VIDEO: Watch a discussion of the Harvard report with Superintendent Max McGee, Board of Education member Ken Dauber and Weekly education reporter Elena Kadvany on this week's "Behind the Headlines."
It was supposed to be the "golden ticket" for the Palo Alto Unified School District's special-education program: an in-depth, comprehensive review conducted by a well-known Harvard University researcher who, parents and administrators hoped, would help the district finally address longstanding issues with its special-education services.
The much-anticipated results of this study, launched more than a year ago, have been released after several delays and will be discussed by the school board on Tuesday, Dec. 13.
The report confirms much of what is already known by parents and administrators in the district about both the good and the bad in special education. Palo Alto sees high rates of inclusion of special-education students in mainstream classes, and the researchers found a strong commitment across teachers, administrators and parents to improvement. But teachers who feel unsupported and parents who are distrustful and frustrated have bred a low level of confidence in the district's ability to effectively support students with special needs.
Noticeably absent from the report is what special-education advocacy group Community Advisory Committee (CAC) requested when the review first launched: a detailed analysis of sub-categories of students --by race, disability, income, school -- and how they fare in Palo Alto.
"We hope that this type of fine-tuned analysis will allow PAUSD to identify where additional expertise related to specific disabilities and evidence-based program options might help us improve our ability to support students," the CAC wrote to Harvard researcher Thomas Hehir in an October 2015 letter.
After Hehir and his team of two Harvard researchers released the preliminary results of the review this summer, CAC chair Kimberly Eng Lee talked with Hehir and one of the researchers. She said she came with a long list of questions based on what she presumed was just the start of their work in Palo Alto. The researcher was "forthright," she said, that the team would not be conducting that level of analysis in their "systems-level" review. It was both beyond the scope of what they had been contracted to do, Lee said, and the data necessary for that analysis was not readily available in the district.
What the CAC sought, said Christina Schmidt, a longtime special-education parent-advocate, is the district's own version of an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) --a detailed document, created through collaboration between a student's teachers and parents, that outlines his or her educational path, with necessary support and check-ins along the way.
In IEPs, "diagnosis drives goals which drives services," Schmidt said in an interview. "You have to have smart goals that are timely and measurable. Everything needs to be spelled out specifically, and that's what we don't have."
Similarly, Board of Education member Ken Dauber said that without a full review of staffing, training, communication and the special-education department's goals and progress, the report provides "limited value as a guide to action."
"What we still need is a direct analysis of how well we're doing at delivering services to students," he told the Weekly. "Are we formulating goals and meeting them for students in the district, and do we have the right resources allocated to doing that?
"I'm disappointed the report doesn't really go there."
The district, for its part, sees the report as an important, objective tool for setting goals and addressing parent concerns. And what might be missing in the report can be supplemented by the district, said Chiara Perry, director of special education.
"We now have a foundation or a blueprint that we can build upon," she said. "It's going to be a tool we use to address some concerns from parents and staff, to be able to move forward and do what's in the best interest of the students."
What the report found
The 29-page report identifies areas of strength and improvement and provides five recommendations for how to support the good and address the bad. It comes at a time of transition for Palo Alto's special-education program, with a new director at the helm of a reorganized department.
The review, for which the district has paid about $55,000 to date, according to Perry, was launched at the CAC's request. Hehir, an education professor and longtime special-education advocate, and his researchers spent a week in Palo Alto last October, visiting schools, observing classrooms and speaking with teachers, administrators and parents. They also surveyed parents, teachers and principals and reviewed student data provided by the district.
Positive findings include high rates of inclusion of special-ed students in general-education classrooms, strong test scores of students with disabilities, a districtwide commitment to improvement and some examples of "promising" inclusion practices, particularly at the elementary schools.
Palo Alto's inclusion rates are higher than both the nation's and state's (70.5 percent of students with disabilities are inside regular classes for the majority of the day, compared to 63 percent nationwide and 53 percent statewide), according to the report. Inclusion is "one of the most important factors associated with better academic and life outcomes for students with disabilities," the report states.
Hehir and his team also praised the district's use of co-teaching, or having a general- and special-education teacher in the same classroom, as a way to increase students' access to more rigorous courses and to diversify previously segregated courses. Later, however, the report notes that co-teaching "has the potential to limit student's access to classrooms with high expectations" and that parents reported content in co-taught classes is often similar to less-advanced courses.
