What Will It Take to Meet New Mandate for Students with Disabilities?

Lou Danielson

What Will It Take to Meet New Mandate for Students with Disabilities? - Story Sidebar

Thanks to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), seven million children with disabilities in the United States have the right to be educated in public schools to the same high academic standards as their peers without disabilities. But doing this well requires access to research, tools, teacher training, and financial resources.

In the more than 40 years since this law was passed, educational outcomes for students with disabilities have improved, but large achievement gaps remain between students with and without disabilities. Schools continue to struggle to provide educational services that equip students with disabilities to achieve their maximum potential.

In a unanimous decision in March, the Supreme Court ruled in Endrew F. v Douglas County School District that the IDEA requires schools to provide meaningful educational benefits that are “reasonably calculated” to enable students with disabilities to make progress “in light of the child’s circumstances.” The decision is notable because it rejects a lower court’s decision in 2008 that a district must provide “merely more than de minimus” educational benefit for students with disabilities.

This reversal solidifies the intent behind IDEA, which is that children with disabilities can meet challenging standards, and schools must support them so they succeed.

What does this decision mean for students with disabilities and the schools that educate them? In cases where students with disabilities are thriving, perhaps not much. But in instances where schools and districts have persistent low outcomes for this population, this decision supports families that continue to demand a higher standard of educational benefit for their children. And it puts pressure on those schools to improve the ways they provide individualized educational programs that meet the unique needs of each child with a disability.

Unfortunately, too many schools and districts do not have the capacity to access and implement the research-based tools, interventions, and strategies to do this effectively. In fact, research tells us that:

  • Programs that have been validated by research to work are not universally effective. Approximately 5 percent of all students need more help.
  • To learn new information, students with disabilities often require 10-30 times more practice than their peers without disabilities.

Students with disabilities require education supports that are individualized and based on frequent, ongoing analysis of multiple sources of data. Educators who teach students with disabilities need to know how to

  • set reasonable goals and monitor achievement toward those goals using reliable and valid progress monitoring tools, and
  • use progress monitoring data to adapt and customize interventions to meet the unique needs of students with disabilities. This is a skill set that unfortunately is too often missing, or simply under-supported, in schools.

But there’s hope.

The U.S. Office of Special Education Program’s (OSEP) recent Results-Driven Accountability (RDA) initiative requires states to set ambitious, measurable outcome targets for their students with disabilities, and to implement and monitor plans to achieve these goals. And with about $237 million in funding from discretionary programs authorized under Part D of the IDEA, the Office can help educators implement evidence-based strategies and practices that build the capacity of educators to meet these ambitious goals.

AIR leads or partners in several federally funded centers, including the National Center on Intensive Intervention, National Center for Systemic Improvement, and the Collaboration for Effective Educator Development Accountability and Reform Center, that are helping states scale up and sustain these strategies.

Additionally, states and institutions of higher education are benefiting from Part D-funded personnel preparation and statewide professional development grants that get research-based knowledge on assessment and instructional strategies into the hands of special educators and special education teaching candidates.

These Part D-funded projects are critical for ensuring that money allocated to states through IDEA Parts B and C—nearly $13 billion to support direct services for students with disabilities—can be put to good use. Without adequate training and technical assistance on evidence-based strategies, states will likely struggle to ensure that students with disabilities receive meaningful educational benefits, as guaranteed by IDEA—and now required by the nation’s highest court.

Allison Gandhi is a managing researcher and director of the special education work at AIR. She specializes in evaluation of the implementation of special education programs and policies, including response to intervention and multi-tiered systems of support.

Louis Danielson is a managing director at AIR and director of the National Center on Intensive Intervention. He has worked in special education policy and research for more than 35 years.