What the Next Director of the U.S. Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP) Needs to Do to "Right the Ship"

My “First 100 Days” if I was Appointed the New OSEP Director

Dear Colleagues,

This is clearly a pivotal time for our country—politically, on all social and economic fronts, relative to our national and international security and standing, and, of course, as it relates to education, our students, our schools, and our many staff.

With the incoming Trump administration, the selection of Betsy DeVos as the new (once confirmed) U.S. Secretary of Education, and the new Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA/ESSA), our educational philosophies, policies, procedures, and practices are sure to change.

And, I have been thinking a lot about this over the past month. . . and, actually, over the past handful of years.

And so, today, I would like to discuss:

The agenda that would guide my first 100 days if I was appointed the Director of the U.S. Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP).

Why We Need a NEW OSEP Agenda

Clearly, the focus here is on the agenda needed by whoever assumes this position, and not on the person him or herself.

And, a new agenda is desperately needed . . . to improve, to integrate, and to strengthen special education services, supports, and strategies in this country.

This is because the current agenda is flawed, is rooted in power and politics, and has lost its “students-first” focus.

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.
  • 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 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.

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

And this will not change unless there is a new Agenda and a new Director who both understands the incestuous system that has been created and has the permission (and guts) to change it.

In addition. . .

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

Did you know that: Virtually all of the Presidentially-appointed OSEP Directors have been former state special education directors?

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?

All of this (once again) has created, sustained, and institutionalized an OSEP agenda that began almost 10 years before the Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA) was reauthorized in 2004.

And to support its agenda . . . as I have often written in my Blog. . . OSEP has created a big club . . . that most of us can’t get into.

In fact, this continually reminds me of George Carlin’s famous commentary (rant) on education. But the “big businesses” that are referenced in Carlin’s clip, are—today—selected universities, university professors, national associations, and the “non-profit” Research & Development companies noted above.

As Carlin said:

What the NEW OSEP Agenda Should Include

Now that we’ve (hopefully) established the reasons why a new OSEP agenda is needed, I would like to detail this “New Agenda.” It starts with a “Statement of Philosophy and Purpose,” and proceeds through a series of actions that should occur during the new OSEP Director’s first 100 days in office.

Here we go:

Statement of Philosophy/Purpose

Within the bounds of the recently reauthorized Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) and the current Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), and in support of the (new) Secretary of Education and other U.S. Department of Education officials, the Office of Special Education Programs should pursue an agenda that maximizes 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, OSEP needs to change its mission from being an organization that all state SEAs are responsible to, to being an organization that supports state LEAs to be successful on behalf of all students with disabilities.

Functionally, this means that OSEP should/will provide more supports and technical assistance to the states and their districts and schools, while decreasing unneeded oversight and supervisory activities—thus, decreasing the burden on state LEAs to document, defend, and rationalize their special education initiatives and activities.

In doing this, the hope (supported and encouraged by 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.

Needed Directions/Actions

#1.) Given the recently reauthorized Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), there is an immediate need for comprehensive discussions at the U.S. Department of Education level (after the Presidential inauguration, and once the transition to a new Secretary has been completed) focusing on how to integrate ESEA and the current Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) so that they are complementary and help to create part of the multi-tiered services and support options required by ESEA.

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

  • These discussions need to put aside OSEP’s current MTSS framework—which is not required by IDEA (see #4 below).

  • These discussions need to functionally differentiate the 13 different disability areas. For too long, special education services have been evaluated 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.

#2.)  The above discussions, planning, and activities need to be integrated into a systematic needs assessment, resource analysis, and strategic planning process that will result (a) in a short-term path 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.

#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:

  • The more effective use of technology needs to be explored and evaluated—including ways to use the “cloud” for national data warehousing and analysis, and
  • Indicator 17—involving the “State Systemic Improvement Plan” (SISEP), in particular—needs to be re-evaluated for likely elimination.

#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 (a) grants are being (have been) awarded in areas that are consistent with the new ESEA and the projected new IDEA; (b) 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; and (c) the frameworks and workplans built into awarded grants are (have been) diverse and independent to the degree that they do not reflect a single-focused monopoly of ideas and research-to-practice approaches.

  • 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.

This has resulted, for example, in the funding of TA centers focused on (in capital letters) Response-to-Intervention (RtI), Multi-Tiered Support Services (MTSS), and PBIS—even though these terms appear in IDEA as lower case terms and without acronyms. (Actually, the term “Response-to-Intervention” does not appear in IDEA at all.)

In ignoring this misinterpretation, OSEP staff have advanced a single-focused research-to-practice agenda—often to the exclusion of other evidence- and research-based approaches.

  • Beyond this (as noted above), OSEP has funded TA center grants where many of the same professionals are sitting on each other’s Advisory Boards, or are actually written into each other’s grant activities.

This has created (a) at least the appearance of a conflict of interest; (b) a single-focused (almost monopolistic) research-to-practice agenda that has dominated the field (restricting divergent thinking and innovative practices); and (c) an incestuous research and grant competition process that has narrowed the range of effective practices needed by students with disabilities.

