Articles in the Special Education category

Webinar helps educators understand autism

The rising number of students with autism is impacting schools across the country, but new resources are available to help school boards and school staff members work with these children to help them cope with educational and social challenges.

NSBA’s National Affiliate program held a webinar, “The Key is Leadership: Success in School for Students with Autism,” cosponsored by Autism Speaks and the National Association of Elementary School Principals, to help school officials understand the disability.

The rates of autism have risen exponentially in the past 20 years, and now one in 110 children, and one in 70 boys, have been diagnosed with the neurological disorder, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Part of the reason for the increase is that pediatricians and school staff have become much more aware of the symptoms, which include social difficulties, communication challenges, and repetitive or odd behaviors.

The condition presents itself differently in each person, and each person acts and learns in different ways, noted Lisa Goring, the director of family services with Autism Speaks, an advocacy and educational group. “It’s often said if you’ve seen one person with autism, you’ve seen one person with autism,” she said.

The condition impacts a students’ schoolwork through their processing of concepts and behavioral disabilities. The challenge for schools is figuring out ways to work with their learning patterns. One example shown was a child who was offered pretzels, an apple, or graham crackers for a snack. The teacher always presented the options in that order and the boy always chose graham crackers, but he was usually unhappy and threw out his snack. A developmental specialist realized that the boy could not remember the choices and always chose the one that was presented last—so instead she showed pictures of each snack and the boy learned to choose the pretzels.

Like other disabilities, early detection and intervention is crucial to success—educators need to have a student evaluated if they suspect a developmental delay or specific sign of autism.

Another important factor for school officials to consider is the acceptance of the student with autism among their peers, said Peter Faustino, the school psychologist at Fox Lane Middle School in Bedford, N.Y. His school has set up a peer-buddy system to help students with autism better integrate into regular classes and socialize with their nondisabled peers. The program has also helped the other students empathize and accept the students with autism.

The Bedford school district also integrates information about autism into its professional development for teachers and administrators, who have been very receptive to the training, Faustino said.

“Autism can be looked at as another culture that we are trying to integrate into the school,” he said.

Autism Speaks offers a free kit to educators and advice on working with parents to provide a better educational experience, including a video, which can be downloaded at

This webinar, including the video, PowerPoint presentations, and additional resources, will be archived at

Joetta Sack-Min|March 24th, 2010|Categories: Curriculum, School Boards, Teachers, Special Education, Student Achievement, School Board News|

Keeping all students safe

Photo courtesy Stockvault

Photo courtesy Stockvault

Special education is one of the most complicated, misunderstood, and underreported facets of K-12 education. And for journalists, the factors that make special education topics so compelling—the emotions, the politics, and the money (lots of money)—are the same issues that give school board members angst.

Last week the U.S. House of Representatives passed the Keeping All Students Safe Act (formerly the Preventing Harmful Restraint and Seclusion in Schools Act),

 H.R. 4247, a bill that would mandate states and districts to monitor the use of restraints and seclusion or isolation in all classrooms, report actions to parents, and provide better training for teachers.

The bill is strongly supported by the disability community, but also by education groups including NSBA and the American Federation of Teachers, who typically advocate for local control for school officials on such issues. In spite of this endorsement, quite a few school board members are concerned—and rightly so–that this bill would lead to another unfunded mandate and paperwork for their districts.

Naomi Dillon|March 15th, 2010|Categories: Governance, Special Education, Policy Formation, American School Board Journal|Tags: , , |

Temple Grandin: The world needs all kinds of minds

In her recent TED talk, Temple Grandin, diagnosed with autism as a child, tells us how her mind works. She gives an overview of how people on the autism spectrum think and makes the case that the world needs those people: visual thinkers, pattern thinkers, verbal thinkers, and all kinds of smart geeky kids. She describes autism as “a continuum of traits. When does a nerd turn into Asperger’s, which is just mild autism? I mean Einstein and Mozart and Tesla, would all be probably diagnosed as autistic spectrum today.”

Grandin advocates that people on the autism spectrum need to be encouraged in school. The standardized testing scheme of the No Child Left Behind Act simply doesn’t work for neuroatypicals as she calls them. This is just one reason why the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) is important to our education system. One-size-fits-all is not an educational policy that will work for neuroatypicals. Individualized Education Programs (IEP) can do wonders for such students. 

More importantly, Grandin is not arguing that autistic students need such flexibility for their own interests alone; she contends that we as a society need these kids. The wonders to be found in the neuroatypical mind could be key to solving future problems.

