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The Power of the Parent Voice: Secretary Arne Duncan's Remarks at the Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP) Leadership Mega Conference



Good morning. When President Obama spoke to the Urban League last week, the one line that got by far the most applause was: "Parents are going to get more involved in their children's education."

It is well-documented—and plain common sense—that parental involvement in a child's education boosts student learning.

The President and I believe we have a lot of work to do in education. We need to raise our standards. We need to move beyond the bubble tests. And we need to better support our teachers.

But one thing is absolutely essential—and that's parent involvement. Parents of students with disabilities are some of the most determined advocates. Parents are key partners in policymaking and practice, pushing for greater access and better outcomes for their own and others' children. I want to applaud you for your dedication to children with disabilities—and their parents. I also want to say I wish it wasn't necessary for parents to be such fierce advocates. I understand that parents are compelled to advocate because they see that their sons and daughters aren't getting the free, appropriate public education that federal law guarantees them. President Obama and I believe that every child deserves a world-class education. When we say every child, it is not just rhetoric—we mean every child, regardless of his or her skin color, nationality, ethnicity, or ability. Over the past 37 years, with Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, we've made great strides in delivering on the promise of a free, appropriate public education for children with disabilities.

Tim Shriver of the Special Olympics shared with me one story that I think is the perfect example of the power that promise has to transform lives. It came in an essay by a girl named Kaitlyn Smith from Conifer High School in Colorado. She wrote about her best friend, Kathleen. Kaitlyn and Kathleen met while they were paired off as partners in P.E. class. They quickly became best friends and they do all of the things best friends do. They eat lunch together every day. When neither of them had a date for the Homecoming dance, they went together as friends. Kaitlyn wrote that Kathleen taught her what truly matters. It's not dressing well, doing your hair right, or making sure everyone likes you. In fact, when high school bullies made fun of Kathleen, her response was to look them in the eye, smile, and ignore them. Kaitlyn wrote about their friendship: "Right from the moment I met her, I knew my best friend was a blessing. I needed someone in my life that was going to change my perspective and give me a different outlook." Kathleen happens to have Down syndrome. But the story about Kaitlyn's and Kathleen's friendship shows how the inclusion of students with disabilities benefits more than just the student with the disability. Inclusion benefits the whole community.

Sometimes, parents, students, and teachers fail to recognize the great leadership that students with disabilities can provide our school communities. But I'm sure you can tell me hundreds of stories of how inclusion enriched the lives of everyone in a school. These are stories we need to tell, over and over again.

For all of the success we've had, however, too many children with disabilities are not getting a world-class education. My message today is that I want to change that. And I'm committed to helping you as parents or as parent trainers advocate for children so that they get the world-class education they deserve.

Through a combination of policy, enforcement, technical assistance, and, yes, investing in the power of parents—we are going to make good on the promise of a free, appropriate public education and ensure that all children are getting a world-class education.

In our proposal to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, we're working hard to ensure that we have the right policies and incentives to help states and districts accelerate achievement for all students, including those with disabilities. We want to make sure that students with disabilities are included in all aspects of ESEA, and to continue to measure achievement gaps and work to close them. We want to align ESEA with IDEA so that we create one seamless system that addresses the needs of each child.

Under our ESEA Blueprint, students with disabilities will continue to be full participants in accountability systems. One thing NCLB did right was hold schools accountable for all students and highlighted the achievement gaps between subgroups of students. We absolutely want to continue that. But NCLB doesn't measure student growth. If students start the year two grade levels behind, and, through excellent teaching and strong supports, progress so much that they end the year just below grade level, their school is still labeled a failure instead of a success. Our accountability system will be based mostly on student growth and gain. Schools where students show large gains in learning over the course of the school year will be rewarded. We will reward and recognize the best schools, and the vast majority of schools in the middle will have more flexibility to implement locally designed plans to reach the benchmarks they set for themselves. But schools with chronically low performance and persistent achievement gaps will be required to take far-reaching steps to help students.

We'll maintain that focus on achievement gaps from NCLB. Our proposal would continue to hold schools accountable for teaching students with disabilities but will also reward them for increasing student learning. While we're confident that our accountability system will be fair and flexible, we recognize it won't be flawless.

To build a first-rate accountability system, states have to significantly improve existing assessments used to measure our students' growth and move beyond fill-in-the bubble tests.

