November 2005 • Volume 99Number 11

Perspectives

The No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) of 2001, signed into law by President George W. Bush in January 2002, substantially reconfigured the landscape of education in the United States. To reassess its impact after nearly four years, this Perspectives column poses the following question: What have been the effects of NCLB on the education of children who are blind or visually impaired?

An Opportunity Slipping Away?


Research and editorial support for this comment was provided by Kristine Neuber, doctoral student at George Mason University.


It is hard to wade through the noisy and pervasive criticism of NCLB to find any useful information on the impact of the law on students who are blind or visually impaired. Opposition to the law has sprung up across the political spectrum. Criticisms include overreach of the federal government into state and local decision making; overreliance on testing; unfair penalties for schools that are not meeting adequate yearly progress (AYP) standards; unrealistic requirements to meet "highly qualified teacher" definitions; lack of funding; and expensive and unrealistic penalties, such as bearing transportation costs for transferring students to high-performing schools.

In comparison, the voices of support for NCLB are few and far between. The support campaign is led by U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings, with some of the original legislative champions waving their own versions of the NCLB flag. Meanwhile, the White House has moderated its message, from championing tough standards and closing the achievement gap to advocating common sense and flexibility.

Lost in all this noise is the fact that NCLB offers a unique opportunity for students with visual impairments and blindness. By focusing intensively on achievement for all students, the law offers the chance to escape from what President George W. Bush termed a form of "soft bigotry" (Omvig, 2004). NCLB was to change that--with all students included in accountability provisions; with all students tested on statewide assessments with or without accommodations; and alternate assessments offered for the small group of students whose disability prevents them from achieving at grade level. At a minimum, this new law would shine a light on the achievement gap and snuff out the "soft bigotry" that is holding back many students with disabilities.

The achievement gap

For the first time in the history of special education, schools and districts are directly confronting the achievement gap between students in special education and general education students. It is not a pretty sight. Schools feel that they are being unfairly punished for the lack of achievement of students with disabilities. Arguments like "of course they can't achieve on grade level--that is why they are in special education" are all too common. The reality is that the majority of school-aged children in special education have a primary disability that is not related to their cognitive or intellectual ability.

The failure of special education students to meet AYP standards has been a prime target of flexibility provisions put forward by the Education Department and increasingly sought by states. The question is, When does "flexibility" become a loophole that leaves special education students out of the system of accountability altogether?

But there is some good news out there too, though it is difficult to unearth. For example, the state of Kansas reported that over the last five years, reading scores for students with disabilities in the fifth grade are up 26.3 percentage points and up 24.6 percentage points for eighth graders. The state showed similar success in math scores for students with disabilities. Students with disabilities in Kansas met their AYP targets in math, graduation rates, and attendance rates in 2004. This one bit of news shows the impact high expectations can have to improve outcomes for students with disabilities.

We need to stop and ask why visually impaired and other special education students are performing poorly on statewide assessments. Many are quick to say it is because of their disabilities, but this assumption ignores other relevant factors. More than 600,000 students every day are taught by special education teachers who are not qualified to have those positions. There is a lack of training for general education teachers about how to educate students with disabilities. There is a lack of knowledge and implementation about accommodations and alternate assessments. There is a continued lack of access to the general education curriculum by many special education students.

Capitalizing on the opportunity

NCLB offers students with visual impairments and blindness a unique opportunity by raising expectations and achievement goals, but we need to capitalize on this by devoting more resources to ensure that appropriate testing and practice materials are readily available to students; clarifying the requirement for highly qualified teachers in regard to teachers of students who are visually impaired, who are often considered related service personnel rather than special education teachers; and ensuring that all students with visual impairments are included in the accountability standards required by NCLB, including those in residential schools that do not necessarily answer to the Department of Education.

As we move toward reauthorizing NCLB, there will be many voices calling to modify provisions related to special education students. Rep. Rob Andrews (D-NJ) has introduced a bill, HR 2569, that would allow all special education students to be exempted from statewide assessments and provided with alternate assessments aligned to their Individualized Education Program (IEP). The implication of this bill is that no special education students can achieve at grade level and that they should have a different curriculum from general education students. A provision like this would turn back the clock for students who are blind or visually impaired.

Shortly after the enactment of NCLB, a congressional staffer who played a key role in drafting NCLB shook her finger in my face and told me that NCLB was the best thing that ever happened to special education students. From where I sit now, four years into implementation and on the verge of reauthorization, I can see the truth of her words. I hope she won't be shaking her finger at me next year asking, "Why didn't special education take advantage of the great opportunity provided for students in NCLB?"

