My Leadership Philosophy: First Who, Then Why, Then How, Then What

philosophy.pngAs educational leaders, we must have the self-discipline to see the whole picture, identifying interrelationships and searching for patterns. We must dig deep to identify root causes of problems and challenges, avoiding the temptation to simply react to static snapshots and continually “put out fires.”

If we take the time to really reflect on many of challenges that emerge in our schools today, most often these are systems problems, not people problems. Therefore, if we do not invest the time to examine our entire system, our familiar solutions will lead us right back our familiar problems.

Instead we must constantly seek to bring the work of all the adults we serve into alignment. Everyone in our system must be keenly aware of our aim and how all our work connects to and supports this aim. As leaders, we have the responsibility to make sure our colleagues have continual clarity about our aim. We must also ensure the work we are asking of them actually aligns with our aim so that all the work we are engaging in supports a common goal. If we are all in a large boat rowing toward the shore, we must all be paddling in the same direction.



Overview of Philosophy:

My philosophy of leadership has evolved over time. In its current iteration, I can state it very simply: First Who, Then Why, Then How, Then What. I believe this ties very well into the mission and aim most learning institutions, when critically examined.


First Who:

James Comer said, “No significant learning happens without a significant relationship.” What will our students remember from their time in our system? For most people, it is people, not course-specific content, that are most valued and appreciated. We admire our former teachers and coaches that truly cared about and sought to learn more about us. We also remember the teachers that didn’t.

Marzano said, “If a teacher has a good relationship with their students, then their students will more readily engage in the learning happening in the classroom.” If you are an administrators, your people are your teachers and associates. You must proactively seek out opportunities to build relationships with them, as well as your students, keeping mindful of the fact that every conversation provides an opportunity to build or damage a relationship.

I aspire to be a school administrator someday. In this role, I am also likely to spend a significant part of my day on behavior management. As I see it, behavior management is largely about building and cultivating relationships. The focus should not merely be on discipline and consequences, as the word discipline literally means “to teach.”

Therefore, students should not see me only when they are in trouble. I will make it a priority to seek out students that may present behavior management problems down the road and take an interest in their lives in positive settings to prevent or minimize behavior problems down the road. When discipline is called for, I will remember that it is not my role to be an evaluator or judge, but rather an investigator, seeking first to understand the root causes that led to the behavior manifestation. It’s important to get the student’s story first and then to offer support by asking how I can help them. Throughout this process, I will need to make every effort to ensure the student’s dignity is still intact after the interaction, giving consequences for the behavior, not the student.


Then Why:

In his book “Start With Why”, Simon Sinek said, “People don’t buy why what you do, they buy why you do it.” My why is to create create a well-informed, skilled, and collaborative citizenry, capable of creating collective solutions to diverse, multifaceted problems and functioning appropriately in a rapidly evolving global society.

Sinek states that people always respond to the environments they are in, making a compelling argument about how we are able to achieve remarkable success when working in groups and lists several benefits that lie within the structure of working with people we trust. Not all groups are created equally or function at the same levels, but one clear and underlying theme to his message was that when we feel safe amongst our own, our collective efforts are multiplied

Sinek echoes this philosophy when he states, “The only variable that matters are the conditions inside the organization. Leaders need to get the environment right in their own organization.” In essence, Sinek is saying that leaders should pay more attention to creating the right culture for learning, leadership, and sustained greatness than they do in creating “abstract and amorphous vision statements”. Creating the right environment creates feelings of trust and safety among members of the group, causing them to rise to their potential, take necessary risks and adapt to become greater.

Furthermore, Sinek argues that the most effective leaders understand that the cost of leadership is their own self-interest. Members of the group accept that leaders deserve certain benefits for being leaders, but leaders must also embrace the expectations that are placed on the leader from the group they serve. Leaders must protect the group from danger. Great leaders never sacrifice the group to take care of their interests. Great leaders sacrifice their own self-interests to take care of their people.

