Higher Expectations to Better Outcomes for Children with Disabilities

President Obama has said that we are stronger when America fields a full team. Unfortunately, too many of the 6.5 million children and youth with disabilities in this country leave high school without the knowledge and skills they need to be successful in a 21st century, global economy. While the vast majority of students in special education do not have significant cognitive impairments that prohibit them from learning rigorous academic content, fewer than 10 percent of eighth graders with disabilities are proficient in reading and math on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). Too often, students’ educational opportunities are limited by low expectations. We must do better.

That’s why the Department is changing the way it holds states accountable for the education of students with disabilities. For many years, the Department primarily focused on whether states were meeting the procedural requirements of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Generally, we have seen significant improvement in compliance.

But if kids are leaving high school without the ability to read or do math at a high-school level, compliance is simply not enough. This year, we also focused on improving results when we made determinations as to whether states are effective in meeting the requirements and purposes of IDEA.

With this year’s IDEA determinations, we looked at multiple outcome measures of student performance, including the participation of students with disabilities in state assessments, proficiency gaps in reading and math between students with disabilities and all students, and performance in reading and math on NAEP.

I believe this change in accountability represents a significant and long-overdue raising of the bar for special education. Last year, when we only considered compliance data in making annual determinations, 41 states and territories met requirements.


This year, however, when we include data on how students are actually performing, only 18 states and territories meet requirements.


In enacting IDEA, Congress recognized that improving educational results for children with disabilities is an essential element of our national policy of ensuring equality of opportunity, full participation, independent living, and economic self-sufficiency for individuals with disabilities.  We must do everything we can to support states, school districts, and educators to improve results for students with disabilities. We must have higher expectations for our children, and hold ourselves as a nation accountable for their success.

Michael Yudin is Acting Assistant Secretary for the Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services at the U.S. Department of Education.

Building a High Quality Early Learning System

As part of the Secretary’s Strong Start, Bright Future back-to-school bus tour, I had the opportunity to meet with early learning providers, parents, and children in Las Cruces, N.M. Las Cruces, situated near the Mexico border, has a large Hispanic community and is surrounded by small rural farming villages. It was chile harvest time and the smell of roasting green chile was in the air.

Michael Yudin during school visitLas Cruces and Doña Ana County are served by three early intervention agencies under contract with the New Mexico Department of Health, Family Infant Toddler (FIT) Program. The FIT Program is the lead agency for the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (Part C) and ensures that families of children birth to age three with, or at risk of, developmental delays and disabilities have access to quality early intervention services, no matter where they live. In New Mexico, that can mean serving families in large urban areas, rural towns and small villages, tribal communities, and those families living on ranches separated by long dirt roads. I was thrilled to personally witness the passion, commitment, and dedication of the individuals and organizations involved in making sure that families get the supports and services they need, in the language and culture appropriate to the family.    

Of course, children receiving Part C services are children first, and have the same need for high-quality early care and learning opportunities as their nondisabled peers.  Fortunately, for the children and families in Doña Ana County, providers of Part C services, Head Start, Early Head Start, home visitation, child care, and the public preschools all work together to ensure that some of our most vulnerable babies have access to high-quality early learning.

For New Mexico, it starts with rigorous outreach, public awareness, and home visitation to identify infants and toddlers who are eligible for early intervention services.  According to Andy Gomm, the State FIT Director, “we make sure families know that early intervention can make a lifetime of difference.” Part C early intervention services provide critical supports and services to our youngest children with disabilities or delays so they too can enter kindergarten ready to succeed.

But Part C services are not an educational placement. Young children with disabilities need these services as part of their early learning experience. To be most effective, these services should be delivered in inclusive early care and education settings.

With scarce resources, the providers in Doña Ana County work collaboratively and share those resources, tools, professional development, and training to make sure that families get the early care and education their children need. Parents expressed how important it is for these providers to work together so their children can experience seamless, high-quality early learning.

During the trip, I also had the opportunity to visit with the amazing folks at “Jardin de los Niños,” who provide early care and education, as well as parent support services, to homeless families. One of the highlights was playing in the sand box with a little girl who offered to “bake me a chocolate cake” out of sand. These educators and other providers are truly creating new possibilities for homeless and near homeless children and families.

The dedicated and passionate early care and education providers of Doña Ana County are working together to meet the diverse needs of young children and families in their community. They’re building a high-quality early learning system, giving our children the best opportunity for a strong start and a bright future.

