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Looking at the past and the future; a message from our new Assistant Secretary of Education.


A message from our new Assistant Secretary of Education.

SINCE THE PASSAGE IN 1975 of Public Law 94-142, the Education for All Handicapped Children Act, our nation has been involved in a bold experiement. We have sought to open educational opportunities to all children, regardless of the severity of their disabilities. To an astounding degree that experiment has succeeded. However, it would be an illusion to think that we have accomplished all that must be done. This fact becomes painfully obvious when we consider the findings of some recent studies. A survey conducted by Louis Harris Associates shed light on the current state of special education. The results of this survey indicate that educators believe that children with disabilities are getting a better education than in the past. The majority of parents surveyed also report overall satisfaction with the special education system. However, only a minority of parents and educators also believe that public schools are doing an excellent job of preparing these students for education and work beyond high school. In addition, the National Transition Longitudinal Study (NTLS) also raises concerns about our performance. This study shows that young people in special education have higher dropout rates than students in general. These young people also are less likely to go on to post-secondary education, and they have lower employment rates after leaving school. While it is true that the majority of students in special education do graduate, the dropout rate for these students is estimated to be approximately twice as high as the dropout rate for all students.

The Longitudinal Study revealed that only 46 percent of youth with disabilities found regular, paid jobs. This figure is well below the 62 percent employment rate for youth 16 to 21 years of age in the general population who are not in secondary school.

The findings of the Harris Survey and the NTLS suggest that there is a new frontier for special education -- one that lies beyond the implementation of P.L. 94-142. The issues we must now face relate to the quality of services provided and the success of the outcomes we attained. Our concept of the role of special education must change. The purpose of special education services is to prepare children with special needs for lives of dignity and independence, and to help them to take advantage of the opportunities that will become available in the future.

Accomplishing this task will require formulating long-range goals for children with disabilities. We have been facing a similar task in the Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services (OSERS) as we develop a statement of the agency's mission. As part of this process, we have identified three themes that encompass our activities. These themes also summarize the goals we have for each child receiving special education services.

The first of these themes involves recognizing and awakening the potential of persons with disabilities. This is at the heart of the education process for all human beings. All children begin life with potential. That potential is realized only when parents and teachers recognize their promise. The same is true for children with disabilities. Part of the challenge facing special education is to ensure that the capacity of children with disabilities is recognized. Our goal should be to make sure that no child falls through the cracks.

Another important theme involves expanding the social participation of persons with disabilities. It does little good for us to recognize their potential without providing opportunities for them to be a part of the life of their communities.

The final theme is that of productivity. Our efforts in this area are designed to help people with disabilities to enter the economic mainstream by becoming employed. The work that is being done in this area is a natural complement to activity undertaken in the other two areas. The potential of persons who are unemployed is wasted and their social participation seriously limited.

Special education plays an important role in each of these areas. First, by recognizing the potential of children at an early age, we make it possible for them to achieve all that they are capable of during the school years and beyond. Secondly, special education contributes to the participation of persons with disabilities. Without special education, community participation would be a dream beyond attainment for many children with disabilities.

The field also makes an important contribution by carrying out the requirement of P.L. 94-142 that children with disabilities be placed in the least restrictive environment. Children educated in such a setting are better able to participate in the real world after graduation.

Finally, special education plays an important role in fostering productivity. Over the last few years, there has been a growing realization that special education and rehabilitation are closely linked. Effective services at the primary and secondary levels help to prepare young people for work. Likewise, developing the skills needed for independence is a crucial element in success on the job.


Using these three themes as a basis, the Office of Special Education Programs within OSERS has developed four broad goals for its activities in the coming years. Our first goal is to increase the effectiveness of education services for students with disabilities. Our strategy for implementing the first goal will encompass a number of activities. We will work to develop better outcome measures for special education. This is critical because without appropriate bench marks we will be unable to gauge the success of our efforts. We will also focus on increasing the number of students with disabilities who graduate. As the NTLS points out, a significant number of students are dropping out of special education every year. This is a challenge we must meet in order to ensure a better future for all young people with disabilities. Another important challenge involves providing better accommodations to students with disabilities from non-dominant language or cultural groups. Special education is being affected by the increase in the number of children from minority backgrounds in our school population. This trend should lead us to reexamine the approaches used in the classroom, as well as our methods for identifying and placing children with disabilities. We will also address early childhood education and the transition to employment under this priority. Our activities will include developing models for comprehensive services for young children in day care programs. We must explore models that improve employment options and adult services linkage by providing supported or competitive work experience prior to leaving school.