Leaders must also understand that titles do not dictate the quality of their leadership. Humans are complex animals, especially within group setting and dynamics. Sinek suggests a basic truth that exists among groups with leaders: “We would rather align ourselves with an average performer that we can trust that a top performer that we can’t trust.” Trust, as it turns out, is a critical factor to effective leadership. Without trust, leaders aren’t really leaders in the sense of being the most effective leaders they can be.

Leadership isn’t about barking out commands to subordinates. Instead, it is about facilitating a process to build positive relationships with our people, leveraging their talents, ideas, and passions to build a structure and organization that is flexible, resilient, innovative, and sustainable. Leadership is also about mindset. Great leaders embrace teh complicated messiness of learning and growing. Often, we have to fail many times before we can succeed.


I believe Sinek would agree with this, as he talks about how leaders need to look after the people around them. He says, “Leadership is a choice; a daily practice or putting other peoples lives before your own interests. When you spend a few minutes to make a new pot of coffee when no one is watching, that’s an act of leadership. You are sacrificing your time and energy to take care of those around you.”


Then How:

How you do anything is how you do everything. I’ve been a high school teacher for the last 11 years. High schools often pride themselves on ensuring their students are college-ready. In the minds of many, this means establishing rigorous standards and benchmarks and exposing students to content that will prepare students for success beyond high school.

These are important experiences; however, perhaps even more important than learning content is building skills. Learning how to think is much more learning what to think. Students need to become flexible thinkers, embracing challenges and the role of failure in learning. Our pedagogical approaches must ensure that our students become comfortable with being uncomfortable, capable problem solvers, critical thinkers, collaborators, communicators, creators, innovators, and producers of new learning.


Then What:

Clearly their experiences in our system must ensure that students are able to master core academic content and be able to transfer this knowledge to other situations. Knowing the what is important. We want our students to be able to carry on meaningful conversations without stopping to “Google” everything they will say next. My only wish in education is that we didn’t start with what as often as we do. I believe the who, why, and how must be addressed before we tackle the what.

~Brad Hurst



Passion: Accumulate Experiences, Not Years of Experience


Over the course of my career, I have been fortunate to have been able to participate in a wide variety of leadership and learning experiences that have shaped me into the leader I am today. However, what matters a great deal more than the years of experience I have accumulated are the experiences that have happened in those years.

As educators, we must proactively seek out experiences that add value to our years of experience. Our students and fellow teachers deserve someone that is passionate about education, advocacy, writing, reflection, and continual growth.

What will our life’s resume say when its all said and done? Clearly, we aren’t going to be remembered simply for being alive or for spending  years in x, y, or z position. What will really matter is how we spent those years and the impact we made on others.

Our time is a sacred gift. Investing it in something means sacrificing it away from something else. We must seek to avoid spending our time in areas of our lives that have a minimal impact on improving ourselves or the lives of others.
We must also understand that our resumes do not tell our entire story. Often, they leave out important details like why we chose to engage in various experiences and the extent to which we fully invested ourselves into those experiences.

For example, I have been a classroom teacher for the last 11 years. On my resume, it says I have taught 11 years in 3 different districts. If you read my resume, would you also know that I have consistently been one of the first, often the first person to arrive to work at my buildings? Would you learn that often, I am also one of the last ones to leave and frequently one of the few people there working on the weekends?

I say this not because I believe I am better than anyone else. If anything, it communicates that I have to work harder at this than others just to be on their level. Any talents or abilities others may see in me were not given at birth. I had to earn all of them by investing significant time in improving myself and my craft. This time investment is something that few would know or see, yet it clearly demonstrates how passionate I am about what I do. You won’t see this on my resume, yet my passions is why I am who I am.

My passion wakes me up early in the morning without an alarm clock.  My passion drives me to improve and better my craft, find new ways to reach my students, and do every thing I can to ensure my students are better off for having had me as a teacher. My passion is the reason I am always tinkering around the margins to discover new ways to connect with my students. My passion is why I am also constantly seeking the advice and wisdom of my colleagues, frequently inviting them into my room to help me and to provide feedback. My passion is why I visit the classrooms of other teachers, adopting strategies they are utilizing to get better. My passion is why I have served on countless committees, organizations, teams, and worked with many adults within my buildings, across my districts, all over the state, and around the country. My passion is why, everywhere I go, I seek out others, try to build relationships with those around me, and constantly seek to learn, grow, and get better.