#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.

#6.) A comprehensive review is needed of our nation’s special education recruitment, retention, professional development, and skill levels relative to all teachers, administrators, and related services personnel. This review should analyze the different roles and functions that these different educators 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 these teachers are credentialed at the state level, and what they need to do to maintain those credentials over time. In addition to what currently is working in these areas, we need to look at how other businesses train and maintain the quality of their work forces—so that successful non-educational models can be introduced to the field.

#7.) Integrated into a number of the needs assessments and analyses above, a comprehensive review is needed to explore the health, mental health, and wellness factors and variables that impact the educational outcomes of all students—but, especially, those with disabilities.

  • The services and supports that schools provide to students with disabilities (as well as at-risk, medically fragile, emotionally traumatized, academically struggling, and behaviorally challenging students) often ignore these health, mental health, and wellness perspectives. This is both a training and practice issue—as well as staff knowledge and skill issue.
  • And so, national, state, and community evaluation and strategic plans need to be developed and implemented so that existing health, mental health, and wellness professionals are present in our communities, and available to our schools. Current school-based and school-linked mental health systems are not working, and are padding the pockets (especially) of private mental health corporations when they are running these programs.

We also 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.

#8.) Finally, in concert with #7 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 individual state levels. Regardless of the amount of time and effort being expended in coordinating and implementing these programs, they are not working for our students and young adults.

To be successful, this review and the resulting plans and implementation activities require far more responsible and outcome-based efforts across numerous federal, state, and local departments, programs, and organizations. For example (while the specific titles may vary), effective and accountable coordination is needed by Health & Human Services, Child and Adolescent Mental Health, Labor, Office of Vocational Rehabilitation, Office of Disability, and Education-related departments, agencies, programs, and other advocacy and social service groups.

To a large degree, many regions and communities’ Continuum of Care and related Wraparound programs are not working in this country. The Continuum of Care state programs—often guided by and funded by federal resources—are not well-serving children and adolescents with serious emotional or behavioral health diagnoses whose families need help to successfully and safely maintain them in their homes, schools, and/or communities.

The Wraparound programs—that use team-based approaches—are not effectively braiding the many programs and resources referenced immediately above to support families with complex family and individual child or adolescent needs.

Finally, the School-to-Work Transition programs—focused 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 effectively provide vocational assessment and rehabilitation, on-the-job and employment training, and mentoring and follow-through systems and components. Especially given the unemployment rate for individuals with disabilities, and the number who need financial support in order to live independently, we need to take a hard look at where we are in this area, and where we need to be.

Summary. Using top-down and bottom-up collaborative approaches, we need to bring health, behavioral mental health, educational, labor, social service, business, and other advocacy leaders together—reinforcing and enhancing what is now working in these areas, while creating and building new, compatible systems that work more successfully.

The Characteristics Needed by the Next OSEP Director

Given the discussion above, I would like to suggest the most-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.

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 should have the skills and experience needed to succeed at that level. A new perspective—one that is not beholdened to current OSEP staff—is critically needed.

OSEP’s staff have been largely running OSEP’s agenda and initiatives for decades. The new Director needs to have a broad, independent, and pragmatic perspective; and be able to change the climate, culture, organization, and staff/staffing patterns at OSEP.

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; 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 are not just the educational practices that make schools work, but 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.

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 advocating a process of scale-up and change that is untested, overly complex, and has resulted in significant numbers of “re-starts” and “re-do’s” at the state and district levels. It simply does not work. But, OSEP continues to throw “good money after bad results.”

The new OSEP Director needs to conduct the audits and evaluations recommended earlier in this message, create and implement the strategic plans needed, “pull the plug” from grants and frameworks that do not work, and make (special) education work in this country.

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 practitioners and local/state level professionals are afraid to publicly admit (especially to OSEP) do not work.

It is time to change. . . to an OSEP Director who knows how to facilitate systemic change. . . and can accomplish this monumental job.

Summary and a Call to Action

I really don’t want to be the next Director of the U.S. Office of Special Education Programs.

But if it meant getting the issues and agenda described above on Secretary DeVos’ radar, I would certainly interview for the position.

Here’s What We Need to Do: If you agree with most or all of what I have outlined above, and you are willing to take action:

Copy, Paste, and Send the Following Tweet to President-Elect Donald Trump, Vice President-Elect Mike Pence, U.S. Department of Education Nominee Betsy DeVos, and Gerard Robinson—who is helping to guide the President-Elect’s Education transition team:

How new US Special Ed Director MUST change OSEP @realDonaldTrump @MikePenceVP @BetsyDeVos @gerard_924 @DrHowieKnoff

In addition:

Forward this Blog Message (by link, post, or e-mail) to your colleagues and friends—especially those who have children, adolescents, or adults with disabilities or who are struggling academically or behaviorally in school.

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.

Meanwhile, please accept my best wishes for a wonderful and joyous holiday season. . . regardless of your cultural, religious, or non-denominational background and beliefs. Take some time to enjoy this season, and to commune with family and friends.