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The Tenth Annual Report to Congress: one more ride on the merry-go-round?

ABSTRACT: The U.S. Department of Education's Tenth Annual Report to Congress on the Implementation of the Education of the Handicapped Act contains improvements, but most infirmities of previous reports on progress toward meeting the goals of Public Law 94-142. Major criticisms include (a) continued overdependence on reporting numbers of students without descriptions of evolutions in service delivery and (b) a lack of information about service delivery which includes the perspective of practitioners in local school districts where the service delivery occurs. The report further prompts even more questions about the Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP) monitoring findings and reinforces the need for improved communication between local practitioners and those who form national public education policy.

In the latter portion of 1988, the U.S. Department of Education released the Tenth Annual Report to Congress on the Implementation of The Education of the Handicapped Act (EHA). The 1988 document, addressing a decade of public effort "To Assure the Free Appropriate Public Education of All Handicapped Children" (the report subtitle), shows few improvements over previous reports and incorporates most of their infirmities. The authors of the 10th report may have had a "Mission Impossible" in attempting to document, for the U.S. Congress, the efforts of personnel in 16,000 school districts across the United States. At the same time, the current report again seems overly dependent on congregated numbers and on reports of federally supported special projects awarded to a limited number of selected agencies with little or no practitioner contact. Though there may be gross understaffing in the office responsible for the report, both the Congress and special education practitioners are justified in anticipating a quality characterization of the implementation of EHA and the Tenth Annual Report seems to fall short of this expectation.

REPORTING THE NUMBERS

All the annual reports have placed inordinate importance on reporting the number of children receiving special education or related services-as a way of documenting progress toward achieving the goals of EHA. In the early years following the passage of P.L. 94-142, the number of those previously unserved may have been critical; but of greater importance now may be case studies of ways in which the delivery of educational services has evolved over the decade and various phenomena contributing to past and current changes in service delivery. Still, the major portion (and Chapter 1) of the Tenth Annual Report concerns tables of numbers of children served. Credit must be given, however, for the use of graphs and figures to replace some tables used as recently as the ninth report. These graphs generally are helpful, well done, easy to read, and infinitely more interesting than many of the tables.

Those sections of the report concerning the number of related services, least restrictive environment, and personnel seem the least useful. In fact, the reporting of numbers in these sections may mislead a lay (nonservice provider) reader. The manner in which data are reported and interpreted in those sections may best document a seeming naivete about the actual delivery of special education and related services. For example, the report speaks of "the total number of related services provided" and that "this represents on average 1.21 services provided for each child)" (p. 20). Such information is totally meaningless. Information that needs to be reported regarding related services has to do with the multiple services required by a limited number of students, the unavailability or extreme cost of personnel for some services, and the loss of instructional time required for delivering some perhaps unnecessary (but demanded) services. None of these matters is addressed in the report. As previous reports have done, the 10th addresses the extent to which special education is provided in the least restrictive environment by reporting the number of children placed in respective education settings. Again, there is no discussion of the number of students who are identified as having handicaps and which students spend more instructional time with nonhandicapped peers than they did in the previous year-or 3 or 5 years ago.

Report information concerning personnel raises two concerns. First, it is reported that "the number of special education teachers employed increased approximately 6 percent from 1984-85 to 1985-86" (p. 33), whereas the number of students identified as handicapped increased 0.2% for the same period. What is the basis for the differences between the percentages? Is there evidence of district attempts to reduce special education class sizes or case loads? Are state education agencies better enforcing class size and caseload regulations? Do emerging service delivery options require more, rather than fewer, personnel?

Second, why does the number of "personnel needed" (p. 35) include both vacancies" and "personnel needed to fill noncertified or nonlicensed staff"? In most states, those positions with noncertified or nonlicensed personnel must be filled with individuals pursuing appropriate certification, and then only if appropriately prepared personnel are unavailable. The implications for personnel preparation seem significantly different in (a) dealing with preparation of personnel for vacant positions versus (b) dealing with personnel seeking to complete preparation programs while employed.

One would do well to review the material in the Tenth Annual Report discussing the exiting of students from school programs. Although the issue of school dropout among students identified as handicapped is not new, it is at least sobering to once again note the significant portion of students who do not complete the programs planned individually for them. The report is helpful in providing a section on dropout information in general education, although there was no section on factors associated with dropping out of special education parallel to that on general education. Is there reason to believe there may be differences? A possibly related comment, concerning anticipated services for exiting students with handicaps, indicates: "Parents (of secondary students with severe handicaps responding to a survey) were less interested in earned income for their offspring than they were in [post-school] services that would increase employment security and provide training" (p. 61).