It is the synergy of these experiences that made me who I am, yet I am not at my final destination. My journey is not complete. I must seek out more opportunities that challenge me, inspire me, take me outside my comfort zone, and help me grow. We only graduate from learning one time in our lives, and it is not after high school, or college, or graduate school. We have a responsibility to ourselves and the people that depend on us to not let our years slip away without continually improving ourselves.

Go have those experiences, especially the ones that challenge you and inspire you. Life is a gift. Don’t spend it being idle, confusing your years of experience with experiences in your years.

~Brad Hurst

How No Child Left Behind Left Special Education Students (and the rest of us) Well Behind


Some educators have come to view special education as a placement for students with extremely low-test scores. Philosophically, I would fundamentally disagree with that sentiment. Special education is not a program or place, but rather specially designed instructional services intended to ensure equity and access to the general education curriculum by all students.

However, given the high-stakes accountability world we now live in, it isn’t difficult to see how this perception has arisen among educators. Instead of focusing on standardizing and improving the quality of instruction and learning happening in our classrooms, legislators chose to prioritize testing as the primary way ensure no student was left behind. Apparently, the consensus was that more testing would improve learning and that a more punitive accountability system would drive better instruction.

However, legislators did not want to invest a great deal of time or money to design and score quality assessments of learning. As a result, the lowest possible denominator of learning assessment became the reality for how learning was measured. Therefore, students were given multiple choices tests that often had little alignment to pre-existing curricular standards and learning targets already in place within school districts.

Consequently, while the law may have been well intentioned by legislators, in the rush to implement the law, not enough consideration was given to how the learning should be measured. The measure of a great assessment is the value of the information it reveals about a student’s level of learning. Great assessments are both diagnostic and prescriptive and the information gathered from them should drive ongoing, targeted instruction and enhanced learning. This can be done only when the assessments are closely aligned with classroom learning and experiences. Otherwise, the assessments are biased, as they are testing students not on what they learned in school, but what they have learned from other life experiences outside of school, which are very inconsistent.

Unfortunately, important funding and staffing decisions were made on the basis of infrequent multiple-choice examinations that often had little alignment to the educational experience to the students. Arbitrary proficiency scores were established that created a focus on achievement as opposed to growth. Special education students, who often scored below 41% were labeled as being non-proficient. Schools were often placed on a SINA list due to their special education students not being proficient; therefore, special education teachers had undue pressure placed upon them to improve a student’s test scores in order that the student’s scored proficiently.  In some school systems, the “specially designed instruction” became “teaching to the test” to attempt to stave off the punitive sanctions associated from reduced or loss of federal funding as a result of test scores below the 41% proficiency level.


Worse yet, this focus on testing removed students from other classes that made school more enjoyable. Minutes spend in music, fine arts, physical education, recess, and science were drastically cut in favor of providing more minutes of instruction in reading and math, which were the two tests school districts were required to report out on. In essence, the punitive, high-accountability NCLB system merely created test-taking robots as opposed to well-rounded, engaged, passionate learners. A whole generation of students spent their entire PK12 education learning in such a system. How do they feel about education today? How well did this system of testing prepare them for success in their careers?


What Every Principal Needs to Know About Special Education: Part 3 Reflection

Below is a reflection on part 3 of Margaret J. McLaughlin’s book called, What Every Principal Needs to Know about Special Education as an assignment for my EDL 277 course, Current Issues in Special Education Administration, at Drake University.

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In section 3 of McLaughlin’s book, McLaughlin begins by reminding the reader about the importance of making educational decisions based upon sound research and empirical data. This desired state is in stark contrast to the current reality of educational decision-making found in many of our school systems today.

