LDA and NCLD Comment on Federal Research Agenda
In partnership with the National Center for Learning Disabilities (NCLD), LDA submitted comments to the Institute for Education Sciences (IES) of the U.S. Department of Education on the future work of the National Center for Special Education Research (NCSER). NCSER solicited input from researchers, policymakers, and stakeholders as they determine what issues need specific attention and how best to communicate the results of research to practitioners. With the strong emphasis on evidence-based practices, LDA and NCLD felt it was of critical importance that IES and NCSER hear from families and practitioners with expertise in learning disabilities.
The initial concern the two organizations expressed was the significant funding cut felt by NCSER in 2011 and the failure to regain ground since then. Congress, through the appropriations process, makes determinations about funding. However, we felt it important to acknowledge up front this serious impediment to moving forward with a special education research agenda. LDA and NCLD together will work with Congress to address this situation.
NCSER posed several questions in its request for comments on the research agenda. First, they asked about what characteristics of past and current research projects have had the greatest influence on policy and practices. LDA and NCLD cited the importance of longitudinal studies that provide critical information over an extended period of time. In addition, the organizations acknowledged the increased rigor of the research design and oversight and the focus on timely issues such as response to intervention, positive behavioral supports and universal design for learning.
Respondents were also asked what new topics NCSER should prioritize for future research. NCLD and LDA addressed the following:
- Systems issues that directly impact student outcomes, such as the impact of budget cuts on eligibility for IDEA services, reasons for the decreasing number of children identified as having a disability, impact of early intervention on educational outcomes, collaborative teaching models, knowledge translation to reach the classroom level, the role of specialized instructional support personnel and their impact on student achievement, and the impact of various education reform efforts (i.e., college and career ready standards and assessments) on students with disabilities.
- Elements that support success for students with learning disabilities, prioritizing research that provides a better understanding of the factors and interventions that support positive learning outcomes.
- Research to support accurate identification of specific learning disabilities, including more research on processes such as multi-tiered systems of support and other approaches as part of a comprehensive evaluation.
- Effectiveness of multi-tiered systems of services and supports on distinguishing students with specific learning disabilities from struggling learners.
- Examination of interventions addressing specific learning disabilities and co-occurring disabilities.
- Reinforcing the important role of cultural competency through the IES grant process by emphasizing diversity in the grant applications.
- Closer investigation of research questions that will assist both general and special educators to provide a high-quality education to students with learning disabilities.
- Research on improving educator preparation, including general and special education teachers and specialized instructional support personnel, to meet the needs of students with learning disabilities.
The joint comments also called for IES to provide regular opportunities for key organizations such as LDA and NCLD to provide input and feedback on the research agenda. In addition, the organizations expressed continuing concerns about the relevance of research, the timeliness of the results reaching the field, and the translation of research knowledge into practice. IES has begun to institute a number of measures to address these concerns, including upgrading its online presence, providing research summaries, and attempts to engage stakeholders through this request for comments.
The 113th Congress will adjourn in early December, and the 114th Congress will be seated in January with a number of new faces and the exit of some old familiar ones. Congress is in the middle of a lame duck session, with several decisions yet to be made. Thus far, they have finalized the Child Care and Development Block Grant (CCDBG) to provide subsidies to low-income families for quality child care. The Education Sciences Reform Act, authorizing the Department of Education research function through the Institute for Education Sciences, is still awaiting final action. Most important, Congress must settle funding for Fiscal Year 2015 (FY 2015), which began on October 1, 2014, before they leave town.
Until December 11 the government is operating under a Continuing Resolution (CR), a bill that keeps federal agencies open until Congress determines their annual budget. The current Appropriations Chairmen, Senator Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) and Representative Hal Rogers (R-KY), have been working to get the 12 bills that fund the federal agencies passed, singly or as an omnibus package. However, with the shift in the Senate majority, a push from some conservative members to prevent executive action by the president on immigration, and other factors, it is looking less likely that Congress will be able to pass an omnibus appropriations bill to finalize agency funding during the lame duck session. If no action is taken, the government would have to shut down as it did last year. Given that a shutdown is not in anyone’s best interest, Congress must pass either another short-term CR or a longer-term CR and leave major decisions about financing the government to the new Congress.
A Few Words on the 114th Congress
There will be some major changes in the new Congress, with Senate Republicans holding 53 or 54 seats, depending on the outcome of the Louisiana runoff in early December. The Republicans also increased their majority in the House of Representatives, even with the final results of a few races undecided. In total, there will be at least 69 new members of Congress: 11 in the Senate (1 Democrat and 10 Republicans) and 58 in the House (18 Democrats and 40 Republicans).
