Candace Cortiella, an expert in special education law, is director of the nonprofit The Advocacy Institute which focuses on improving the lives of people with learning disabilities, through public policy and other initiatives. She is also the mother of a young adult with learning disabilities. Ms. Cortiella is the author of several articles on our website related to laws affecting children with learning disabilities and difficulties.

This conversation between Ms. Cortiella and parents about potential benefits to kids with learning difficulties in the federal No Child Left Behind Act, originally took place in 2004 on the parent message board hosted by Schwab Learning, formerly a program of the Charles and Helen Schwab Foundation, from 2000 to 2007. Scott Moore, Senior Online Community Manager for Schwab Learning, moderated. We feel readers will find much that is useful and important for their own efforts to advocate for their children.

Ms. Cortiella authored “Making the No Child Left Behind Act Work for Children Who Struggle to Learn: A Parent’s Guide,” a free publication produced by the National Center for Learning Disabilities. A downloadable pdf version of this guide is available.

List of questions asked of Candace Cortiella:

(Skip this list of questions and go directly to the beginning of the transcript.)

Moderator Scott Moore asks: What do you think are the two or three most beneficial provisions of NCLB for kids with learning problems?

Ms. Cortiella: First, the most important provision is that all students must be included [in the accountability system required by NCLB]. Next, a key provision is the requirement to disaggregate, or break apart, the performance data for certain subgroups of students, including students with disabilities. This requirement will reveal if schools are actually improving the academic performance of our most vulnerable groups of students. These NCLB provisions and others are covered in the parent guide [to using NCLB to improve your child’s learning].

Suzanne_86 asks: IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act) has been in place for 30 years and is blatantly disregarded by many districts and states. Why do you believe things are going to turn in the parents’ favor with NCLB?

Ms. Cortiella: Unfortunately, Suzanne, the federal government has done little to ensure implementation of IDEA. With NCLB, schools get sanctioned if they don’t perform. That’s what will make the difference.

Moderator Scott Moore asks: If a parent sees things at their child’s school that seem to violate the NCLB law, what should they do to get the school to comply? Who do they report problems to?

Ms. Cortiella: I would suggest that parents start by discussing the issues with the school leadership. NCLB is a complex law, and what appears to be non-compliance may, in fact, not be. If, on the other hand, you are confident that the school is out of compliance, you could go to the district level, or directly to the state. Each state department of education has an NCLB coordinator to whom you could address your concerns. See your state’s NCLB plan for more information (See the U.S. Department of Education website listed under Resources). Parent involvement is a big focus of NCLB, so parents should feel free to get involved!

Suzanne_86 asks: Don’t you believe that state education departments and school districts would be more accountable if they had to report to a truly independent authority?

Ms. Cortiella: Possibly. The ultimate authority in public education should be the public, as the consumers. Unfortunately, states are looking for ways to get some additional flexibility [in implementing the law], so parents should gain an understanding of the major provisions of the law and how it works in their state, and work to ensure improvement. [District] Report Cards, required by NCLB, offer lots of information that parents can use.

Moderator Scott Moore asks: Can you recommend some resources for parents that provide information about the performance of their schools?

Ms. Cortiella: Yes! Here are two: Education Commission of the States/No Child Left Behind/State Snapshots; [the School Information Partnership offers] general information on school performance under NCLB School Results. There’s a wealth of information available. Check your state department of education’s website, as well. District Report Cards should be posted there.

Toni asks: Are there specific advocates or advocacy agencies that can help parents deal with their schools?

Ms. Cortiella: There are advocates across the country who specialize in assisting parents in their dealings with schools regarding their student’s services under IDEA. One site that lists advocates is, although I can’t vouch for the qualifications of those listed. Also, your state’s Parent Training and Information Center should be able to help locate advocates in your state. The Parent Training and Information Center Directory is at:

Suzanne_86 asks: Doesn’t NLCB apply more to inner city schools than to middle class suburban schools? For example, tutoring under NCLB is only available to low-income students.

