An Advocate’s Guide to Transforming Special Education

Frequently Asked Questions

What is An Advocate’s Guide to Transforming Special Education?

An Advocate’s Guide to Transforming Special Education is a tool and resource designed to help parents and advocates understand what educational opportunity truly looks like for students with disabilities. It highlights what research and the highest-performing schools have found are the best practices to help students with disabilities achieve at high levels. The guide provides concrete examples, interviews, and school profiles that show what this looks like in action.

Disabilities vary widely and so do individual students’ strengths, needs, and challenges. No single guide could break down the full complexity of our current special education system. We believe that the people closest to the problem can usually find the best solution. Our goal is to share what works so that local advocates can map their own path forward to realize systemic change.

Advocacy in special education is normally individualized, making collective action difficult. It is our hope that this guide will aid parents and advocates in acting collectively for change.

Why an advocate’s guide?

We’ve found that advocates need a way to identify practices that work as they seek to influence decision-makers.

We created this guide in response to the needs of Innovate parent leaders in the Bay Area who are working to improve special education. Parents of students with disabilities knew first-hand the challenges and limitations of the current system, but wanted to see what excellence looks like and what practices and policies they could push for to achieve better outcomes.

How should this guide be used?

Although it can be read straight through, this guide was designed to be used as a reference tool. Chapters do not need to be read in order, and each chapter can stand on its own.

Each chapter provides a review of the relevant research related to the chapter’s central theme. At the end of each chapter, advocates will find a two-page resource that includes guidance on “What to ask,” “What to look for,” and how advocates can know when their efforts have been successful.

While this resource can be useful for individual parents when assessing a school or district for his or her child, it was designed primarily to be used by an organized group of parents working for systemic change in their community.

Organized parents can use the research review sections of the guide to spread information about issues in special education and about what is possible. They might share this information with other parents to encourage them to join their efforts, or with elected officials to encourage them to take action. Organized parents can use the “What to ask” and “What to look for” sections to determine how well their schools and district or CMO are serving their kids, and to determine which new policies or practices are best to prioritize for advocacy.

What makes this report different from other advocate’s guides?

This guide is for people who want to transform our current special education system. While, there are many excellent resources to help parents navigate the current system for their own individual child, this guide meets a different need. It is designed to assist those fighting for systemic change for children with disabilities – at a school, district, or broader policy level.

We’ve found that advocates and parents need a way to identify practices that work as they seek to influence decision-makers. Implementing many of the practices highlighted in the guide will require change at the district or CMO level. While some parts of the guide can be helpful to individual parents advocating for their child, achieving changes at the district or CMO level will usually require collective action by many parents and/or advocates.

To get familiar with the individual legal rights outlined in the Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA), we recommend these resources:

Will this help me with my legal case?

No. This guide can give you a perspective on what to ask to get your child help, but it is not meant to be legal advice. The guide cannot replace a lawyer or professional advocate.

What are some other resources I can use to support my student with disabilities?

These organizations, some of which were our launch partners, provide excellent and useful resources to parents and guardians of students with disabilities:

Is this guide just for California?

No! This guide is not geography-contingent and was written to be useful in any school district in any state.

Is this something I can use on my own or do I need an organized group?

This guide is meant to be a resource for an organized group of parents, but it can also be useful to individuals. For example, you might take the guide or parts of the guide with you to a meeting with a school principal, using it to help formulate questions to ask. In order to advocate for more significant changes at the school, district, and CMO levels, we recommend you work in a group with other parents and advocates.

Should I share this guide with my local school board member?

YES! Elected officials can benefit from seeing concrete examples of what schools can do to transform special education, and what the best schools already are doing. They have a critical role in making special education a priority. We encourage parents to share this guide with elected officials who can have an impact on the school system.

How cutting edge is this Guide? How new is this information?

Over the past few decades, researchers and educators have learned a lot about what it takes to provide an excellent education for students with disabilities. However, not all this knowledge is widely known and, more often, it isn’t being put into practice. This guide is meant to bridge that gap. Much of the research referenced in the guide is not particularly new, but the learnings have yet to be implemented widely.

The topic of inclusion, which we discuss in the guide, is not new, but the degree to which schools/districts are including students with disabilities varies a lot. The concept of neurodiversity is a relatively new framing (coined in the 1990s) for how we treat and understand and talk about people with disabilities and is an important and evolving area of research.

What makes this guide unique is that it doesn’t just summarize the research, but also details the practices that parents should be looking for and advocating for at the district, school, and classroom level.

Who is responsible and who has the power to transform the current special education system?

Many different individuals and entities have critical roles in shaping the special education system.

At the most basic level, ALL of us must believe in the potential of students with disabilities. Then we must work together to put this in practice and investing in building systems and structures aligned with research and best practices.

In 1975, the U.S. passed the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, stating that all students with disabilities have the right to a “free and appropriate public education.” But in practice, the federal government has never fully funded the programs necessary to implement this well. State and local governments have also not done nearly enough to provide the resources and support necessary for students with disabilities to succeed. School districts struggle to provide resources for teachers and students without committed funding. Teachers then struggle to support students with disabilities when they are not supported themselves. Meanwhile, inaccurate assumptions about students with disabilities often lead to denying them the same opportunities to succeed that are afforded to their peers.

In California, we need more funding for special education and we need it urgently. In fact, California ranks 47 out of 50 states in funding for special education staff. Funding is insufficient at every level — national, state and local.

Teachers have a powerful and direct role to play in shaping — or denying — educational opportunity to students with disabilities; however, district policies set the conditions for successful school-level practices. The schools and districts that effectively support students with disabilities are those that do a great job of supporting teachers. The district also must provide significant support and oversight and monitor compliance, quality, and accountability.

Districts can set rules and policies on special education staffing (how teachers are hired and placed in schools) and special education placement (ensuring students are taught in inclusive environments as much as possible, ensure resources are equitably allocated, etc.).

It is our hope that advocates working locally can come together to push for funding and policies at the local, state and federal level.

Where do you get the idea that students with disabilities are capable of meeting grade level standards?

Special education encompasses a broad spectrum of disabilities. Although some students have are profoundly affected, many students have only mild or moderate disabilities that can be adequately supported with common accommodations. Approximately 35% of students with a disability have a learning disability, such as dyslexia or discalculia. (About 5% of the student population as a whole).

Experts have affirmed that most students with disabilities are capable of achieving grade level standards with the right support. In fact, experts argue that more than 80% of students with disabilities can meet the same academic standards as other students if given the right support. Only a small percentage of students have a disability that may require different achievement standards.

What is “inclusion”?

Broadly, inclusion means including students with disabilities fully socially and academically in the school community. In terms of practice and policy, we define inclusion as students with disabilities spending more than 80% of the school day in general education settings.

How can I get involved in Innovate’s work in California or nationally?

If you are a parent or advocate and you would like to learn more about Innovate’s organizing and advocacy work, please contact one of the following people:

San Francisco – Jose Arenas

San Jose, Redwood City, or East Palo Alto – Alicia Ross

Los Angeles – Hannah Gravette

Other areas – Corey Timpson