The U.S. Department of Education Wants to “Rethink Special Education,” But Is It Willing to Look at Itself First?

The Department Needs to Change the Office of Special Education Programs at the “Top” in Order to Successfully Impact our Classrooms at the “Bottom”

Dear Colleagues,


   Last week (September 20, 2018), Johnny W. Collett, the politically-appointed Assistant Secretary for the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services (OSERS), announced that his Office was open to “Rethinking Special Education.” 

   Complete with a press conference, and an accompanying statement on the OSERS website, the official OSERS “Rethink” poster states:

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   In analyzing his public statement, the website promotion, and the public relations poster, the national reaction so far—professionally and in the press—has been, “YAWN.”

   This is mostly because there were no details or specifics, no action plan, and no involvement of anyone else in the special education “community.”

   It was just Johnny.

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   But to his credit, the statement on the OSERS website “announcing” this initiative states:

Rethinking special education will require an unwavering commitment to address barriers that stand in the way of improving opportunities and outcomes for each child, and to make needed changes at the federal, state, and local levels. We must be willing to confront anything that does not facilitate needed improvement. That includes structures that limit opportunities for children with disabilities; practices that put the needs of “the system” over the individual needs of a child; policies that, no matter how well-intentioned, do not have the impact of improving outcomes for students; or laws and regulations that constrain innovation. We cannot ignore the challenges that students, parents, teachers and schools face.
The Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services is committed to confronting these—and any other issues—that stand in the way of a child’s success. We will partner with parents and families, individuals with disabilities—anyone and everyone who is focused on raising expectations and improving outcomes for individuals with disabilities.

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   If Assistant Secretary Collett is really serious about OSERS’ willingness to “rethink anything and everything,” it is hard to believe (see below) that any longstanding staff in OSERS—and, especially, its Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP)—are terribly enthused with the potential of the “looking glass” being shined on them.

   Indeed, if the “Rethink” process begins. . . as it should. . . by first looking at how OSERS and OSEP does business . . .

   . . . then Secretary Collett is going to have to directly assess the “deeply embedded and complex issues” that has allowed his staff to enact “policies and practices that (have) put the needs of (their) system over the needs of individuals with disabilities”. . .

   . . . and he is going to have to “confront (these) structures because they are limiting opportunities for individuals with disabilities.”

   You see, friends, the reality is that OSERS and OSEP are run more by the employed staff—who are not political appointees, and who retain their government positions from Administration to Administration—than by the politically-appointed Secretaries and Assistant Secretaries.

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Why We Need a NEW OSEP Agenda

   As so, in order to begin to “Rethink Special Education,” Assistant Secretary Collett will need to lead by example. That is, he must first comprehensively and objectively analyze the policies, practices, and procedures at OSERS and OSEP, and how these are negatively impacting special education services at the state, district, school, and classroom levels.

   This analysis is desperately needed.  It is the first essential step toward improving, integrating, and strengthening special education services, supports, and strategies in this country

   And this is because OSEP’s current special education agenda is flawed.  It is rooted in power and politics.  It is not guided by the “students-first” focus advocated by Assistant Secretary Collett.

   In short:  OSEP and special education services in this country need a shake-up. 


   * OSEP has been run largely by same senior staff. . . or senior-influenced staff. . . for too long.  The Director of OSEP, like the OSERS Assistant Secretary, is supposed to be a political appointee.  And yet, the current Administration shows no inclination as to even filling the OSEP Director’s spot.  Thus, the current Acting Director of OSEP is a staff person who has worked in OSEP for decades, and who appears largely oriented toward maintaining the long oversight history and bureaucratic practices of the Department.

   * Many of OSEP’s systemic frameworks and processes have never been field-tested or validated before they have been introduced and advocated in the field. . . OSEP and some of its grantees are literally “making it up as they go along.”

   * Many of OSEP’s beliefs, ideas, and approaches have become singularly entrenched . . . and this entrenchment has created a “group-think” whereby OSEP rejects new or innovative approaches that do not “fit its mold.”

   * OSEP’s professional relationships (and grant awards)—across the country—with universities, national associations, “non-profit” Research & Development companies, and other “Thought Leaders” are similarly entrenched. . .

   * Which is why many of the same universities, professors, and non-profits seem to consistently receive the largest and most influential competitive and non-competitive grants. . . the same individuals are on each other’s OSEP-funded Technical Assistance (TA) Center Boards and Advisory Groups. . . and the same individuals keep presenting at the same national conferences from year-to-year.

