The President's Commission on Excellence in Special Education: Implications for the Special Education Practitioner

By: William H. Berdine


The author, a member of the President's Commission on Excellence in Special Education (PCESE), provides an overview of and commentary on the Commission's 2002 report. Recommendations and concerns are discussed regarding the PCESE's 3 major general recommendations and I recommendation from the Finance Task Force.

Key words: practitioner, President's Commission, public policy, special education

0n July 1, 2002, the President's Commission on Excellence in Special Education (PCESE) released what may become one of our country's landmark reports with regard to shaping public policy for provision of educational services for school-age children with disabilities. The complete report as submitted to the president can be found on the Web.

On October 2, 2001, President George W. Bush created the commission by Executive Order #13227 and charged it with studying issues related to federal, state, and local special education programs in order to improve the educational performance of students with disabilities. The commission held public hearings over a 7-month period around the country, receiving testimony from 109 expert witnesses and more than 175 parents, teachers, students with disabilities, as well as private citizens and community activists. Additional written testimony and evidence were provided to the commission by literally hundreds of others through correspondence to individual members or to the commission as a whole. The commission's report is the first exhaustive national review of special education since the inception of the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) in 1975. A total of nine major findings and three general recommendations are presented in the report, which are followed by 33 recommendations across the commission's seven task forces.

The report has significant implications for all involved with special education, especially parents, children with disabilities, special and general educators, and related service providers. For the special education practitioner, the report should be of interest as no direct service practitioner was on the commission, with the exception of one school building principal and one school district superintendent. The special education classroom teacher constituency had no individual or professional organization representation 'on the commission. The recommendations made by the commission regarding direct service provisions, professional development, and the practice of special education all came at administrative levels above the classroom, and for the most part above the school building level. Classroom teachers and advocates were permitted time to provide testimony during the commission's open microphone sessions, but no practicing teacher of special education was included in any invited direct testimony. If the commission's report has the significant impact on the development of public policy that some have predicted (see Flynn, 2002), classroom practitioners and other related service providers must read and become thoroughly familiar with the report in its entirety.

The following are suggestions regarding issues that special education practitioners and related service providers should pay close attention to in the Commission's report. Although these suggestions focus on the three general recommendations from the Commission and one from the Finance Task Force, the entire set of nine major findings and the 33 individual task force recommendations should be read and understood by direct services practitioners. All providers of direct special education services should be vigilant of any subsequent attempt to put any part of the report into public policy through the enactment of federal law that will mandate direction nationally for educational provisions for all individuals with disabilities.

PCESE major recommendations

Major recommendation 1: Focus on results - not on process.

IDEA must return to its educational mission: serving the needs of every child. Although the law must retain the legal and procedural safeguards necessary to guarantee a "free appropriate public education" to children with disabilities, IDEA will only fulfill its intended purpose if it raises its expectations for students and becomes results oriented-not driven by process, litigation, regulation, and confrontation. In short, the system must be judged by the opportunities it provides and the outcomes achieved by each child.

Implications for the practitioner

A common theme from parents, educators, and advocates heard by the commission is that there has been too much bureaucratic wrangling at the expense of high quality instruction. A number of parents spoke in glowing terms about what IDEA meant to them and their child with a disability, only to counter this paean with numerous declarations that the "education system," not the law (i.e., IDEA) itself, let them down. Parents' and professions' testimony noted that special education as a system did not produce -the intended results. In hearing after hearing, parents testified about their child's failure to emerge from their public educational experience well educated and capable of making the transition to employment or postsecondary education. Special education and related service practitioners need to be more sensitive to the perception by a large segment of the parent population that they have been, let down and poorly treated with regard to provision of both high quality services and a full continuum of those services.

For the most part, parents and advocates who provided oral or written testimony indicated that the major problems resulting in the system's failing their children was not the classroom teacher, but rather the school district or system's concern with compliance and liability issues that resulted in a reduction of prescriptive educational programming and eventual failure to graduate with any degree of self-sufficiency. Education administrators in both special and general education need to find ways to streamline the process of entry into special education so that it is an evidence-based or a scientifically based system that provides educational prescriptions, not just classification and placement. From the consumer's perspective, the time has come for a guarantee that special education will provide a high quality education resulting in successful transition to the world of work or postsecondary education. Parents heard by the commission were quite clear that nothing short of an equivalent, high quality, and diverse educational experience was expected for all children with disabilities.

Major recommendation 2: Embrace a model of prevention not a model of failure.

The current model guiding special education focuses on waiting for a child to fail, not on early intervention to prevent failure. Reforms must move the system toward early identification and swift intervention, using scientifically based instruction and teaching methods. This will require changes in the nation's elementary and secondary schools as well as reforms in teacher preparation, recruitment, and support.