Our second goal is to increase the amount and quality of interaction between students with disabilities and their peers who are not disabled. We believe that integrated social experiences are an important part of the education of all children with disabilities. This priority is tied to our efforts in a number of other areas. Meaningful social integration contributes to the readiness of young people with disabilities for work. The experience should be of value to both the student with the disability and the non-disabled peer. Some scholars have suggested that placement in an integrated environment contributes to minimizing behavior problems among students with severe disabilities. We believe that regular social interaction with non-disabled young persons should be part of the experience of every child with a disability. Opportunities for interaction with non-disabled peers should be planned activities for children in separate educational programs.

Our third priority is to promote collaboration on behalf of students with disabilities. Work on this priority will have three dimensions. The first involves improving cooperation among professionals at the level of services to the individual child. The challenge is to make it possible for special educators, regular educators, and related services personnel to collaborate to ensure the best possible services for each child. We believe this can be accomplished through improved training activities. Another dimension of improved collaboration involves better coordination among the various elements of the service system. This modification is necessitated by the growing interrelation of programs in the disability field. It has become clear that better services will come about only when we improve the coordination of these programs. For example, coordination must take place between the various types of educational programs, such as special education, remedial programs, and general education. In addition, education must cooperate more effectively with health and social services. We must broaden our focus to include the "whole child."

One of our goals is to develop improved interagency coordination in planning and implementing early intervention services for infants and toddlers at risk or having developmental disabilities. Part H of the Education of the Handicapped Act provides for the establishment of interagency coordinating councils at the state level. In order to put in place a complementary effort at the federal level, offices within the U.S. Department of Education and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services established a Federal Interagency Coordinating Council (FICC) in October 1987 through a memorandum of understanding. The FICC's mission is broader than the ICC's in that it was established to address the issues in planning a continuum of service for children from birth through age five with special needs.

The final dimension of collaboration involves the relationship with those whom our services benefit. Over the last several years, there has been an increased emphasis on involving parents in decisions about their child's program. But we still have a long way to go before this form of collaboration is fully realized. Sixty-one percent of the parents polled in the Harris Survey said they knew little or nothing about their rights under key federal laws. This lack of knowledge is a major stumbling block to collaboration between parents and educators. It is also important, particularly in work on transition planning, that we involve young people with disabilities in our planning. The crucial test of all our efforts must be the benefit for the end-users of our services.

Our fourth priority focuses on expanding the capacity of special education to meet the needs of students. Many of the activities I have mentioned already are relevant to this goal. One aspect of our work on this priority involves the requirement that states maintain standards to ensure that personnel are appropriately and adequately prepared and trained. Such standards must be based on the highest requirements in the state. This requirement will expand the ability of special education programs to meet the needs of all persons with disabilities.

I have attempted to give you a glimpse of the goals OSERS will be pursuing over the next few years. In launching our initiatives we will be building upon the accomplishments of the last fifteen years in implementing P.L. 94-142. Parents have been an important part of those accomplishments. Your dedication and energy have been a critical element in that success. At OSERS, we intend to continue to work toward the day when Americans with disabilities will have the same opportunities as other citizens. I look forward to working with you in the future. Together we can build an effective working relationship that will benefit children with disabilities and their families.

PHOTO : Dr. Davila visits the Mary C. Bourke School in Chelsea, Mass.

Robert R. Davila was nominated by President Bush to serve as Assistant Secretary, Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services (OSERS), on April 25, 1989 and was confirmed by the Senate on July 13, 1989. At that time, Dr. Davila was serving at Gallaudet University as Professor of Education.

One of eight children of migrant farmworking parents who immigrated to the U.S. from Mexico, Dr. Davila earned a Bachelor of Arts in Education of the Hearing Impaired from Gallaudet College in 1953 and a Masters of Science in Special Education from Hunter College in 1963. He holds a Ph. D. in Educational Technology from Syracuse University. Dr. Davila has served education in various professional and administrative positions. He has taught at the elementary, junior high and secondary school levels, as well as at Gallaudet University.

Assistant Secretary Davila has been married for the past 35 years to Donna E. Davila, who is also hearing impaired. They have two sons, Brian, a civil engineer, and Brent, an accountant.
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Author:Davila, Robert R.
Publication:The Exceptional Parent
Date:Mar 1, 1990
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