Michael Yudin is acting assistant secretary for ED’s Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services

Keeping Students with Disabilities Safe from Bullying

As Secretary Duncan has noted, the Department of Education is committed to making sure that all of our young people grow up free of fear, violence, and bullying. Bullying not only threatens a student’s physical and emotional safety at school, but fosters a climate of fear and disrespect, creating conditions that negatively impact learning—undermining students’ ability to achieve to their full potential. Unfortunately, we know that children with disabilities are disproportionately affected by bullying.

back_to_school_billboardFactors such as physical vulnerability, social skills challenges, or intolerant environments may increase the risk of bullying. Students who are targets of bullying are more likely to experience lower academic achievement, higher truancy rates, feelings of alienation, poor peer relationships, loneliness, and depression. We must do everything we can to ensure that our schools are safe and positive learning  environments—where all students can learn.

To that end, today, ED’s Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services (OSERS) issued guidance to educators and stakeholders on the matter of bullying of students with disabilities. This guidance provides an overview of school districts’ responsibilities to ensure that students with disabilities who are subject to bullying continue to receive free appropriate public education (FAPE) under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Under IDEA, States and school districts are obligated to ensure that students with disabilities receive FAPE in the least restrictive environment (LRE). This guidance explains that any bullying of a student with disabilities which results in the student not receiving meaningful educational benefit is considered a denial of FAPE. Furthermore, this letter notes that certain changes to an educational program of a student with a disability (e.g., placement in a more restricted “protected” setting to avoid bullying behavior) may constitute a denial of FAPE in the LRE.

Schools have an obligation to ensure that a student with disabilities who is bullied, continues to receive FAPE as outlined in his or her individualized education program (IEP). IEPs, as well as 504 plans, can be useful in outlining specialized approaches for preventing and responding to bullying, as well as providing additional supports and services to students with disabilities. This guidance also offers effective evidence-based practices for preventing and addressing bullying.

“This guidance is a significant step forward for students facing bullying,” said Ari Ne’eman, President of the Autistic Self Advocacy Network, a leading national advocacy organization. “We applaud and commend the Department for reinforcing that when a child is being bullied, it is inappropriate to ‘blame the victim’ and remove them from the general education classroom. School districts have an obligation to address the source of the problem –the stigma and prejudice that drives bullying behavior.”

Bullying of any student simply cannot be tolerated in our schools. A school where children don’t feel safe is a school where children struggle to learn. Every student deserves to thrive in a safe school and classroom free from bullying.

Please see the Dear Colleague Letter on bullying and its accompanying enclosure below or on this OSERS policy letters page.

For additional information on preventing bullying, please visit StopBullying.gov and view ED’s “It Gets Better” video.

Michael Yudin is acting assistant secretary for ED’s Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services

All Means All – Duncan Addresses IDEA Conference

All means all, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said during his keynote address to the IDEA Leadership Conference last week. “Children with disabilities are a part of, not separate from, the general education population,” he said.

IDEA Conference LogoThe annual gathering brings together Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) Part B State Directors, IDEA Part C Coordinators, Preschool Coordinators, Parent Center leaders, and other Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP) technical assistance providers, and aims to support better outcomes for infants, toddlers, children and youth with disabilities and their families. There are more than six million children with disabilities in the U.S. and Duncan noted that there is still work still to be done to improve educational outcomes for students with disabilities.

One of Duncan’s priorities during his second term is President Obama’s Preschool for All plan. Duncan said that through the plan “we have an opportunity to give every child in America an equal chance to succeed.”

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act has a long, successful history of ensuring that infants, toddlers and preschoolers with disabilities have access to early education services. We will use what we have learned from those programs as we move forward in supporting the development of high-quality preschool programs for 4-year-olds.

Currently, of the nearly 746,000 preschool children served in IDEA-funded preschool programs, about 35 percent are in segregated settings. We want to see all children participating fully in quality, inclusive programs.

Duncan said that the Preschool for All proposal will result in more inclusive early education options for preschoolers with disabilities. This increase in options will help to identify children with disabilities earlier, giving them a strong start.

Read the entire speech by Secretary Duncan and visit the 2013 IDEA Leadership Conference page and the TA&D Network for more information and resources.

