Inadequate Teaching May Soon Become a Thing of the Past for Many Special Needs Kids

The Department of Education has just made their largest investment ever in improving education for students with disabilities.

With the goal of establishing a cohesive system to effectively train teachers who work with disabled children, the department's Office of Special Education Programs has granted $25 million over the next five years to the University of Florida’s College of Education.

“What’s happening now is a perfect storm in a good way,” UF special education professor Mary Brownell says. Brownell is one of the principal investigators in the midst of creating the Collaboration for Educator Development and Accountability and Reform (the CEDAR Center). Starting in January, the CEDAR Center will work with select states to help them bolster training for special education teachers, general teachers, and school district leaders—all of whom work directly with special needs children.

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Since 1975, Bronwell explains, the federal government has made it law to provide disabled students with specialized teaching according to their needs. Ten to 12 percent of the student population has a documented need for special education services, but these students spend 60 to 80 percent of their days in general education settings—where often a teacher has had little, if any, special education training. Students with disabilities fare worse than any other subgroup in school, she says, but with more precise, effective instruction they can be highly successful after high school. “General education is essential to their elective education—without an elective general education, they are unlikely to achieve good outcomes.”

It is therefore imperative that all teachers understand how to work with students with disabilities, especially since the Common Core State Standards, which have been adopted by 46 states, have created more rigorous achievement goals for public school children. There are no uniform measures that efficiently prepare general teachers and school leaders on how to help special needs students achieve these goals. “Can students with disabilities achieve these standards the way they are currently being educated?” Brownell asks. “A lot of people would say no.”

Brownell has helped develop the CEDAR Center with three goals in mind: to better prepare and train all teachers and leaders for working with special needs children; to create preparatory programs at the university or district level that operationalize these standards and teach evidence-based practices for improving the lot for students with disabilities; and to revise state teacher evaluations to align with these higher standards.

We live in an age of accountability—we want to improve results for all children, including those with disabilities.

“Unless we shore these three pieces up in a collaborative fashion, there is no [national] vision for students with disabilities,” she says. “This center was funded to accomplish this vision.”

The University of Florida is partnering with nine organizations, primarily with the American Institutes for Research (AIR), to develop this special-education reform program. Over the next five years, CEDAR will work with $5 million each year to add states to the program, totaling 20 states by the end of the grant period.

“We live in an age of accountability—we want to improve results for all children, including those with disabilities,” Dr. Maurice McInerney, AIR’s senior advisor on CEDAR says. He says they plan to work with state agencies, universities, and local school districts to coordinate partnerships, develop coherent leadership, and create a vision for changing personnel systems through training, technical assistance and support. “The point of the center is to take what we know from our research and knowledge base and put it into practice at state and local levels with proven results for children.”

While only 20 states (who can start applying for CEDAR assistance in January) will be selected and targeted for CEDAR training over the next five years, McInerney says all of their work will be transparent and accessible on the program’s upcoming website. There, he says, all states can find support and training referrals.

Brownell hopes that within two years, the CEDAR Center will have clear results in the first five states. “There should be substantial effort [within the first year] on how these states operationalize their standards in leadership and teacher programs,” she says. “By the second year, they should have a good sense on how to revise their programs and implement the standards in their preparation with evidence-based practices.”

In other words, this grant will soon start to improve the quality of education for the children who need it the most. “This is exciting,” Brownell says simply. “It means a lot for kids with disabilities.”

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Kristin Kloberdanz is a freelance writer based in the San Francisco Bay area. She has written for Time, the Chicago Tribune and about everything from economic crises and political snafus to best summer beach reads.