How Can ESSA Help Students With Disabilities?

Teri Marx

This is the third in a series of posts about ESSA’s implications for student subgroups. 

While the special education community awaits reauthorization of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), which ensures educational services to children with disabilities throughout the nation, new provisions in the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) could have positive impacts on special education, students with disabilities, and possibly the IDEA itself. Without explicitly addressing the needs of students with disabilities, ESSA demands that states improve student performance and prepare all students for college and careers.

Here’s how: 

1. Build Better Accountability.

Historically, students with disabilities have not performed well on annual statewide assessments, which ESSA still requires. Many students with disabilities in both fourth and eighth grades lack basic reading and math skills. In particular, the percentage of eighth grade students with disabilities who lack basic math skills has risen by 3 percent since 2013. Similarly, when compared to how their non-disabled peers perform, fourth and eighth grade students with disabilities’ lag behind on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (2015) by more than 30 percentage points in reading and math.

Under ESSA, new accountability reporting requirements put the power in states’ hands to improve results. States must develop accountability plans for low-performing districts and schools or students, including students with disabilities, who are not progressing on annual statewide assessments or other specified accountability measures.

2. Develop Effective Teachers and Leaders.

Since most students with disabilities spend most of their school time in general education classrooms, ESSA’s focus on developing effective teachers and leaders has the potential to improve student performance while reducing special education teacher shortages. ESSA removes the burdensome requirement that all special education teachers be certified in a content area plus special education. The new aim is to increase the ability of teachers and leaders to effectively instruct learners, including students with disabilities.

The new law also requires states to develop programs and activities that improve the ways educators identify and meet the needs of students with disabilities. ESSA allocates funds for induction and mentoring initiatives, which a recent study notes that teachers have cited as among the most influential factors contributing to their effectiveness.

ESSA also encourages states and districts to develop or expand teacher academies and principal residency programs that focus on professional growth and development. Increased clinical practice opportunities, induction, and mentoring can improve coordination among special education teachers, general education teachers, and school administrators.

3. Increase Learner Access to Effective Instructional Practices

ESSA also emphasizes the use of preventative frameworks, including multi-tiered systems of support (MTSS) and positive behavioral interventions and supports (PBIS), to increase learner access to effective academic and behavioral instruction. Rooted in special education, these incorporate evidence-based interventions, activities, and strategies—approaches with demonstrated statistically significant effects on learner outcomes.

An MTSS framework helps school teams use student-level data to match instruction to student need. Students with more severe and persistent needs may require more intensive evidence-based interventions, but research shows that progress in reading, mathematics, and behavior is greater if they have them.

AIR’s National Center on Intensive Intervention helps districts and schools build their capacity to meet the needs of learners requiring individualized support. The National PBIS Center helps districts and schools implement school-wide PBIS to build positive school climates that help improve behavioral and academic outcomes. MTSS and PBIS can increase students with disabilities’ access to general education classrooms and curriculum, ultimately leading to progress toward college- and career-ready standards.

Other ESSA-recognized efforts, such as work done by AIR’s National Center for Safe Supportive Learning Environments, may be incorporated into a PBIS framework, including student mental health and trauma-informed services. For students with disabilities, these activities must be aligned with IDEA principles.

In a presidential campaign year, most policy observers foresee little movement on IDEA reauthorization. But ESSA gives states a new leverage point for continuing to develop teachers and leaders who can effectively instruct all students, including students with disabilities.

Teri Marx is a former school social worker and a researcher with AIR. She has been providing technical assistance to states, districts, and schools focused on improving outcomes for students with disabilities.