Grandin also speaks her mind on certain education reforms. She advocates the need for classroom teachers who can teach a subject well, but who don’t necessarily have education degrees:

 And this brings up mentors. You know, my science teacher was not an accredited teacher. He was a NASA space scientist. Now, some states now are getting it to where if you have a degree in biology, or a degree in chemistry, you can come into the school and teach biology or chemistry. We need to be doing that. Because what I’m observing is the good teachers, for a lot of these kids, are out in the community colleges.

Mentorship is certainly an idea BoardBuzz can get behind. There are undoubtedly many bright young minds that just need the right mentor to help them find their talent and develop that potential. Grandin called on the TED audience to think about mentoring and hiring those kids.

She also joked that Silicon Valley would not exist today if it weren’t for those geeky neuroatypical minds, which drew a big laugh from the techie crowd. And she suggested that this next generation of kids with autism, properly mentored and motivated, could solve the world’s energy problems.

“The world needs different kinds of minds to work together,” she said. Check out the Ted Talk below or at the link above.

Erin Walsh|March 5th, 2010|Categories: Teachers, Special Education, Educational Legislation, Elementary and Secondary Education Act, Student Achievement, NSBA Opinions and Analysis|

Overuse of restraints in special education

More than a year ago, Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., head of the House Labor and Education Committee, began probing the use of seclusion and restraints in special education classrooms. At the time, those acts seemed to be rare and isolated.

But new research has, unfortunately, proved otherwise.

Not only are many schools and teachers frequently and improperly using those methods to punish students—sometimes for seemingly trivial behavioral issues— but also a handful of incidents have resulted in students’ deaths. And state and federal policies are lax in addressing the issue, which can leave districts unable to fire abusive teachers or reprimand inappropriate acts.  

In a story for the March ASBJ, I spoke to researcher Joseph B. Ryan, who was concerned about the training teachers are receiving. As part of a study that was used by Miller’s staff, he interviewed teachers and found that many had only received training on how to restrain, not when. Others, when asked about the prevalence of the use of restraints, cited policies and school rules, but when he examined incidence reports he found that the use of restraints was much more widespread than they acknowledged.

“It becomes a cultural situation—this is why parents and advocates are up in arms,” he said. “It’s an inappropriate response in the majority of times staff use it.”

Miller’s bill — which was passed by the House committee by a vote of 34 to 10 earlier this month — would create minimum safety standards for schools and require states to set and enforce policies. It prohibits a number of types of restraints deemed dangerous and requires schools to notify parents of incidents and report data to the U.S. Department of Education.

Since the story was published, NSBA has given another resounding endorsement to the measure.

“We believe that this legislation will meet our safety and other goals for students and school personnel while providing sufficient authority and flexibility to schools and school districts in training school personnel based on their unique needs,” NSBA associate executive director Michael A. Resnick wrote in a Jan. 25 letter to Rep. Miller. “The legislation is strategic and balanced in dealing with such factors as training, prohibiting the use of certain practices, and promoting positive learning supports.”

Joetta Sack-Min, Associate Editor

Kathleen Vail|February 17th, 2010|Categories: Governance, Teachers, Special Education, NSBA Publications, American School Board Journal|

Sen. Collins Receives Award From NSBA

Last year, as state governments confronted huge budget shortfalls in the face of a national economic meltdown, it was clear to Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) that the federal stimulus package under consideration needed money set aside specifically for public education.

“I cannot imagine what the state of our schools would have been without [that] money,” she told attendees during Monday’s Congressional Awards Luncheon at NSBA’s Annual Federal Relations Network Conference.

Collins, who was presented with an award of special recognition for her efforts in passing last year’s American Recovery & Reinvestment Act, offered some insight into the “extremely difficult” negotiations on the stimulus package that sometimes ran “deep into the night.”

The weeks that went into crafting the package were well spent, she said. In hard economic times “it is absolutely critical that the federal government provide relief to states . . . to help them avoid draconian cuts to critical education programs and prevent the loss of thousands of positions.”

Although she and a colleague lobbied for even more education money, Collins said, the final stimulus package still represented a solid investment in the nation’s schools—more than $90 billion.

Of that, she said, she was particularly pleased that $12.2 billion was set aside for programs under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).

“I fought particularly hard for more education money for special education programs, as [IDEA] is the granddaddy of all federal mandates,” she said, earning a round of applause.