Cameron Brenchley is director of digital strategy at the U.S. Department of Education 

Youth Succeed with Great Educators, Help from ED

Think back to that moment when you decided to pursue your dream. Who influenced your decision? A mentor? A parent? Or maybe a friend? For many people, their moment was sparked by an educator.

Earlier this month, the Department of Education (ED) welcomed four individuals to participate in an ‘ED Youth Voices’ panel discussion that introduced students, teachers, and communities to the policies and programs that the four youth credit with helping them succeed.

Let us introduce you to these inspiring individuals:

Student speaking

Linda Moktoi, senior at Trinity Washington University

Meet Linda Moktoi. As a current senior at Trinity Washington University, Moktoi is proud to say she’ll be achieving her dream of graduating college in just a few short weeks.  “I chose to pursue knowledge over ignorance,” she said. Moktoi did so with the financial support provided by Pell Grants from ED’s Office of Federal Student Aid. Moktoi’s grace, confidence, and determination shined through and will no doubt lead her to succeeding her next dream of becoming a news broadcaster.



Student speaking about GEAR UP program

Nicholas Robinson, junior at Potomac High School

Meet Nicholas Robinson. An enthusiastic junior at Potomac High School (Oxon Hill, Md.), spoke of how the early awareness college prep program GEAR UP, changed his “mind & heart” in 8th grade about whether to go to college. “Before I got involved in GEAR UP, I didn’t think I was going to college, but they were always asking me what I wanted to do, where I wanted to go and who I wanted to be.” That extra support and guidance has helped Nicholas stay on track to graduate and focus on his future goals.


Educator speaking about IDEA Act

Scott Wilburn, teacher at Pulley Career Center

Meet Scott Wilbur. As a current teacher and former student that struggled with learning disabilities, Wilbur shed light on how programs funded by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) helped him as a student and continues to help him serve others with disabilities as a teacher at the Pulley Career Center in Alexandria, Va. “IDEA provided me with access to support, helped me graduate college,” Wilbur said. Each year the IDEA Act helps thousands of students with disabilities receive support to assure success in the classroom and that they have the tools needed for employment and independent living in the future.

Student speaking about School Improvement Grants

Carl Mitchell, senior at Frederick Douglass High School

Meet Carl Mitchell. Carl is just one of the many students that have benefited from the recent changes at Frederick Douglass High School spurred in part by an ED School Improvement Grant (SIG) which has helped turnaround their school and provide a better learning environment for students. Mitchell, a bright college bound senior who also doubles as the school mascot (Go Mighty Ducks!), attested to the sense of community that is fostered at Frederick Douglass. When asked what motivates him, he responded by saying “It’s not just about getting the degree for me, it’s for all the people that helped me. I owe them and don’t want to let them down.” An aspiring graphic designer, Mitchell will be the first in his family to attend college. His support team, including his principal, teachers, and peers joined him at ED as he proudly represented the Douglass community.

Linda, Nicholas, Scott, and Carl are just four of the millions of students and educators that are able to achieve their dreams with the help of great educators and federal programs from the Department of Education. Little do these individuals know though, that by sharing their story they are following in the footsteps of those who inspired them, and are inspiring us.

Kelsey Donohue is a senior at Marist College (N.Y.), and an intern in ED’s Office of Communications and Outreach

Our next ED Youth Voices Policy Briefing Session will include students reforming education at the local level: teacher evaluations, DREAM act, school safety and more. Watch the session live on June 27th from 10-11:30am at edstream.ed.gov. 

Transitioning Students with Disabilities into College and Careers

Scott Rich is a prime example of how a student with disabilities can be successful. Rich was diagnosed with autism at the age of three, and behavioral problems affected him throughout elementary school. He had difficulty engaging to the point that he was expelled on several occasions, and during middle and high school, he suffered anxiety and time management issues.

Graduation CapsToday, life for Rich is an entirely different story. At age 29, Rich has earned his M.A. in Special Education, a B.A. in Geography, and a Minor in Special Education. Rich now works as an outreach advocate and is mentoring students with special needs and autism.

“If it wasn’t for parental involvement, the IEP [Individualized Education Program], and IDEA [Individuals with Disabilities Education Act], it would have been very difficult to complete my education,” said Rich.

During a roundtable discussion as part of ED’s back-to-school bus tour, Sue Swenson, deputy assistant secretary for Special Education and Rehabilitative services, and Melody Musgrove, director of Special Education programs, joined Scott Rich and other advocates and parents of children with disabilities to collaborate on some of the challenges, success stories, and experiences of transitioning students with disabilities, from high school to post-secondary education. “Parents have to advocate for students until students can advocate for themselves,” said one parent.

