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Massachusetts: 20% of students have special needs; SPED changes coming

July 28, 2023, Teen Vogue: Special Education Programs in States Like Massachusetts Are Getting Updated

Like most people, Carly Livingston, a special education teacher living and working in Massachusetts, has a complicated relationship with her job. While she loves her students, she also recognizes that many of their particular learning needs are not being met. When Livingston heard about updates to the state’s special education policy which proposed, among other changes, including more insight from a student’s family and support system when creating their Individualized Education Plans (IEP), she was intrigued.

“The IEP process is not a simple one,” she told Teen Vogue. “It can get very repetitive yet tedious for each student. When students are placed on IEPs and identified to have a disability that has an effect on their school day, the people closest to the student rarely have input into the document itself that weighs heavily on standardized psychological, academic, speech and occupational therapy test results. I think it will be really interesting to see how the IEP process changes with more family and student input.”

Livingston is referring to the new Massachusetts IEP form, which all schools must utilize by fall 2024, which is the first revamp to Massachusetts’s special education policy in over 20 years. The IEP was first introduced to public school systems in the United States in 1975, when disabled students’ rights were legally recognized under the Education for All Handicapped Children Act. The act was later renamed to the Individuals with Disabilities (IDEA.) According to data from the National Center for Education Statistics, 15% of all public school students aged 3-21 received “special education and/or related services” during the 2020-2021 school year under the act.

In Massachusetts, updates to the IEP form include encouraging collaboration between family members and educators when creating IEPs, taking account of a student's English proficiency, and ensuring that each IEP has a plan for transition, a process wherein students with special education needs prepare for education after high school. In Massachusetts, mandated transition planning must begin “no later than the student’s 14th birthday. These changes are particularly relevant in Massachusetts, where more than 19% of the students across the state, have a disability.

According to Pam Nourse, the executive director of the Federation for Children with Special Needs, these changes are only the beginning of the advancements that are needed to ensure all students receive quality public education. “While the form is certainly an improvement, we still have a ways to go to ensure that every student has access to a free and appropriate public education, as promised in IDEA almost 50 years ago,” Norse told Teen Vogue. “We need to strengthen family engagement between schools and families. We need better support for students and families who speak other languages. Families need more information about their rights and possibilities for their students. All teachers, including general education teachers, should understand each student’s IEP.”…

The special education teachers who spoke with Teen Vogue agreed that revamps to IEPs in Massachusetts and Connecticut are surely a step in the right direction. However, as many special education programs across the United States lack adequate funding, resources, and educators, there is still a long way to go to ensure educational equity for disabled students.

“Students of all ages know if their needs are not being met in their classroom and are able to tell or show you ways that we can create a better environment together,” said Livingston. “I think the real change will be the effect these new policies have over the course of many years of students feeling that their voice is heard and the progress that they’re able to make because of the environment they feel valued in. I hope that creating a new, more inclusive IEP document will reassure children of all ages that their voice is heard and appreciated in making decisions about their lives.


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