With the change in majority in the Senate, all committee chairmanships shift to the Republicans, with the Democrats assuming the ranking member positions (the highest minority member on each committee). Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA), long-time chairman of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee which covers most issues LDA follows closely, will retire at the end of this Congress. Senator Lamar Alexander (R-TN) will assume the chairmanship, and Senator Patty Murray (D-WA) will probably be the ranking member. In the House, Representative John Kline (R-MN), the current chairman of the Education and Workforce Committee, must get a waiver to continue in that position, but most likely he will retain the chairmanship. Representative Bobby Scott (D-VA) will assume the ranking position, as current ranking member George Miller (D-CA) also will retire in December.
LDA will begin a round of visits in early 2015 to introduce the organization to new members of Congress and identify possible new champions for its issues.
Department Issues Teacher Equity Guidance
The U.S. Department of Education has issued guidance to state superintendents as follow-up to the July announcement of the Administration’s Excellent Educators for All initiative. That initiative is a step toward ensuring every public school student has a teacher who is well qualified and teaching in his or her field of certification. The follow-up guidance pertains specifically to plans states are required to submit under the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA, currently known as No Child Left Behind) to ensure equitable access to highly qualified teachers.
The ESEA requires states to ensure “poor and minority children are not taught at higher rates than other children by inexperienced, unqualified, or out-of-field teachers.” This section of the law has not been enforced adequately, and therefore the Department is giving states extra time for “meaningful consultation” with a broad array of stakeholders – students, teachers, parents, civil rights groups, and others – before submitting their plans on June 1, 2015.
The Department is providing states with several tools to assist them as they develop their plans. States have been provided an FAQ document entitled “State Plans to Ensure Equitable Access to Excellent Educators.” In addition the Department is sending each state department of education a data file with information from the 2011-12 Civil Rights Data Collection (CRDC), including school-level poverty rates, highly-qualified teacher data, and a geographic cost of living adjustor. The CRDC data provides information disaggregated by race, sex, disability, and limited English proficiency, as well as data on teacher certification. These data may be used by states; however, if states have additional or better data sources, they are encouraged to use those.
States will also receive “Educator Equity Profiles.” Using the CRDC data, the Department developed profiles that compare certain teacher characteristics in high- and low-poverty schools and schools with high and low numbers of minority students. Again, states are encouraged to conduct their own analyses and to use the Department data as part of their discussions in developing their equity plans.
The ESEA requirement does not include students with disabilities or English language learners in its definition of “equitable access.” However, the Department makes clear in the FAQ that states are encouraged to use a more expansive definition that takes into account these “historically underserved” student populations. LDA has weighed in on this issue in a recent interview where LDA Policy Director Myrna Mandlawitz reflected on the fact that students with disabilities and English language learners must be taught by highly qualified teachers who know how to differentiate instruction. She also noted the majority of students with learning disabilities are in general education classrooms; therefore, it is essential the needs of these students are taken into consideration as equity plans are written.
LDA urges its members and state affiliates to contact their state departments of education to find out how they can be part of this very important discussion.
Federal Agencies Look at Effective Communication Issues
The U.S Department of Education Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services (OSERS) and the Office for Civil Rights (OCR) has joined forces with the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice to issue an FAQ entitled “Effective Communication for Students with Hearing, Vision, or Speech Disabilities in Public Elementary and Secondary Schools.” The document examines the obligations of schools under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act to meet the communication needs of students with disabilities. These federal laws sometimes take different approaches to address this important issue.
In 2013 U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, held in K.M. v. Tustin Unified School District (9th Cir. 2013) 725 F.3d 1088, that two schools districts’ obligations regarding effective communication for deaf and hard of hearing students under the IDEA did not establish automatic compliance with Title II of the ADA or preclude liability under the ADA or Section 504. The new guidance from the federal agencies clarifies the obligation of the district to provide a free appropriate public education (FAPE) to all eligible children with disabilities under the IDEA, while also complying with the ADA Title II requirement to ensure communication with students with hearing, vision, or speech disabilities is as effective as communication with students without disabilities. The comparison between students with and without disabilities is not a part of the IDEA analysis in providing services, although nothing precludes the school from doing so.
Title II of the ADA requires schools to provide appropriate “auxiliary aids and services” where necessary to provide effective communication. The ADA requirement focuses on equal opportunity for students with disabilities to participate and benefit from the school’s services, programs and activities. Students with disabilities or their families are assumed to be most familiar with the kinds of aids and services that would be useful in providing effective communication and must be given the opportunity to request these.
The other important point is that students do not have to be eligible under the IDEA to receive auxiliary aids and services under the ADA. When schools become aware students need communication assistance, they are obligated to provide assistance whether or not parents request specific aids or services. This obligation is in addition to the FAPE requirement.
The Ninth Circuit case and this guidance are instructive in reminding both school districts and families that all federal laws pertaining to rights for individuals with disabilities can impact provision of services in public schools. To read or refer to full document, go to http://www.ada.gov/doe_doj_eff_comm/doe_doj_eff_comm_faqs.htm.