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Delivering educational services that meet the needs of all students.

The authors of the preceding articles discuss a number of issues that continue to shape the discourse about policies and practices affecting the education of students with disabilities. In what follows, we comment upon a number of timely, historically important, and vexing issues that pervade discussions about the delivery of educational services for all students. We offer no final resolution to these issues because systems of educational services, like all human artifacts, ultimately conform to the aspirations and intentions of communities who design and use them. We hope, however, that our comments will encourage thoughtful and critical discussion about changing conceptions of special education.

The contributions in this special issue highlight the fact that history and culture have always shaped views about special education and the practices that impact the education of students with disabilities. McLaughlin reviews historical interpretations of educational equity and how they reflect different perspectives about the relative importance of group and individual equity. Artiles, Kozleski, Trent, Osher, and Ortiz warn that federal policies, however well intended, can have potentially insidious effects when they fail to take into consideration historical and cultural presuppositions about underserved students. Fuchs, Fuchs, and Stecker discuss how different political constituencies' purposes are grounded in federal legislation that impact conceptions of special education and how to deliver educational services for all students. Dorn cautions that organizational, political, and cultural tensions impact the development and implementation of institutionalized systems of data-based decision making. Bruder reviews the history of legislation governing early childhood intervention policies, and the systemic barriers to the implementation of evidence-based developmental services in practice. Finally, Brownell, Sindelar, Kiely, and Danielson show how the preparation of special educators reflects shifting political perspectives and historical assumptions about teacher quality. In short, systemic responses to the delivery of special education services are inevitably situated in their historical and cultural context (Osgood, 2005). People's most closely held values, which influence the educational choices they make, are a residue of their cultural history.

The influence of history and culture is especially evident in discussions of educational equity, questions about which continue to haunt policy makers, practitioners, and researchers alike. Conceptions of equity are complicated by an education system that was designed to provide a modal education to large numbers of children as efficiently as possible while at the same time responding to the diverse and challenging educational needs of underserved students. As McLaughlin notes, educational policy makers have at different times emphasized dimensions of equity that focus on the availability of equal resources, access to opportunities, or attainment of prescribed outcomes. The rhetoric of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (NCLB) that calls for all children to reach high levels of academic proficiency by 2014 (20 U.S.C. [section] 6311 [b]) highlights the current focus on student outcomes as a defining feature of equity. Further, the language of the 1997 and 2004 reauthorizations of the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) establishes that special education services are meant to promote education, employment, and independent living for students with disabilities. Most recently, states have been accountable through their State Performance Plans/Annual Performance Reviews for determining high school graduation and dropout rates, determining whether students' individualized education programs (IEPs) contain measurable postschool goals, deliver transition services designed to promote those goals, and monitoring student attainment of postschool goals.

Perhaps this increasing emphasis on outcomes as articulated in NCLB and IDEA will lead to a new standard of educational benefit. If classes of students (e.g., those with special education needs) neither make adequate yearly progress nor attain mandated achievement benchmarks, or if individual students do not attain their postschool IEP goals, schools may be judged to have failed in the provision of a free appropriate public education (FAPE). At this time, however, court decisions tend to favor an interpretation of FAPE that hews closely to the Rowley standard (1982; Bassett & Kochhar-Bryant, 2009), acknowledging that some meaningful, measurable benefit must be demonstrated, but targeted outcomes are not guaranteed. What matters most is whether the IEP process was sound and services that might be expected to promote progress toward identified goals were delivered; failure to deliver services or safeguards may result in requirements to provide compensatory services, even postschool. Thus, it would appear that a focus on practice--the delivery of evidence-based, quality inputs and processes--continues to be the hallmark of equity for students with disabilities. Nevertheless, the expectation for higher achievement and better postschool outcomes may be desirable because it encourages schools to identify practices that promote the attainment of socially and individually determined educational goals.

Of concern, then, is maintaining a press for achievement on goals that matter, and not limiting accountability to narrow views of achievement or to learning outcomes for which valid and reliable measures are readily available. Certainly, reading and mathematics, the subjects most often scrutinized on accountability assessments, are essential to engagement in a variety of postschool environments. Likewise, attaining higher levels of proficiency in the sciences, literature, and social studies are important in a society that is increasingly complex, diverse, and technologically sophisticated. However, students' postschool success is not solely dependent on academic proficiency. The development of "common core" standards, intended to represent high-level college and career readiness, affirms a policy commitment to be accountable for developing skills needed for employment (Council of Chief State School Officers and National Governors Association, 2009). A review of the evidence base for transition services for youth with disabilities points to the importance of both academic and career opportunities during high school (National Secondary Transition Technical Assistance Center, 2009). Students who engaged in integrated career and community experiences--especially career education and paid work--were more likely to experience positive employment outcomes. High schools that hope to promote positive employment outcomes must do more than provide access to challenging academic content; they also must engage students in applying what is learned in relevant, authentic adult environments. An accountability system that intentionally or not eliminates student access to such opportunities by focusing instead on yet more academic requirements may be denying students the very experiences needed for postschool success. In our view, such an outcome is inimical to the principle of normalization (Wolfensberger & Tullman, 1982), which is the predicate for IDEA and the meaningful inclusion of people with disabilities.

