To serve students with disabilities more effectively, school leaders need to commit to integrating special education into the instructional and social fabric of the school community, a report from the Center on Reinventing Public Education and the National Center for Special Education in Charter Schools argues.
The report, Seizing the Opportunity: Educating Students With Disabilities in Charter Schools (44 pages, PDF), examined thirty charter middle and high schools serving an average or higher proportion of students with disabilities and identified common factors in the twenty schools in the sample with a successful record of educating those students, based on standardized test outcomes, course enrollment, and/or suspension and expulsion rates. Funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the study found that successful schools are committed to three core principles: trust between schools and families built on caring and productive communication; an orientation toward continuous problem solving to meet individual needs; and a blurring of lines between special education and other students' instructional and social experiences. To reinforce those principles, the schools also have leaders who prioritize special education, strong cultures of mutual respect and solution seeking, robust data and technology systems that support intentional but flexible approaches to teaching, and organizational structures, resource allocation, and tools that facilitate collaboration and information sharing. The report further notes that establishing these principles and conditions is difficult and that maintaining them requires a significant amount of effort and commitment.
According to the report, the best schools do not treat special education as an isolated program but seamlessly integrate students with unique learning needs into the overall academic and social life of the school. The study also found that high teacher turnover rates and lack of resources limit the delivery of high-quality services, and that even among the most successful schools, balancing rigor with effective accommodation and personalization, as well as planning for the students' lives beyond high school, are a challenge.
"The findings from our study show how school autonomy and coherency give charter schools an inherent opportunity to establish practices that avoid stigmatizing or unnecessarily separating students with disabilities," the report's authors write. "And the findings show how data and individualized solutions in special education can lead to more effective instruction for all students. This should cause us to look harder for ways to create those conditions in district schools. But the findings also show that all public schools — charter and district — have work ahead to realize the potential of every student with unique learning needs and unique abilities."