Implications for the practitioner

During the commission's public hearing in Houston, Texas, a clear mandate was voiced by parents, professionals, and invited speakers to change the eligibility documentation system for entrance into and exit from special education. The use of intelligence quotients (IQ) to determine eligibility was soundly rebutted with a host of well- documented reasons (see the testimony of David J. Francis, PCESE Hearing, February 25, 2002, Houston, TX). In its place, a system of prescriptive interventions within the context of general education was outlined that would result in eligibility determination based on data-based decision making focused on a student's ability to perform under systematically designed intervention programs alongside same-aged peers (see testimony of Sharon Vaughn, PCESE Hearing, February 25, 2002, Houston TX). The proposed eligibility process would focus on determining how well the student was able to respond to a prescriptive, individually designed educational intervention and subsequent evidence based or scientific ally-based alterations of this intervention. The instructional provider, under this concept, would assume responsibility for documenting how effective interventions were in producing progress along prescribed content or subject matter.

For the classroom practitioner, this concept entails accepting the responsibility for a student's inability to progress within a curriculum, rather than assuming that it is due to a learning disability, organic body system disorder, or environmental factor (e.g., poverty or single parent family). Only after an appropriate period based on the targeted child's performance data, including modifications of those programs when progress was not made or was deemed inappropriate, would a determination for special education placement be made. Only those children whose performance showed significant resistance to prescriptive interventions over time would be considered for special education classification. In this proposed classification process, the onus of responsibility for a child's inability to perform falls squarely on the shoulders of classroom practitioners, who must identify an educational intervention that meets a child's learning abilities and enables grade- and age appropriate school progress. This elevates the early special education model of "try another way" (Gold, 1976) to a new level, both conceptually and practically, for all classroom practitioners.

Major recommendation 3: Consider children with disabilities as general education children first.

Special education and general education are treated as separate systems but, in fact, share responsibility for the child with disabilities. In instruction, the systems must work together to provide effective teaching and ensure that those with additional needs benefit from strong teaching and instructional methods that should be offered to a child through general education. Special education should not be treated as a separate cost system, and evaluations of spending must be based on all of the expenditure for the child, including the funds from general education. Funding arrangements should not create an incentive for special education identification or become an option for isolating children with learning and behavior problems. Each individual special education need must be met using a school's comprehensive resources, not by relegating students to a separately funded program. Flexibility in the use of all educational funds, including those provided through IDEA, is essential.

Implications for the practitioner

For the practitioner, especially the classroom teacher and district-level special education director, the most serious implication of this recommendation is that it may imply eliminating funds dedicated to special education services and operating out of one general education fund. This recommendation does not say that we should specifically rededicate special education funding' but this could be inferred because of the language used by the authors of the commission's report. The PCESE Task Force on Special Education Finance clearly indicated in its recommendations that greater flexibility in the use of federal funds should be established at the local level as well as the Task Force's preference that the funding mode be within general education. The special education community needs to be aware of these recommendations and be- quick to question if such suggestions appear in public policy statements and legislation.

Finance Task Force recommendation 3: Target funds for direct services.

The Finance Task Force's third recommendation states very succinctly that the federal government through "IDEA should direct that 90 percent of Part B funds should flow-through to local education agencies, and prioritize remaining Part B funds, retained at the state level, consistent with a set of national priorities and additional recommendations contained in this report."

Additionally, to further support the notion that increased authority and autonomy should reside within the local education agency (LEA), the Finance Task Force's final three recommendations further build on this notion of greater autonomy and additional service provisions that logically would take place at the LEA level. However, the language of the recommendations leaves ample latitude for a variety of interpretations by federal and state legislatures, and therefore vigilance is advised. Please note the following three recommendations from the Finance Task force:

  • Funding should be increased for Part C and Section 619.
  • Increase State and Local Flexibility. IDEA should eliminate or revise any financial structures in IDEA that hamper state and local education agencies' ability to focus on results for eligible students with disabilities. Year-end unexpended local- educational funds and a fixed percent of Part B flow-through funds should be used to establish and maintain risk management pools to serve high-cost students such as those who have significant disabilities.
  • Focus on high-need children. IDEA should allow and encourage states to address the impact of students with significant disabilities on state and local districts through the use of safety net funding.

Implications for the practitioner

For the practitioner, at any level, the recommendations of the Finance Task Force may seem like a mandate to serve more children with disabilities as dictated by their community's particular demographics. This is true. The underlying proposal of much of the commission's report is the creation of more services fitting within an evidence-based or a scientifically based education model, with full accountability of all-service providers, to meet the-local community needs. However, these same practitioners need to be cautious about accepting this mandate because nowhere in the commission's report is additional funding and, in particular, full funding of IDEA addressed. In my opinion, holding a federal commission on excellence in special education and not specifically addressing full funding of IDEA is analogous to holding a commission on federal income taxation, including the Internal Revenue Service as a member, and not including private citizens as part of the commission or investigation. Flynn (2002) noted that the "Commissioners' refusal to embrace the conventional definition of 'full federal funding' for special education" (pp. 2-3) has garnered much media attention. This is not entirely correct; at best, it may simply be a misperception of a noncommission member. Full funding of IDEA is not addressed in any section of the Commission's report-not in its nine findings, its 3 general recommendations, or any of the 33 recommendations of the Commission's task forces, including the Task Force on Special Education Finance. Flynn (2002) viewed the Finance Task Force's recommendations as the "sharpest exegesis of special-ed funding" (see pp. 28-32 of the commission's report). I would argue that, although -the Finance Task Force did outline a strong and mostly positive set of funding recommendations, it did not address many of the critical underlying problems of services delivery (i.e., personnel to either provide those services or conduct the requisite training to provide high quality services).

