Academic journal article Education Next

Sisyphean Tasks: The Reams of Paperwork That Currently Serve as Special Education's Accountability" System Distract from the Practice of Teaching and Learning. It Is Time to Focus on Results. (Forum)

Academic journal article Education Next

Sisyphean Tasks: The Reams of Paperwork That Currently Serve as Special Education's Accountability" System Distract from the Practice of Teaching and Learning. It Is Time to Focus on Results. (Forum)

Article excerpt

In a recent report for the Abell Foundation, Kalman R. Hettleman documented the troubled history of special education in the Baltimore public school system. He attributed the failure to "the compliance maze" that special education teachers and administrators face, which consists of "ever-proliferating procedures, forms to be filled out, micro-managed administrative functions, reports and audits--all of which far exceed reason and necessity and do not measure the quality of instruction or other services." Hettleman calculated that the school district spends $28 million annually just to document its compliance with the law. Teachers and administrators confided to him that his estimates were, if anything, conservative, Hettleman found that talented teachers are discouraged from entering or remaining in special education because the job essentially requires "a Ph.D. in paperwork."

At the core of the problems in Baltimore and across the nation lies special education's reliance on procedural rules, exhaustive documentation, and legal threats as the only means of holding schools and educators accountable. In the current system, schools that get the process right--that screen children for disabilities in a timely manner; that follow the law in designing an education plan for each disabled child; and that fill out the paperwork documenting that children have received the planned services--have fulfilled their obligations under the law. This is what I call process-based accountability. Schools only need to show that they have complied with the complex regulations and court decisions that govern special education in order to shield themselves from adverse legal rulings-the only real consequence of failure in special education. What they need not show is that disabled students are making gains in achievement.

To focus schools on achievement requires shifting from a process-based accountability system to one driven by results. The President's Commission on Excellence in Special Education has embraced such a shift. As the commission wrote in its report released in July 2002, special education "will only fulfill its intended purpose if it... becomes results-oriented--not driven by process, litigation, regulation, and confrontation." Still, as attractive as a results-based focus in special education is, shifting to this approach will be no simple task. Just as it took a quarter of a century to create the universal special education system we now have, so will it take years to find ways to realize its full potential.

Acronym Soup

I first began analyzing the accountability system for special education two years ago, through a fruitful collaboration with Bryan C. Hassel of Public Impact. We encountered a program that:

* intends to be responsive to disabled children and their families but is often paralyzed by red tape;

* attempts to address the needs of an amazingly diverse group of children yet often relies on standardized approaches and "box checking" oversight;

* absorbs more than $50 billion a year in public funds yet provides no consistent tracking of its performance.

The more than 6 million students who currently receive special education services are a varied lot. A small share, about 10 percent, suffer from sensory disabilities such as hearing impairments or physical and neurological disabilities such as mobility impairments and autism. The remaining 90 percent have been diagnosed with developmental disabilities such as emotional disturbance and specific learning disabilities, the most common of which are Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). Some disabilities, such as severe autism, can profoundly limit the academic achievement of students. Other disabilities, such as mild ADD, have such subtle effects on learning that, until recently, they were rarely diagnosed and treated. Students with specific learning disabilities (LD) now compose the largest of the 13 subcategories of special education--more than 46 percent of all special education students (see Figure 1). …

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