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   All of this has resulted in special education decisions that have lost their transparency and objectivity; special education discussions that are controlled by the need to be “politically correct”; and special education training and practices that have lost their innovative edge.

   And this will not change unless, as now advocated by Assistant Secretary Collett, a truly new Agenda is crafted and implemented. . . an Agenda that recognizes the incestuous system of the present and past, and that guts this system, replacing it with one of objectivity and fairness, collaboration and innovation, shared responsibility and leadership, and a focus on real student outcomes.

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   To provide just a few examples of the “incestuous system” . . .

   Did you know that:  The special education units within each state’s department of education (who receive the federal special education funds that then are passed on to their districts) are strongly “encouraged” (read, “unofficially coerced”) to use (only) OSEP-funded (and “vetted”) TA Centers for needed technical assistance?

   I can personally attest to this given my thirteen years as an OSEP-grant Director at the Arkansas Department of Education where I was directly responsible to the State’s Special Education Unit Director.

   Beyond OSEP’s “encouragement,” a critical reality is that OSEP offers its TA Consultation for “free” (that is, paid by your tax dollars).  Thus, given the meager operating budgets of most state education departments, there is an ever-present financial pressure to use these resources (regardless of their quality).

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   Did you know that:  Virtually all of the Presidentially-appointed OSEP Directors have been former state special education directors?  Clearly, this is now also true as Assistant Secretary Collett once served as the Kentucky Department of Education’s state special education director.

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   Did you know that:  OSEP awards many of its largest grants to a small number of “non-profit” Research and Development companies through the federal government’s “business opportunity” procurement website, and that these powerful companies are complicit in setting the nation’s special education agenda?

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   Did you know that:  Many of the longest-running TA Centers funded by OSEP (some have changed names, but not primary focus) have had virtually no change in their Grant Directors since their original award. . . and/or they have been re-awarded their five-year grants multiple times over?  At least one TA Center was originally funded in 1997—over 20 years and 4 renewals ago.  Examples include:

  • The Center for Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (funded originally in 1997)
  • Early Childhood Technical Assistance Center
  • National Center on Intensive Intervention
  • National Center on Educational Outcomes
  • The IRIS Center
  • The Collaboration for Effective Educator Development, Accountability and Reform Center
  • The State Implementation of Scaling-up Evidence-based Practices Center
  • The National Implementation Research Network

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   Did you know that: OSEP awards many of its largest grants to a small number of “non-profit” Research and Development companies through the federal government’s “business opportunity” procurement website, and that these powerful companies are complicit in setting the nation’s special education agenda?

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   These examples demonstrate how OSEP has created, sustained, and institutionalized a staff-driven agenda . . . an agenda that began almost 10 years before the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) was last reauthorized in 2004.

   And to support this agenda, OSEP has used some of its funds to create a big “club”—that includes its National Technical Assistance Centers, and selected individuals from universities that receive grants at a disproportionately higher rate than one would expect.

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What Should Assistant Secretary Collett’s New Agenda Include

   Given the history described above, the need for a new OSERS/OSEP agenda is indisputable.  And as such, I would respectfully like to offer some recommendations for Assistant Secretary Collett’s “New Special Education Agenda.” 

   It starts with a new OSERS/OSEP “Statement of Philosophy and Purpose,” and proceeds through a series of complementary suggestions.

   Here we go:

Statement of Philosophy/Purpose
Within the bounds of the reauthorized Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) and the current Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), the Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services (OSERS) and its Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP) should pursue an agenda focusing on maximizing the academic and social, emotional, and behavioral progress, accomplishments, and proficiency of all students with disabilities. 
The ultimate goal is the high school graduation of each student with a general education degree, and the skills needed to pursue higher education and/or a well-paying job of their choice—such that they are able to live full and independent lives.
To accomplish this goal, OSERS/OSEP need to change their complementary missions from being organizations that all state SEAs are responsible to, to being organizations that support SEAs (State Education Agencies) and LEAs (Local Education Agencies) to be successful on behalf of all students with disabilities. 
Functionally, this means that OSERS/OSEP should/will provide more comprehensive, flexibly-chosen, and empirically-proven supports and technical assistance to the states and their districts and schools, while decreasing unneeded oversight and supervisory activities—thus, decreasing the burden on SEAs and LEAs to document, defend, and rationalize their special education initiatives and activities.
In doing this, the hope (supported and encouraged by OSERS/OSEP) is that states will increase their creativity and entrepreneurship such that more and different effective interventions for students with disabilities will be developed, validated, and disseminated.

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Needed Organizational/Systemic Directions and Actions

   1. Given the recently reauthorized Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA/ESSA), there is an immediate need for a comprehensive national discussion focusing on how to integrate ESEA and the current Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). 