As all of you know, today we have a complicated set of rules around assessing students with disabilities. The majority of students with disabilities take the regular state tests based on the state's standards for all students, with appropriate accommodations to ensure that their results are valid. Students with the most significant cognitive disabilities can take alternate tests based on alternate standards and other students with disabilities may take an alternate test based on modified standards.

Under the Race to the Top program, we've reserved $350 million to support states as they develop the next generation of tests to measure student growth and achievement. Our ESEA Blueprint will continue those investments. In addition, the Department has created a separate competition to develop alternate assessments. It is being managed by the Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services. We expect these tests will give us important news tools in measuring the growth of students with disabilities. This reauthorized ESEA will provide the building block for the reauthorization of the IDEA that will follow.

Alexa Posny, who is doing an extraordinary job on our team, will be leading our work in IDEA reauthorization, and she will be a strong advocate for students with disabilities in ESEA reauthorization as well. When she spoke, I listened very, very closely. Our goal will be to align these two pieces of legislation to allow the flexibility each state needs to ensure that their reform efforts result in one highly effective system to address the needs of each child. We look forward to working with you to get the accountability system and other policies right for students with disabilities.

As we do this work, we have created new transparency initiatives and a host of ways for parents included in the education of their children and to be heard at the state and local level. Our blueprint to reauthorize ESEA enhances information and transparency in school report cards about academic performance and school climate. It supports programs that actually ask families how they feel about their child's school and educational experience—giving parents a real voice and opportunity to engage. Our proposal also allows family engagement to be included as one measure of success in teacher and principal evaluations. Finally, we're putting even more resources into this important set of activities because we need to do more—and we need to do it better.

We're proposing to double funding for parent engagement— from one to two percent of Title I dollars—or a total of $270 million. At the same time, in order to drive innovation—we will allow states to use another one percent of Title I dollars—about $145 million — for grant programs that support, incentivize, and help expand district-level, evidence-based parental involvement practices. We want districts to think big about family engagement—to propose new strategies and hone in on best practices that raise student achievement. We have to put our resources behind what is truly important. We must walk the walk. For this work, we see the models from the special education community—especially the Parent Centers run by the Office of Special Education Programs. Through your work, remarkable stories of success emerge. Individual stories about families creating Individualized Family Service Plans for their infants who have a disability and, later, creating transition plans to help their young adult with disabilities to prepare for college and a career. On every step of that path, parents turn to you with questions, knowing that you will provide not just answers, but critically needed support. We've seen how parent centers have elevated parents' concerns informing decisions at the school, district, state and even federal level. At the school level, the training you offer to educators has improved their practice. At the state level, parents are involved in the development of state performance plans. At the federal level, parents' voices are helping inform how we design IDEA's accountability system. They are helping Alexa and her team to understand the key concerns of parents with disabilities—and how an accountability system can address those concerns. In addition to supporting you through policies, we're going to support you through civil rights enforcement. Over the past decade, the Office for Civil Rights has not been as vigilant as it should have been in protecting the rights of individuals with disabilities—or in combating sex, racial, and national origin discrimination. Under the leadership of Russlynn Ali, OCR is conducting its compliance reviews and investigations with a strict adherence to statutory and case law. Since March, OCR has initiated nine compliance reviews regarding students with disabilities. These reviews are designed to ensure that students with disabilities receive appropriate programs aids and services. They will investigate whether districts are providing the transportation that students with disabilities are guaranteed. They will ensure that students with disabilities are offered all of the procedural rights available under federal law. They also will examine whether schools are discriminating against particular groups of students, such as African Americans and Hispanics, by inappropriately referring them for special education. But OCR's activities will extend beyond formal investigations. They will include working with school districts to help them understand their legal obligations under federal civil rights laws—and to help improve the services and education they're providing.

These are the ways we are striving to support you as parents in providing your children with the world-class education they deserve. We honor and respect parents' voices. Parents are actively involved with their children every day: at home, in schools, wherever children are. They understand better than anyone how important it is that schools prepare students for success in life—not just with academic knowledge, but with the skills needed to succeed in jobs and to be an active participant in society. Parents' voices are being heard every day in schools, in district offices, and in state capitols across America.

We want to do everything we can to amplify their voices—to make sure they're heard and have an impact. The commitment and courage of parents with disabilities is an example for all of us. We've made great strides for students with disabilities since Congress passed Section 504 and the IDEA. But no one in this room—me included—believes we've come far enough.

With your commitment, your expertise, and your passion, I'm confident that we'll get to the day where all children with disabilities are enjoying the world-class education they deserve.


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