Reference

Omvig, J. H. (2004, July). Great expectations: from the hierarchy of sight to the hierarchy of truth. Braille Monitor, 47(7). Retrieved from http://www.nfb.org/bm/bm04/bm0407/bm040702.htm

Jane E. West, Ph.D., principal, Washington Partners, 1101 Vermont Avenue NW, Suite 400, Washington, DC 20005; e-mail: <jwest@wpllc.net>.

Civil Rights Legislation

NCLB has been the object of much criticism and great concern, particularly about how the law affects the education of students with disabilities. The emphasis on standardized testing, rigid sanctions for schools not making AYP, and the disparity in criteria among states are just some of the criticisms. All have some merit.

Criticisms aside, however, I see a parallel between NCLB and the passage of the Education for All Handicapped Children Act in 1975, now codified and most recently amended as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act (IDEIA). IDEIA, at its inception, came out of a legal challenge, Pennsylvania Association for Retarded Children v. Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. In this case the intent was to stop the state from warehousing children with mental retardation in institutions and depriving them of an appropriate education. In its first application, the law targeted the same objective broadened to all children with disabilities. More than anything else, this law was civil rights legislation.

NCLB, at this junction, is also civil rights legislation. It focuses on groups of students who are often shortchanged in achieving outcomes and in the education they are provided. Groups such as ethnic minorities, nonnative English speakers, and students with disabilities are targeted by this law. Over the past two years, I have heard principals in New York City asking how their special education students are performing academically. This is the first time I've heard this. My cynical belief is that this sudden concern results from NCLB's requirements for special education student outcomes to be reported separately and with the school publicly identified as an underperforming school if performance criteria are not met for this group.

In 1975, the first challenge of the Education for all Handicapped Children law was to get the education community committed to the needs of the underserved, in that case children with disabilities. In NCLB, the first challenge is also to get the education community committed to the needs of the underserved. This population still includes children with disabilities but also includes other groups of underserved children, such as racial minority groups and non-English-speaking students. In both cases, the needs of low-incidence groups were minimized by these major education policy changes. After 30 years of experience with IDEIA and its predecessors, we have gone beyond the civil rights perspective and now also focus on pedagogical issues that affect learning. This shift has helped greatly in reducing unintended negative effects on children with visual impairments. As the civil right challenges of NCLB lessen, it is hoped that more emphasis will also be placed on pedagogical issues.

Until that time comes, there are real challenges in NCLB that pose great risk to children with visual impairment and blindness. Accountability for schools relies almost exclusively on standardized tests written for sighted students, which often contain bias for students with visual disabilities. It is unreasonable to judge the performance of students with visual disabilities or of specialized schools with tests that are biased. Related to the accountability issue are concerns about students who are tested with alternative assessments because of additional cognitive disabilities. NCLB only allows 2% of a school's enrollment to be excluded from the AYP calculation. Many of the specialized schools for the blind, by design, assess a high percentage of their students with alternative assessment methods. Since only 2% of their enrollment can be excluded from the calculation of AYP, these schools are inappropriately labeled as underperforming schools, which could eventually result in a school closing. Finally, the NCLB requirements for "highly qualified" teachers poses a serious threat to the ability of administrators to staff specialized classrooms, particularly in specialized schools. Time lines to become "qualified" in both core academic subjects and as a teacher of students who are visually impaired are unrealistic and ignore the long-term recruitment issues that have plagued our field for many years. The unintended result of NCLB may be to discourage potential professionals from entering our field and thus make the issue of qualified teachers even more severe.

Eugene McMahon, Ed.D., New York Institute for Special Education, 999 Pelham Parkway, Bronx, NY 10469; e-mail: <eugenemcmahon@msn.com>.

Highly Qualified Professionals

It is hoped that NCLB will serve as an impetus for the field to critically review models of service delivery, instruction, and teacher quality that affect student outcomes. The factor that has the most impact on student outcomes is a highly qualified teacher. What is a "highly qualified" teacher of students with visual impairments or an orientation and mobility (O&M) instructor?

As I reviewed the body of research in this area for my dissertation, I found there were two skill sets needed to improve student achievement and outcomes: pedagogy and content knowledge. Pedagogy, or effective teaching, is the same skill set for both groups of professionals. Effective teaching requires the professional to follow the data-driven continuum from assessment, planning, and instruction (research-based, effective teaching strategies) to ongoing probes for effectiveness. In addition, teachers of students with visual impairments at special schools need additional training in classroom management and strategies for working with groups of students with various learning styles and levels of ability.