Passionate parents at the summit voiced their opinions on the challenges students with disabilities face as they transition to college and careers, including:

  • The need for an IEP as soon as a child enters elementary school.
  • A lack of knowledge, information and resources about disabilities.
  • The need for better training for schools, districts and staff.
  • Better access to vocational skills and training for students.

Parents and advocates also shared things that are working, including:

  • The availability of resources and information for legal assistance and rights for students with disabilities, as well as workshops for training and employment assistance.
  • Well-documented IEPs.

The event also highlighted the Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund (DREDF) which runs a Parent Training and Information Center (PTI) that advocates for both parents and youth.  PTI’s serve families with disabilities from birth through age 21.  Through their training sessions, workshops and one-on-one assistance, they have been able to assist millions of parents and families. The program is funded in part by the Department of Education and more information on the PTI’s can be found at www.parentcenternetwork.org

Linda Pauley works in ED’s Office of Communication and Outreach in the Seattle regional office.

Teachers@ED: Newton Piper, Customer Service Specialist, Office of Special Education Programs

Editors Note: Teachers@ED profiles some of the hundreds of current and former educators who work at the U.S. Department of Education, and how their experiences in schools inform their work for the agency.

When Newton Piper started out as a teacher in Thailand, he decided he would demonstrate students how plants absorb water by transforming himself into a human root system. So he went out and bought his own supplies—all it took was some creative placement of tubing and several buckets of water.

Teachers@ED Logo“I ran the tubes up and down my legs and arms and I put the two buckets of water next to me at each side and sucked the water up,” he said. “The kids were really amused. They’ve e-mailed me about it [years later]. You do bizarre things as a teacher, and sometimes kids remember it.”

Piper was a math and science teacher for students in first through ninth grade as part of an English immersion program in a town outside of Bangkok. Transitioning from a first grade class to a ninth grade class during the one-minute walk from one classroom to the other required what he calls “the Clark Kent spin” to get into a different teaching mindset. The experience required learning to employ a variety of instructional techniques and taught him a lot about how a child’s English ability can act as a fundamental barrier to his or her learning.

“The kids who had done well early on in English could keep up. For those who had fallen behind, however, limited English proficiency made accessing the content extremely difficult at times,” Piper said. “Sometimes I had to teach multiple lessons at the same time and reorganize the class in a way that would work for all of my students. I had kids in ninth grade who were practically fluent, and other kids who could barely tell me their name in English.”

Meeting those individual needs has given Piper valuable perspective as a customer service specialist in the Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP) at the U.S. Department of Education. Lessons learned while teaching have led him to believe that student needs associated with “fundamental barriers” such as English proficiency, disability, or family background, need to be accommodated early and aggressively to ensure that all students are empowered with critical foundational skills that will enable future learning. It is critically important to address these issues before what might be an achievement “gap” in first grade becomes an insurmountable “chasm” only a few years later.

Newton Piper reads to a student

Newton Piper with Mog, one of his students in Thailand

When Piper returned to the U.S. in 2009, he began working towards a master’s degree in educational leadership and administration from The George Washington University, which he has since completed. During that time he entered the Department of Education through the Student Career Experience Program. He began working as the assistant to the deputy director of OSEP, then assistant to the director, before moving into his current position responding to constituent inquiries related to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) for the Office of Special Education Program’s monitoring division.

In describing some of the challenges associated with delivering services under IDEA, Piper explained that, “schools are often very overwhelmed with limited resources and a lot on their plate. Some kids have greater needs than others and cannot fit in a figurative box, which presents a challenge.” In explaining OSEP’s role, he explained that, “OSEP is focused on supporting States, including through connecting them to technical assistance providers that we fund. There has been a shift from a compliance orientation to administering the IDEA, to a focus on the bottom line, which is improving results for students with disabilities across the country.”

Piper believes that by helping provide States with supportive resources, ED is contributing to a system in which passionate teachers can effectively meet the needs of all of their students. The perspective he gained during his three years teaching in Thailand has allowed him to appreciate just how invaluable such support can be.

Natalie Torentinos is a graduate student at The George Washington University and an intern in the Office of Communications and Outreach.