Ms. Cortiella: Since some provisions, such as school choice and supplemental educational services (such as tutoring), apply only to Title I schools [and many Title I schools are located in our inner cities], we can presume that more inner city schools will be subjected to those sanctions. But all schools must test all students, report the results – both for the total school and for required subgroups (disaggregation) – and adhere to the “highly qualified” teacher requirements of NCLB. Many suburban schools have masked poor performance of traditionally low-performing students – such as Limited English Proficiency (LEP) students, students with disabilities, minority students – with the good performance of the majority of the school’s population. NCLB uncovers that practice.

Drew asks: How can we find out which states are most compliant?

Ms. Cortiella: By compliant, do you mean the number of schools doing well? Again, you can’t compare states because of the flexibility they’re allowed in setting content standards. There is no report on states’ “compliance” with NCLB at this point.

Moderator Scott Moore asks: Do you have any further thoughts for our audience about school or district accountability under NCLB for improving kids’ academic performance?

Ms. Cortiella: One thing that parents of students with disabilities should look out for is the varying [minimum] size of the subgroup of students with disabilities that states are setting to determine whether a school is required to report (disaggregate) this subgroup’s test results. States have petitioned the U.S. Department of Education to raise the minimum size requirement for the subgroup of students with disabilities. In some states, the required subgroup size is set so high that it results in less than 15% of schools reporting on the test results of students with disabilities. This will pretty much eliminate the school’s accountability for the academic performance of this group.

So, find out about your state’s subgroup size requirement, and, more importantly, what percentage of schools in the state won’t be required to report data because of the required subgroup size. If the required minimum subgroup size equates to a large percentage of the total school population [15-20%], I’d suggest talking with your state’s Board of Education about reducing it. [NCLB requires that states establish a minimum subgroup size that is large enough to (a) yield statistically reliable information and (b) not reveal personally identifiable information about an individual student. States have established minimum subgroup sizes ranging from 5 to 200 students.] Please read the parent guide on making NCLB work for your child, for lots of additional information and action you can take!

Moderator Scott Moore asks: How much can NCLB really do to address teacher quality? Can NCLB help parents get a teacher who understands how to teach to different learning styles?

Ms. Cortiella: NCLB requires that all teachers of core content be highly qualified by 2005-06. That would [result in] a huge improvement across the country. Plus, under the Title II provisions of NCLB, states get grants to fund improving their teacher force. Schools must also make sure that teachers are using instructional practices that are scientifically based and proven to be effective. This will help eliminate the “pendulum swing” in teaching approaches and bring the research that informs teaching closer to the manner in which research informs the practice of medicine. This will help students with LD immensely!

Drew asks: What is a Title II school?

Ms. Cortiella: Title II doesn’t pertain to schools; [in effect, there is no such thing as a “Title II school.”] Title II is the section of NCLB that pertains to teacher quality, and grants [that are available to states and districts to improve teacher recruitment, hiring, and retention]. The parent guide on NCLB indicates which NCLB provisions pertain to Title I schools and which pertain to all schools.

craig1 asks: What is the definition of “highly qualified”? Isn’t it vastly different from state to state?

Ms. Cortiella: “Highly qualified” teachers must meet three requirements: Hold a bachelor’s degree, be fully certified/licensed to teach, and have demonstrated sufficient subject matter competency. Requirements differ if teachers are new to the profession and also differ, to some extent, by the grade level they teach. [The “highly qualified” designation] applies only to teachers teaching in core academic subjects [English, reading, language arts, mathematics, science, foreign language, civics and government, economics, arts, history, and geography. NCLB leaves it for states to determine what is included in the “arts”]. Special education itself is not a core academic subject.

These requirements don’t vary across states. How states determine that teachers are competent in content areas does vary, however. There are slightly differing provisions for special education teachers, which are spelled out in the parent guide to NCLB. Of course, the special education teacher “highly qualified” provision may be changed as part of the reauthorization of IDEA, currently underway in Congress.

Suzanne_86 asks: What prevents states setting all requirements at the lowest possible levels?

