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My Turn: New Hampshire must do a better job of helping special education students succeed



Last modified: Wednesday, August 19, 2015
Nineteen-year-old Taylor Edwards should be commended for her courage in speaking publicly about what Taylor described as being “pushed . . . out of school” by the Pittsfield School District. It is a common story in school districts throughout the state.

As the July 25 edition of the Concord Monitor reported, Taylor described to the Pittsfield School Board how Pittsfield, along with previously attended Nashua and Hollis school districts, failed to properly educate her and prepare her for work and adult life. As a special education student, she should have been afforded an individualized and appropriate education. Her reading level at graduation ranged from elementary to middle school level at best. She did not feel that she had gained anywhere near the communication or social skills for everyday interaction or to negotiate work or college.

After unsuccessfully applying for several jobs, she told the school board, “I felt like I could barely read things or understand when people are talking with me, or that I’m supposed to, like, sound smart in front of people.”

There about 29,000 students in New Hampshire receiving special education or about 15 percent of the student population. Most, like Taylor, have learning or other disabilities and do have the capacity to perform at, near or above grade level in reading, math and other subjects if provided the right services and supports. Only about 10 to 20 percent of students receiving special education have an intellectual disability.

It is well recognized that many people with learning or other disabilities can have great careers and accomplishments. (Just take a look at disabled-world.com/artman/publish/article_0060.shtml.) Most persons with or without learning disabilities may not accomplish as much as Albert Einstein or Alexander Graham Bell, both of whom had dyslexia, but with an appropriate education can enjoy the same opportunities as all citizens.

The role of education goes beyond mere “reading, writing and arithmetic.”

Reflecting societal values, our state laws and constitution (as the state Supreme Court has ruled) recognize the role of public education in promoting and cultivating development and growth in social, health and civic areas. Sadly, Taylor’s schools seemed to have failed her in these other critical areas as well. Taylor described extreme feelings of low self-worth and self-destructive behavior that frequently accompany academic challenges and a poor school climate that allows bullying, among other negative influences.

Unfortunately, Taylor’s story is not unique.

We see many such situations at the Disability Rights Center, confirmed by statewide and national statistics, and the stories and tragedies behind those statistics. It has been nearly 20 years since Congress directed federal, state and local education agencies to focus special education on the actual delivery of education and educational outcomes, not just on compliance with procedures and paper work. Yet the enormous gap between students with and without disabilities on key education performance measures persist.

For example, in New Hampshire, the most recent reported statewide results on the NECAP tests (2013) showed that for 11th graders:

∎ 64 percent of students with disabilities performed below acceptable levels in reading as compared with only 16 percent for all other students.

∎ In writing, 84 percent of the students with disabilities were below acceptable levels as compared with 40 percent for all other students.

∎ In math, 93 percent of students with disabilities performed below acceptable levels as compared with 58 percent for all other students.

Poor education services or environments can cause or contribute to lifelong emotional or behavioral problems, including adolescent suicide. A disproportionately higher number of students with disabilities are suspended or expelled from school, subjected to restraints or seclusion, or end up in the “school to juvenile or criminal justice pipeline.”

And the most recent Census Bureau statistics put the employment rate for adults with disabilities a 37.9 percent versus 80.6 percent for adults without disabilities, a gap that has been widening.

Students, families and taxpayers should expect far more from the approximately $700 million (combined federal, state and local dollars) provided to schools for special education.

Inadequacy

Multiple reasons exist for this continued inequity, such as low salaries, inadequate professional development, lack of leadership, and separateness between special education and regular education. What many view as a foundational cause is the failure of the New Hampshire Department of Education to adequately carry out its legally mandated and critical oversight and monitoring responsibilities to ensure that children with disabilities – a group that has endured years of discrimination – have adequate educational opportunity.

This group of children has endured years of discrimination. The federal department of education, which actually recently approved NHDOE’s monitoring efforts, also has not distinguished itself as it, too, has made little progress in shifting from a culture of paper and procedural compliance to a focus on effective delivery of education.

While NHDOE and the board of education are to be commended for revoking the certification of the special education program at Lakeview Neurorehabilitation Facility in Effingham, conditions should not have to deteriorate to widespread patterns of abuse, neglect and mistreatment before actions are taken.

A 2012 independent evaluation of NHDOE required by the Legislature found that virtually every aspect of NHDOE’s monitoring of special education was fundamentally flawed. The 162-page report found, among other things, that NHDOE is not evaluating whether: student education plans are even written to meet the needs of the students arising from his/her disability; education and related services are actually being delivered as specified; and the intended outcomes for the student are actually being achieved.

Even when individual or systemic deficiencies are identified, corrective actions are inadequate to address them.

This evaluation prompted the Legislature during the 2013 session to require NHDOE to implement a work plan to address the recommendations and undergo another independent evaluation in 2015. Hopefully the new evaluation will show that the department has made substantial progress, though outside of Lakeview, the evidence suggests otherwise.

I hope Taylor Edwards will find her path, and the Pittsfield school system and the NHDOE will finally help her do so. For current and future children with disabilities in the schools, there must be a renewed commitment at all levels to achieve the standards we have for all children. For this to happen, the state and federal departments of education must finally and fully assume their respective leadership and oversight roles in assuring that all children with disabilities are afforded the opportunity for a quality and well-rounded education.



(Richard Cohen is the executive director of the Disability Rights Center in Concord.)