Technology for All Students

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The sound of a screeching yet mournful electric guitar raced out of the radio at me. A few more notes and I was sure - Neil Young. I thought I had tuned into "Fresh Air" on National Public Radio, and as I checked the setting for the station, I heard the uniquely nasal tones of Young being traded with the soft and smooth tones of the radio show's host, Terry Gross. The topic was Young's movie Greendale. However, the conversation soon turned to the work Neil and his wife, Pegi, do with The Bridge School (www.bridgeschool.org), which specializes in kids with severe speech and physical impairments. The Bridge School uses augmentative and alternative means of communication and assistive technology applications to help these kids communicate.

The Youngs' connection was that their two boys attended the school, and they saw it as a tremendous help to them. As is often the case with the parents of children with disabilities, Neil and Pegi became highly involved with the school. For example, Pegi serves on the board, while Neil organizes and participates in fundraisers for the school. What better illustration of this month's theme: "Technology for All Students." I hasten to add that all students - those with disabilities and those living in disadvantaged situations - need high-quality, well-paid teachers along with the technology.

But teachers are typically not the problem for these students. My former assistant superintendent used to say that teachers of students with special needs tend to do a better job thinking about individual students and how to help them succeed. This is partially due to the student-teacher ratio, partially due to training, and partially due to state - and especially federal - requirements. The White House recently released a report, "New Freedom Initiative: The 2004 Progress Report" (online at www.whitehouse.gov/infocus/newfreedom/toc-2004.html), which speaks of the progress that the administration says it has made in removing barriers to assistive technologies and giving people with disabilities full access to all aspects of American life. Few, if any, of these efforts have made it to the schools yet, but the report is important because it comes just months before Congress is set to begin work on reauthorization of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) in the fall.

Nearly 7 million children are touched by federal special education services. In addition, some of the most innovative and effective approaches in education have come from special education, including gifted education. The Individualized Education Plan (IEP) is often touted as a model that should be used for all students, especially as technology becomes more available to help teachers track each plan. IDEA requires every student with a disability to receive an assistive technology assessment. Therefore, it may be time to look more carefully at the exact needs of students and what they will be doing with technology in specific classes rather than throwing a laptop at everyone.

The needs of children with disabilities especially affect technologies and the companies producing them. For example, states that adopt textbooks and other instructional materials are encouraged to offer them in an accessible format in accordance with the technical standards of Section 508 of the Federal Rehabilitation Act (online at www.section508.gov). In addition, the Texas State Board of Education's 2002 Proclamation (online at www.tea.state.tx.us/textbooks/proclamations) lists 16 accommodations for Web-based textbooks, as well as 12 for CD-ROM or DVD-based textbooks. The following are some excellent online resources for more information on creating electronic content for students with disabilities:

While special technologies are not always necessary, the technology products used every day with students in classrooms nationwide also can be effective with special-needs students. This is well illustrated in our Applications story, "Interactive Whiteboards Enhance the Learning Experience for Deaf, Hard-of-Hearing Students" (Page 64). Likewise, approaches to testing can benefit all students as shown in our feature by Linda Clark, "Computerized Adaptive Testing: Effective Measurement for All Students" (Page 14).

For students living in disadvantaged situations, the country is making progress toward bridging the digital divide. While student-to-computer ratios are coming close to being the same among all students in schools, districts are still struggling to provide technology for all students. However, we must be mindful of research such as that done by the Maryland Business Roundtable for Education which shows students in less advantaged situations are using computers primarily for drill and practice, while advantaged students are using computers for Internet research and other less structured approaches. In all cases, we must look at the needs of individual students as we have learned from teaching kids with disabilities.

As Congress tackles the reauthorization of IDEA, President George W. Bush has requested an additional $1 billion for the act in his 2005 budget. As one would expect, neither educators nor parents think this is enough. It is estimated that it costs an average of 40% above the expense of educating an average child to educate a child with disabilities, with states and districts picking up more than 80% of the costs. IDEA is likely to get caught up in presidential election politics, and it is probable that children with disabilities will benefit as the Democrats and Republicans try to one-up each other over who cares more about education. IDEA, however, is not only about students with disabilities - it affects all of education. We need to be informed about the issues in this reauthorization and work with special education interests to be sure our voices are heard. And we need to begin that work now, not on Nov. 2. You may not be able to raise funds with your singing and guitar playing like Neil Young, but you can find other ways to get involved and make a difference for your school and for all students.

This article originally appeared in the 05/01/2004 issue of THE Journal.

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