Dr. Jon Sheldahl, Chief Administrator
In recent years, the federal Office of Special Education Programs in Washington D.C, known simply as OSEP to most of us, has downgraded special education practices and performance in Iowa’s public schools. In an effort to improve its grade for special education programs, the state department of education has taken strides to not only reduce the percentage of entitled individuals in the state, but to also improve the academic achievement of students identified in the current system. Iowa has one of the highest percentages of special education students in the nation and, at the same time, has achievement levels for special education students far below the national average. The achievement gap between students identified for special education and those not identified is one of the largest in the nation. We are being taken to task for both over-identification and low academic performance.
The result of all this is a new system of child identification embedded in the RTI model. I see frustration at times in both AEA and LEA staff when it comes to how students are being identified for special education. Part of what causes some of this frustration is the persistent belief held by some that intelligence is largely innate and fixed. We now know from twin research and advanced MRI technology that as much as 75% of an adolescent’s intelligence is the result of environmental factors and that IQ scores can be raised as a result of sufficient high quality instruction. That’s a frightening paradigm shift for educators. It’s certainly a call for universal preschool and extended school programs for at-risk students, but it’s an equally powerful plea for quality core instruction. We have always believed we could help kids achieve at higher levels, but the belief that we can actually make them smarter is a newer notion and, while a bit frightening, it’s an exciting one!