A Summary of the PACE Policy Research Panel
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More than 725,000 of California’s K-12 students qualified for special education services in 2018-19, but they entered a system that is often ill-equipped to serve them. This brief summarizes the findings from the PACE Policy Research Panel on Special Education: Organizing Schools to Serve Students with Disabilities in California. We find opportunities for improvement in early screening, identification, and intervention; transitions into and out of special education services; educator preparation and ongoing support; and availability of mental and physical health services.

Characteristics, Outcomes, and Transitions
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In this brief, we leverage data from eight school districts, known as the CORE districts, to describe students with disabilities (SWDs) by their characteristics, outcomes, and transitions into and out of special education. We found that the most common disability type was a specific learning disability. Relative to their representation among students districtwide, males, African Americans, English language learners, and foster youth were more highly represented among SWDs. In terms of outcomes, chronic absence was more prevalent among children with multiple disabilities.

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Only about 10 percent of eligible infants and toddlers with developmental delays nationwide receive early intervention services, which are widely agreed to reduce delays and lessen the adverse effects of risk factors and disabilities on learning and development. California serves fewer children than the national average. Challenges arise from spotty screening; tenuous linkages to referral and evaluation; and the intricacies of crossing multiple agencies—sometimes without knowledge of  English—for families.

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California continues to fall below national averages in identifying and serving infants, toddlers, and preschoolers with developmental disabilities. The transition between infant/toddler services, administered by the Department of Developmental Services, and preschool services for 3- to 5-year-olds, administered by the Department of Education, is fraught with several factors that hinder progress.

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While California Common Core State Standards in Mathematics (CA CCSSM) call for rigorous mathematics for all students, students with disabilities have not been provided equal access to instruction that meets these standards. Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is a research-based framework to develop strategic, expert learners within classroom settings that maximize engagement of a wide variety of students, including students with disabilities.

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Preparing all students, including students with disabilities, for life after high school is a critical responsibility for California’s education system. Engaging students and their families in discussions regarding careers, employment, and the pre-requisites for postsecondary education, training, and employment must start early and continue throughout their educational experiences. While there are programs in California that benefit students as they explore career opportunities, students with disabilities are seldom included in these programs.

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One of the key purposes of public education is to prepare young people to reach their full potential as independent adults and engaged citizens. This transition to adulthood may be especially challenging for youth with disabilities. Students enrolled in special education often need additional supports and coordinated planning to prepare for employment, postsecondary education, and community living.

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California is in the midst of a severe special education teacher shortage that threatens the state’s ability to improve outcomes for students with disabilities, who often have the greatest needs but receive the least expert teachers. To help policymakers address the shortage, the Learning Policy Institute conducted an analysis of the special education teacher workforce to provide an update on the shortage and its causes.

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This brief provides recommendations for the professional development (PD) of teachers, administrators, and school personnel in order to improve student outcomes. The significant achievement gap for diverse learners—including students with disabilities, a vast majority of whom are also culturally and/or linguistically diverse—can be reduced through high quality and ongoing PD. Unfortunately, there are numerous barriers to effective PD. To address these barriers, this brief outlines recommendations for best practices in PD for teachers and other school staff.

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Under California’s System of Support, differentiated assistance (DA) provides supports to eligible districts to boost student group performance levels. This brief describes the districts that were eligible for DA in 2019 based on the performance levels of their students with disabilities (SWD). It also analyzes how SWD performance on State Priority Areas (SPAs) and indicators factored into districts’ eligibility for DA. Findings show that, among the 333 districts identified for DA, eligibility was driven, in part, by SWD performance for over half of those districts.

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This brief examines California’s Multi-Tiered System of Supports (MTSS), which is a framework designed to identify and assist students performing below grade level. MTSS involves at least three tiers of support; Tier 2 includes personalized assistance. Unfortunately, Tier 2 services are not adequately resourced so it is not surprising that California students rank only 38th in the nation in reading and math. To move higher, it is important that the state provide categorical funding for Tier 2 services. California teachers already have a full-time job.

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This brief identifies the steps necessary to realize an integrated system of care, reviews two current approaches, and makes recommendations—including specifying policy reforms that would promote interagency collaboration, integration, service delivery, and improved outcomes for California’s children, both with and without disabilities.