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"Disability does not mean Inability": an interview with Dr. Robert H. Pasternack. (Cover Story).

The United States Secretary of Education is a Cabinet agency, and presently is headed up by. Dr. Roderick Paige. Rod Paige was confirmed by the United States Senate as the 7th Secretary of Education on January 20, 2001, following the inauguration of President George W. Bush. Born in Monticello, MS, he earned his doctorate from Indiana University. Prior to becoming the U.S. Secretary of Education, Dr. Paige was the superintendent of schools of the Houston Independent School District (HISD) since 1994. In the Houston position, he made HISD the first school district in the state to institute performance contracts modeled on those in the private sector, whereby senior staff members' continued employment with HISD is based on their performance. He also introduced teacher incentive pay, which rewards teachers for outstanding performance and creative solutions to educational problems. In 2001, he was named the National Superintendent of the Year by the American Association of School Administrators.

Among the many people on Secretary Paige's staff is Dr. Robert H. Pasternack, Assistant Secretary of Education for the Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services (OSERS). Dr. Pasternack was sworn in as assistant secretary for OSERS on August 8, 2001. In this position, Dr. Pasternack serves as principal advisor to the U.S. Secretary of Education on all matters related to special education and rehabilitative services.

Born in Brooklyn, New York, he holds a Ph.D. in special education, with a minor in neuropsychology, from the University of New Mexico, a master's degree in guidance and counseling from New Mexico Highlands University and a bachelor's degree in psychology from the University of South Florida. He is a nationally certified school psychologist, certified educational diagnostician, licensed special education teacher for grades K-12 and licensed school administrator.

Dr. Pasternack has lifelong personal experience with people with disabilities. For more than 20 years, he has served as the legal guardian for his brother Maurice who was born with Down syndrome. Dr. Pasternack has two daughters and two grandchildren.

My interview with Dr. Pasternack for EP took place in Washington D.C. last fall. We sat down to a quite interesting Q&A session that took us in several directions. Being the father of a person with a disability, Karen (who has Down syndrome), most of my questioning was coming from the parental perspective. What follows is an interesting portion of that dialogue in Q &A format:

Q How does the Department (OSERS) view upcoming legislation and what changes do you see coming our way? What do you see as the major changes coming to IDEA?

A Well I think I'll answer the second part of your question first, dealing with IDEA. We made a commitment to look at the recommendations from the President's Commission on Excellence in Special Education. This is the first time a President established that kind of commission. In the first six months the commission existed, we went around the country and listened to folks give us feedback about what worked and what didn't. There were thirteen hearings and we heard from over a hundred experts. I think there were a lot of recommendations that are important for the Department to examine.

One of the challenges is how do we proceed and integrate those recommendations from the President's Commission into an approach to reauthorizing IDEA. On July 1, 2002, the Commission submitted the report to the President. The Department published it in the Federal Register and asked people to react to it. Now we are at the point where we are looking at the reactions that we received and we are really trying to sit down at the Department and determine which of these recommendations can be' implemented without changing the statute or regulations. We need to look closely at how some of those recommendations relate to what we should be doing with our approach to reauthorization and how we can work effectively with the folks on the Hill.

Q Referring to the President's Committee, I want to take you back to the informal hearings that were held before the earlier reauthorization of IDEA. There was a set of hearings conducted by Dave Hoppe, the Chief of Staff for the Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott. Some of us fondly referred to that set of meetings as the "Hoppe Committee" meetings. There were 12 or 13 meetings held on consecutive Fridays. They digested our input, then came back, and we rehashed it until we got down to what ended up being most of the reauthorization package. I know at the "Hoppe" meetings the participants were pretty much evenly balanced between advocates and professionals. The panels were pretty much divided. There were people from Senator's and Representatives' offices that were pro advocacy and pro administration, I don't necessarily mean the Clinton administration, but I mean the administrations of colleges, universities and secondary school principals, the unions and others. Do you think that this President's Commission was equally balanced too?

