As Assistant Secretary for the Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services at the U.S. Department of Education, Michael K. Yudin is working to bridge the education gap for children with special needs. We caught up with Yudin to discuss the new standards in education to help children with special needs succeed. 

What types of success have you had with policies you’ve worked on that have directly impacted children with special needs?

The fact that the states have adopted these new standards [the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) requires states to hold all kids to the same academic standards] is so critically important, and I think that the administration’s efforts …to give incentives and to encourage states to adopt college and career-ready standards was really pretty critical to the ultimate adoption.

No Child Left Behind is the law of the land, and it’s way overdue for reauthorization; it doesn’t work for anybody hardly anymore. The President charged Secretary Duncan [Secretary of Education Arne Duncan] with identifying provisions in the law that act as barriers to reform – barriers to states and districts that want to do better and do more for kids. So we set up our ESEA flexibility waivers. We would waive these provisions of the law in exchange for a few commitments. One is that they show us how they are going to transition to these new college and career-ready standards for all kids, including kids with disabilities.

We are working in my office very closely with our partner program offices here in the Department of Education that primarily deal with general education. … General ed. is responsible for the success of students with disabilities. Special ed. is critically important to provide that special education, related services and the support and accommodations that kids with disabilities need to access the general curriculum. Kids need to be able to read. Kids need to be able to do math. That’s general ed. So we are partnering in myriad ways with our program offices around this flexibility, around general ed. … around early learning, around turning around our lowest performing schools.

We know that some of the lowest performing schools in the country have disproportionally high numbers of students with disabilities. So the department has allocated around $5 billion to states and districts to turn around the lowest performing schools. It’s critical that the office of special ed. is a part of that as we’re looking at our research-based strategies, like responses to Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS), principles of universal design that are really critical to the ultimate success of all of these general ed. efforts. So we are partnering and adding value and researched-based strategies to help all kids … [which] includes kids with disabilities.

We, a couple of years ago, put out a resource guide … that sets out the principles around when you should not use restraint and seclusion. It’s been really helpful to the field. A number of states have adopted these principles.

How can parents work with educators to ensure their children succeed in school?

Right now there isn’t a lot of effort being put into the building of the capacity of parents and educations to work together collaboratively. … We do federally fund our parent centers, which focus on helping families on how to collaborate more effectively with educators. In fact many centers serve as experts in their states on helping educators collaborate with families. Massachusetts has the Federation for Children with Special Needs, Urban Pride … [they] do incredible work to help families and schools work together.

At the end of the day, parents and educators have to assume that they both want what’s best for the kid. That they have high expectations and work to build on the child’s strengths, not just focus on the challenges, the disabilities or what the kid can’t do.

How can cities and towns help limit spiraling special education costs and potentially receive more state/federal funding to cover unfunded and underfunded mandates? 

This is a difficult conversation sometimes. It’s a bit of a puzzle that educators and systems have to work through, but I think there are a few things that we can absolutely point to. First is early screening and identification. Get kids screened for delays: developmental, behavioral, social and emotional delays … We have Part C [of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act] that provides early intervention services for infants and toddlers with delays and disabilities. We have preschool programs that support our kids with delays and disabilities. It’s kind of like “pay now or pay more later.” Early screening and identification and making sure the kids get the support and services from the start.

There are a number of other things that we’re seeing that are making a difference in communities around the country and that’s around multi-tiered systems of support, such as Response to Intervention (RTI) or PBIS. … RTI provides a tiered system of intervention and support to all kids. It starts with the foundational level that all kids will have access to a rigorous core curriculum and instruction. And then it’s a pyramid. What do you do when a kid doesn’t respond to that curriculum? And you tier up your interventions. There are a number of districts around the country that are implementing RTI or PBIS throughout their schools and they are seeing incredibly important gains of academic success, and at the same time reducing the placement of kids in special ed. because they’re all getting the support up front.

Cheryl Crosby is senior editor for Boston Parents Paper.