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Outgoing Assistant Commissioner Assesses Past, Present, Future of Special Ed

With three decades experience in the field, Barbara Gantwerk is in unique position to talk about testing, parents' rights, and other issues.

Barbara Gantwerk, former assistant commissioner Division of Special Education.
Barbara Gantwerk, former assistant commissioner Division of Special Education.

Barbara Gantwerk knows special education policy as well as anyone in New Jersey. She joined the state Department of Education in the late 1970s as a speech consultant, and went on to rise through the ranks in the special education division to become its director and then assistant commissioner.

Gantwerk retired from the department last month after 34 years, moving on to work as a consultant with the New Jersey Principals and Supervisors Association.

A week after her last day in Trenton, NJ Spotlight’s John Mooney sat down with Gantwerk to talk about special education then and now, including parents’ rights and roles, the place for testing, and some struggles that just don’t seem to diminish. The following are excerpts from that conversation:

Question: You started in the department in 1979 as a consultant for speech and language services. What was the job then?

Answer: At the time, there were consultants for psychologists, social workers, learning consultants. There were teams of people at the state level for every region. Very different from now. That was a good thing, a lot of support that was based on the different professional responsibilities.

Q: That was also near the start of IDEA, the landmark federal law dictating special education services nationwide and now familiar requirements like the individualized education program, or IEP? Tell us about that time.

A: New Jersey always had strong special education laws, but new was the whole concept of the IEP and accountability, and a big change was the role of parents. This was the first law that said parents not only have the right to participate, but they have the responsibility and they must participate. That was difficult for schools, they weren’t use to having parents as a partner.

The whole idea of an IEP was being accountable. Now, accountability has moved on to a very different level, but at that point, accountability was what do you expect your child to learn. It was much more personal and individualized. It was establishing the idea that students could indeed learn, and that we needed to have higher expectations for students with disabilities.

Q: You were involved in the state’s early development of creating services and programs in schools that aimed to address potential disabilities early on, something now seen in services known as response to intervention (RTI). Should the state be mandating such services in districts, as some pending bills have proposed?

A: I think the more important role the state plays is showing how to do it well. Having a mandate to do something is important, but not doing it well doesn’t serve anyone. You can mandate RTI, but you have to have a good quality general education reading program, for instance, with ongoing assessments and interventions for knowing when students need the help and the appropriate interventions to provide. The mandates are one thing, but you have to have both.

Q: All these issues you worked with early in your career sound awfully familiar today, even the issue of getting parents involved. Have we not come very far since then?

A: Yes, we have come a long way, but it doesn’t mean we’ve arrived. I think parents are much more involved and have much more information about what’s possible. But I still think it is sometimes a problem for parents to fully participate and access all their rights. The problem in the law is it gives you rights but sometimes you need a lawyer to access them, and people without funds really don’t have the ability to take advantage of their rights the way that people with available funds do.

Q: The tensions between districts and at least some parents are frequently mentioned in schools. Is that problematic?

A: I think in New Jersey, we see parents taking advantage of the rights they have, and I have never seen that as a bad thing. I think that it is important for parents and schools to figure out ways to work together, and I think the problems occur when there is a breakdown in communication and a breakdown in the belief that the schools want to help their child. When parents don’t feel they are on the same page and that someone cares about their child, then that is problematic. The fact that some of them invoke their rights is a sign that the law is working.

For the most part, people do seem to be getting along and pleased with their child’s program. The department does a survey every year, and there are hundreds of thousands of children in special education, and the vast majority are not filing for due process or requesting hearings. The vast majority seem to be as happy about their schools as general-ed people are happy about their schools.

Q: Speak to New Jersey’s long standing as having the nation’s highest rate of separate placements for students with disabilities?

A: Most of our students are included, and our data has really improved. There is a difference in attitude, and people recognize that special-ed students are in the general-ed class. Access to the general program is what we want for all students, and the difference now is we are looking at special ed as a way to get there. It’s a service, and not a place, I think we have made that shift. But because we are a state that has so many resources, I think people sometimes want those resources.

Q: Aren’t there still wide disparities, especially in terms of income and race?

A: We do still have an over-representation of minority students in special ed and in separate placements, and those are real issues that we need to continue to address. We’ve been working on this since I started in the department. The idea is to try to find out where the problem is starting, where are the students first having problems and what is the response. The problems in special ed do not start in special ed, they start in general ed. You can blame special education, but that’s not where it will be solved.

Q: Speak about the cost issues, where there’s a lot of tensions inside districts.

A: It is worrisome where you pit one group against another, and people say one group is hurting the needs of another group. The federal government wrote a law that is really unlimited in the services to be provided, and they didn’t give a printing press for money at the same time. And that does engender some tensions. To me, one of the things you need to look at is how you are spending the money. Some of the things that cost the most money are the most segregated, specialized programs, and we have an over-reliance on those programs. We need to look at the results of the programs as well. Money well spent early on can often reduce the need for more extensive programs later.

Q: Speak to some of the criticism of the latest regulations out of the department as giving too much leeway to the districts. One specific one was a provision to offer more flexibility as to who would be a child’s case manager.

A: One of the things clear from working here is that flexibility to one person is license to do bad to another. There’s always a conflict. When you hear flexibility, some think that people will do the wrong thing with that. But on the other side, if you mandate every single step, you also have the potential of it not being the right thing. Our idea with case managers was to expand the people available to a district so they could choose who would be the right person and free up child study people to do the kind of consultative and supportive work we want them to do. Writing regulations is a constant balance.

Q: Are there a lot less resources in the department than there were 30 years ago?

A: Certainly in special ed, we are a lot smaller than where we were. I think times change and we look to other functions for a department. We have other partners, maybe hire consultants to do training we did before. But because of the federal funding, special ed is still pretty strong.

Q: Is the department as a whole very different?

A: When I started, we sat at desks like in kindergarten facing each other. We had no computers, no Internet, no cellphones. When we wrote something, it was on paper and we gave it to the typing pool, and they would do 50 drafts of it. It was a very different place. And its role has changed, the way things are done is different. But as long as I have been there, it has been focused on trying to get at improved instruction and better outcomes for children. Now we are judging more on results much more clearly, whereas then it was the focus on the inputs, professional development and instruction. Now we can tell if any of this was successful through the student assessments, graduation rates, and things like post-school outcomes, what actually happens to the students after they graduate.

Q: Some in special education are especially critical of all the testing. Is that misplaced?

A: Yes. There are two things about No Child Left Behind that were really good for special education. One is inclusion of special ed students in the accountability system by holding schools accountable for them. Shining the light on special-education students has for the most part been an extremely beneficial thing. And the other issue was saying that teachers for special ed need to be highly qualified for everyone. You could have been a high school student taking English or math with a teacher who is special ed certified, but not certified in English or math. NCLB came along and said teachers need to also have the content knowledge. There are problems and it doesn’t mean testing is perfect for every student, but now the students matter and the attention is being paid.

Q: Going forward, are there other issues that need special attention?

A: How do we implement a teacher evaluation system for special-ed teachers? To me, that is an important issue, figuring out legitimate ways to measure how a teacher is doing. And how do we help in not classifying students because of failures in general education to provide what students need. Those are continuing issues. Another area is the issue of social skills. How can a school develop a way for social skills to be part of a curriculum, and not just something you have or you don’t? There are many students coming to school with a lot of social skills problems.

Q: Some final thoughts after 34 years?

A: I feel blessed I had that opportunity to work in the department. From the day I started, I always felt it was an amazing opportunity to influence and do important work. There wasn’t a day I didn’t learn something new. So many people in the department cared deeply about the work, and they spent the day engaged in the discussions in how to do that work well. I can’t imagine something more interesting.

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