Given the sheer volume of decisions that educators make on a daily basis, collecting data prior to every decision would be time-consuming and inefficient. Instead, systemic constraints force us to rely on our intuition and previous experiences to make quick decisions best serve the interests of our students and stakeholders. As we gain experience, we are able to more capably make these decisions. This is why experience is so invaluable in education, whether it is in the classroom working with students or in leading and managing a system of education as an administrator.

However, we must not completely abdicate our responsibilities as educators. Some decisions are simply more important than others. These critical decisions ultimately shape the course of our entire system; therefore, they must be made on the basis of sound science as opposed anecdotal hunches and best guesses. The loudest voice in the room should come from the data, not the person.

Often, our data tell a story and reveal a path forward we hadn’t considered. However, discovering this path requires discipline and a refusal to let emotion and ego be the sole drivers our decision-making. By remaining unbiased, objective, and open-minded, we empower our data to inform and drive our decisions. In doing so, we can identify areas of leverage that act as key drivers in our system. If we can improve in these leverage areas, our entire system will become stronger.

Making sense of our data is also important. Too many people receive too little training on how to properly analyze and interpret empirical data. In addition,  often fail to consider how reliable the data really are. There are so many factors that influence the legitimacy of the data. For example, to what extent are the sample data representative of the entire population? Were the samples randomized? Were the proper variables controlled? Was the sample size large enough? Are the differences statistically significant? Are the data repeatable? Were the researchers unbiased in their data collection? How variable are the data?

It can be easy to be data-rich, but we must not overlook the value of quality over quantity. It’s not about how much data are collected. Instead, it is really about how well the data can be used to inform our decisions. Decisions based on invalid data are just as bad as ones made with no data at all.

Lastly, assuming we have reliable and valid data, what then will we do with it? The decision may be obvious at times; however; sound decisions made on the basis of quality data often suffer from poor implementation. Leaders cannot overlook that value of building consensus and engaging diverse stakeholder in collective decision-making. No one person can do it alone and often more voices can shape better ideas. When people are a part of an objective decision-making process that happens with them instead of to them, they are much more likely to share a collective commitment and sense of urgency regarding the decision itself. This will ensure that the implementation of the decision is just as great as the decision itself.


  1. McLaughlin, M.J. (2009). What every principal needs to know about special education. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.



Iowa Special Education Court Case Review: Special Education Identification and Compliance with Iowa Code



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The following is a review of actual court cases and decisions from the State of Iowa, as prepared for my EDL 277 (Issues in Special Education Administration) course at Drake University. The names of the districts and persons involved have been changed to maintain their anonymity, as the purpose of this post is for education and awareness of issues related to special education identification and compliance with Iowa Code. 

Summary of Cases:

School District A 

In the District A’s case, a complaint was filed by the parents alleging that their student was eligible for special education under the provisions of IDEA. In the case, the student’s parents were seeking reimbursement for independent tutoring services provided to their student by Sylvan prior to filing their complaint. Ultimately, it was determine that these costs were ineligible due to falling outside the statute of limitations at the time of the filing.

In the initial findings of the report, it became clear that District A had collected and documented a great deal of data regarding various interventions that were received by the student. These Title 1 interventions included support in handwriting, reading, fluency, and reading comprehension. In addition, the school district had collected a great deal of data regarding the student’s performance on standards-based grade reports, ITBS tests, and various other school-related intervention supports.

In addition, the student was evaluated diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder and this diagnoses was substantiated and validated by several medical professionals. Based upon this diagnoses, the district staff met with the student’s parents and together they met to discuss the differences between an IEP and 504 plans. Based on this meeting, it was decided to pursue a 504 plan for the student, as the student was not suspected to have a disability, which is required for an IEP plan. Therefore, as a result of this meeting, the IEP team provided a prior written notice denying the student’s parents their request for an IDEA evaluation.

A few weeks later, the student’s parents requested the IEP team reconsider its decision and a disability suspect meeting was scheduled promptly. The student was then evaluated for special education and it was again determined that the student was not eligible for special education as he did not have a specific learning disability or dyslexia.

