The NEW ESEA Draft: Tell Congress that Capital Letters Make a Difference-- An Open Letter to Congress

How the U.S. Department of Education has Consciously Confused its Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS) Framework with ESEA’s “positive behavioral supports” Language

Dear Colleagues,


Earlier this week, Senators Lamar Alexander and Patty Murray unveiled a bipartisan bill to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). The Senate Education Committee (that Senator Alexander chairs) will be marking this bill up, through the amendment process, this coming Tuesday.

In the draft of the bill, the term “positive behavioral supports and interventions” (in lower case and without an accompanying acronym) appears five times. The term is NOT defined in the draft bill. Critically, this term is also not defined in the current federal special education law (IDEA 2004) where it appears only seven times.

This leaves the definition of “positive behavioral supports and interventions” to the U.S. Department of Education (US DoE). Critically, this is not recommended (see the remainder of this BLOG), and it is counter to many sections of the draft ESEA bill- - which are devoted to consciously controlling the US DoE and the Secretary of Education from creating their own national education agenda.

The Issue: The U.S. Department of Education, through its National PBIS Technical Assistance Center and for over the past decade, has consciously confused their upper case PBIS framework with IDEA’s and (if it stays in the final bill) ESEA’s lower case “positive behavioral interventions and supports.”upper case PBIS framework with IDEA’s and (if it stays in the final bill) ESEA’s lower case “positive behavioral interventions and supports.”

This has resulted in hundreds of millions of dollars- - from, for example, the US DoE, IDEA (Part B and D), ARRA, Race-to-the-Top, and the Department of Health and Human Services- - being singularly targeted or awarded only to those who use the PBIS framework. This is especially problematic because the PBIS framework has significant flaws (see below), it often delays services and supports to students in great need, and because officials in the US DoE have long expressed the desire “to brand” PBIS nationwide- - thereby marginalizing other successful programs and approaches.

The Proof: Relative to the “UPPER” versus “lower case” assertion above, one only needs to look at the “PBIS and the Law” webpage on the National PBIS Technical Assistance Center website . Here, there is an entire page where the federal law is misprinted, misquoted, and misinterpreted to make it (incorrectly) appear that our country’s current federal special education law advocates- - if not even mandates- - the TA Center’s PBIS framework. For example:

  • This PBIS TA Center webpage misprints the law wherever it reprints sections of the federal law with “Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports” in capital letters
  • This PBIS TA Center webpage misquotes the federal law every time it quotes or cites a section from the law with the uppercase PBIS acronym embedded in the quote (NO acronym ever appears in the law)
  • This PBIS TA Center webpage misinterprets the law many, many times. For example, the following statements on this webpage are legal misinterpretations:

Thus, in amending the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act both in 1997 and in 2004, Congress explicitly recognized the potential of PBIS to prevent exclusion and improve educational results in 20 U.S.C. § 1401(c)(5)(F).

Congress further recognized that, to encourage implementation of PBIS, funds needed to be allocated to training in the use of PBIS. Thus, IDEA provides additional support for the use of PBIS in its provisions by authorizing states to use professional development funds. . .

The Question: The obvious question is, “Why does a National TA Center, which has been funded by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Special Education Programs, need to resort to such misinterpretations?” Moreover, as I have personally brought these anomalies to the Department’s attention since 2006, why have they not been corrected?

The Solution: The new draft of the Senate’s ESEA bill returns a great deal of “local control” back to the states and its districts. For example, if passed:

  • States will no longer be required to develop and implement teacher evaluation systems; they will be responsible for establishing “challenging academic standards for all students;” and they will still have to identify low-performing schools (although a federally-mandated number would no longer apply).
  • School districts identified for improvement will be in charge of designing evidence-based interventions (which IS defined in the law—in a more flexible way than currently defined by the federal government); states will be required to monitor these interventions and assist the districts if the turnaround strategies prove ineffective; and the current federal School Improvement Grant models will be eliminated.
  • Finally, the U.S. Secretary of Education will be prohibited from “mandating, prescribing, or defining specific steps school districts and states must take to improve (low performing) schools;” and the Secretary will be prohibited from mandating additional requirements for states or districts seeking waivers from the federal law.

Given this move away from federally-driven elementary and secondary school programs, and the federal government’s approaches toward monopolizing the conversation regarding positive behavioral interventions and supports (now embedded in their multi-tiered systems of support), we strongly recommend that you call (202-224-5375) the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) committee, or E-mail Senator and Chair Lamar Alexander  to ask for the following changes to the draft ESEA bill:

  • Delete the term “positive behavioral interventions and supports” so that the U.S. Department of Education can no longer use it as a point of confusion. The term should be changed to “positive behavioral supports” - - a term that also appears in IDEA 2004.
  • Delete the term “multi-tiered systems of support” which is the newest US DoE buzz-word that has replaced RtI, and that the US DoE has also built a dedicated web of funding for.
  • Introduce language that allows all schools and districts to use any “evidence-based positive behavioral service, support, strategy, or program” that helps them to accomplish the academic and social, emotional, and behavioral goals and expected outcomes in the ESEA statute.
  • Introduce language that creates “an independent oversight panel and process” to hold the US DoE accountable such that it can never again promote, endorse, or fund any single framework or approach relative to any ESEA goal or outcome.