A I think that the President chose very wisely. At first, there was a lot of criticism about who was selected to be on the commission. But that is to be expected. Then, as the Commission went around the country and went about conducting its business, people grew more and more impressed with the quality of the people who were selected. Maybe some of the folks like yourself who have been in the advocacy community a very long time looked at the names and said: "Well, wait a minute here, I don't know who these people are and I sure don't know about their experience or credentials." I think that was a conscious decision.

I think part of the consciousness of the decision was that we've been at this thing for 27 years and maybe its time for people who haven't been as embroiled in it as other folks have been to take a different, perhaps fresh look at it. I think that the overwhelmingly positive response that we received to the report is evidence that the President selected very, very well.

Q You said that some people think the IDEA as passed in 1997 was a good act and it didn't need changing, but what are the key problems you see in the implementation of the IDEA that Congress passed and the President signed in 1997?

A One of the issues that we hear is that it's too complex. There are a lot of people who have difficulty navigating the complexity of IDEA. Often we hear that it is too focused on process and not enough focused on results. Some have said that it is too focused on what some people describe as "legal inoculation." There is concern that many decisions are made because people are afraid if they don't follow the rules and regulations that they are going to wind up in court.

One of the biggest things I'm worried about is that many of the best and brightest in special education are leaving because there is far too much paper work involved and not enough teaching. I have heard it expressed that there are too many meetings and not enough administrative support. We know that this is true from the national study that we did on special education personnel.

It seems to me as we examine the current law that we really need to listen carefully to the people who are saying it's too complicated, that there is too much paper work, too many meetings or not enough administrative support and find ways to change that. One of the challenges for us is to preserve the fundamental civil rights entitlement to free and appropriate public education (FAPE) in the least restricted environment (LRE). Nobody wants to mess with that. One of the challenges is how do you make sure you preserve all of the good work that's been done and deal with the things that need to be corrected and changed?

I believe that the parents are the true professionals when it comes to their children. They know more about their students than anyone else and we need to make sure that we are reaching out and that we act as consultants and resources to parents, not as people who tell parents what should be done. One of the fundamental changes that was made in 1997 was to recognize the critically important role that parents have. Students should also be invited to the IEP where this is feasible and appropriate. What we hear in state after state across the country, however, is that very few students are actually invited to their IEP meetings. IEPs are about the students and the students ought to be encouraged to attend IEP meetings. It is, after all, their life and we are there to help them.

Q This is a little provocative perhaps, but we still have parents, advocates and children with disabilities who must continue to fight to get quality, free and appropriate public education in the least restricted environment. Why are so many states still not carrying out and honoring that mandate? Do you have an answer?

A We are working to shift compliance from compliance with process to compliance to achieve results and excellence. States are working hard to comply with the IDEA, and we are changing our monitoring system to focus on data to document results. I took an oath to enforce the law and the Department takes its responsibility very seriously. We know we have to work in partnership with states to help them carry out the mandate to provide FAPE.

Q What don't they understand about the LRE and FAPE?

A Well I think that everybody can agree on what "free" means, but clearly not everybody can agree on what "appropriate" means. We have asked the states to report to us about the "setting" that students are educated in which gets to the LRE issue. But we never tied that setting to the results that we achieved for students who are in those settings. We know, for example, that 50% of the kids with disabilities are spending 80% or more of their time in a general education setting. But we don't measure how well those students do in those settings. And what you keep hearing from the general teachers is that they don't get the training and support that they need to have in order to meaningfully include students with disabilities. And a kid just sitting in a general classroom is not, I believe, what inclusion is about. It's about the kid having the same kinds of opportunities as non-disabled students both in curricular, co-curricular and extracurricular settings.

Q How about the situation of professional training and support?

