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Will DOE’s new special education policy really “Focus on Learning”?

April 27, 2010

by Norm Fruchter

The NYC Department of Education’s is proposing to address the instructional needs of students with disabilities in local schools rather than in schools with specific special education programs. This is an important, and welcome, policy shift that critics of the school system’s ineffective and often damaging special education programs have been urging for decades. In 1995, my NYU colleagues and I published Focus on Learning, which called for reorganizing NYC’s special education through a “school-based model … [which] reconfigures school and classroom organization, personnel, instruction and assessment strategies, and fiscal allocation policies” to produce effective education for students with disabilities. Our report argued that comprehensive reform of the entire system was necessary to make this school-based strategy work.

More than 20 years later, the DOE’s new strategy will give principals the freedom, and the flexibility, to meet the learning needs of their special education students. Time will indicate whether the DOE will provide both the flexibility and the additional resources that effective instruction for students with disabilities requires. But more than resources are necessary. Principals, teachers, guidance counselors, and support staffs will need to tap a base of sophisticated teaching knowledge and a diverse repertoire of instructional skills to accurately assess and effectively meet the learning needs of the students with disabilities in their local schools. Some exceptional schools have built this necessary base of instructional knowledge. Many more schools will need to develop such a base to make a school-based strategy for educating students with disabilities successful.

How will the DOE help schools develop this necessary base of instructional expertise? Our current principal cohort is probably the youngest and least experienced it’s ever been; providing autonomy and flexibility to principals with little knowledge of the diversified instructional approaches students with disabilities require is hardly a solution. Worse, our teaching force is increasingly inexperienced and suffers from high turnover rates, and the ranks of our special education experts have been decimated. And with few exceptions, the top ranks of the school system’s administrators are innocent of intensive teaching experience and know little about providing the support that classroom teachers of students with disabilities will require.

A school-based policy for educating students with disabilities, implemented without developing the experience, knowledge, and expertise necessary to truly “focus on learning,” could become yet another DOE structural reform that ignores the need to concentrate on developing, providing, and supporting effective instruction.

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