By Jill Chuckas, MSW, Special Education Advocate, CAA
My work as a special education advocate is busy, invigorating, inspiring, stressful and a series of teachable moments and lessons learned. It involves understanding and navigating through a variety of different school systems, educational programs, learning profiles, specialized learning needs and sorting through many other varied sources of information. On a daily basis, I support families and children, work with teachers and administrators and try to effectively build and maintain appropriate educational services for children with many different learning needs. I must be educated as to what is available within districts and the state and have a clear understanding as to how these issues affect programs and available services for special education. Perhaps most important, I must be a good listener and have an innate ability to effectively advocate for my client’s needs.
Federal and state education laws directly influence my work as a special education advocate. As many of you are aware, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) is the primary legislation that guides special education within our country. The State Department of Education interprets the IDEA and issues regulations based on their interpretation.
Traditionally, Connecticut has held its towns and municipalities to standards at or above the federal guidelines outlined in IDEA. In recent years, though, there has been much discussion as to the appropriateness of these standards and rumblings of changes to lower the state’s expectations and guidelines it issues to local education agencies (LEAs).
As the legislative “short” session convenes over the next few months, the Governor has submitted SB24 as his solution to the concerns regarding the public school system in CT. While he outlines many ideas for school improvements, there is not much content in terms of special education concerns. The focus appears to be on the achievement gap and overall school improvement. Most certainly important issues facing Connecticut, but there are concerns regarding where this leaves our special education students.
The reality is that children with disabilities lag behind their peers in both reading and math. According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) scores, only 48% of children with disabilities scored at or above basic level in 8th grade math as compared to 79% of students without disabilities. The gap is as wide when it comes to reading, with only 55% of children with disabilities scoring at or above basic level in 8th grade as compared to 87% of students without disabilities. If Connecticut’s goal is to improve educational outcomes for all children, it must look closely at reducing the achievement gap for children with disabilities. While these facts are hard to ignore, very little attention is being focused at the present time on closing the achievement gap for children with special learning needs.
An issue currently at the focus of the CT Department of Education is that of Response to Intervention (RTI) or Scientifically Research Based Interventions (SRBI). A result of the Elementary and Secondary School Act (ESSA), renamed the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act, RTIs or SRBIs are a general education initiative meant to provide data driven interventions to better support struggling students. The concept and inception of RTIs is a good one. Many districts across the country and within CT have developed fully operational general education initiatives that include RTI. Although CT issued a framework for RTI in August of 2008, there is much variation in regards to how LEAs within the state interpreted and implemented their individual RTI programs. There has also been little regulatory oversight in terms of the effectiveness of these programs within individual districts and even amongst schools within those districts.
At the last CT State Board of Education meeting, there were extensive questions from Board members regarding the implementation of RTI/ SRBI to staff members within the State Department of Education. Questions focused around how many LEAs are effectively utilizing RTI, what sort of data is being taken regarding its effectiveness, and how the RTI process is being utilized within the special education eligibility determination process.
One issue that was vocalized during the meeting involved a concern that the RTI process is serving as a means to delay identification for special education services. Indeed, guidance has been issued previously from the US Department of Education to State Directors of Special Education specifically instructing that RTI/ SRBI can be utilized as part of the identification process, but must not “delay or deny a timely initial evaluation to determine if a child is a child with a disability and, therefore eligible for special education and related services pursuant to an individualized education program.” (OSEP MemorandumJanuary 21, 2010). While the RTI process is data driven and an excellent way to gather information regarding children’s learning styles, the Congressional intent of the process was never to delay identification for special education. In fact, it was meant to help close the achievement gap and provide specialized instruction for students who may be struggling due to teaching styles and interventions that did not work for his/her individual learning style.
Currently, the State Board of Education has requested additional information and supporting data regarding the status of RTI/SRBI throughout the state from the State Department of Education. The state legislature is not expected to address issues related to RTI in this session, but the state Board of Education is expected to continue the discussion at an upcoming Board meeting, date yet to be determined. Stakeholders are encouraged to submit their issues and concerns regarding RTI – and any other special education related concerns – directly to the State Board of Education (http://www.sde.ct.gov/sde/cwp/view.asp?a=2683&q=322228).
As these and other issues relating to special education services within our state are addressed by the federal and state legislature and the State Department of Education, I intend to be an active participant in the discussion – both by providing direct input to our members in government and the department of education, as well as by sharing information with families. Knowledge is an important component to effective advocacy. Working together, empowering each other, all children can have access to a free, appropriate educational program.