A I'm not sure what will happen with reauthorization. But I can tell you that in IDEA and "No child left behind" there is a significant commitment of federal dollars for professional development and for preparation of teachers. We see in state after state that they're spending large amounts of money on professional development. What the states will tell you is that so many teachers get out of school and don't have the skills that they need to have to be able to teach the diversity of the students they find in their classrooms across the country.

I think we've got to work with the colleges and universities to help them do a better job of preparing people to get into classrooms and do the difficult job of teaching. Teaching is not a picnic. It is a tough assignment to be a teacher and that assignment becomes even tougher when you are faced with the challenges of educating students with disabilities.

Q The Porter Foundation and the Progressive Institute have set forth a series of proposals that I wanted to ask you about.

FIRST: What do you think about the Three Tiered System for providing services based on disability levels?

A This model is an attempt to recognize that some students fail to respond to scientifically based instructional strategies delivered by highly qualified and well trained teachers. Those students who fail to respond should be identified as early and as easily as possible. The current eligibility determination process waits too long for students to fail, and doesn't allow us to identify these students as early as they should be in order to intervene effectively and successfully. This model makes a lot of sense. But I am not sure I know if all parents understand this and so we need to do a better job educating parents about this model.

Q How long will it take to give students the services they deserve from the time they come in the door?

A That's a great question. One of our challenges is to make sure that happens in the shortest amount of time possible, while giving an adequate amount of time to those instructional strategies to see if they're going to work.

One of the things that's happening is that we know almost half of the students currently in the system are those with learning disabilities. The model that we use, which requires a discrepancy between ability and achievement to diagnose students with one of the seven kinds of specific learning disabilities, is not supported by the evidence that we have. Not one of the scientists or researchers who came to testify in front of the President's Commission said that we ought to continue to use the ability achievement discrepancy model for identifying students with specific learning disabilities. It's time for us in this country to look at a different way of diagnosing learning disabilities. The model that we're talking about is what a lot of people think is the way of more appropriately identifying learning disabilities. It's about failure to respond to the scientifically based instructional strategies.

And as you said, the challenge is to make that happen as quickly as possible because it's taking us too long to identify students with learning disabilities. The bulk of students that we identify are between the ages of 11 and 17 and the scientists will tell you that it's too late at that point to do much about it. You know the earlier we can get to these kids, the better the results are going to be. We should identify them before third grade, and some people say it should happen in first grade. One thing we do know is that early identification and intervention work, and so we need to strive to ensure this happens across the country.

Q We've seen scores of fine researchers prove to us that early intervention works and that's well before the first grade.

A Absolutely. And the First Lady, Laura Bush, supports doing more in early childhood and addressing early the social, emotional and cognitive needs of young students.

Q SECOND: Another proposal they highlighted was "learning to live with your disability." They made the point that students should be empowered to overcome their disabilities. I think they were saying you should equip these students to cope with their disability rather than expecting to accommodate them in a regular classroom. I am more than a little concerned and it wasn't really clear what they meant when they said "learning to live with your disability." It sounded like it was almost going to be an attitude that we are just going to train you to live in the community rather than to try to teach you the core curriculum and how to use your mind. Is that what it was?

A Well a lot of the ideas that were in the "Rethinking Special Education" book are very provocative and have sparked a lot of discussion which I think has been very helpful, very important and very necessary. You are talking about how we're going to move people with disabilities from a culture of dependency to a culture of independence. That's the kind of discussion we ought to be having because in many instances we haven't empowered students to make their own decisions. We haven't included them in their own IEP meetings, we haven't really focused on their strengths. We focus too much on their deficits and I think that it would be naive to think that by approaching it this way that we're going to help people overcome their disabilities. Because many disabilities are lifelong and pervasive, it's a matter of helping people accommodate and "be the best they can be," to paraphrase the U.S. Army's slogan. The President's New Freedom Initiative is evidence of the Administration's commitment to removing barriers to the full participation of people with disabilities in all aspects of our society.

Q THIRD: In their report they contend there is a double standard in discipline. I don't think there is a double standard under the present IDEA and I think that's pretty clear. In that report they said that they wanted to end the double standard concerning discipline in the reauthorization. What do you think they're talking about?

