A: All students enter our public schools with diverse life experiences and unique strengths and challenges. Equity means that each student is provided the resources and supports he or she needs and has equal access to opportunities to achieve success. For students with disabilities in particular, there are often barriers that prevent full access to a quality education. But equity in public education means that any barriers to access are removed – through accommodations or specialized instruction for students and greater resources and supports for educators to effectively instruct them. In addition, students are offered authentic and equal opportunities to benefit from public education alongside their peers in supportive, inclusive settings.
A: There are three clear opportunities within ESSA that must be leveraged to create a more equitable system.
1. It is critical that the review process of state plans be rigorous and hold states to high standards. These plans are the mechanism by which states set goals for schools and group students, and those goals speak directly to how equitable a state intends its school system to be. Therefore, developing high-quality state plans is the foundation of ESSA’s success.
A good first step for states is to take a close look at and examine how they are serving students with disabilities right now. NCLD’s State of Learning Disabilities report reveals that as many as 95% of students with learning disabilities (LD) graduate with a diploma in New Jersey while only 31% do in Nevada. New Jersey also had the lowest dropout rate for students with LD at 5% while 33% dropped out in South Carolina. The disparities are troubling. It’s important to know how states are doing so they can then take steps toward improvement, and NCLD has state-specific resources to help them get started.
2. Once full implementation of state plans is underway, schools will be identified as needing improvement based on their performance against the goals. Here, the quality of the intervention chosen for a particular school or student group will determine whether public education is inching closer to equity or further from it. It is critical that schools commit to selecting effective interventions that target identified problems in student performance.
And it is equally important that educators are provided the right professional development and resources they need to execute interventions that result in measurable student progress. We encourage states and districts to identify and invest in evidence-based interventions and take advantage of the funding opportunities within ESSA for educators to receive training on strategies that support students, including universal design for learning (UDL), personalized learning, and multi-tiered systems of supports (MTSS).
3. Throughout all aspects of implementation, it is critical for states and districts to meaningfully engage stakeholders in the process. Stakeholders – including parents and advocates for particular groups of students – know the needs of these students and how best to serve them. Equity cannot be achieved unless every community is represented and every stakeholder is at the table.
A: Some state plans have a strong equity focus overall, while others include certain elements meant to promote equity. New Hampshire’s plan includes a focus on personalized learning and UDL, which are frameworks that recognize and build upon the inherent strength of every student and provide multiple ways for each student to access learning. And Colorado’s plan sets the same long-term academic achievement goals for all student subgroups. This demonstrates a belief that all students can achieve at high levels, and a commitment by the state to help students succeed. Each of these elements is important if a state is going to promote and achieve equity for all students.
A: Among the state plans that have been submitted to the U.S. Department of Education, one thing that appears to be a struggle for states is stakeholder engagement. Now that the U.S. Department of Education is no longer requiring states to address stakeholder engagement in the plans, many states do not report on how they worked with stakeholder groups to solicit feedback on the state plan. While some states have done a thorough job of reaching stakeholder groups, many have not. And even where states did engage with stakeholder groups, those groups have reported that the engagement has not been meaningful and left little opportunity to provide feedback on the plans. It appears that engaging with stakeholders in a way that is meaningful for multiple communities has been a challenge and should be a priority for states as they move forward.
A: NCLD is carefully monitoring the development and review of state plans and has joined partner organizations and experts to evaluate how each state is addressing the needs of students with disabilities.
NCLD, through targeted policy and advocacy work and through parent mobilization efforts with Understood.org, is working closely with parents in a few select states to empower them to become engaged in ESSA implementation in their communities. We’ve created a national toolkit for parents containing information they need to understand ESSA, organize other parents, and work with educators and decision makers to support students with learning and attention issues in their state. To date, this toolkit has been customized for parents in Colorado and Georgia.
Mimi Corcoran is the President & CEO of the National Center for Learning Disabilities and a member of The Hunt Institute Board of Directors.