It’s About Progress, Not Perfection: Celebrating the History of Special Education and Autism Advocacy

by Dr. Kurt Hulett

Special education, as we know it today, was born out of conflict and has continued to serve as a lightning rod for controversy and litigation since the early 1970s.  In the history of the United States few areas in the pantheon of education have drawn any where near the amount of debate, litigation, and scrutiny as special education over the past 45 years.

There was much fighting involved in the passage of P.L. 94-142 (1975) and quite a bit of conflict over the PARC v. PA (1971) and Mills v. Board of Education (1971) cases – all of which played major roles in the building of the foundations of the field of special education as we know it today.  This comes as no surprise in that all great strides in civil rights in America have only occurred after great struggle and conflict.

Today, however, as we celebrate Autism Awareness Month, we will take a moment to step away from controversy and celebrate the incredible journey of special education in America, and in particular, celebrate the advocates, adults and children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), their teachers, families and everyone else who has worked tirelessly to advance the field of special education.

Promoting Awareness

Discussing both the field of special education as a whole and ASD in particular makes a lot of sense.  The incidence rate of ASD has skyrocketed over the past half-century, and it is in large part due to the hard work of advocates for children with ASD that has driven the awareness necessary to help identify and assess these young people, and the presence of a very powerful law (IDEA) that has required the appropriate identification and evaluation of all children suspected of having disabilities.

According to Wright (2017):

The prevalence of autism in the United States has risen steadily since researchers first began tracking it in 2000. The rise in the rate has sparked fears of an autism ‘epidemic.’ But experts say the bulk of the increase stems from a growing awareness of autism and changes to the condition’s diagnostic criteria.

Although some argue environmental factors have contributed to the growth in incidence among students with ASD, it is highly likely that ASD has always existed at current levels and that we have only begun to fully and appropriately identify and assess individuals with ASD. The growth in the number of students being identified with ASD has been exponential, which is in direct proportion to the efforts and success of ASD advocates in promoting public awareness. This increase in incidence is emblematic of the success advocates for children with ASD have had in working on behalf of them.

Advocating Legally

Whether it be success with litigation or the 1990s addition of Autism as an eligibility category under IDEA, advocates of students with ASD have had tremendous success in advancing the rights and opportunities for children with ASD. They have been among the most successful groups working on behalf of students with disabilities. In fact, a recent review of litigation indicates that Autism-related court cases are more than 10 times as prevalent as those related to other areas of disability (in relation to FAPE-based IDEA complaints).

The most important recent Supreme Court case that impacts all of special education, Endrew F. v. Douglas County School District (2017), was steered to the High Court by parents, attorneys and advocates of children with Autism.

Prior to Endrew F. standards for Free and Appropriate Public Education  (FAPE) were guided by the Rowley (1982) decision, which established the “merely more than de minimis” standard for providing education to students with disabilities. However, in Endrew F., parents of a son with ASD successfully argued that his school had not set appropriately ambitious goals and that he had not made meaningful progress.  Endrew F.’s parents were able to demonstrate that in a private placement he made both academic and behavioral progress after years of little progress in public school.  The court ruled unanimously in their favor, thus establishing new standards which require schools to demonstrate ‘meaningful progress’ and ‘appropriately ambitious’ goals for students with disabilities. In this way, the Endrew F. case serves as a lasting and powerful symbol of the importance of the ASD community and the impact they have had on the broader field of special education.

How can we get involved?

Autism Awareness month is a great time to think about how we can get more involved. Here are some ways we can support the individuals with ASD as well as the overall movement to promote Autism Awareness:

  1.  Advocacy:  We cannot let up on the advocacy front.  We must continue to support and fund organizations that advocate on behalf of individuals with ASD.  The law, including both legislation and litigation, is always evolving and we, the special education community, must remain steadfast in ensuring the right cases move through the system and that IDEA and other laws are reauthorized and funded appropriately.

  2. Training and Awareness in Schools:  Although awareness and prevalence are growing rapidly in the schools, we still have a long way to go to educate all members of the school and surrounding communities about ASD and the best practices for supporting these individuals.  We must continuously promote inclusive environments and fund the training of staff and personnel at every level of the educational enterprise.

  3. Funding of IDEA:  As it is a tremendously underfunded mandate, we must urge Congress to meet the original promise to fund the law at a minimum of 40%.  The lack of funding at the federal level creates very difficult scenarios at the local levels.  Schools and communities want to do right by students with ASD; however, they need the supports, services, and funding to do so.