The value of these curricular opportunities for all students has also been recognized beyond the field of special education transition services within the general education community (e.g., National Association of Secondary School Principals, 2004). Further, several articles in this special issue allude to the fact that particular disabilities or the complexity of a disability challenge ideas about what is equitable and what constitutes best practices. IDEA encourages consideration of students' functional needs, not just academic goals. The qualities of students' experiences in school, such as affiliations with peers and caring, autonomy-supportive adults, and perceived support for attainment of personally identified goals are major factors in promoting students' school completion (Eisenman, 2007). Considering evidence about what works and understanding that inputs and outcomes both matter, an equitable education would be one that ensures that students' IEPs address academic, career, and personal/social goals; the delivery of a comprehensive curriculum; and effective instruction and supports that prepare students to reach those goals.

The contributors to this special issue recognize the importance of local cultures of teaching practices and decision making on the learning experiences of children and youth. Federal and state policies have compelled local educators to reconsider curriculum content, instructional methods, and assessments used to demonstrate student learning (Dorn, this issue; Fuchs et al., this issue), as well as strategies for improving teacher quality (Brownell et al., this issue). Further, the original enactment of the Education of All Handicapped Children Act of 1975, the emphasis on integrating students with disabilities into general education (Fuchs et al., this issue), the expectation that students with disabilities meet grade-level content standards (McLaughlin, this issue), and IDEA's mandate to provide preschool services for children with or at risk for disabilities and their families (Bruder, this issue) demonstrate that federal policy intends to exert an influence on local educational practices. Nevertheless, what happens in the school and classroom is most often mediated by teachers' practices, how teachers interact with colleagues and families, and how these relationships are embedded in the larger community.

Dorn (this issue) and Artiles et al. (this issue) underscore the importance of understanding how teachers and administrators think and make decisions about practice within the contexts of their schools. Dorn's analysis of the practical and institutional barriers to the implementation of federal policies about formative assessment is especially sobering. In short, he doubts whether structured formative assessments will ever be fully adopted and practiced as envisioned by policy makers. Despite its demonstrable effectiveness under controlled conditions, structured formative assessment actually conflicts with the culture of schools and how teachers make educational decisions. Educational policies about formal assessment may ultimately be hybridized with local practices, co-opted by those who would use it for their own advantage--or, worse yet, used to displace responsibility for low achievement from schools to students. This echoes Artiles et al.'s admonition about the risks associated with using measures of academic achievement to identify students for special education. Poor performance on these measures (which are themselves culturally grounded), and colorblind policies and practices that are meant to address it, reinforce the assumption that poor academic achievement is a defining feature of historically underserved students, and may contribute to their disproportional representation in special education. Dorn and Artiles et al. caution against adopting standards for evidence-based practices that are grounded in simplistic notions about "scaling up" as well as simplistic views of culture.

Perhaps the latter point will encourage researchers to consider the potential benefits of mixed methods for understanding and working within local contexts, and to consider the social-cultural influences on individual learning and institutional change. The emerging field of disability studies in education, which critiques the social constructions of and responses to disability, offers a variety of theoretical and disciplinary stances from which to engage questions of local cultural practices in special education (Taylor, 2008). At the very least, meaningful engagement of educators, families, and students should be integral to the examination of an interventions social validity. Families' and students' perspectives are less well represented within this special issue, but they continue to be influential in shaping the experiences and structures of special education. Families have a central role as advocates for educational equity and often are instrumental within their local educational communities. Similarly, the growing emphasis on student involvement in special education practices--whether through instruction on self-regulated learning strategies or developing their own transition plans and directing their IEPs signals an important shift in understanding that agency influences both the implementation and effectiveness of special education practices and the student's self-regulation as a lifelong learner.