Additional PBIS Concerns

Beyond the problems of grammar (UPPER/lower case confusion), funding, and branding, the biggest PBIS concerns relate to its functional efficacy in the field.

Among the primary concerns are the following:

Concern #1. As noted above, the PBIS framework has been developed and disseminated by the National PBIS Technical Assistance Center (now at the Universities of Oregon, Connecticut, and Missouri) and funded by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP) since 1998. It has received a singular level of funding, support, publicity, and sponsorship from the U.S. Department of Education and OSEP to the point that it has basically become a monopoly relative to its use in state departments of education and schools/districts across the country.

This concern has been publicized (but not addressed in Washington, DC) in an August 27, 2013 Education Week story.

Concern #2. As noted above, the PBIS approach advocated through the National PBIS Technical Assistance Center is actually a framework (their term) of possible implementation activities that are chosen by individual districts or schools. Many of these approaches have not been adequately field-tested; and some of the approaches actually delay services to students with disabilities or who are in critical need of social, emotional, or behavioral (including mental health) interventions, or exacerbate some students’ problems while making them more resistant to change.

[A technical assistance paper documenting this statement is available upon request.]

Parenthetically, when testifying before Congress in the past, the PBIS framework has been touted more for the number of schools that are implementing different parts of the framework across the country than its consistent and comprehensive outcomes. Moreover, any school can implement any part of the framework that it wants.

Thus, given the 19,000 schools that the National PBIS TA Center says are implementing PBIS, it is more probable that any “statistically” positive “PBIS” results (when reported to Congress) are more due to chance than to intentionality. And even if there are results that can be attributed to the PBIS framework, how do we know that the results are replicable if the schools involved implemented substantially different parts of the framework?

Concern #3. To expand on Concern #2, a recent (2013) study commissioned by the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Science (IES) concluded that, in participating schools across the country, the PBIS framework is not being implemented consistently, effectively, with integrity, or with a focus on classroom (as opposed to common school area) behavior.

Critically, this study was not widely distributed- - unlike other reports that tout the PBIS framework’s “efficacy.” In fact, the report was made “public” primarily as an Appendix to an IES report (ED-IES-13-R-0035) that received minimal national distribution. The thrust of this entire report (it included four appendices) was to provide a rationale and recommendation for another IES-funded study (for $3 million) that is being co-managed by two large independent research conglomerates (for $19 million), and that was recently awarded to the Maryland and Illinois PBIS groups that run their respective state PBIS programs.

Consistent with the theme of this Blog, it is notable that at least two members of the Illinois PBIS group that received this $3 million grant were members of the IES study’s Expert Panel/Technical Working Group that contributed to the IES report that recommended the development of this grant initiative. Moreover, key leaders of the Maryland and Illinois PBIS groups that received the grant are “Collaborators” and national trainers for the National PBIS TA Center.

Concern #4. Finally, as but one more recent example of how the U.S. Department of Education continues to disproportionately support and sponsor its PBIS framework, one only needs to look at the $43 million in grants that were awarded this past September to 12 state departments of education and 71 schools/districts nationwide under the U.S. Department of Education’s two School Climate Transformation grant programs .

A review of the grant’s original application packet for the schools and districts reveals 22 direct references to either the PBIS framework or the National PBIS TA Center (no other national positive behavioral support models or programs were cited). In addition, all of the grant recipients were required to attend the 2014 National PBIS Leadership Forum in Chicago, IL on October 28-30, 2014- - where the workshop and presentation sessions were dominated either by national or state PBIS leaders or schools/districts already implementing parts of the PBIS framework. Critically, all of the grant recipients are required to attend these National Forums for the duration of their grants.


There are many well-researched and documented positive behavioral support strategies, interventions, programs, and models that have helped many students, staff, and schools to be more successful in addressing the needs of all students, as well as the needs of students with social, emotional, and behavioral challenges.

To have the federal government dictate or advocate for their own approaches or frameworks (whether in behavior, literacy, testing, teacher evaluation, or school improvement) restricts the flexible options for schools and districts, and their ability to individualize the solutions that they need at a local level. This also represents an inappropriate encroachment, by the federal government, in the important work of educating our country’s students.

Given the spirit of the Senate’s draft ESEA bill, we recommend that you let your voice be heard before the Senate’s Education (HELP) Committee begins to mark this bill up on Tuesday. Call the HELP committee at 202-224-5375, or e-mail Senator and Chair Lamar Alexander (CLICK HERE for link), and let’s help our schools to have more control over their own success.

Remember: “Educational excellence cannot be legislated; it needs to be motivated.”

Have a great week.