A We'll I'm not sure. There is an erroneous perception that you can't discipline students with disabilities and the reality is that under the 1997 amendments you can discipline a kid with disabilities. The issue is you can't cease providing services to those students and I think we must help people across the country understand that they can discipline students with disabilities under the present IDEA. We have a fundamental commitment to keep schools safe for all students. It's a matter of making sure, at the same time we keep schools safe, we do not deny the free appropriate public education to which students with disabilities are entitled. If a kid violates some of those zero tolerance policies the principals have to use the safeguards in the present law and keep the schools safe for everybody.

Q FOURTH: Another part that bothered me was the suggestion that there should be a reallocation of financial resources based on educational policy rather than civil rights. For example, more money and resources should go to high-achieving students and we should eliminate the entitlement to service of children with disabilities in the current law. What it sounded like to me was that we should allocate financial resources to the higher achieving students and cut out the rest. Is that what they meant?

A You know, without having the document in front of me I wouldn't want to comment on this or your interpretation. You have to remember that the President asked for the largest single presidential requested increase in IDEA funding in the history of this country. There is absolutely an incredible amount of support for providing more money for special education to meet the needs for students with disabilities, but it has to be tied to improved accountability.

I also want to tell you that one of the things they might be talking about is making sure that states can use some of their IDEA money for pre-referrals intervention. You talked a while ago about how heterogeneous the group of kids with disabilities is and I think when you look at the particular category of kids with learning disabilities that 80% to 90% of those kids are there because they have trouble reading. Many of those kids probably would not be in Special Education if they were taught to read appropriately in general educational settings by highly qualified, well-trained teachers that understand how to teach kids how to read. After all, it's not about Special Education or General Education; it's about students.

Q On a closing note, is there something you would like to say to the readers of EP?

A We all should embrace the President's notion of "leaving no child behind." For too long, students with disabilities have been left out and left behind. I think it's time for us in this country to recognize that kids with disabilities can achieve great things if they are taught and if we have high expectations, high standards and rigorous accountability for those students. Another thing is to make sure parents have hope for their students. We need to instill hope and to build a system where students with disabilities can achieve greatness when they are given the right kind of support.

Unfortunately for too many students we are not there yet, but we've come a long way. You know my brother is 60 and when he started out things were very different for people with disabilities, as they were 26 years ago for your daughter. I think it's important for us to take a look down the road that we've traveled and see how far we've come.

At the same time we should look ahead and see how much further we have to go. I want people to work together and to support the kinds of successes we have had and build on the fine work that has been done in the past. You know when they asked Isaac Newton how he managed to see the world the way he saw it, he said, "It's because I stood on the shoulders of giants that I was able to see the world the way it was." I think that I'm here today standing on the shoulders of giants, of people who worked and devoted their lives to get us to where we are and I just want to try to make it better.

Frank: Dr. Pasternack, I want to thank you for your candid responses and for your openness and frankness. IDEA started in 1975, and we have come a long way. The challenge is to continue the momentum until the journey is complete. I really think it's for two reasons: one was the hamstringing or the brick wall we ran into with some influential educators and the other is some of the parents being satisfied with the status quo. Not nearly all educators nor all parents but enough to have made it a rocky road.

Dr. Pasternack: No matter what we do in law or no matter what we do in regulation, if we don't have highly qualified, well trained, committed people working with our children, we'll never get the kind of system that we've been talking about.

To close I would like to quote Dr Pastemack and thank him for his work. "Disability does not mean Inability!" and I concur it certainly does not. I can attest to that by the examples and inspirations of all the people with disabilities I have had the pleasure to work with over the years. I would like to list them all here but, as they say, I would miss some and that would be unforgivable. Thank you Dr. Pasternack and Karen.
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Author:Murphy, Frank
Publication:The Exceptional Parent
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Apr 1, 2003
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