CharterFolk Contributor Erin Studer – Special Education Implementation Has Room For Everyone To Improve

Good morning, CharterFolk!

Today we are pleased to share a contributor column from Erin Studer, Executive Director of Charter School Programs for the CHIME Institute.

Erin Studer, Executive Director of Charter School Programs for the CHIME Institute.

I provide Erin’s bio below.

Dr. Erin Studer has served as the Executive Director of CHIME Institute since 2011. Erin holds a bachelor’s degree in Religious Studies with a minor in English from the University of Iowa, a Master’s in Special Education from National University, and he was among the first cohort to graduate in 2011 from California State University, Northridge’s doctoral program in Educational Leadership and Policy Studies. Dr. Studer began his educational career in 1998 with Summit View School, which offers comprehensive elementary, middle, and high school programs for students with learning differences. He has been a special education teacher, general education teacher, and school administrator. Erin also currently serves on the Special Education Local Plan Area (SELPA) Executive Board for Charter Operated Programs Option 3 in Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD), is a member of the Los Angeles Advocacy Council, and a Board Member for Fenton Charter Public Schools. Erin has dedicated considerable time over the past decade to developing and delivering professional development for schools and school systems looking to provide more inclusive education options for all learners. He lives in Los Angeles with his wife, Anne, daughter, Kiera, and their two dogs, Max and Freeway. 

Special Education Implementation Has Room For Everyone To Improve

I was on a Zoom with leaders from charter schools throughout Los Angeles this past August when a discussion of the then recently released Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) study, As a Matter of Fact: The National Charter School Study III, came up and everyone agreed that while the overall news was positive, the bottom line on special education was not good. Speculation began as to why. Was the data from non-classroom based schools included in the average? Was the comparison match for students really as tight as it should be to make proper comparisons for the students with disabilities? Have the students with disabilities who left their public schools for a charter school already been “failed” by the local school district?

These may or may not be reasonable questions or assertions, but as someone who has spent a significant portion of my 25 years in education working with students with disabilities and studying the laws and policies that govern special education in America, I can tell you the truth is that neither charter schools as a whole nor traditional public schools are “ahead” when it comes to serving students with disabilities regardless of what CREDO or any other analysis of the data may say.

Facts bear out that across our nation the student group that is most likely to not graduate with a high school diploma is students with disabilities. The student group most likely to spend significant portions of their school days being taught curriculum that is not on grade level standard is students with disabilities. The student group most likely to be bullied, be identified as at risk for failure, have high rates of truancy and absenteeism, etc.…is students with disabilities. This is true nationally in charter schools, and it is true nationally in traditional public schools.

Amidst all this, is the persistent fact – which has existed for the entire timeframe of Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) from 1975 to today – that Black and Brown children are overidentified for special education. Given the widespread use of segregated service delivery models in special ed., this means that in many districts special education becomes a de facto system of segregation.

Please note, I am using the term “nationally.” There are local exceptions to these circumstances and outcomes. There are bright spots and there are promising practices to which we should all be paying attention.

There are also hard questions that we should ask and hold ourselves accountable for answering, so that we can push for solutions to these problems on behalf of all students with disabilities in all schools. And it may just be – regardless of what the data says now – that charter schools could (and should!) play a unique role in moving the practice of special education in America forward.

In CharterFolk just a few weeks ago, Lydia Hoffman wrote a compelling piece asking what it would take for more charter schools to improve the educational experience of diverse learners. She provided three extremely salient points about the barriers that stand in the way of better service delivery for diverse leaners and students with disabilities:

  1. the siloed model of special education that is pervasive across schools in America,
  2. the wide disparities in funding models from state to state, and
  3. the limited resources available to share best practices.

Thank you, Lydia for these excellent points! Special education does indeed need to stop being a parallel program that runs alongside the rest of a school’s programming. We do need appropriate allocation of fiscal resources from states and from the federal government. We also desperately need to collaborate among schools and especially “go to the bright spots” of high leverage practices in serving diverse learners and students with disabilities.

Let me expand on Lydia’s points:

1. Funding.

It doesn’t solve everything. It is what mathematicians might call “necessary but not sufficient.” You could have all the money in the world, but if you spend it on a bad system, policy, or program you are likely to get extremely similar results to what you were getting before you had all of that money. That said, it is very difficult to arrive at and/or sustain excellence in your special education programs and services if schools are consistently underfunded. Looking at the nation as a whole, we see that approaches to funding special education in schools varies widely. Is it any wonder then that our results taken state by state also have considerable variance?

But here is what I think we all need to keep in mind: the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act is a Federal Law. Implementation of that law comes with federal funding…but not enough. That’s not just my assessment; it’s the assessment of the federal government. The funding target for special education has never been met in its 48 years of existence dating back to the original PL 94-142 Education for All Handicapped Children Act.

The goal of the federal government when reauthoring the law as IDEA in 1990 was to fund the costs of special education at approximately 40%. Per US Senator Chris Van Hollen of Maryland current funding is less than 13%. This leaves states and local districts to pick up a much larger tab than was ever intended. Can you imagine if special education funding doubled? Even this would be far less than the original intent of the law, but still…wow! What innovations might be attempted when schools are properly resourced! What an overall budget boon it would be with more adequate funding for the implementation of IDEA.

I know it can be hard in our polarized political landscape to get charter and traditional public schools to come together on issues, but I firmly believe increasing funding for special education is clearly an issue we could all rally around. If we could join together to compel Congress to commit to a doubling of the current federal special education expenditures to 26% of the cost of special education services, it would be the most profound and impactful federal investment in America’s education system since the introduction of Title I funding.