  4. Research on Best Practices in the Schools:  Tremendous progress has been made in the area of research and best practices. However, we must keep pushing forward to find new and better ways of supporting and helping individuals with ASD.  In particular, we need continued focus and research on interventions and methodologies that can be utilized in schools to reach and teach these students – both academically and socially.

  5. Innovation:  We need to support research in areas of innovation.  For example, Virtual Reality is demonstrating exciting advances and applications for children with ASD.  We need to continue to push the technological boundaries and push for continued innovation in research, science, and applied technologies.

  6. Focus on Inclusion in All Settings:  At the end of the day, one of our primary goals must be the successful integration of all individuals with ASD into the mainstream of society.  We must invest funding and research efforts into new approaches and methodologies for advancing this cause.

In Conlcusion

As we dedicate the month of April to promoting Autism Awareness and inclusion, let’s also remember to celebrate the many individuals in the broad field of special education who fight on in courthouses, halls of state houses, boards of education, IEP meetings and everywhere else on behalf of all students with disabilities, and in particular those who continue to successfully  advocate on behalf of students with ASD. It is time to acknowledge the tremendous success of these advocates and to say, on behalf of children with ASD, “Thank you!”


Dr. Kurt Hulett is a former school Principal and a current writer, special education consultant, and advocate whose goal is to bring educators and stakeholders from all strata together to work for the benefit of all children. He is also a member of the Center for Special Education Advocacy and hosts the Kurt’s Kitchen Table EdTalk video podcast. Dr. Hulett is the author of Legal Aspects of Special Education and is currently working on an education reform book entitled Miles to Equality, due out in 2020.

7 Tips for Achieving Equity in Special Education

by Dr. Kurt Hulett

Watch the webinar presented by Dr. Hulett on 3.21.2019.

The issue and importance of equality has been a common fixture in the American vernacular for the past sixty plus years.  As a whole, working towards equality for all people, regardless of unalterable characteristics, is a valid and worthy pursuit.  For special education, however, equality falls short of what is needed and desired for children with disabilities – both legally and morally.  As a community of people passionate about serving these children, we need to move from a paradigm focused on equality and one that works toward equity. 

Why equity? Why now?

People often confuse the two terms as synonyms, when in fact they are both quite different things with very different intended outcomes.  Both equality and equity aim to ensure basic fairness.  With equality, the end goal is simple fairness – everyone has the same starting point and is treated exactly the same.  With equity, however, the presumption is that not all people begin from the same place – so each person is given what they need to be successful, based on their unique abilities and needs.

It makes sense that equality would have been the focus over the past four decades given the Supreme Court’s establishment of the Rowley standard of 1982, which enshrined the term ‘de minimis’ education in reference to what was required from school districts serving students with disabilities. In Rowley the Court ruled that the law’s intent was not to enable students with disabilities to achieve their full potentials, but rather to give them equal and sufficient access to a free and appropriate public education (FAPE). Ever since this decision, too many schools simply complied with paperwork requirements and provided cookie-cutter services which were anything but truly individualized.  The presence alone of a disability did not mandate special education services.

However, the very nature of special education is that no child is starting from the same place.   With the Supreme Court’s unanimous 8-0, Endrew F. decision (2017) on the books and a new standard established which requires schools to demonstrate ‘meaningful progress’ and ‘appropriately ambitious’ goals for students with disabilities, it is time we move from focusing on equality to truly one of ensuring equity. 

Here are eight tips schools can put into place to ensure equity is a driving force and desired outcome for all children receiving special education services. 

Tip 1:  Principal Leadership 

Principals must take an active role in the individualized education program (IEP) process, and a leadership role within the school relative to special education.  The principal is one of the key culture determinants in the school environment and can communicate volumes to the school community by demonstrating an active interest in special education.  Principals play an enormous role in the authorization of resources and supports in the public school environment and need to exercise their full authority to ensure every child receives every resource necessary to truly be successful and grow.  Although IEP meetings are comprised of many members, the principal always retains a special role of significance and has a unique ability to impact the education of each child in the building.  A principal can move a school from equality to equity by ensuring the proper resources and services are available for each child.

Tip 2:  Develop Truly Individualized and Quality IEP’s  

The IEP is the heart of the special education enterprise and ensures the legal and educational rights of every child.  Educators must put quality time, thought, and care into the development of each child’s IEP.   The quality of the IEP document is in direct correlation to the quality of the education and services being provided to a child.   For reasons of convenience and efficiency, some schools condone the copy and pasting of content, services, and goals from one IEP to the next.  This approach not only violates the law, but significantly reduces the quality of the final product.  Remember, the present level of academic achievement (PLAAFP) must drive the IEP and be aligned to the goals.  At a minimum, ensuring the PLAAFP and the goals are aligned will go a long way to ensuring a quality program.  Without a strong, personalized IEP that is uniquely crafted for a child based on her needs, it is extremely difficult to ever truly create educational equity.