Ms. Cortiella: The scrutiny of the U.S. Department of Education, hopefully. All NCLB accountability plans had to be approved by the U.S. DOE. There has been great variance among the states on a variety of requirements, however. This is the main reason why NCLB results cannot be compared across states. Again, the consumer also needs to provide some scrutiny.

Shari asks: Is there any way that we can improve the quality of paraprofessional assistance, all the way down to the local level, through future changes to the NCLB Act?

Ms. Cortiella: The requirements regarding qualifications for paraprofessionals in NCLB only apply to Title I schools. So, while we’ll see improvements in those schools, it won’t be as widespread as the improvement we’ll see in teacher quality. I know of no attempts to change or broaden the requirements for paraprofessionals’ qualifications [beyond those currently in NCLB, although many states have requirements for paraprofessionals in place].

Moderator Scott Moore asks: Another topic that comes up along with NCLB is the troubles students with learning disabilities are having with high-stakes testing. Can tests required by NCLB be used for high-stakes decisions? Can high-stakes tests be used to fulfill the requirements of NCLB?

Ms. Cortiella: I’m so glad you asked about this! NCLB does not require or encourage states to attach high-stakes consequences for individual students to their performance on the assessments required under NCLB. However, states are free to do so, and many have done just that. Many states were already in the process of phasing in high-stakes testing, such as exit exams, before NCLB, so this isn’t even an NCLB-related practice.

It is critical for parents to disentangle issues arising from high-stakes testing in their state and issues arising from NCLB testing requirements. Generally, high-stakes testing practices have been approved by state boards of education, after years of planning and input from the public, as well as many years of phase-in, before students are held to the requirements, such as passing an exit exam in order to get a standard diploma. The issues surrounding high-stakes testing for students with disabilities are addressed in an article I wrote: Implications of High-Stakes Testing for Students with Learning Disabilities

A chat participant asks: Where do they get the scientific methods, and how are teachers going to be up to this [“highly qualified”] level by 2005-2006?

Ms. Cortiella: First, the scientifically based methods should come from research that meets certain criteria. NCLB offers a definition of “scientifically based” research. Also, the U.S. Department of Education has written a guide, mainly for schools, to help them on this issue. It can be found on the Internet at: Identifying and Implementing Educational Practices Supported By Rigorous Evidence: A User Friendly Guide

Many schools are using the definition of “scientifically based” research in NCLB as a sort of “checklist” (see box below) for determining if their instructional practices are scientifically based.

Scientifically based research

Employs systematic, empirical methods that draw on observation or experiment;

Involves rigorous data analyses that are adequate to test the stated hypotheses and justify the general conclusions drawn;

Relies on measurements or observational methods that provide reliable and valid data across evaluators and observers, across multiple measurements and observations, and across studies by the same or different investigators;

Is evaluated using experimental or quasi-experimental designs in which individuals, entities, programs, or activities are assigned to different conditions and with appropriate controls to evaluate the effects of the condition of interest, with a preference for random-assignment experiments, or other designs to the extent that those designs contain within-condition or across-condition controls;.

Ensures that experimental studies are presented in sufficient detail and clarity to allow for replication or, at a minimum, offer the opportunity to build systematically on their findings; and

Has been accepted by a peer-reviewed journal or approved by a panel of independent experts through a comparably rigorous, objective, and scientific review.

As for how states are going to meet the “highly qualified” teacher requirement by 2005-06, it’s going to be a challenge. Studies show that this is one of the toughest provisions of NCLB. But, as I noted before, there are grants to help them get their teacher preparation and professional development up and running. Your school Report Cards include information on teacher qualifications. Check them out to see how many teachers are not yet meeting the “highly qualified” requirement. That information should be a strong indicator of the extent of the problem in your state or school district. The shortage of special educators is of particular concern, which is why those requirements might be changed in the upcoming reauthorization of IDEA.

Moderator: Can parents bring research-based teaching methods to the attention of schools that could benefit? Is there a process for that?

Ms. Cortiella: Yes! Parents should feel free to discuss instructional practices with their school, especially in the context of Individualized Education Program (IEP) meetings. Also, parents should ask the school if their instructional strategies are proven effective through scientifically based research, and ask them to provide the proof.

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