The second skill set is content knowledge. For teachers of students with visual impairments and O&M specialists who serve students in an itinerant service delivery model or even in a resource room model, that content knowledge is contained in the content areas of the expanded core curriculum (Hatlen, 1996). A review of the transition IEPs of 80 students in Iowa revealed that O&M instructors were teaching self-determination, independent living skills, and career education in addition to O&M (Blankenship, 2004). For teachers of students with visual impairments who work in a special school setting, their required content knowledge is twofold, encompassing the expanded core curriculum content areas and the general education area they are teaching. A focus on the expanded core curriculum as a needed skill set for teachers of students with visual impairments and O&M instructors is timely in that IDEIA, 2004, now requires that the IEP documents goals in both academics and functional outcomes, which for our students are the expanded core curriculum content areas.

I propose that we as a field take certification a step further and look critically at the skills needed to be an effective teacher of students with visual impairments or an O&M specialist. We could establish collaborative partnerships between pre-service and in-service instruction to ensure that every teacher of students with visual impairments or O&M specialist has both the pedagogy and content knowledge to improve student outcomes. Only then will we see an increase in student achievement that, in turn, will improve our dismal employment levels.

References

Blankenship, K. (2004). Looking for success: Transition planning for students with visual impairments in the state of Iowa. Unpublished dissertation. Vanderbilt University: Nashville, TN. [Online.] Available: http://etd.library.vanderbilt.edu/ETD-db/available/etd-11302004-105924/
Hatlen, P. (1996). The core curriculum for blind and visually impaired students, including those with additional disabilities. RE:view, 28(1), 25-32.

Karen E. Blankenship, Ph.D., consultant for visual disabilities, Iowa Department of Education, Grimes State Office Building, Des Moines, IA 50319; e-mail: <karen.blankenship@iowa.gov>.

Improving Measured Outcomes through Quality-Driven Programming

Make no mistake: outcome-based performance testing through NCLB has become the medium for measuring what all students learn in the classroom, including those with visual impairments. How many of us are confident the students we serve will be successful with the currently mandated testing in grades 3 through 8?

To answer that question, we must first look at some of the fundamental features that need to be in place for our students before testing can be a positive, successful measurement of their academic skills. We need only to reflect on the successes and failures of previous testing initiatives to begin the list.

Access to appropriate levels of specialized instruction

In order to assess whether or not students with visual impairments are receiving access to appropriate levels of specialized instruction, consider the following questions: Have student evaluations been completed by qualified and knowledgeable professionals? Have students received appropriate levels of specialized teaching services from those same professionals? Has access to appropriate and adequate instruction been provided to students in the compensatory skills they need to be able to access the core curriculum in math, reading, and science in the most appropriate media? Have students received instruction in the social, organizational, and other components of the expanded core curriculum that provide experiential background knowledge and contribute to effective test-taking strategies? Does the certified teacher of students with visual impairments providing specialized instruction have access to ongoing professional development that supports positive student outcomes and helps to maintain a "highly qualified" status?

In addition, the following questions should be considered for tests and testing materials: Are content questions appropriately designed for students who are visually impaired? Are testing materials available in the appropriate media for each student as specified through the IEP? Are they available to visually impaired students at the same time as they are to their sighted peers, and does the list of acceptable accommodations include those that are generally and specifically appropriate for students with visual impairments? Do students have access to pretest opportunities that are substantially the same as those available to sighted peers?

These fundamental questions are not exhaustive by any means but provide a starting point for frank and honest discussions about barriers to positive outcomes and testing experiences faced by students with visual impairments. The answer to each question is deeply rooted in the quality of our programs and the responsiveness of the educational system to the unique needs of children who are blind or visually impaired.

Clare Irwin, teacher of children with visual impairments, Paul V. Sherlock Center on Disabilities, Rhode Island Vision Education and Services Program, Rhode Island College, 600 Mount Pleasant Avenue, Providence, RI 02980; e-mail: <cirwin@ric.edu>.

The Effects of NCLB

NCLB is a wonderful law. Make no mistake--it creates a tremendous opportunity for all children to reach proficiency in literacy, mathematics, and science. Children with special needs are mentioned repeatedly throughout the statute, and Congress clearly envisioned not only equality of opportunity, but also equality of outcomes for all children, regardless of abilities, income, or second language status. Children are expected to learn from highly qualified teachers, and parents are empowered to change their child's school if it does not meet standards for AYP. What an amazing statement about a country's belief in its future!