Tip 3:  Use Online and Blended Learning Options

Regardless of disability or setting, if a child has significant academic deficits, personalized learning can and will help.  Whether before school, during an intervention period, during small group instruction, or in an after-school tutorial, all students with deficits can benefit greatly from truly personalized learning with diagnostic assessment elements.  In order to catch up with their own-age peers, students with disabilities often need more supports and intervention approaches.  We need to move beyond only considering the curriculum provided as one-size-fits all, and begin to customize and extend learning for those that truly need it. One way to achieve this is by taking advantage of the growth of educational technologies that enable us to provide truly personalized learning supports. 

Tip 4:  Let Data Drive Instruction and Intervention 

The heart of special education is rooted in the cyclical process of assess, intervene, instruct, and re-assess.  If we are to truly provide children with equity in education, we must engage in proactive, high-leverage, research-based best practices and avoid reactionary, ‘de minimis’ practices that fall short of maximizing a child’s true learning capacity. Today there is certainly no lack of data available to assist us in this endeavor. The boom in the EdTech industry has created solutions that allow schools to garner copious amounts of student data.  Whether academic or behavioral, tracking performance, evaluating the effectiveness of interventions, making adjustments, and differentiating instruction are made easier by diagnostic learning tools that allow schools to make data-driven instructional decisions.

Tip 5:  Thorough and Individualized Lesson Planning

Lesson planning is no fun – but every great teacher does it – and does it well.  Preparation is the key to success in special education, and whether a resource, inclusion, or functional skills classroom, it is imperative that the teacher plans individualized instruction for each child.  All too often we provide a one-size-fits-all lesson – even within special education.  We need to remember our instructional cycle and apply it individually and with great forethought. Ensuring equal access and equality of instruction that teaches one learning objective to the whole is meeting the bottom floor of expectation.  Truly pouring over instructional data, planning creative activities, differentiating instruction based on need and performance, providing formative re-direction and scaffolding, and enthusiastically engaging each child in the learning process is a major component of providing educational equity.   

Tip 6:  Establish High Standards for Each Child

Just because a child has a disability doesn’t mean they can’t be pushed or reach great achievements.  All too often, we candle or pacify students when they begin to struggle.  It is okay for a child with a disability to struggle and work their way through a problem.  Children normally rise only as high as we ask.  Although this sounds like a soft recommendation, there is plenty of hard science in education that underscores the importance of high expectations and teaching children to have a growth mindset.  A part of ensuring equity, is ensuring a positive belief in oneself and one’s abilities.  We must go beyond just academic instruction and consider the whole child.  For a child to truly receive educational equity, she must understand she is capable and worthy of high achievement.

Tip 7:  Motivation and Enthusiasm

One cannot over-emphasize the power of enthusiasm and positive thinking with children.  All students thrive with positive feedback and encouraging words.  No matter how difficult a child or situation may be or become, stay positive and enthusiastic.  The power of positivity has no limitations in the special education world.  Re-set yourself every morning and come into the school and classroom with an outwardly positive and enthusiastic demeanor.  So often, we focus myopically on the academic needs of children with disabilities.  The education of the whole child demands that we help to inspire and motivate children to live, learn, and achieve at their maximum capacity.

Conclusion

Moving a field from a mindset of equality toward one of true equity is not easy, nor will it happen overnight.  That said, significant strides forward can be achieved by following some or all of the tips I outlined above.

We are truly at a turning point in the history of special education.  The Endrew F. decision serves as a line of demarcation and a determining factor as we move forward.  It is time for all educators to move away from terms such as ‘de minimis’ education, compliance, and equality and towards a present and future that includes the vernacular of maximization, personalization, and equity. 

No field in the child services industry has ever been more successful at advocating for and achieving change than special education.  In the 1970’s the field of special education came together as one to enact one of the largest and most impactful  legislative changes for children in the history of America – the creation of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.   Today, it is once again time for change.  The gauntlet has been thrown down, and it is time for the field of special education to collectively step forward.


DDr. Kurt Hulett

Dr. Kurt Hulett is a former school principal and a current writer special education consultant, and advocate whose goal is to bring educators and stakeholders from all strata together to work for the benefit of all children. He is also a member of the Center for Special Education Advocacy and hosts the Kurt’s Kitchen Table EdTalk video podcast. Dr. Hulett is the author of Legal Aspects of Special Education and is currently working on an education reform book entitled Miles to Equality, due out in 2020.


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