   While ESEA was written to complement IDEA, the latter law is now fourteen years old.  Thus, if states, districts, and schools are responsible—under ESEA/ESSA—to create multi-tiered systems of support, this needs to occur in planful, evidence-based, and student-friendly ways.

   As such:

     * These discussions need to include national and cross-state discussions with a wide variety of constituencies and stakeholders—that go beyond those traditionally used by OSERS/OSEP for planning and feedback

     * These discussions need to put aside OSERS/OSEP’s current MTSS (and other singularly promoted) framework(s)—  which are not required by IDEA (see #4 below).

     * These discussions need to functionally differentiate the thirteen different disability areas. For too long, special education services have been evaluated (by law and by OSERS/OSEP) as a single composite (or sub-population) of these different disability areas—even though different schools, districts, and states have different percentages of these students across the preschool through high school levels.

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   2. The above discussions, planning, and activities need to be integrated into a systematic national, state, and local needs assessment, resource analysis, and strategic planning process that will result (a) in short-term paths to immediately improving the services and supports to students with disabilities—as delivered at the school, district, community, and state levels; and (b) a longer-term plan that, in collaboration with Congress, will be successfully embedded in a reauthorization of IDEA.

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   3. In preparation and as part of the reauthorization process, a comprehensive review is needed of OSEP’s State Performance Plan (SPP) and Annual Performance Report (APR) process—specifically to decrease the data collection burden on the states (SEAs) and districts (LEAs), and to eliminate data collection requirements that go beyond the law. 

   As part of this recalibration process:

     * More effective ways to use technology need to be designed and implemented—including ways to use secured cloud technology for national data warehousing and analysis;

     * The decision rules used to evaluate how well districts are meeting different IDEA requirements need to be more differentiated (to meet different local demographics and different disability variations across districts), and yet more universal—so that common analytic algorithms and evaluation tools can be developed and used across all states;

     * The decision rules used to identify states as “in need of improvement” also need to be more differentiated to meet different state demographics and disability variations, and the states in need of improvement should receive additional and unfettered OSEP funding to address their needs—so that they are not “dependent” on the “free” services offered by the National Technical Assistance Centers; and

     * Indicator 17—the “State Systemic Improvement Plan” (SISEP), in particular—needs to be re-evaluated for likely elimination.

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   4. A comprehensive review of all Part D funding grants (as well as all non-competitive OSEP-funded grants and grant programs) needs to be conducted to determine whether:

     * Grants are being (have been) awarded in areas that are consistent with the new ESEA and a projected new IDEA;

     * Grants are being (have been) selected through an open, honest, and objective review process, and in ways that are fully consistent with IDEA and federal law;

     * New grant RFPs do not contain references to or preferences for existing OSEP National TA frameworks, models, or approaches; and

     * The frameworks, components, strategies, and activities built into awarded grants are (have been) diverse, independently selected by the grant writers, uninfluenced by OSERS/OSEP or its current National TA Centers, and awarded—across grants in the same competition—to ensure that a large majority of the grants are not using the same frameworks, methodologies, or research-to-practice approaches.

   The concerns embedded in the points above reflect the reality that many OSEP Requests for Proposals (RFPs) over the years have communicated, directly or indirectly, a preference for OSEP-developed frameworks.  This has occurred especially relative to OSEP’s PBIS and MTSS frameworks.

   For example, the 2014 School Climate Transformation Grants not only expressed a preference for grantees to use the PBIS framework, but it required grantees to budget for and attend a national PBIS conference each October—for the five years of the grant.

   A sidebar to this issue is this:

   For the past fifteen years or more, OSEP staff have allowed a misinterpretation in the wording in IDEA that has resulted in the funding of Technical Assistance (TA) Centers that embody OSEP’s own national research-to-practice agenda. 

   More specifically, the phrase “positive behavioral interventions and supports” is written in IDEA and ESEA/ESSA in lower case terms and without any acronyms.  And yet, OSEP has allowed the National PBIS TA Center—with its OSEP-supported PBIS framework—to say on its website, in so many words, that “IDEA requires PBIS (that is, the National TA Center’s framework).”

   IDEA does not require PBIS—the National TA Center’s framework.  It requires, under legally-specified circumstances, that districts and schools provide positive behavioral interventions and supports to students with disabilities

   The same has happened with the term, appearing and defined in ESEA/ESSA:  “multi-tiered systems of supports.” 

