Pie in the Special-Ed Sky?

The Education Department has been slowly gathering itself together over the past decade to review states’ mandatory annual IDEA “performance plans” on the basis of student outcomes, in addition to bureaucratic compliance with sundry procedural and data-reporting requirements.

In giving feedback to the states a year ago, for example, Melody Musgrove (who directs the Office of Special Education Programs at ED) forewarned chiefs that ED was redesigning their monitoring system into “a more balanced approach that considers results as well as compliance.”’

Yesterday, they made considerable news by basing their latest round of feedback on criteria that include how a state’s disabled students fare on NAEP and the size of achievement gaps that separate those pupils from “all children on regular statewide assessments.” Further changes are promised for subsequent years, including student-growth data based on statewide assessments. Also promised is a reduction in compliance-style reporting and data burdens.

Based on this analysis, the feds then sort states into three buckets labeled “meets requirements,” “needs assistance,” and “needs intervention.” And the inclusion of outcomes data really does turn out to make a difference. Whereas in previous years almost every state and territory (forty-one last year, to be specific) fell into the first bucket, this year just eighteen do. (There’s a fourth bucket entitled “needs substantial intervention,” but at present, no state has been placed there.)

Among the many “sinkers”: Ohio, which went from bucket 1 to bucket 2, and Delaware, which declined from 2 to 3.

But what exactly does it mean to need assistance or intervention? Besides slightly different wording in Dr. Musgrove’s annual feedback letter, does anything change in the real world? So far as I can tell, the cascade of things that are supposed to follow from a “needs assistance” (or “needs intervention”) finding looks awfully much like what was supposed to happen to schools and districts under NCLB. Enough consecutive years outside bucket 1 and your state must devise a corrective action plan—that sort of thing. Mess up for even more years and the feds are supposed to “enter into a compliance agreement” with the state (though it strikes me that all of IDEA is an immense compliance agreement from the get-go). Theoretically, the feds may also wind up withholding some of a state’s IDEA payment, but it’s hard to picture that really happening in the future any more than in the past. (Not!)

Nobody denies that youngsters with disabilities generally lag farther behind other kids academically than is necessary or defensible, and almost nobody denies that the federal special-ed program these past forty years has been more concerned with services, procedures, and compliance than with anybody learning anything. The most recent IDEA reauthorization (2004) adopted a bit of the results-orientation of NCLB (though it didn’t foreswear any appreciable amount of compliance-style regulation). A decade later, the Education Department seems to be starting to take that seriously.

Is this a good thing? Yes and no. Yes, results are what matter in education—and yes again if ED really does reduce the data-and-compliance burden in years ahead.

But no if this turns out to be its own unrealistically ambitious federal regulatory scheme, no if it amounts to a bunch of plan writing and plan reviewing that yields no real change on the ground, and no if it further complicates what is already a hugely challenging transition in most states to higher academic standards and new forms of assessment.

Almost every time one looks at an Education Department initiative nowadays, one is forced to wonder why they persist in thinking that education utopia can be attained via federal regulation. Their hearts are often in the right place, and the system-performance problems that concern them are real. But is it within the competence (not to mention the legal authority) of the federal government to solve those problems, or will their efforts to do so simply make things worse for educators, school leaders, and policymakers in the places that really matter?

– Chester E. Finn, Jr.

This first appeared on the Fordham Institute’s Flypaper blog.

Last Updated


Notify Me When Education Next

Posts a Big Story

Business + Editorial Office

Program on Education Policy and Governance
Harvard Kennedy School
79 JFK Street, Cambridge, MA 02138
Phone (617) 496-5488
Fax (617) 496-4428
Email Education_Next@hks.harvard.edu

For subscription service to the printed journal
Phone (617) 496-5488
Email subscriptions@educationnext.org

Copyright © 2024 President & Fellows of Harvard College