Students with disabilities also perform well on standardized tests, though the researchers said they expected to see higher achievement given Palo Alto's high rate of inclusion, affluence and level of resources devoted to students with disabilities.
The researchers were heartened by examples of "promising" inclusion practices in the district, including a high-quality classroom at Greendell Preschool where the teachers had "designed their classroom and their instruction to not just 'allow' students with disabilities to participate but to encourage and support it." The report also highlights Fairmeadow Elementary School's efforts to include more students with autism and a strong emphasis on social-emotional learning for all students.
The examples illustrate how a truly inclusive educational environment cannot be a "series of add-ons of programs or people, but rather intentionally designed into the school and supported by teachers and principals," the report states.
The researchers also lauded the district's Minority Achievement and Talent Development committee, whose findings and recommendations around closing the achievement gap parallel those for improving outcomes for special-education students.
In speaking with and surveying parents, teachers and administrators, the researchers also said they found a strong districtwide commitment to inclusion and equity.
"There is a strong and sustained desire across stakeholders to address the root issues related to the education of students with disabilities and embrace reforms that will strengthen education for all students," the report states.
Areas for improvement
Hehir and his team found that the school district lacks consistent, proactive and measurable practices when it comes to special education, a deficit that has far-reaching impacts for students and families.
The program is rooted in a "wait to fail model," the report states, "that tends to delay evaluation of learning disabilities until students have failed to make progress."
This has caused deep mistrust between families and the district, according to the report.
Some parents said teachers or administrators had told them that a special-education diagnosis was only for students who are in "really bad shape" --rather than being viewed as a legitimate disability, the report states.
One administrator responded in the survey that students are left behind if they "lack advocates, supportive families, and have needs but do not have a diagnosed disorder or structured intervention plan."
Parents who responded to the survey --mostly white and Asian English speakers --expressed low confidence in the processes for identifying students with special needs. Forty percent of parents indicated that the process was "not at all positive" or only "a little bit positive," citing a lack of evaluation and consistency across teachers, subject areas and schools.
The researchers also found disproportionately high numbers of black and Hispanic students in special education --nearly double the rate for these groups of students nation- and statewide. In Palo Alto Unified, 27 percent of black students, 22 percent of Hispanic students and 27 percent of low-income students are identified has having a disability.
"In other communities where we studied the over-identification of students, teachers often felt that special education was the only avenue to provide remediation or accommodations," the report states. "However, for students of color in particular, identification of special education can be a further means of lowering expectations, limiting access to the full complement of educational opportunities in the district, and stigmatizing students."
An important policy for Palo Alto Unified to articulate --and put into place with fidelity --is that special education is "not a catch all for students needing academic remediation," the report suggests.
Teachers surveyed requested more specific and ongoing training --examples of lessons, ideas for possible interventions or strategies --as well as more time to collaborate with and learn from their peers.
The majority of administrators surveyed, 75 percent, said they wanted to provide their teachers with more support to better meet the needs of students with disabilities. And 61 percent of administrators surveyed said teachers in their schools also need "quite a bit or a great deal of support" in meeting the social and emotional needs of their students. Only 18.5 percent of teachers surveyed said they have sufficient access to materials and strategies to meet their students' behavioral needs.
Some teachers responded that they are overwhelmed and often short on time to help students who need extra support. Parents worried about teachers' workloads, especially in large classes.
While many parents surveyed were "emphatic" about needing more clear, transparent and timely information in special-education processes, some shared positive experiences.
One parent of a student with a learning disability wrote: "PAUSD is very focused on meeting the needs of the student, which is great. They are meticulous and take parent input into account. They have a team approach, which provides a complete picture of the child --and provides insight into his overall growth."
Another parent of a student with autism wrote: "Whenever we've had concerns with services ... we've been able to raise those concerns with the IEP team and have them addressed. The school principal is always quick to respond and ensures follow through of solutions."
"However, these types of experiences were not common enough among the parents," the report notes.
Many parents "described needing to ask for support repeatedly, over time, which suggests that parents with less ability or inclination to advocate for their individual child's needs may be ignored," the report states.
The researchers also found that the district lacks regularly collected, "instructionally useful" data on students with special needs. They themselves said they "encountered several barriers" when seeking data to analyze.
One parent lamented that staff did not show data to guide their child's goals.