   Once again, this term always appears in ESEA/ESSA in lower case and again, without any acronyms.  OSEP has confused the issue by labeling its multi-tiered framework, MTSS. . . and it allows districts and schools to assume that ESEA/ESSA requires OSEP’s MTSS framework which, once again, the law does not.

   This is not semantics, and this is not an “innocent” oversight. 

   From my perspective, this is a pure powerplay that is predicated on OSEP’s belief (and experience) that: (a) most educators trust the U.S. Department of Education, assume that it acts in the best interests of all students, and that its recommended practices are based on the most up-to-date research available; and that (b) the U.S. Department of Education and OSERS/OSEP have no reason to promote (and fund) their own agenda.

   Both assumptions are untrue. . . or, at the very least, they need to be questioned and investigated as part of Assistant Secretary Collett’s “New Special Education Agenda.”

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   5. A comprehensive review of all OSEP staff, along with the organization of the Office, is needed.  Many OSEP staff have served for extensive periods of time and, as such, there is a need to investigate (and address, as needed) whether their longevity has created a debilitating “group-think” within the Office such that creativity, objectivity, and innovation (on behalf of all students and students with disabilities) has been compromised.

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Needed Field-Based Practice Directions and Actions

   1. A comprehensive review is needed of our nation’s special education personnel and personnel development.  This should include recruitment, retention, professional development, and the actual skills and expertise of all teachers, administrators, and related services personnel.  This review should analyze the different roles and functions that these different educator groups should have in serving students with disabilities, how they are being trained and maintained, and what their efficacy and student-focused outcomes are.

   * Beyond the fact that we do not have enough qualified special education teachers and staff currently in training, my experience across the country is that the instructional and intervention skill levels of many special education practitioners need to be upgraded.  This is not the fault of these practitioners.  Indeed, they only know what they know and have been trained to do—both at pre-service and post-credentialing levels.

   * Thus, this review needs to look at teacher training, how teachers are credentialed at the state level, and what they need to do to maintain their credentials over time.  In addition to what we are doing well, we need to look at how other businesses train and maintain the quality of their work forces—so that other successful training approaches can be introduced to the field.

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   2. Integrated into the analyses above, a new national Special Education Agenda must identify the health, mental health, and wellness factors and variables that impact the educational outcomes of all students—but, especially, those with disabilities. 

   Too often, districts and schools are ignoring these factors, or they don’t have staff with the knowledge and skill to address them.  Most of today’s school-based or school-linked mental health systems are not working.  Some of these systems are padding the pockets of the mental health corporations that run them, and others are bankrupting the Medicaid system.

   National, state, community, and district-level strategic plans need to be developed and implemented so that well-trained health, mental health, and wellness professionals are present in our communities, and available to our schools. 

   We need more well-trained child and adolescent practitioners who understand the school and schooling process, and how to support special education personnel and their classroom-based interventions.  Even though these specialists may be community-based, we need to find ways to attract, fund, and place these professionals directly in our schools for students in need.

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   3. Finally, in concert with #2 immediately above, a comprehensive review of the Continuum of Care, Wraparound, and School-to-Work Transition programs for students with disabilities and/or significant mental or behavioral health concerns is needed—at the national and state levels.  Regardless of the amount of time and effort being expended in coordinating and implementing these programs, they are not working for our most-needy students and young adults.

   To be successful, this review and the resulting plans and implementation activities need to be better coordinated across various federal, state, and local departments, programs, and organizations.  For example (and while the specific agency names may vary), outcome-based collaboration is needed across the Offices of Health & Human Services, Child and Adolescent Mental Health, Labor, Vocational Rehabilitation, Disability, and Education.

   To a large degree, the federal, state, and local Continuum of Care and related Wraparound programs across this country are not working.  And so, the children and adolescents (and their families) with the most-serious emotional or behavioral health needs are not receiving the services and supports to help successfully and safely maintain them in their homes, schools, and/or communities. 

   In addition, our country’s School-to-Work Transition programs—that focus on ensuring that students with disabilities and other special needs have the training, skills, and readiness to be fully and gainfully employed—are not accomplishing their goals. 

   These programs need to provide students with disabilities effective vocational assessment and rehabilitation, on-the-job and employment training, and job performance mentoring and follow-through.  Given the unemployment rate for individuals with disabilities, and the number who need financial support in order to live independently, OSERS and OSEP need to take a hard look at where we are in this area, and where we need to be.

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The Characteristics Needed by the Next OSEP Director

   It is striking—but not surprising—that the current Acting OSEP Director is a staff person who has worked at OSEP since 1988 (30 years !!!). 

