By Elaine Mulligan, Project Director, National Dissemination Center for Children with Disabilities (NICHCY)
Do you think that federal and state departments of education staff are a bunch of outdated bureaucrats who sit in locked offices enforcing obscure rules and ignoring the needs of kids and families? Well, I’ve just spent three days learning, collaborating, and planning with hundreds of them. These folks are knowledgeable, passionate, eager to learn, and dedicated to finding better ways to support states and stakeholders to effectively serve students who have disabilities.
At the end of July, over a thousand federal and state education agency staff and lead agency staff and federally funded technical assistance including parent centers providers gathered for three days of professional learning in Washington, DC. The 2012 IDEA Leadership Conference (previously named the OSEP Leadership Conference) brought state staff including state data managers , early childhood coordinators, parent center leaders, and state Interagency Coordinating Council members together with U.S. Department of Education staff and federally funded technical assistance centers to learn about evidence-based practices to support participants’ ability to improve results for infants, toddlers, children and youth with disabilities and their families.
There were plenty of new developments to share:
- Melody Musgrove, Director of the Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP) shared the U.S. Department of Education’s vision and purpose in changing the focus of accountability for states from compliance to results. The new name for the process is Results Driven Accountability (RDA). She and Gregg Corr, Division Director of Monitoring and State Improvement Planning, emphasized the need to support states in improving the school experience and learning for students with disabilities while still holding states responsible for upholding the requirements of IDEA.
- Alexa Posny, former Assistant Secretary for the Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services (OSERS), shared the U.S. Department of Education’s Disability Strategy. We’ve all heard much about the administration’s focus on education from “cradle to career,” but Dr. Posny helped us to see how students with disabilities are included in this vision, from access to early learning experiences, through inclusive school settings to thoughtful, student-focused transition planning. Her vision for teacher preparation that prepares all teachers to teach ALL students prompted hundreds of head nods, and her leadership principles inspired us all: “The only power that any of us has is to change the conversation. That is the essence of leadership.”
- The release of new IDEA Part C regulations for early childhood last fall provided plenty of learning opportunities for early childhood folks. What do the regulations mean for families? How are states interpreting or supporting the new regulations? There were additional early childhood pre-sessions to bring state agency early childhood leaders and Interagency Coordinating Councils together for additional learning.
Between the large group sessions, there were a variety of excellent learning opportunities from which to choose. Some sessions were focused on technical issues, including data accuracy, protecting privacy, regulatory changes, or fees for early childhood services. Other sessions highlighted specific practices that are effective in serving students with disabilities, including Universal Design for Learning (UDL), using digital video to enhance early childhood services, promoting family leadership, and addressing inclusion of youth with emotional and behavioral challenges.
Plenary luncheon sessions offered interesting learning opportunities for all participants. On Monday, Dr. Peter Ronayne offered insight and expertise on “Leading with the Brain in Mind,” which prompted a lively discussion (and several personal pledges to implement catnaps for creativity & efficiency). Wednesday, disability activist Norman Kunc provided a thoughtful and often humorous overview of four different “models of disability” that have been articulated in the field of critical disability theory.
Conference participants took advantage of the rare opportunity to be with colleagues from across the country; group meetings were held before and after sessions, from early morning to late evening. Many conference participants took to Twitter to share what they were learning. We’ve compiled a Storify of many of the tweets to give a glimpse into the experience: http://storify.com/nichcy/highlights-of-the-2012-idea-leadership-conference.
Helping schools and service providers to continually find better and more meaningful ways to serve children and youth with disabilities to achieve success from cradle to career is a big job. It’s encouraging for us as individuals who engage in this work every day to see the quantity and variety of others who are working and learning every day to better serve children or children and youth. This annual opportunity to engage in learning with all of the different groups of people who attend the IDEA Leadership Conference helps us to really understand how we’re all on the same team – the child or children’s team.
Elaine Mulligan is the Project Director of the National Dissemination Center for Children with Disabilities (NICHCY), a federally-funded project that provides information to the nation on disabilities in children in youth; programs and services for infants, children, and youth with disabilities; IDEA, the nation’s special education law; and research-based information on effective practices for children with disabilities. http://nichcy.org/