A Mother’s Story on How Early Intervention Services Helped Her Son

Ed. Note: October 8, marks the 25th anniversary of President Reagan’s signing of the “Education for All Handicapped Children Act” (EAHCA) Amendments, which included for the first time, mandating services to infants and toddlers with disabilities and their families. To build upon the services established in the EAHCA, last month, Secretary Duncan, and Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services Assistant Secretary Alexa Posny announced the release of new regulations that will help improve services and outcomes for America’s infants and toddlers with disabilities and their families. Below, a mother reflects on her experience and the important role that the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act Early Intervention Program for Infant and Toddlers with Disabilities provided her child and family.

Special education has been part of my world for as long as I can remember; some may say I was born into it.  I am the child of two special education teachers, and I worked for more than 17 years in the field. All of these experiences never prepared me for the day my own son was diagnosed with autism.

I knew Ethan was different at 19 months old but friends and family told me that all children develop differently. They suggested that I was looking for something to be wrong.  I was hoping they were right! 

Ethan loved to jump, at first it was precious, we called him our little bunny. But then he started missing developmental milestones. The tickle and play you would expect from a young child was replaced by a constant need to jump and flap, an aversion to noise and a fascination with things that spin.  With great trepidation, I called Virginia’s early intervention services office for an evaluation. 

The staff was phenomenal. Under the Part C IDEA program, the evaluators, coordinator and service providers worked with me to identify Ethan’s needs, ensure he received the needed services and ultimately to communicate those needs to the school district. His growth was magnificent and I started to feel hopeful again. The Part C program was one of the very first steps I would make in my journey into services for my child, and those steps have forever changed our lives.

Today Ethan is 7 years old and in 2nd grade and now gets services under Part B of the IDEA. While he still has a long way to go, he has an amazing sense of humor and communicates not only his needs and feelings but has learned to joke. Ethan, who was once seemingly without the need for company, is learning to develop friendships and loves to play games with his peers. Everyone who knows him and has worked with him comments on how far he’s come.  Our family is stronger because Ethan’s education is built on the roots established through the Part C early intervention services he received. 

Ellen Safranek is the proud mother of Ethan, and currently works at the U.S. Department of Education in the Office of the Chief Financial Officer. Prior to this position, she worked for 17 years in the Office of Special Education Programs. 

Kicking Off ED’s Leadership Mega Conference

Yesterday, I had the great opportunity in joining Melody Musgrove, director of the Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP), and Jim Shelton, assistant deputy secretary for Innovation and Improvement, in welcoming over 1,000 attendees to the Department of Education’s second annual OSEP Leadership Mega Conference in Arlington, Va. This year’s conference is entitled “Collaboration to Achieve Success from Cradle to Career,” and, runs from August 1-3, bringing together state directors of special education, lead agency early intervention coordinators, data managers, parents, state interagency representatives, Technical Assistance center staff and many others. The conference was designed to provide up-to-date information regarding Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) indicators, data analysis, student outcomes, early intervening services, Response to Intervention, Universal Design for Learning, service coordination and collaboration.

Mega Conference logoWhile my opening remarks were brief, I took the opportunity to give a heartfelt thanks to everyone present for all their hard work in meeting the needs of our infants, toddlers, children, youth with disabilities and their families. I also provided a brief update on the status of the IDEA Part C regulations, reminding the group of the common quote: “you usually have to wait for that which is worth waiting for.” I also shared information regarding the power of leadership and I was honored to share a story written by my son about the importance of “not quitting.” My son’s story spoke to the importance of commitment and goal setting and how both helped him to succeed as a high school football player.

The opening session also included a brief video on the 35 years of IDEA followed by an update from Melody Musgrove on the continuing work of OSEP and our continued progress towards collaboration with “general education,” including collaboration with the Office of Elementary and Secondary Education (OESE), Title I and the Office of Civil Rights (OCR).  Shelton described the new educational environment that focuses on individualization and personalization for all students and how general education is looking towards special education as a model, since individualized education is not only a requirement, but a priority in how we teach our students.

The rest of the conference is filled with information and insight ranging from innovation, transformation, collaboration and more. I want to extend tremendous gratitude to all of the participants for all that they do to support the success of our students.

If you would like more information, please see the OSEP Mega Conference website at http://mega-2011.tadnet.org/

Alexa Posny is the Assistant Secretary for Special Education and Rehabilitative Services at the Department of Education.