Special education is at a crossroads in the School District of Philadelphia.
For what is likely the first time in the School Reform Commission’s 11-year existence, it devoted an entire public meeting on Oct. 15 to the discussion of special education. The meeting came about after over a year’s worth of work by the special education advocacy community to get the District to take a critical look at its special education services.
The statistics provided at the meeting were alarming, but not surprising to parents and advocates who attended. The outcomes for the District’s 20,000 students with disabilities, on the whole, are abysmal, even though the law requires the District to provide them with appropriate special education services that allow them to make meaningful educational progress.
Over 60 percent of the District’s students with Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) scored below basic in math on the PSSAs in 2012, and over 70 percent scored below basic in reading. Below basic is the lowest possible PSSA score. While the District’s four-year graduation rate for non-special education students is disturbing enough – just 64 percent graduate in four years – only 46 percent of students with IEPs graduate in four years.
Something is clearly amiss. Part of the problem seems to be that outcomes for students with disabilities play no role in two main ways the District measures school improvement.
Neither the School Performance Index (SPI) – which the District has recently admitted to being faulty and is now seeking outside help to fix – nor the School Annual Report account for the performance or progress of students with IEPs. The District talks about holding principals responsible for student performance, yet there seem to be no real carrots or sticks for holding principals accountable for improving academic performance of students with IEPs.
It is still unclear how much the District receives in federal and state dollars to educate students with disabilities and who makes the decisions about resource allocation for those students. Getting a handle on the numbers is the first thing that needs to happen in order to understand what needs to change.
It also remains to be seen if and how the District will start holding its charter schools accountable for educating students with disabilities and not counseling out students with more significant (and costly) needs. Will the commitment in the Philadelphia Great Schools Compact to “serving all students” be taken seriously? Those who signed on to the compact agreed to “collaborate on research and assessment of special education practices, and in turn share best practices to advance the capacities of all schools to deliver outstanding special education.” But will that really occur?
For the first time in several years, the District has a superintendent who seems concerned about improving outcomes for students with IEPs. Parents, District staff, and the advocacy community must work together to improve teaching and learning for students with disabilities. To that end, the District has formed a Special Education Workgroup to develop a strategic plan for improving outcomes for students with IEPs. This workgroup is a good first step, but the District must do much better by its students with disabilities. It is a legal and ethical imperative.
Jennifer Lowman, a senior staff attorney at the Education Law Center and member of the District’s Special Education Workgroup, participated in the SRC’s meeting on special education.