Collins said putting more money into IDEA was only right. “I personally believe it’s essential that Congress fulfill the promise that was made in the 1970s, when it first passed IDEA, and that was for the federal government to pay 40 percent” of the mandate’s cost. “Think what a difference that would make.”

Now the fight for education funding turns to the fiscal 2011 budget proposal, which looks to boost education funding by $3 billion, she said.

As they prepared to head to Capitol Hill the next day to meet their elected representatives, conference attendees were encouraged by Collins to make their opinions known.  “You’re the ones on the front lines,” she said.

She should know. Over the years, she said, both her mother and younger brother had served on their local school boards.

“I know first-hand how important your service is,” she said, “and I understand very well how challenging it is, particular when you’re faced with such difficult economic times.”

Also recognized by NSBA’s Federal Relations Network for their outstanding service to public education in 2009 were Sen. Arlen Specter (D-Pa.) and Rep. David Obey (D-Wis.).

Del Stover, Senior Editor

Del Stover|February 1st, 2010|Categories: School Boards, FRN Conference 2010, Special Education, Educational Legislation, Educational Finance, School Board News|Tags: |

Let every service dog have its day

MSNBC reports today that an Illinois public school district is refusing to let a six-year-old autistic student “bring his yellow Labrador retriever, Chewey, to school.”  Apparently, Chewey is a service dog that helps the student with the emotional challenges faced by some children with autism.  “The dogs are trained to be a calming influence, providing a constant between home, school and other new places.”  Experts argue that this is essential in the case of children with autism, many of whom act out, because they “have trouble with changes in their environment.” Beyond, their ability to stem negative behaviors, the dogs can also help avoid physical danger.

For instance, sometimes as “in [this student’s] case, the dogs are tethered to children to prevent them from running off in dangerous situations.”

So, what’s the school district’s beef?  According to reports, the school says it is already providing adequate services and claims the dog is simply “a companion or comfort dog, not a true service dog.”  BoardBuzz is confused.  If the dog helps control the kinds of acting out that prevents a student from learning and may help prevent a child from walking off into traffic, how is this animal not a “true service dog?”  Moreover, isn’t the calming influence and its resulting ability to focus the kind of educational benefit the school district would welcome?  BoardBuzz doesn’t want to second-guess the district’s decision.  After all, there may be more to this pooch than meets the, er, fur?  For instance, the district may have had a concern about allergies, about the dog’s training, or even about the potential distraction an animal in the classroom might be, especially given the young age of these elementary school children. 

What BoardBuzz does know is that an outright ban on assistance animals, even those that aid students with autism, serves neither the school nor the student.

Christina Gordon|August 24th, 2009|Categories: Special Education, Wellness, School Security, Student Achievement, NSBA Opinions and Analysis|

Vouchers for spec ed students? Think twice

BoardBuzz read with suspicion the claim of a new Manhattan Institute report that private school vouchers can “slow the unnecessary growth” in special education.  The report concluded that vouchers deter the financial incentive for public schools to over-identify students with specific learning disabilities since an SLD diagnosis would make the student eligible for vouchers.

This conclusion over-simplified the many complex factors involving a diagnosis such as the characteristics of the student, the services and interventions needed, etc.  Just because a public school saw a reduction in the percentage of diagnoses, one cannot automatically attribute the reason to the presence of private schools.  In fact, the 2004 reauthorization of the federal IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act) requires schools to use early interventions prior to identification of a disability. This practice helps schools more accurately identify students who need special education services, therefore reducing potential identification.

The more important question here is whether these voucher students receive appropriate services and education after they leave the public school. Has their performance improved? Did they exit special education because they no longer need it? How are the voucher schools being held accountable? However, there are no answers to any of these questions because the information is not available to make an assessment.

The Manhattan report used Florida’s McKay program (which provides vouchers to students with disabilities) to gauge the changes in the percentage of students diagnosed with a disability in public schools. However, BoardBuzz wonders what good is the program if it doesn’t improve student outcomes but simply reduces the number of students diagnosed? Despite its popularity, the McKay program has not been proven effective, see the research here, and has not held participating private schools accountable for student outcomes.  In fact, when parents take their children out of the public school to attend a voucher school, they  give up a multitude of rights afforded under the IDEA. There are no requirements for participating private schools to report any information on student outcomes or follow any due process procedures.  As much as the No Child Left Behind Act has sparked new attention to raising the academic achievement of students with disabilities, vouchers are taking this accountability movement a giant step backward.

