Obama’s Special Education Policy – Duncan Speaks at CEC

arne_duncan_speech   When Secretary of Education Arne Duncan made room in his schedule on short notice to keynote the Council for Exceptional Children’s annual convention in Nashville this week it sent a clear message that students with special needs will be front and center in policy decisions from the Obama Administration.

The biggest message was his presence. It left no doubt about how seriously Obama and he feel about improving the lives of students with disabilities. This was welcome because much of the work they have done in this area so far has not been particularly visible.

He laid out a vision for the Administration’s education legislative priorities and the central role that serving people with disabilities will play in ESEA (aka NCLB). The linkages between ESEA and IDEA that were created during the era of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) will also be strengthened and improved.

What follows is a recap of the talk and some thoughts on what this means for the SPED community.

Special Education Is The Civil Rights Issue of Our Generation

He opened by observing that Obama and he believe every child deserves a world-class education. While almost everyone says this, a gap still exists between our aspirations and reality. Subtle prejudices and roadblocks still get in the way of people with special needs.

Most of the talk teed up the idea that we have a historic opportunity to full this promise for all students with the upcoming ESEA and IDEA reauthorizations.

The argument was initially framed around global competitiveness. America simply does not have expendable students if we are going to prosper in an increasingly globalized world.

But he closed this part of the speech by saying that serving students isn’t just about economics. It is a moral issue. In fact he called it “the civil rights issue of our generation.”

He hammered this point home by talking about how the civil rights battles of the 60’s for racial equality paved the way for IDEA in the mid-seventies for people with disabilities. He made a strong statement about how he and Obama are committed to making this promise a reality.

Personally I really appreciated his stand on the role of education in helping people live more fulfilling lives – regardless of the economics. I’m weary of every education policy discussion devolving into how schools are job readiness factories. Of course they are – but they are so much more than that.

Progress Not Perfection

Next he focused on what is working. We have made great strides in the 35 years since IDEA was enacted in making sure a disability shouldn’t stop any child from attending school and pursuing a career.

Students with special needs are no longer turned away at the door, housed in broom closets, or bused to a distant site. Today the 6 million students served by IDEA spend 80% of their time in inclusion classrooms and 95% are in a neighborhood schools.

He told a couple of heartwarming stories of students with special needs learning alongside their peers, eating lunch with them, making friends with them, and demonstrating real leadership in their schools. That society is willing to make this investment sends the message that disabilities alone do not define our work or our worth as human beings. Disabilities are not destiny.

He labeled all these successes are civil rights victories.

First Stop – Enforcement

Duncan at this point pointed out that will all the progress we still have not fulfilled the full promise of IDEA. The data shows us we are getting better – but we must get better faster.

By just about every measure students with disabilities are better educated than just a generation ago. The graduation rate, post secondary enrollment rate, and employment opportunities are increasing but they are all still too low. Students are leaving schools without the skills and knowledge they need to succeed.

The Obama Administration intends to work with schools, districts, and states to enforce existing laws. While this was a relatively passing remark it does mark a change in emphasis from prior administrations. Generally speaking enforcement of existing statutes has gotten short shrift over the past couple of decades (the IRS audit budget was cut dramatically while the economy grew).

For publishers who help districts meet their obligations under IDEA and ADA a renewed emphasis on enforcement means your customers will be open to solutions that help them meet both the spirit and the letter of the law.

ESEA Reauthorization Linked To IDEA

Making ESEA a building block for the subsequent IDEA reauthorization isn’t a new concept. Better integration began with NCLB. But it appears that Obama intends to create a much tighter link between the two, in fact Duncan specifically called it “one seamless approach.”

The administration also isn’t going to scrap NCLB. They want to build on what worked, but fix the things that didn’t. Much of this has been reported elsewhere.

What hasn’t gotten much press is that Special Education will be included in ALL aspects of ESEA. This is great news for the community of educators, professionals, parents, and publishers who serve this population. I believe part of why Duncan was willing to make the time to be in Nashville was simply to drive this point home.

There were three areas that he specifically called out with regard to Special Education – accountability, assessment, and teacher quality.


SPED will fully participate in ESEA’s accountability systems. NCLB did this right by requiring the participation of all students. This highlighted achievement gaps and forced districts to address populations that were underserved.

But NCLB’s assessment regime had a central flaw – it failed to measure and reward growth. From Duncan’s perspective we shouldn’t label solid progress towards goals as failure. “It is wrong, inaccurate, and demoralizing.” A school that progresses from 2 grade levels behind to 1 level behind has NOT failed – but under NCLB it has been labeled as such. He quipped that “NCLB has 50 ways to fail, very few to succeed.”
The new accountability system will be based mostly on student growth and will recognize schools that show meaningful gains. The law will continue to require teaching students with disabilities and schools will also have to improve the performance of the highest achieving students. The focus on subpopulations isn’t going away.

The vast majority of schools will also have more flexibility to implement locally designed ideas to reach the benchmarks. He believes the best ideas come from the local level.

This does not mean that schools with chronic gaps and poor performance get a pass. The school closure in Central Falls RI in February makes clear that Obama backs strong measures where needed.

In an interesting twist this accountability will also escalate to the district level. District level gaps in progress may not be apparent at the school level.

Assessment Grant Competition

In order for this to happen Duncan recognizes that states will have to significantly improve existing assessments – we must move beyond filling the bubble tests.

In the ESEA blueprint and Race to the Top (RTTT) they are putting investments in building the next generation of assessments. He specifically cited including technology to measure a range of skills that have been difficult to measure.

I think more importantly there will be an emphasis on formative assessments which provide real time feedback to improve teaching and learning.

Assessment reform is especially important for special education. The majority of SPED students take the regular state tests and a few can take alternate assessments. Building assessments that are both accessible and deliver meaningful information requires specialized expertise. The DOE will run a competition to improve special education testing tools.

Students with low incidence disabilities require the same quality of assessments but the development of those tools doesn’t make commercial sense given the size of the sub-groups. It makes enormous educational and civil rights sense – so we were pleased to see the government step in to make this possible. We were also excited to see that it will be run as a competition – allowing multiple approaches which will dramatically increase our odds of finding what works.

Teacher Quality

The last area he talked about is recognizing “the uniquely transformative power of good teachers.” The Obama Administration is investing $4 billion in recruiting, training, and retaining teachers. They are going to have a specific focus on high needs areas – which includes SPED.

This is great news because the turnover in Special Ed is so high. The maturity and classroom judgment that come from experience are at a real premium. Recruiting and rewarding teachers who choose this path is something everyone in the special needs community should celebrate.

Saving Education Jobs – Foundation for Reform

A final point. Secretary Duncan echoed his remarks to Congress last week about the pending catastrophe in teacher employment due to plunging state budgets. He made the point that education reform and saving education jobs go hand in hand. At this time we cannot afford to take a step backwards.

I commented on this last week and strongly encourage publishers to get involved in supporting this effort with whatever influence you have or can create in Washington.


It was really nice to see the Administration make a concerted effort to reach out to the professionals who serve students with special needs. It sent a strong message that the progress we have made in recently will not be lost, and in fact should be accelerated as education policy evolves in the next several years.

Watch the excerpts from the speech below: