UPDATED 11.20.23: VDOE FOIA Response: Independent Evaluations of Virginia Department of Education's Special Education Program

*Thank you to the three parents who submitted FOIA requests for this information and shared it with Special Education Action.

10.8.23: Article first published.

11.20.23: Article updated to include original report submitted by Dr. Robert Pasternack to Dr. Lisa Coons, as well as emails between Robert and Lisa regarding the first final report, and invoices related to both reports.

October 18, 2023, Virginia Department of Education (VDOE) released two independent evaluations of its special education program. The evaluations were done by Dr. Robert Pasternack, Sam Howarth, and Nathan Levenson at the request of Superintendent of Public Instruction Dr. Lisa Coons.

Added November 20, 2023:

September 14, 2023: Date on the invoice New Solutions K12 (Nathan Levenson) submitted to VDOE for $35,000.

September 28, 2023: Date on Dr. Robert Pasternack's email and cover letter to Dr. Lisa Coons, and on the final report submitted.

September 29, 2023: Date on Dr. Lisa Coon's email to Dr. Robert Pasternack, stating she is "a bit overwhelmed by the number of recommendations in the report."

October 4, 2023: Date of Dr. Robert Pasternack's revised final report. A cursory review of the revised report identified the following changes:

Section 3 was broken up into three sections. It changed from "Section 3: "Actionable Recommendations" to "Section 3: Recommendations for Immediate Implementation", "Section 4: Recommendations that Should be Considered and that are Still Important for Transformational Change", and "Section 5: Recommendations to be Considered for Some Point in the Future".

The following paragraph was added to the end of the "Introduction and Methodology Section":

"The final step in this study was to confer with the State Superintendent regarding the feasibility of immediate implementation of the most critical recommendations. Subsequently, the report was prepared with the practicality of implementation of improving outcomes and results for SWDs and their families."

The following paragraph was deleted from the end of the "Introduction and Methodology Section":

"Dr Coons may consider forming a task force within VDOE to explore the implementation of the large number of actionable recommendations provided in this report."

A note addressing the revised report was added:

"Based on review of the recommendations, we realized that there were too many recommendations and that they should be prioritized indicating which should be acted on first and which can wait for later action and implementation. As such, we 1) reconfigured the recommendations in an attempt to provide actionable recommendations that we believe are calculated to provide transformational change and 2) organized the recommendations that remain in this revised report into three additional sections: those that should be considered for immediate execution/implementation; those that, while still important, should be considered for later implementation; and those that could be considered by VDOE for implementation at some point in the future. Please note that the findings remain unchanged and that we indicate that we believe that Dr. Hollins and her team are well positioned and capable of helping achieve these needed changes under the leadership of Dr. Coons."

I don't agree with the statement that "the findings remain unchanged". The revision instituted a weighting system, which changed the recommendations from an immediate need to recommendations "to be considered for some point in the future." For example, the revised report prioritizes a review of "all special education-related regulations to identify those VDOE regulations which exceed IDEA requirements and ensure that those regulations are still relevant, necessary, and user-friendly." However, it deprioritized the recommendation that "The VDOE, as part of its monitoring of divisions, should examine disproportionality in placements (LRE); graduation rates; SOL scores; suspensions and expulsions; and use of seclusion/restraint by race/ethnicity." Instead, this recommendation now resides in the latter "to be considered for some point in the future."

October 8, 2023: Date on the Ensenar Educational Services (Dr. Robert Pasternack) invoice submitted to VDOE for $100,000.

October 10, 2023: Date on Nathan Levenson's report.

The findings aren't a surprise.

In Virginia, educators and families are two ends of the same burning match—and VDOE fuels the fire. Rather than being the "North Star" guiding educators and bridging the gap between families and educators, VDOE's actions and inactions continue to increase the divide.

Families don't trust educators. Educators are fed up with families. Parents are fighting for their children's rights. Educators are fighting parents. Children's functional and academic needs aren't being met. Teachers aren't receiving the support and training they need to help meet the needs of the children. Families and educators are burnt out—while the soft bigotry of low expectation burns bright.

Coons, who was appointed March 2023 by Governor Glenn Youngkin, has an uphill path ahead of her. Although the reports and recommendations aren't surprising, her choice to request these outside evaluations and reports sets her apart from her predecessors. But, in a state in which noncompliance is as common as oxygen, expecting change is like expecting snow in June. Hopefully she'll be the change educators, students, and families so greatly need.