FORMULA GRANT PROGRAMS

Despite the tendency of the report to rely primarily on numerical data, in the absence of case study examples, Chapter 3 proved to be an exception in its discussion of state formula grant programs to assist states and localities. The examples of state programs provided in the first three sections are instructive, and they effectively demonstrate the directions in which various state agencies are moving to accomplish the 10-year-old goal of EHA. The remainder of the chapter, however, seems more a discussion of programs viewed as possible by the U.S. Department of Education. To what extent will local education agencies be party to new developments in special education? In the "Knowledge Production" (Chapter 3, p. 116), the authors stated, "Through the establishment of a Federal priority, funding, and technical assistance, the Federal Government can focus the attention of a variety of groups upon a particular problem" (p: 116). Though the statement is true, one might add that, without ongoing outreach to practitioners and the field in general, such initiatives by leaders in the federal government can also limit the focus of attention. Similarly, the authors rightly stated that "applied research activities lead to more effective service delivery" (p. 116), but these research activities should involve practitioners. The authors cited 19 field-initiated studies or demonstration projects (pp. 124-131) though without comment on the quality of these projects. Only one of the 19 projects specified collaboration with a local school district.

MONITORING EFFORTS AND COMPLIANCE

The final chapter of the report, "Efforts to Assess and Assure the Effectiveness of Programs Educating Children with Handicaps" (p. 145), includes summaries of findings from Department of Education reviews of states' compliance with EHA. Given recent criticism of the effectiveness of Department of Education monitoring, one needs to recall that this is, after all, a report to Congress; thus, the issue of compliance is significant. Table 36 (pp. 159177) presents lists of noncompliance findings from EHA reviews of 24 states. Based on this review, more than half the states would be found in noncompliance in a number of monitoring areas. For example, in the area of states' monitoring of local education agencies, 23 of 24 states were reported noncompliant in adopting and using proper methods for monitoring, 21 of 24 were reported noncompliant in methods to correct deficiencies found in monitoring, and 17 of 24 states were reported noncompliant in enforcing legal obligations of responsible agencies.

It may come as no surprise that the Department of Education found even more noncompliance in the area of least restrictive environment. The Department reported 18 of 24 states noncompliant in the extent to which children with handicaps are educated with nonhandicapped children; 21 of 24 states noncompliant in consideration of general education alternatives before removal of students for special education; 21 of 24 states noncompliant in removing handicapped children from general education with insufficient justification; and 17 of 24 states noncompliant in making placement decisions on the basis of a child's handicapping condition, for administrative convenience, or before completing an individualized education plan. In none of these areas have there been federal law or regulation changes for 10 years. Can the monitoring system be that unreasonable or suspect? As a practitioner who has been involved in discussions with local state and federal agencies regarding monitoring, I believe other factors partially explain such reports of noncompliance. Among those factors are a continuing proliferation of varied P.L. 94-142 interpretations and shifts in state and federal implementation priorities. Still, the question remains, "Where has everybody been?"

The report stated that monitoring teams of OSEP found virtually every state had significant problems in meeting its LRE [least restrictive environment] responsibilities" (p. 178). and attributed some of the blame to a " policy vacuum" in which states have no standards for documenting and justifying LRE placements. Those familiar with recent OSEP efforts to improve the federal monitoring process may be reminded of the controversy generated by discussion of a series of monitoring manuals which included compliance "standards" that some individuals, particularly those in state education agencies, believed exceeded existing federal regulations. The report further stated that "in some States a child's placement depended on which LEA [local education agency] was making the placement" (p. 178). The explanation offered is that in some LEAS, placement is determined by individual assessment information; in other LEAS, placement is determined by handicapping condition. That is probably an oversimplification of the situation; but there are also probably greater differences in LRE criteria and decision processes among the 16,000 localities than there are differences among the 57 states and territories.

A PRACTITIONER IS PERSPECTIVE

As indicated at the outset, a number of significant improvements can be made in the annual reports to Congress on EHA. In whatever form, however, the annual reports are essential reading for those interested in the perspective of the Department of Education on the field and the practice of special education. The Tenth Annual Report clearly delineates those issues in which the Department places greatest value, and it is filled with potential areas for further questions and research. It is, indeed, a challenge to characterize the often varied, and sometimes parochial, practices across the nation in this complex and ever-evolving field. It is assumed each reader of the report "attacks" the document from his or her own perspective, and that probably is as it should be. Without doubt, many practitioners face the conflict of feeling both a part of and far removed from federal policies, practices, and priorities. The reality of day-to-day service delivery may or may not be reflected in the concerns of federal officials. Nevertheless, we all have personal responsibility to continue communicating front-line issues and concerns to those in positions to effect public policy.
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Author:Greenbrug, David
Publication:Exceptional Children
Date:Sep 1, 1989
Words:1948
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