Unfortunately, the implementation of NCLB has yet to match its promise for children with visual impairments. It is not so much that NCLB has affected their education as it is the continuing issue that for many schools, "no child left behind" still means some are moved forward, but not all. It is still far too easy to have low expectations for students with visual impairments and to omit them from high-stakes testing or from the computation of AYP. After all, children with visual impairments constitute less than one-tenth of one percent of the school-age population. When you're that small, and the stakes for schools are so high, you're not even on the radar screen. The investments that we may hope for in technology, teachers, or accommodations for students with visual impairments cannot be expected to make any significant difference in a school's AYP. As a result, schools may question the investment, particularly when promised federal contributions have yet to be appropriated.

This pressure on schools for accountability is not new, but NCLB certainly raises the stakes. Schools must make linear, incremental progress toward 100% proficiency in reading, math, and science for all children by the year 2012. Schools are required to disaggregate testing results by subgroups of disability, poverty, and second language learners; each of the subgroups as a whole must also make AYP, or the entire school is placed on corrective action status. However, the disability subgroup in some schools is the only group not making AYP, and the entire school fails as a result. When that happens, it creates resentment among parents and educators and causes a backlash against children with special needs. Arguably, this may in fact cause the affected schools to invest more in children with disabilities, but the damage will have been done. A law that was meant to change the futures of all children may actually end up increasing prejudice and misunderstandings about children with disabilities, reversing 30 years of progress.

Special education or related services?

Congress mandates that every child is entitled to a "highly qualified" teacher. IDEIA extends that mandate to special education teachers, including those who consult with classroom teachers or provide accommodations and modifications for students. Itinerant teachers of students with visual impairments will likely fall into this latter category, and obtaining state certification in visual impairment will probably be sufficient for these teachers to be considered highly qualified. Whether or how states acknowledge the fact that itinerants are essentially content teachers for mathematics and literacy is not yet known.

Many states already require teachers of students with visual impairments to meet content area standards, and these teachers will likely have no difficulties becoming highly qualified, regardless of teaching assignment or caseload. If other states follow this practice, the shortage of teachers of students with visual impairments may increase exponentially. Over the past eight years, production of new teachers of students with visual impairments has remained stagnant at approximately 250 annually. Adding subject matter certification or requiring completion of a high objective uniform state standard of evaluation (HOUSSE) could either increase the preparation time for new teachers of students with visual impairments, thus contributing to an already severe teacher shortage; or reduce the appeal of teaching children with visual impairments, which leads people to pursue the profession in the first place. Some states classify the work of a teacher of students with visual impairments as a related service. This solution may circumvent the highly qualified teacher requirements, but it fails to acknowledge the unique pedagogy that facilitates our students' access to the curriculum. Worse, it relegates instruction to "supportive services" rather than "specially designed instruction... to meet the unique needs of a child with a disability" (20 U.S.C. 1400 602[29]).

The issue is especially critical for specialized schools, where one-third or more of the teaching staff is either not certified for the subjects they are teaching or not certified for the students they are teaching. Specialized schools have been hit especially hard by the teacher shortage. They are forced by NCLB to hire teachers with subject matter credentials, and there is no HOUSSE that will allow these teachers to obtain credentials to teach students with visual impairments without enrolling in a university program, thus extending the time needed to achieve highly qualified standards. The difficulty, of course, is that NCLB requires all teachers to be highly qualified by the end of the 2005-06 school year.

Need for evidence

NCLB makes over 100 references to scientifically based research and requires schools to use it. When you look at the literature in education of children with visual impairments, you realize that we don't have much to hang our hats on. We seem to base much of our practice on single studies of one intervention with one sample of students--with little assurance that the study will apply to another group of children in another context. We have tons of practice articles and descriptions of programs, but little hard evidence to back up what we do.

It is this lack of evidence, combined with the trend toward generalism in the classroom, that frightens me most of all. We cannot demonstrate that what we do is any more critical than an accessible computer station. If we are unable to build a research foundation for our practice, the only alternative for classroom teachers is to apply the research developed on children without disabilities. There may be no evidence that it applies to children with visual impairments, but it will be the only scientifically based practice available. Therein lies both our challenge and our motivation.

Kay Alicyn Ferrell, Ph.D., director, National Center on Low-Incidence Disabilities, Campus Box 146, University of Northern Colorado, Greeley, CO 80639; e-mail: <kay.ferrell@unco.edu>.


JVIB's Perspectives column is intended to offer members of the blindness field the opportunity to express their points of view on important, sometimes controversial, issues affecting the field. Do you agree with the comments you've just read? Readers are encouraged to visit the JVIB online message board, <www.afb.org/jvib_message_board.asp>, and voice their opinions on this important topic.


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