Quotes to Start

In the interest of sharing these reports immediately, I've pulled a few key quotes to start [emphasis added], and will follow up on the recommendations later.

Report by Nathan Levenson

Page 7:

"Currently, VDOE is not viewed by the field as providing either a great deal of pressure or support related to special education."

"When compared to some other SEAs and states, VDOE and the field do not demonstrate as much urgency for improvement. The VDOE special education leadership shared that they cannot be forceful and have limited control over school systems unless they are conducting a cyclical review (which is currently compliance-focused). The experience of other states shows that SEAs can have a significant  impact on school system behavior, practice, and focus."

Page 8

"The working relationship with OSEP [U.S. Dept. of Education] in recent years has not been healthy, productive, or beneficial to students with disabilities. Over the last few years VDOE has pushed back on OSEP, questioned their findings, and challenged some of their mandates. While most SEAs have some back and forth with OSEP and many SEA special education leaders may not agree with all of their findings, the relationship between VDOE and OSEP is different than most and not in a helpful way."

"VDOE has had a multiyear confrontation with OSEP which is uncommon in its duration and intensity."

Page 12

"Compared to the rest of the country, NAEP scores for students with disabilities in Virginia have historically hovered right around the national average. In 2022, Virginia scores were slightly above the national average in 8th grade, and slightly below in 4th grade.

"While this makes Virginia like other states, VDOE satisfaction levels are not typical. While nearly all other states express an urgent need to dramatically raise outcomes for students with disabilities, the VDOE special education team seems to celebrate the current level of achievement. While the NAEP has not released proficiency percentages for students with disabilities, with only a third of students overall demonstrating proficiency in mastering grade-level content on the NAEP assessment (Figure 3.2) and given what we know about the discrepancies in raw scores between the two groups, we know that proficiency data for students with disabilities would fall even lower. This should be an alarming, rather than comforting, statistic."

Page 13

"Several VDOE special education leaders seemed very proud of the high level of achievement for SWDs, and in fact one was taken aback by the question, “What could VDOE do to dramatically raise achievement for students with disabilities?” They responded that the question presumes dramatic improvement hasn’t already taken place and is needed. This heightened sense of accomplishment stems from a reliance on state-specific SOL data."

"While it can be tempting to consider the SOL results as the full picture, NAEP should be embraced as a more realistic marker of student success. Students with disabilities deserve to be held to high standards and supported to reach mastery."

Page 14:

"All kids deserve to be set up for success beyond high school and districts must do all they can to ensure students have all the necessary skills, knowledge, and credentials to achieve that success. Currently in Virginia, 20% of students with disabilities are graduating with what is known as the “applied studies diploma” – a degree that just necessitates students meet the requirements of their IEPs, but not any content standards or curriculum requirements. With this diploma not being recognized as valid by 2- or 4-year colleges or the US DOE, these students are not set up for success after graduating."

Page 15:

"Change is hard. Current special education practices are long baked into the “way things are done” in many schools and divisions."

Page 17:

"Most states in the last decade or two have worked to increase inclusion for students with disabilities to improve outcomes, social interaction, and the IDEA requirements of serving students in the least restrictive environment. As reported in the JLARC study, Virginia has much more work to be done to achieve reasonable levels of inclusion and effective inclusion."

Page 18:

"Currently, a significant divide exists between the special education and general education teams at VDOE, but implementing best practices and expanding effective inclusion will require a cross-team effort. When special education leaders at VDOE as well as some external partners spoke of special education collaboration, it was primarily with other special education teams and departments, not necessarily inter-departmentally."

Page 19:

"The current VDOE focus for addressing the special education teacher shortages includes opening the door to more special education staff through expanding provisional licensing, which can lower the bar for special education teachers and therefore impact outcomes for students with disabilities. Some at VDOE and in the field believe that “higher skilled” paraprofessionals can also be a reasonable response to the teacher shortage. Research indicates that this approach will lower outcomes and should be discouraged (or perhaps prohibited).

Read Nathan Levenson's full report.

Report by Robert Pasternack and Sam Howarth

This report starts with comments expressed by various stakeholders and then morphs into recommendations for change that are broken into three categories: 1) immediate execution/implementation, 2) recommendations that should be considered for later implementation and are still important to transformational change, and 3) recommendations that VDOE may want to consider for implementation at some point in the future.

The first category includes monitoring, dispute resolution, independent educational evaluations, the Virginia IEP (VAIEP), advocacy, behavioral health, data, response to intervention, and training and technical assistance.

Read Robert Pasternack's and Sam Howarth's report.