"Every year they would write new goals regardless of whether the previous goals were even met or worked on," the parent wrote.
The researchers recommend assessing students' performance in the fall, winter and spring --using a "brief, reliable and valid" universal screener to provide continual feedback for teachers and parents. Such a test would also allow the district to track performance not only for individual students but also across classes and across schools --exactly what the CAC had requested last year.
Hehir and his team also recommended the district create a parent handbook to address concerns about communication and transparency, an effort the district is already undertaking. Perry said she hopes to roll out the handbook next year.
Among the report's other recommendations is a move toward Universal Design for Learning (UDL), an educational strategy of which Hehir is a strong proponent. UDL focuses on differentiation, with all classroom lessons and activities designed to support students at varying levels.
The review affirmed issues the Community Advisory Committee has long been working to address. Lee and Schmidt agree with the report's findings, particularly the "lack of information for measuring special-education effectiveness ... insufficient classroom supports and evidence-based practices," they wrote in a letter to the school board on Wednesday.
The high rates of inclusion are heartening, they wrote, but by itself inclusion is "not sufficient to ensure access to the supports and specialized instruction students with disabilities need for effective learning."
What was new to Schmidt and Lee in the review, and most telling, they said, was a clear call from both administrators and teachers for better support and training for teachers.
The survey responses showed that teachers "were asking for specific techniques ... to effectively include the students in their classes," Lee said.
Stronger partnerships should also be formed between special-ed teachers and general-education teachers as well as school psychologists, case managers and other specialists, Lee and Schmidt wrote in their letter to the board.
The report's tangible recommendations, such as to create a parent handbook or to bring Universal Design for Learning to Palo Alto, are positive, but will fail without district-level leadership, they wrote.
"The CAC agrees that UDL 'embeds challenge and support into the classroom' by design, but its success depends on the support and leadership of general educators and school principals," their letter states. "As such, it is not a feasible near-term approach."
Independent of UDL, the district still need to be successful at special-education basics, Lee told the Weekly. "It's delivery of services that you have committed to doing."
Lee said her own experience with special education, while positive, required "staunch advocacy, ongoing management, and family resource deployment" --and a strong partnership with the district.
"The point is that neither we nor the school accomplished things alone," she told the Weekly.
A shift away from 'running' special ed
In Schmidt's eyes, management issues are at the root of Palo Alto's special education woes. Without deep commitment and proactive communication from the district level, accountability "falls away immediately," she said.
"If you don't have a management team in there that understands how to implement and get accountability and have follow-up and check in and have that communication open all the time, you're not going to make this work," she said. "That to me is one of the biggest hurdles we have, and have had so for awhile."
Dauber, too, said that "the key issues aren't programmatic issues; I think the key issues are management issues. That is what I want the senior leadership and the board to be focused on."
The report's final recommendation also calls for a shift in district administrators' views of special education.
"The role of the central office will require an adjustment away from 'running special education' to assisting the schools in meeting their responsibilities to effectively educate all students and effectively intervening when necessary to ensure that the rights of these children to appropriate education are maintained," the report states.
Next steps for the district, Perry said, include aligning the report's recommendations with the school board's overarching goals and developing a three-to-four year implementation plan with measurable outcomes and built-in evaluation. The department will also work on a professional-development plan, she said.
Lee and Schmidt wrote in their letter that they hope the district will form a task force focused on special education to ensure "rigorous accountability" for any reforms, instead of placing it on the backs of one or two administrators.
Perry said the district is eager to address parents' concerns. The report is "not the end all be all" but rather a "first step," she said.
"Just because they're not included in the report doesn't mean we won't work on addressing those parent concerns as well," Perry said. "If we need to do some additional work, then we will do that work."
Both Perry and the CAC leaders said they are eager to work cooperatively to improve special education.
The school board will discuss the report on Tuesday, 8-10 a.m., at the district office. Perry said the full survey results will be presented then.
Schmidt said she hopes that the board will see the report for what it is: an affirmation but not a roadmap for special-education in Palo Alto.
"My thinking is that the board will be wise enough to look in between the lines and read this and say, 'It's not enough and we need more,'" Schmidt said. "The board has to be courageous enough to say, 'This is not acceptable.'"
View the full special-education review here.
The school board's study session on special education is scheduled for Tuesday, Dec. 13, 8-10 a.m. at the district office, 25 Churchill Ave. Read the agenda here.