2. Lose the Silos.

In an era of multi-tiered systems of support, one would think that collaboration among general education teachers, special education teachers, and designated service providers would be at an all-time high. Sadly, I don’t believe that is true. Too often people view special education and the services, supports, and individualized education plans that are part and parcel of the work of special education as something apart from the mission of the rest of the school. Too often special education is seen as additional thing that schools must do for the “hard to serve kids” and largely done in order to comply with a legal mandate.

Separate schools, classrooms, and programs were never the intention of IDEA. Segregated service delivery and segregated special education programs, while often convenient for the adults who operate those programs and services, has very little – if any – research base to support their validity or implementation. Skills and knowledge learned in resource rooms and special day classes have shown time and again to have poor generalization when students return to general education classrooms. Over time, extended placement in special education classrooms and programs often increases the disparity between the skills and knowledge of children with disabilities and those of their non-disabled peers in the general education classroom.

Again, all the money in the world spent on a poorly designed system in which children and adults are segregated and are running parallel education systems inside one school campus will not yield different results. So, we must look to the schools and school systems who are already making progress with their diverse learners, who are already bright spots in the educational landscape. We need to look to them, learn from them, and replicate their success.

3. Go to the Bright Spots.

The truth is there are many schools and districts who do get results for their diverse learners and students with disabilities which outpace the results of other schools in their state and schools nationally. We should learn from them!

Returning to the CREDO report for a moment, it is important to note that when you dig deep into the special education data you discover there were states that were producing results that outperformed the local traditional public schools in their state. In fact, of the 30 states analyzed for special education performance in the CREDO study, 16 states had special education performance results that were worse than their local traditional public schools, 10 states had special education results that were not different in a statistically significant way than those of their local traditional public schools, and 4 states/regions in the study had special education results that were better than their local traditional public schools. New York, New York City, Rhode Island, and Tennessee had charter sectors that in statistically significant ways outperformed the results of their local traditional public schools for their students with disabilities.

We should find out why. And when I say “we”, I mean everyone. All operators of public schools – charter and district – should want to know why charter schools in these regions are doing better. Is it their funding models? Is it their service delivery models? Is it their local autonomy that allows them to design best fit programs for their students? We should all be interested in finding out.

A quick note by the way about the CREDO study: It’s a good study. That said, you could have timed with a three-minute egg timer how long it was going to take “experts” to come out of the woodwork to tell us all what was wrong with the design of the study. The negative response was swift, voluminous, and continues to this day. The Washington Post just published a piece by Valerie Strauss on October 12, 2023, on what was wrong with the CREDO study’s data analysis. Keep in mind the CREDO methodology was used in the prior two CREDO studies which people somehow had far fewer concerns about when those results were published.

I don’t know Valerie Strauss and have not read much of her work, but I was left with the distinct impression after reading her recent article on the CREDO study that she had not actually talked to anyone from CREDO who did the study or analysis of the data.

I did. I spent over an hour reviewing the data and methodology with James Woodworth who led a portion of the work on the CREDO study. It was a fascinating conversation which put on display for me how rigorous this study really is and how truly “school level” the data is that is being analyzed. A brief example: the student match process demographically matches students not across an entire state but instead with the students from the twenty closest traditional public schools from which a charter school’s students would most likely attend if they did not attend the charter school. Think about that, the data we are looking at is comparing demographic matches for students not across an entire state but literally just down the street.  It’s hard to get more apples to apples than that. Is it a perfect, “end all be all” study? No. The perfect study doesn’t exist. But the CREDO study does exist, and it’s a good one.

Mostly it is good study not because of the headlines it generates but because of the questions it leads us to ask and the schools at which it can direct us to look. It can help us look not just at states and regions but the schools themselves that bend the needle in terms of serving traditionally underserved students. It can help us see patterns and approaches that consistently work for student populations across regions. I also believe that when we continue to dig into these bright spots, we will find schools that leverage local autonomy to provide innovative, student-centered approaches to serving all learners and in doing so bring about increased success for students with disabilities.

The school I lead, CHIME, is in California and while California is a state that the CREDO report shows us needs to improve its results for students with disabilities, I would offer CHIME is a “bright spot”. We utilize co-teaching, universal design for learning, and a constructivist approach to teaching and learning to create a fully inclusive school design for ALL learners. We serve over 760 students TK-8th grade from across 42 zip codes in LA county and approximately 20% of our students are students with disabilities. Seven and half percent of our students are students with moderate to severe disabilities. All of our students learn together in general education classrooms 100% of the school day. Our student results support our approach: our students with disabilities outperform the state and local district averages on state assessment when compared to other students with disabilities. Those results are not an anomaly. CHIME’s students with disabilities have consistently outperformed their peers with disabilities at other local district schools for over a decade.

CHIME is just one example. There are dozens and dozens of bright spots across the country that charter and traditional public schools should be looking at in order to improve the educational outcomes of students with disabilities.

And here is my sincere belief – charter public schools have a unique opportunity to innovate in the area of education for students with disabilities. When given the right fiscal support and local autonomy, I know charter schools can push the envelope. I often say, “None of us got into the work of charter schools to replicate bad practice, so let’s not do so with special education.”

Let’s innovate. Let’s lead the way. Let’s create schools where all children are welcome, and all children can thrive.