been abused and neglected (both in utero and environmentally) in addition to some cognitive delays – can they eventually meet “standard?” MOST LIKELY! However, to expect my third grade students who read on an early first grade level because they’ve spent the majority of their educational career (prior to entering my room) sitting in the Principal’s office or sent home for behavior to “meet standard” is wrong. To expect a child with FAS/E who is 3 years behind to pass a grade level test is wrong. We SHOULD be tracking PROGRESS – not whether we all meet “standard” the way education was begun using the factory model – we are not making cars! Second: Funding – jekvd’s post is correct – there is only a finite amount of money and when the states must meet FAPE requirements by federal law it does impact general education – I hear it from parents who wonder why my classroom has 10 students and 3 staff and their student is in a class of 35 second graders with one teacher. Third: Restraint/seclusion – I have a “time-out” room in my classroom, I do have to physically put hands on children – I am trained, I am a trainer, putting hands on is the LAST thing I want to do and it is the LAST thing I DO do – however; I am the person who draws the line in the sand and says you can not do this – you may not bite, kick, scratch, throw things at me or anyone else. I ALWAYS TEACH an alternative behavior to meet the need of the student so they do not have to use behavior to get what they want. My goal is to teach students how to manage their behavior, teach replacement skills, teach them HOW to go to school, and to get them back into general education as a functioning member of the school – and I’ve had many successes through the years. I take the toughest kids of the district, I am the last stop before they exit public education for behavior. I have kids come back to visit me clear through high school and beyond (I teach students in kindergarten through third grade) who have changed their life because I held them to a high standard, believed in them, taught them what TO DO. However, if I could never have physically held them to stop the unsafe behavior that put them into my classroom so we could then teach, practice and expect behavior that will allow them to become functioning members … behavior has a REASON. Behavior also becomes a habit because it gets them what they want and they will use that behavior as long as it works. As I stated – the LAST thing I want to do is physically hold a child, I can tell you that if someone is hurt – it’s me. Are there people out there who do not hold correctly? ABSOLUTELY! But to put ALL of us in the same category is just as wrong as expecting ALL students to pass the same standardized test. In my state we already have laws regarding restraint and isolation, they are specific – there are laws against speeding too – I am not against laws regarding restraint and isolation – the discussion needs to be done with eyes wide open and listening to a lot of different sides.

  8. pattyrocks says:

    No doubt Ms. Posny’s was wearing her boxing gloves during her interview with Disability Scoop. Her responses were quite telling, on two fronts:1. she was not putting up a fight for special ed students: 2. she was protecting herself with her “bob and weave” answering technique.

  9. ermand says:

    As a teacher that has had to restrain a student, I am thankful for is the training that was afforded me before I was put into that situation. Special students require special care. This also means at times we are faced with the possibility of protecting a student from harm. Training and special settings for students should be available to all school districts. Lets face it, if the current budget cuts and main streaming continues, all educators will need to be trained and certified in special education.

  10. hdemic says:

    Blah blah blah blah blah blah. No teeth. No inforcement. Desn’t much matter what they say. We are going backwards. Normal kids. Special ed kids. The schools are so different depending on what area you live in and they have become so deceitful along with these agencies its crazy. These Washington people are either stupid or so removed from what is happening it laughable. Blah Blah Blah

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