   Complementing the “Rethinking Special Education” process, a new, independent Director of the Office of Special Education Programs is needed immediately. 

   Below are the essential characteristics that the next OSEP Director needs to have:

   * Be a Scientist-Practitioner.  The next OSEP Director needs to understand the research and practice related to the psychology of learning and cognition, normal and abnormal development, social and emotional behavior, culture and ecology, curriculum and instruction, and group and organizational change. 

   S/he needs to have been a field-based practitioner—not just in one district or state, but in multiple districts and states.

   Given the history of OSEP, s/he needs to be a related services professional.  All of my biases aside, a doctoral-level school psychologist would best fit the bill.

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   * Have Large District or State Department of Education Experience.  The new OSEP Director should have high-level organizational experience with education and special education policy, practice, procedures, and programming.  But, once again, s/he needs to understand how these functionally and practically affect districts, schools, staff, and classrooms.

   Too many upper administrators (as above) have lost sight of how national policy actually affects classroom practice—and how our students with disabilities have received fewer and less effective services because of this loss of sensitivity.

   Given the history of OSEP, the next OSEP Director should not be a recent or current state special education director, but s/he should have the skills and experience needed to succeed at that level.  The new Director must not be part of the existing, incestuous “good old boy/girl” system described earlier in this piece.  The new Director needs to have a broad, independent, and pragmatic perspective. . . geared toward changing the climate, culture, organization, and existing staff/staffing patterns at OSEP.

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   * Understand Effective School and Schooling Practices.  The new OSEP Director should understand the research and practice of effective school and schooling. . . recognizing that students with disabilities are not disabled. . . that, instead, they have specific areas of academic and social, emotional, and behavioral functioning that need attention so that they can be successful in these areas.

   Indeed, students with disabilities are more like all other students than they are different.  And so, rather than coming from a “disability-up” perspective, the new Director needs to come from an “ability-down” perspective.

   This means that the new Director must understand all levels of curriculum and instruction, ability and disability, modification and accommodation, assessment and intervention, professional development and technical assistance, mentoring and supervision, administration and shared leadership, and strategic planning and organizational development. 

   Mixed in here is expertise not just in the educational practices that make schools work, but in the business practices that help schools succeed.

   The next OSEP Director should not come from the charter school sector, but must understand the charter school and private school worlds. 

   The Director also should have experience with alternative and juvenile justice schools and programs, residential and day-schools specializing in specific student disability areas, and at the preschool through high school (and beyond) levels.

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   * Understand Strategic Planning, Scaling-Up, and the Process of Change.  The new OSEP Director needs to understand, have experience with, and be able to apply his or her skills to the process of large-scale change.  Thus, s/he needs to understand that there is an already-existing research base in strategic planning and organizational development, and the challenge is how to apply it to education. . . at different levels of complexity.

   OSEP has spent the last decade promoting (and funding) its own version of “implementation science,” systemic reform, and scaling-up.  OSEP’s process is overly complex and unwieldy, it has never been adequately field-tested (under “real-life” conditions), and its handful of implementations have largely not succeeded at the state and district levels. 

   OSEP’s approaches to systemic change simply do not work.  But, it continues to throw “good money after bad results.”

   The new OSEP Director needs to contribute to the “Rethinking Special Education” process. . . eventually creating and implementing the strategic plans needed, “pulling the plug” from grants and frameworks that do not work, and making special education student-focused and successful.

   This will take guts, determination, fortitude, and the support of many colleagues.  But it must be done.  We have spent far too much time, money, talent, and resources on approaches that do not work. . . and that many state and local professionals know don’t work (but are afraid to publicly admit to OSEP).

   It is time to change. . . we need a redesign of OSERS and OSEP.  And we need an OSEP Director who will work with Assistant Secretary Collett in the Rethinking process.

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   Clearly, I applaud Assistant Secretary Collett for his courage in authorizing and announcing the need to “Rethink Special Education.”

   But we need to hold him to his word.  And, from my perspective, that means shining the bright light of transparency on what OSERS and OSEP are doing to contribute to students with disabilities’ successes, and what they are doing to create barriers and, sometimes, to consciously block the progress that needs to be made.

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   If you agree with me, I ask you to tweet Assistant Secretary Collett at @JCollettOSERS, or call his office at: 202-245-7468.

   If you agree with me, please feel free to forward the link to this Blog to your national and state professional organizations, your state department of education, your professional colleagues, and to your state media outlets.  

   [LINK to BLOG:] 

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   As always, I look forward to your thoughts and comments.  Feel free to contact me at any time if there is anything that I can do to support your work.