For more information on why vouchers are a bad policy, see NSBA‘s Voucher Strategy Center.

Katherine Shek|August 20th, 2009|Categories: Governance, Special Education, Educational Legislation, Privatization, NSBA Opinions and Analysis|

School law week with the Supremes

The U.S. Supreme Court often hands down a flurry of rulings toward the end of its term, and this year is no exception. What set last week apart, for those of us in the education world, was that we got three school law rulings. So here we go:

The special ed case

First, the Court gave us a long-awaited answer to the question of whether parents of a student who never has received special education services in public school can place their child in private school and get public reimbursement. With Justice Anthony Kennedy recusing himself in earlier cases on this question, the Court hadn’t been able to rule definitively.

But last week in Forest Grove v. T.A., the Court ruled that Oregon parents who’d initially agreed with their school district that their son was not eligible for special education services but later pulled him out, without notifying the district, and put him in a residential school, could sue to get reimbursed for the tuition—over $5,000 a month. The details of the ruling, the dissenting opinion, the background on the case, and NSBA’s friend-of-the-court brief all are available starting here, courtesy of NSBA’s Legal Clips.

The big question on everyone’s mind is what kind of fallout we can expect: Will parents who’d like a taxpayer-paid private school education for their children be less inclined to try to work in good faith with their public schools? NSBA General Counsel Francisco Negron tells NPR that this is the scenario that worries schools, and it surely isn’t what Congress had in mind. In the Los Angeles Times, NSBA Deputy General Counsel Naomi Gittins expresses hope that the impact will be limited, since “Most parents do try to work with the school district.” Charles P. Conroy, executive director of a Massachusetts private school, offers reassurance in a Boston Globe op-ed. In this entry on his Education Front blog, Dallas Morning News columnist William McKenzie agrees with the decision but worries that it “could cost districts a boatload of money.” Wall Street Journal columnist and blogger Sue Shellenbarger has mixed feelings.

The media flurry case

The case that got the most intense media interest was, naturally, the Arizona strip search case, Safford Unified Sch. Dist. #1 v. Redding, which BoardBuzz wrote about here. Here, again, the Court ruled that the search of a thirteen-year-old girl suspected of concealing pills went too far, given the limited danger from prescription Ibuprofen and the lack of any reason to think she was hiding the pills in her underwear. Luckily, though, the Court agreed that on a question like this, where even the judges themselves disagree so much, the law isn’t so clear cut that the educators should be personally liable if they made the wrong call. Again, Legal Clips has all the details and background starting here.

The implications? Well, for starters, Gittins tells McClatchy, school officials “will think long and hard before they authorize a strip search in the future.” That’s probably not a bad thing. But on NPR Negron warns that, as we said last week, the decision also casts uncertainty on searches for other kinds of dangerous contraband, like weapons. And even when it comes to what may seem like more minor threats, he reminds CNN, “The home medicine cabinet now poses a serious threat to students, who may take those medications for abusive purposes.” Watch for future litigation over how “dangerous” something is, he predicts.

The sleeper case

The third case was more obscure and very complex, but it was a biggie in a nation where public schools are tackling the enormous educational challenges of an incredibly diverse student population, and have limited resources ot get the job done. Horne v. Flores was an appeal of lower court rulings that the state of Arizona violated the federal Equal Educational Opportunity Act (EEOA) by failing to fund English language learner programs adequately. The state never complied with the lower court’s order to come up with some rational connection between the needs and the funding provided, but some state officials argued the situation had changed so much since then that the state shouldn’t have to. 

The Supreme Court ruled that the lower courts must consider more carefully certain subsequent changes in the educational situation which may mean Arizona no longer is violating the EEOA and should be relieved from complying with the orders on funding. Details from Legal Clips on the case, including Justice Stephen Breyer’s blistering dissent, start here. The Arizona Republic reports on reactions to the ruling here.

One thing that had education and civil rights advocates worried was an argument that the state’s progress with ELL students under No Child Left Behind automatically meant that the state also was complying with the EEOA. An “enormous can of worms” was how NSBA Senior Staff Attorney Tom Hutton described that argument in the journal Diverse: Issues in Higher Education when the case was argued: “How would this play out in the special education context? I have a hard time believing the court would go there.”

