Delaware continues to make special education improvements
The Delaware Department of Education is working closely with school districts and charter schools to ensure students with disabilities have opportunities to learn the same content as their peers, receive support they need to prepare for success after high school, and have their social, emotional and behavioral needs addressed.
Those were three areas about which the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP) expressed concerns when, in 2014, the department changed the ways in which states were evaluated for the services provided to students with disabilities. That evaluation, based on performance data from the 2011-2012 and 2012-2013 school years, gave Delaware a rating of “needs intervention,” the second-lowest of four possible ratings. This year, the state improved to the second-highest rating, “needs assistance,” in its 2015 evaluation, which used data from the 2012-2013 and 2013-2014 schools years. The state expects the efforts undertaken statewide over the last 12 months will yield even greater progress.
“Over the past year we have partnered with our districts and charter schools to examine data, provide additional educator training, begin new programs and clarify expectations for students with disabilities,” Secretary of Education Mark Murphy said. “We know we have more work to do, and we are committed to continue to make improvements until all Delaware students have the best chance to make the most of their abilities.”
Results driven accountability
OSEP’s 2014 report used a new approach to its evaluation called results driven accountability (RDA); in prior years, OSEP had based its ratings only on whether states had complied with the provisions of the Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA). RDA incorporates measures such as the percentage of students with disabilities who are taking state assessments as well as the National Assessment of Educational Progress; how students with disabilities performed in reading and mathematics on NAEP; and proficiency gaps between students with disabilities and other students. This year’s report from OSEP also includes the graduation and drop-out rates of students with disabilities.
In keeping with OSEP’s new evaluation method, the Delaware Department of Education now is using RDA in assessing the performance of the state’s school districts and charter schools. District and charter school reports for 2015 are available on the Exceptional Children section of DDOE’s website.
“Delaware is committed to closing the achievement gap for students with disabilities,” Chief Academic Officer Michael Watson said. “In the past several years, the state has moved away from solely focusing on compliance and procedural requirements. While important, we also need to focus on results for students, such as graduation rates, transitions to college or career and proficiency gaps when compared to their peers. We applaud the U.S. Department of Education for increasing the focus on these issues in Delaware and across the country, and we believe that we have a special opportunity now to address these issues.”
Over the past year the state has:
· Provided professional development for special education teachers on standards-based Individual Education Plans (IEPs), positive behavior supports and accessing the general curriculum.
· Included special education teachers in all Common Core State Standards trainings.
· Assisted districts and charters schools in developing transition plans for students with disabilities who are 14 years old or entering the eighth grade to help them succeed in jobs or further education. The state is collecting data to ensure those plans are being prepared and carried out.
· Clarified for districts and charters the policies requiring students with disabilities to take NAEP and state assessments to ensure the state has full information on the progress of these students.
· Provided districts and charter with comprehensive data on their performance to help local leaders better understand how well they are complying with state and federal law and how their students with disabilities are performing academically.
· Provided targeted state technical assistance to those districts and charter schools found to be in need of assistance and intervention.
In addition, the DDOE, in collaboration with various stakeholder groups, is developing a five-year, K-3 Literacy Initiative to ensure that specialized instruction and support is provided to the state’s youngest readers with and without disabilities. This plan will identify major areas of need and will develop, implement and evaluate specific interventions for students in these grades.
Feedback on progress in Delaware schools
The state’s commitment to improvement is one shared by district and charter school leaders.
“The mission of a public school system is to ensure the success of every student, regardless of his or her disability or socioeconomic status,” Indian River School District Superintendent Susan Bunting said. “The State of Delaware and the Indian River School District have made tremendous strides toward this goal since the initial OSEP evaluation in 2014. The professional development provided to teachers has been integral to the process of giving students the individual tools they need to overcome their personal challenges and be successful in the classroom. We believe future OSEP ratings both locally and statewide will show vast improvement and reflect the hard work invested by educators across Delaware.”
Parents said they are seeing positive changes as well as areas in which the state and districts/charters can continue to improve. In her role as a board member of the Parent Information Center, Appoquinimink parent Verna Hensley hears from parents with varying experiences depending on their location.
“I still see challenges – the uneven implementation of policies that are already in place but may or may not have filtered down to every district and in the district filtered down to the school or classroom,” she said. “I’m optimistic. I see progress, but it has to flow all the way down to the parent and the child’s experience in the classroom.”
Ellen Coulston, a parent in the Brandywine School District, also cited communication as a remaining challenge.
“There is a problem with the communication between the state and the districts,” she said. “There are good things happening. There are good ideas but they are (not all reaching the local level).”
Delaware receiving a poor rating last year was a good thing, she said.
“It raises awareness to all stakeholders and causes people to honestly step back and re-examine how we are impacting students,” Coulston said, noting the greatest need she sees is for better training in teacher pre-service programs including transition planning so all educators in the classroom can lead and better support students toward better outcomes.
“It’s part of Common Core. It’s part of your college and career readiness,” she said.
Brandywine Superintendent Mark Holodick said he’s pleased with the improvements since the report first was issued.
“Response to Intervention, done well, as well as increased efforts around communication can help us continue to see growth in a positive direction,” he said. “Many districts, including Brandywine, have made great strides in strengthening communication, as evidenced by the work done by many district and school administrators, teachers, and educational diagnosticians over the past two years. The communication between district office, schools and families has been a priority for us in Brandywine, and we have made significant progress in meeting the needs of all students. In the past, districts and schools have been very compliance-driven and more focused on meeting requirements. Now, instead of being driven by requirements and regulations, we are ensuring that we meet each student’s individual needs through individualized plans, special services, collaboration with parents and programs that promote inclusion.
“I am very optimistic about this progress and the potential for even greater achievement and success for all students,” he said.