Teachers are at the nexus of all efforts to deliver educational services that are equitable and culturally responsive. The inclusion of students with disabilities in the general education classroom, the mandate to hold students accountable to grade-level content standards, and the requirement that every teacher be highly qualified have shaped conceptions of teacher quality and preparation (Blanton & Pugach, 2007). In Brownell et al.'s (this issue) view, the future preparation of highly qualified special educators should be linked to the development of content expertise and the special education teacher's role in the implementation of response to intervention (RTI). As the curriculum unfolds, especially in the secondary years, students are expected to develop adaptive expertise that prepares them for future learning opportunities (see Bransford, Brown, & Cocking, 2000; Sawyer, 2006). Therefore, Brownell et al. argue, all teachers must possess deeper and more richly elaborated knowledge about the content they teach. Further, Brownell et al. believe that RTI clarifies the responsibilities of general and special educators and the kinds of expertise they need to possess. If the most intensive tier of RTI is the sole purview of special education, special educators must be able to deliver highly intensive instruction and engage in frequent progress monitoring. Therefore, the authors argue, special educators must acquire all the competencies of regular educators en route to special education certification.

This ambitious and perspicacious view of the preparation of special educators is not unproblematic. As Fuchs et al. (this issue) point out, there may be deeply held disagreements between the adherents of the NCLB and IDEA views about the most intensive tiers of RTI; the division of responsibility between special and general educators; and, more generally, about the validity and continued existence of the institution of special education. In addition, as Brownell et al. (this issue) and Fuchs et al. acknowledge, relatively few evidence-based instructional protocols for RTI have been developed for mathematics, none exist in the content areas, and little is known about the later development of literacy skills, especially as they relate to content area learning (see Ferretti & De La Paz, in press; Shanahan & Shanahan, 2008). Moreover, Brownell et al.'s perspective on expertise, which is firmly rooted in the learning sciences view of knowledge (see Bransford et al., 2006), may be paradigmatically incompatible with the knowledge perspective presupposed by the proponents of RTI. Suffice it to say that adaptive expertise may not be assessable with relatively brief and frequently administered probes of knowledge and skill. If this is so, the assessment of adaptive expertise in teaching may be even more challenging.

In part, the abovementioned concerns involve technical challenges that will require a significant research investment. If the RTI initiative and efforts to improve special education teacher quality are to succeed, research needs to explore effective instructional protocols in mathematics and the content areas, especially during the secondary years. This knowledge may help establish identification standards based on a student's RTI, encourage early intervention when students experience difficulties in the content areas, and produce ways to systematically monitor student progress during the secondary school years. However, research must be grounded in the historical and cultural contexts of historically underserved students, involve families and practitioners in the conceptualization of interventions and the interpretation of evidence about efficacy, and take into account the structural barriers that sometimes deny students access to needed services (see Artiles, this issue; Bruder, this issue). Further, even when armed with a clear conceptual framework and knowledge of what works, investment in systems change is necessary, especially when collaboration across general and specialized systems is fundamental to service delivery (Bruder, this issue). As the research about organizational behavior shows (Dorn, this issue), history and culture inevitably shape the implementation of educational policies.

Bruder (this issue) stresses that delivering a quality education starts with the provision of services early in a child's development and due attention to creating supports within the natural ecology of family and community. The hope is that these services will eliminate or minimize the distal effects of disability or disadvantage. Further, resources are needed throughout the developmental period to promote better adult outcomes for youth with disabilities, and this includes attending to youths' social roles and environments in and beyond school. Undertaking changes to social institutions that are responsible for promoting human development requires a commitment to working with local implementers over time as they navigate the historical, political, and cultural terrain of their communities. At its core, IDEA is about delivering individualized, effective instruction for every child with a disability who needs it and providing reasonable people at the local level with the tools, decision-making authority, and procedural safeguards needed to assure equitable treatment. When the spirit of and letter of IDEA are respected, collective educational resources are used to promote human development and progress toward socially valued outcomes.


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Shanahan, T., & Shanahan, C. (2008). Teaching disciplinary literacy to adolescents: Rethinking content-area literacy. Harvard Educational Review, 78, 40-59.

Taylor, S. (2008). Before it had a name: Exploring the historical roots of disability studies in education. In S. Danforth & S. Gabel (Eds.), Vital questions facing disability studies in education. New York, NY: Peter Lang.

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University of Delaware

RALPH P. FERIRETTI (CEC DE Federation), Professor; and LAURA T. EISEHMAN (CEC DE Federation), Associate Professor, School of Education, University of Delaware, Newark.

Address correspondence to either author at Willard Hall Education Building, School of Education, University of Delaware, Newark, DE 19716 (e-mail: and/or
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Title Annotation:Commentary
Author:Ferretti, Ralph P.; Ieisenman, Laura T.
Publication:Exceptional Children
Article Type:Report
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 22, 2010
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