And in the end it didn’t go there—not quite, anyway. While the Court rejected the idea that NCLB compliance = EEOA compliance by definition, it did say NCLB was relevant to the question of whether overall circumstances have changed sufficiently that Arizona no longer is violating the EEOA. That’s the question the lower court will have to reevaluate now. The Associated Press reports that the lawyer representing the plaintiffs welcomes the opportunity.

The Supremes to school officials

After such a busy week shaping school law, perhaps it’s fitting that a speech Chief Justice John Roberts gave over the weekend generated a message for school officials. The Associated Press reports that the Chief Justice said they shouldn’t “look to the Supreme Court to set school rules, only to clarify them when officials have abdicated that responsibility.”

Roberts called the Court’s rulings “clarity intended to deal with narrow issues that surface from government actions,” adding, “You can’t expect to get a whole list of regulations from the Supreme Court. That would be bad. We wouldn’t do a good job at it.”

True enough. But the downside of narrow guidance probably is more lawsuits, as everyone learns how to apply these rulings.

Tom Hutton|June 30th, 2009|Categories: Governance, School Law, Special Education, Elementary and Secondary Education Act, Educational Finance, School Security, NSBA Opinions and Analysis|Tags: |

Snapshot or portfolio?

In education circles, it is common knowledge that the pendulum is always swinging.  What was popular ten years ago is passé, but what was popular 20 years ago may be on its way back into fashion.  In the current “accountability age,” states and the federal government have dictated that snapshot testing, where one test on one day determine mastery of a subject, is the most effective way to measure a student’s knowledge (and in many cases, a teacher’s effectiveness).  Virginia is swinging the pendulum back a ways, and looking at grading portfolios for some students.

Today’s Washington Post has a story about Virginia teachers taking over the Dulles Expo Center (other recent  uses include The Big Flea (market), Home and Garden Expo, and Super Pet Expo) where they gathered to grade more than 30,000 student portfolios for students with disabilities or beginning English skills.  Envision the largest big-box store you’ve ever seen, line it up with tables and chairs, and fill it with coffee-cup-carrying teachers ready to assess their [behinds] off.  The benefits of portfolios are still being argued.  Many teachers and administrators like the fact that students are looked at over the course of the year, and information can be inserted into the portfolio in November and again in March, to show progress, rather than the snapshot approach of a high stakes test.  But the pass rate is often much higher in portfolios, making skeptics wonder if it’s an accurate assessment.  According the the Post, students with portfolio grading passed 94 percent of the time in reading, while the traditional “bubble” method passed just 79 percent of the time in Fairfax County. 

The debate will likely roll on.  For school board members, it gives a district more local control, but it also adds hours and hours of prep time for teachers and school staff, which translates into more money being spent on the overhead costs of portfolio-style testing.  To do this statewide, especially in large and urban districts, would take a massive amount of time and energy.  But if it’s a more accurate assessment and demonstrates what a student is accomplishing over a period of an entire school year instead of just one day in May or June, is it worth it?

Kevin Scott|June 9th, 2009|Categories: Curriculum, Teachers, Special Education, Student Achievement, NSBA Opinions and Analysis|

Juicing for grades?

A new government funded report shows that students with ADHD who are on medication perform better on standardized tests than students who aren’t taking anything to treat the issue. According to one of the researchers:

“Our study found that the children with ADHD who used the medication were several months ahead of their nonmedicated peers in reading and math, which is significant because early progress in school is critical to ongoing academic success,” Scheffler said.

Scheffler said children with ADHD who are left untreated do poorly in school, with higher dropout rates and more substance abuse, arrests and social isolation.  “They’re labeled as bad kids,” he said in a telephone interview. “Drugs are part of the answer. But we need parent involvement, understanding what this is and how to work with the kid. We need the school to be involved. We also think that special services like tutoring need to be made available.”

The Reuters article also points out that boys are more likely to be labeled as ADHD than girls.  There has been a lot of debate over drugs and students for a long time.  Many think that we over-drug students, while if you ask many teachers, they might say more students are eligible for testing.  ADHD does not qualify a student for special education assistance, oftentimes they are listed as “other health impairment” and get very limited services from the school they attend.  These medications may help, but there are questions over the long term effects.  One thing BoardBuzz certainly agrees with from the article-it takes more than the school system to help students struggling with ADD and ADHD.  Parents, students, and schools need to work harmoniously to help the students who need assistance.

Kevin Scott|April 27th, 2009|Categories: Governance, Special Education, Wellness, Student Achievement, NSBA Opinions and Analysis|
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