As I've noted in this blog several times over the last few months, I have heard a TON from people since my election (almost a year ago) about the state of special education in our district. I've heard from parents about the special education their child is (or is not) receiving as well as community members who are concerned about the growing cost of special education. I know a fair amount about some educational issues (I have become pretty educated on different math and science curriculum over the last few years, for example), but I really don't know much about special education, and hence I just don't feel able to reach a conclusion or share my opinion about this topic in my blog. But given the amount of discussion about this topic in our community, I believe we need to better understand how special education is done in Amherst -- so that we can inform School Committee members, parents, and the community about these programs. (There is also a thoughtful posting on the Bridges program by a "guest poster" today on Alison Donta's blog: http://www.amherstbythenumbers.blogspot.com/).
Here is my proposal: I would like to suggest that the School Committee appoint a special task force to investigate the state of special education. This group would seek volunteers broadly, and would include parents (including those with kids who are receiving special education services and not), community members with some type of relevant background, teachers, staff, etc., and this group would be charged with creating a report on special education services in our district. In particular, this report would include a review of what we are doing (e.g., what are the goals and objectives of our particular programs), which kids we are serving (e.g., race, gender, free/reduced lunch, ELL, etc.), how kids are identified, the effectiveness of our approach (e.g., success in mainstreaming students, avoiding out of district placements, etc.), and the costs of providing such services (teachers, materials, legal fees, etc.). The group would gather some data, such as surveys from parents and teacher, information on outcomes, information on funding, and comparisons of our approach to those used in other districts. I don't have any idea what such a report would reveal, but I think creating such a committee, and gathering and publicizing such data (obviously with appropriate precautions taken regarding confidentiality) would go a long way towards helping understand what we are doing, and why, and whether there are any changes that should be made.
When Superintendent Candidate David Sklarz came to visit our district, he described a special outside review that was conducted of the Special Education services in West Hartford (you can read this review at: http://whtalk.blogspot.com/2008/10/west-hartford-boe-special-education.html). Although this review was expensive to conduct (I believe they paid $50,000 for the entire report, mostly in time for outside consultants to talk to parents/teachers/community members, collect data, and observe programs), he reports that it saved $200,000 a year (clearly a cost-effective use of funds). I don't know if we'd need to spend such a large sum, but it clearly suggests to me that having an outside perspective can be useful. (The Amherst College Psychology Department, for example, is undergoing an external review this spring, in which four professors from other colleges and universities are coming to meet with faculty and students this spring to learn about our curriculum and hopefully make some useful suggestions for us moving forward). This isn't about criticizing the very good things that many teachers and staff members in our schools are doing -- it is about acknowledging that we all need to be vigilant about making sure that what we are doing in all aspects of our schools, including special education, is good for kids (as assessed by empirical evidence, not just anecdote and intuition) AND is a good use of our limited resources (are we getting the most "bang for our buck").
My Goal in Blogging
I started this blog in May of 2008, shortly after my election to the School Committee, because I believed it was very important to both provide the community with an opportunity to share their thoughts with me about our schools and to provide me with an opportunity for me to ask questions and share my thoughts and reasoning. I have found the conversation generated on my blog to be extremely helpful to me in learning community views on many issues. I appreciate the many people who have taken the time to share their views. I believe it is critical to the quality of our public schools to have a public discussion of our community priorities, concerns and aspirations.