Many individuals much closer to the delivery of special education services are greatly concerned about what is not recommended. In addition to not addressing what many think is an obvious area of concern (i.e., full funding of IDEA), the commission failed to directly address another serious challenge to the provision of special education services at the local level, the lack of fully qualified and certified classroom teachers. In both invited testimony at the Denver hearing (see the Denver, CO PCESE Hearing transcripts) and open microphone sessions at numerous other hearings, the commission heard time and again about the chronic, critical shortage of special education teachers and teacher educators. The commission largely chose to ignore a U.S. Office for Special Education Program-funded studies (Smith et al., 2001) that definitively detailed the current shortage of higher education teacher education faculty at 30% nationally. For the practitioner, this can be readily borne out by checking the qualifications of colleagues recently hired to fill special education openings. It may be premature to say that it is rare to find a fully qualified and appropriately certified special education practitioner, but it is becoming more accurate on an annual basis. Ask any school district special education director or director of personnel, and they will confirm this observation. The commission did address, in substantive fashion, many of the job-site problems of practitioners (e.g., paper work burden, work day requirements, compliance monitoring); however, there is nothing of substance with regard to ways to increase the ranks of fully qualified and certified practitioners. The Finance Task Force addressed Parts B and specific sections of Part C but failed to mention the well documented needs of higher education that fall under personnel preparation in Part D of IDEA.


President George W. Bush's Commission on Excellence in Special Education provides one of the first federally sponsored examinations of special education since the inception of IDEA and its precursor legislation dating back 27 years to 1975. Considerable value can be found in the commission's general findings of evidence and major recommendations and in its task forces' recommendations.

The delivery of special education that follows the commission report should reflect an emphasis on results of high quality educational intervention rather than the historical dominance of compliance to the vagaries of state education agency (SEA) and local education agency (LEA) interpretation of federal law.

Related to the changes that may occur with regard to expectations for results, we should begin to see special education undergo a metamorphosis from a field of post hoc diagnosis and intervention to one of proactive prevention. A clear message inherent in much of the Commission's public statements is an attempt to infuse programmatic reality to President Bush's "No Child Left Behind" legislation of 2001. For the practitioner of classroom or related services, this will place an even greater. level of responsibility with no guarantee of additional local, state, or federal support.

In addition, although the commission clearly mandates that special educators "consider children with disabilities as general education children first," it does not clearly specify how that should be done within the current administrative models seen at local and state education agency levels. What the commission did do in its various sets of recommendations is provide a framework for massive federal legislation that could drastically alter the public education landscape as we now know it. The commission heard strong testimony, invited and volunteered, that IDEA was needed and valued, but that the system of delivery across federal, state, and local agencies was greatly wanting with regard to quality and integrity. In its 13 public hearings and meetings (i.e., February 25-27, 2002, Houston, TX; March 5-9, 2002, Denver, CO; and April 9-10, 2002, Coral Gables, FL), the commission heard strong testimony in favor of parental choice as an alternative to perceived poor and ineffective public school delivery of special education services. Greater parental choice with regard to education has emerged as a White House priority. All public sector special educators need to be sensitive to how this has come about and investigate the general and pervasive sense among parents that this is needed. The PCESE makes precedent- setting standards for accountability for all special education services. Local and state education agency special educators and advocates for high quality of services across the age span will need to be vigilant to see that the commission's recommendations regarding accountability and monitoring are enforced across all services, including those funded from public sector funds, in nonpublic or private venues. Without guarantees of equivalent levels of accountability and monitoring of services for all services delivery, regardless of venue, children with disabilities will undoubtedly suffer.

William H. Berdine is a professor and chair of the Department of Special Education and Rehabilitation Counseling at the University of Kentucky, Lexington.



Click the "References" link above to hide these references.

Flynn, C. E., Jr. (2002). Reinventing special education (from Checker's Desk). The Education Gadfly, 2(2), 2-3. Available from www.edexcellence.net.

Gold, M. W. (1976). Task analysis of a complex assembly task by the retarded blind. Exceptional Children, 43, 78-84.

Individuals With Disabilities Education Act of 1997. (1997). Pub. L. 105-17. 20 U.S.C. 1412.

President's Commission on Excellence in Special Education (2002, July). A new era: Revitalizing special education for children and their families. Available from www.ed.gov/inits/commissionsboards/whspecialeducation/reports/letter.html

Smith, D. D., Pion, G. M., Tyler, N.C., Sindelar, RD., & Rosenberg, M. (2001). Special education leadership study: Is there an imbalance between faculty supply and demand in special education? Nashville, TN: Vanderbilt University.

posted April 11, 2003, updated August 14, 2003

Preventing School Failure, Vol. 47, Number 2, Winter 2003 Published by Heldref Publications, 1319 18th Street, NW, Washington, DC 20036-1802 Copyright 2003