New Mexico Plan Will Use Technology to Leave No Child Behind

Written by Leslie Blair
SEDL Letter, Vol 16, No. 1

Can we really leave no child behind? Right now states, districts, and schools are focusing on improving achievement for all students, or are they? What about students of diverse abilities, students with disabilities—students living with vision or hearing impairments, students with learning disabilities, students who use wheel chairs, students who have cerebral palsy or mental retardation, or students who are autistic? Children with exceptional needs are often overlooked when educators and policymakers talk about holding all children to high standards of learning.

We need not leave any child behind if we make use of available technologies. Steven Sánchez, the acting assistant superintendent for Learning Sciences at the New Mexico Public Education Department (NMPED), tells a story from his years as a public school teacher. Sánchez had a young man in his classroom who was paraplegic. An aide came along to class with Raymond, the student. “Of course Raymond was really happy because he didn’t have to do too much of his work. This adult who was traveling around with him did all of his work,” says Sánchez. At the student’s Individualized Education Program (IEP) meeting, Sánchez requested a computer, software that permits users to dictate to a computer with minimal keyboard manipulation, and other technologies so Raymond could begin doing his own work. “It never occurred to the IEP Committee that they could use technology to give this kid access to the rest of the world just like everybody else had,” Sánchez remembers. “He could write his own papers and he could do his own mathematics. He was really a bright kid—he won first place in the state’s science fair.”
Times have changed since Sánchez was a classroom teacher. Sánchez realized early on that technology is the key to providing children with diverse abilities the same education we offer other students; now many realize the power of technology for students of diverse abilities. No Child Left Behind provides support for improving technology, thus increasing achievement among students of diverse abilities through the “Enhancing Education Through Technology Act of 2001.” But many states aren’t using these resources to their fullest potential. Additionally, how states leverage technology and the federal money to support their technology plans can make a world of difference in whether students with disabilities get left behind.

A major problem in using technology to meet the needs of all children is that state offices of technology and offices of special education don’t coordinate efforts. A recent survey conducted under SEDL’s subcontract with the Southwest ADA Center showed that even though all state directors of special education in the SEDL region recognized the power of technology to help students with diverse abilities, local control over special education and technology decisions most often influenced whether special needs students were provided access to the technology and services needed to succeed academically. John Westbrook, program manager of SEDL’s National Center for Dissemination of Disability Research explains, “Our DLRP work at SEDL has shown us that quite often school-based information technologists are not integrated into general technology planning efforts or individualized education planning that occurs in special education. This disconnect does not facilitate making best use of expertise and resources needed to solve similar academic needs.”

Wendy Wilkinson, director of the Disability Law Research Project, agrees. “As more and more schools use educational technology to deliver instruction, it is critical that all involved in procuring and implementing technology in the regular and special education classrooms come together to make technology purchasing decisions,” she says. “Technology procurement decisions that impact children with disabilities must be a ‘mainstream’ issue and not thought of as just a special education issue.”

The directors of special education surveyed also saw the lack of teacher development in using the technologies as another factor that hindered the use of technology for special needs students. Wilkinson says, “Teachers are an important factor in this equation. A critical component of professional development programs that instruct teachers on using technology in the classroom must include instruction on how to use the accessibility features extant in technology.”

New Mexico is trying to overcome this chasm between technology and special education. NMPED’s office of Curriculum, Instruction, and Learning Technologies is incorporating input from diverse stakeholders to build a sound technology plan that will serve all students. Sánchez explains the long-term goal of the plan: “At the risk of sounding trite,” he says, “the technology plan in New Mexico truly will address all children and provide substantive enough information for folks that they won’t in fact leave a child behind. It really is our responsibility now to think about those kids that are historically or traditionally not well served by public education.”

Sanchez says, “We made a conscious decision that we weren’t going to be talking about just technology. So the seed of that plan is really about teaching and, more importantly, learning.” He says the planning team has been very careful about using the term “integration of technology” and instead is trying to “address the learning process and the significant support that technology can provide in enhancing the process of learning, no matter at what level.” The planning committee has been examining research about the learning process and how technology tools can help kids further explore, adapt, and become engaged in the content more deeply.

Throughout the planning process, Sanchez has been working closely with New Mexico’s special education director, Sam Howarth. An RFP released by the Department of Education with funding through the Enhancing Education through Technology Act sparked substantive conversations between NMPED’s technology and special education divisions. Howarth and Sánchez began by examining existing data. “The startling piece of information that spurred us along this track was our LRE (Least Restrictive Environment) data,” explains Sánchez. “New Mexico does not have a very good record for integrating kids with disabilities into the classroom experience.” The data led them to ask, “How can we craft an RFP that really encourages schools that access this money to actually create environments in the regular classroom, in the regular education environment that is very inviting and accommodating for kids who have special needs—so they can participate fully in whatever is going on?”
The New Mexico RFP included approximately $2.5 million to seed programs where districts could design classroom space that would allow for the integration of students with many different needs. “Our hope is to increase district understanding of the need to not forget certain parts of the population and that as you design classroom infrastructures or as you design a new school, that classrooms then are ready for all kids. And when we say all, we want to underscore all.” NMPED expects one or two innovative or highly successful model sites will emerge from this funding.
The work on the RFP encouraged Sánchez and Howarth to look at the old New Mexico technology plan. The plan included only conventional notions of technology. Sánchez says it looked at “what the student to computer ratio should be, what expenditures for professional development should be without really going into a substantive discussion about the purpose of technology and the opportunities that it provides to the learner and who that learner is.” Knowing this wasn’t good enough to meet the needs of all students, the two initiated the process for developing an updated technology plan.

A major concern in developing the plan has been getting input from all of the “right” people. Howarth and Sánchez contacted Bill Newroe, who is an assistive technologist with New Mexico’s Technology Assistance Program and the Computer-based Accessibility Services Assistance Network, or CASA, to serve as a critical adviser and partner. They also brought in representatives from the division of vocational rehabilitation, the K-12 sector, and advocacy groups like Parents Reaching Out .

The technology planners and the state’s Curriculum, Instruction, and Learning Technologies division struggle with evaluating the success of technology for all students. “I’m not sure we will be able to show how the plan impacts student achievement using traditional measures of students’ achievement, i.e., standardized tests. But we’ll be able to, in a much more qualitative sort of way, be able to address the opportunities that kids have and how that enhanced that opportunity.” To help districts and schools with the evaluation process, NMPED is sponsoring regional technology assistance sessions that are focused on the evaluation of the technology infrastructure. Sánchez hopes that the regional sessions will also move forward the “collective thinking so as people start to evaluate programs of technology, they will look at the broad scope of student engagement across the board as opposed to what we traditionally look at—a very narrow piece called regular education.”

Editor’s Note: Since this article was written, Steve Sánchez has retired from the New Mexico Public Education Department.

"New Mexico Plan Will Use Technology to Leave No Child Behind" is reprinted with permission from SEDL Letter, Vol. 16, No. 1 ( SEDL Letter is published by the Southwest Educational Development Laboratory, a non-profit corporation dedicated to solving significant problems facing education systems and communities to ensure a quality education for all learners.