Advocates for students with disabilities who have been defending the Department of Education’s special education reforms in the face of mounting criticism are coming to the end of their rope.
They have been calling on the city for years to integrate more students with special needs in mainstream classrooms and were cautiously optimistic in 2010 when the department launched a pilot aimed at doing just that.
But two years into the pilot, with the ambitious initiative set to scale citywide this fall, no one outside of the Department of Education has any solid idea how the initiative has worked so far. Even after extending the pilot for a year, the department has released scant information about what has happened to the schools and students involved in it.
“We’ve been asking for more information forever, essentially,” said Maggie Moroff, who heads the ARISE Coalition of special education advocates, which this week sent a letter of concern to top department officials.
Details have come out in dribs and drabs. One slideshow that department officials have presented shows that attendance and test scores for students with special needs in the pilot schools did not improve. The data points the department touts most often is that students in the pilot schools were referred to special education less frequently and moved into less restrictive environments more often than in comparable schools not participating in the pilot.
But those data points say only that schools did what they were asked to do: aim for placing fewer students in special education classes, for less time. When it comes to more complex and, according to advocates and special education experts, more meaningful data points, the department has been mum.
Has the move toward inclusion affected all kinds of students equally? the advocates have asked. Have suspensions of students with disabilities declined in the pilot schools? Are parents more satisfied with their children’s placements? How have teachers in the pilot schools been trained? What is the department learning about instruction for students with special needs? How has implementation varied from school to school?
So far, they have not gotten answers. The silence is one of the chief reasons that the ARISE Coalition formally informed the department this week of its concerns about schools’ readiness to handle new expectations about how they serve students with special needs. Among the requests in the letter is for a thorough and public review of the initiative’s first phase.
“There are certain questions that we have asked again and again and again,” Moroff said. “The members of the coalition are really concerned and they really need to have these questions answered.”
Moroff said multiple meetings with top department officials have given her confidence that the special education reforms were conceived with students’ best interests at heart. And she said the department has responded to some of the coalition’s suggestions, for example setting up an information hotline for parents of children who are turning five and entering the public school system for the first time.
But she said coalition members are growing increasingly alarmed that the next phase of the reforms is approaching and the department has not come forward with more substantive results.
Department officials say a detailed review of the pilot’s second year is underway and that a review of the first year’s results suggested that changes to how students with special needs are evaluated had resulted in students who might mistakenly have been classified as having a disability in the past not being placed in special education classes.
“We know that when students with disabilities have greater access to the general education curriculum and their non-disabled peers, they have a higher likelihood of succeeding academically,” said Deidrea Miller, a department spokeswoman, in a statement.
But some special education advocates say they suspect the department’s silence masks bad news.
“Knowing this administration, if they had something something good to report they would report it,” said Carmen Alvarez, the UFT’s vice president for special education. The UFT is one of the ARISE Coalition’s 45 members.
Alvarez said teachers are reporting widespread confusion about what they will be expected to do differently this fall as more students with special needs begin to enter their classes. Elizabeth Truly, another UFT official who works on special education issues, said the department would not even tell the union how many schools have sent teachers to special education training sessions at Columbia University’s Teachers College.
Members of the Citywide Council on Special Education, an elected parent group, are hearing similar concerns from families who have gotten mixed messages and, sometimes, incorrect messages from schools, according to member Lori Podvesker.
“So many of the teachers don’t know what’s going on,” Podvesker said. “There is lots of rhetoric out there that’s not correct because they’re not getting information from central.”
The advocacy community is torn about what to do about the department’s silence. On the one hand, advocates have long pushed the city to include students with disabilities more robustly in general education settings, and they are hesitant to derail that shift once it has begun. The elected parent council for Manhattan’s District 2 has alone formally asked the department to slow down the reforms until more information is available about their impact and schools’ readiness to move forward.
But advocates are also concerned that the department is rushing headlong into change and not examining whether the special education reforms could be implemented in a way that’s better for students with special needs.
“We’re worried that schools don’t get what’s expected of them and that they have not gotten the support they need — and that they are not going to get the ongoing support that they need,” Moroff said.
The City Council’s education committee is holding a hearing about the special education reforms June 12.