The judge ruling in the case provided a substantial legal framework that was used to inform the legal decision that was made in this case. I found this to be both thorough and helpful to understand the rationale for the ultimate decision made. Specifically, the following points really helped provide a solid legal foundation for the decision:

  • If a child has a physical or mental condition, that does not cause a need for special education, the child is not eligible for special education
  • If a child has educational needs, but those needs are not caused by a disability, the child is not eligible for special education.
  • A diagnosis of a physical or mental condition, standing alone, does not make a child eligible for special education
  • In Iowa, special education is defined as “specially designed instruction” as well as support services. To this end, not every instance of different or extra help is special education. Furthermore, response to intervention is general education, not special education or a special education eligibility process.
  • If a child is attaining standards applicable to all children and has access to the general curriculum, modifications to that child’s instruction cannot be considered special education
  • No state or federal law provides that mere participation in supplemental interventions creates a suspicion that a child may be eligible for special education.
  • There is not a maximum period that a child may receive interventions from the public agencies before the agencies must seek consent for an initial evaluation.
  • The fact that a child is not proficient on statewide assessments does not automatically mean that a child needs special education.
  • Not every child with a mental health diagnosis or a behavioral concern will be eligible for special education.

On the basis of the evidence and legal precedent, it was concluded by the judge that the student did not have a learning disability or dyslexia, but that the student’s learning difficulties were due to the student’s anxiety. Additionally, the judge determined that the student met the standards applicable to all children and did not require additional support outside the general educational curriculum. The decision was also informed by the substantial data and documentation the school district provided regarding the student’s performance during interventions, which are not the same as special education. Crucially, the school was also found to have followed protocol regarding the 504 plan that they implemented for the student as it did not circumvent legal protocol by substituting a 504 plan for an IEP plan.

The one area in which the school district was found to be at fault regarding special education eligibility for the student, it was ruled that the district was in violation of IDEA and Iowa state law in relation to their process for concluding that the student was not suspected of a disability. Even though the student was not ultimately suspected of having a disability, the judged maintained that the student’s performance was such that it could, at that time, have been explained by the need for special education.

As a consequence, it was ruled that the staff in the district receive formal training regarding the standard for suspicion of disability in order to ensure that all staff gather sufficient evidence before making conclusions regarding suspicion of disability.


School District B

In the District B case, the parent filed a complaint on behalf of their student. In the initial findings of the report, the Administrative Law Judge established the following facts that were known prior to the case:

  • The student has a specific learning disability in the area of reading comprehension. The disability affected the student’s education, and by reason of that disability,the student had a need for specialized instruction
  • The school district and the AEA had reason to suspect disability in need of special education from and after October 15, 2007.
  • The district had additional reason to suspect disability after they were presented evaluations from Dr. John Doe and Dr. Jane Doe that presented diagnoses of both dysnomia and dyslexia and a need for specialized instruction and related services.
  • Provided this evidence, according to the legal findings, the school district and the AEA did not conduct a full and initial evaluation of the student until January 27, 2009.
  • The school district did and the AEA did not provide written notice to the parent. of their refusal to conduct a full and individual evaluation. The judge found this to be prejudicial to the parent and the student because they were not aware that the screening conducted by the AEA was not a full and individual evaluation and because they were not aware of their right to secure such an evaluation within sixty calendar days.
  • On December 21, 2007, when they received the independent evaluation report of the student by Dr. John Doe and Dr. Jane Doe, the district and the AEA resolved to do more testing on the student. Formal testing instruments were administered to the student in January 2008; however, these tests were done without the informed consent of the parent prior to their administration. Furthermore, it was ruled that the purpose of the tests was to refute the evaluations and conclusions of Dr. John Doe and Dr. Jane Doe.
  • From and after November 26, 2007 through July 21, 2009, it was ruled that the district and the AEA did not make a sufficient individualized determination of need and that too much weight was placed on the student’s advancement from grade to grade and the student’s test scores being above the tenth percentile.
  • An educational evaluation report dated July 21, 2009 contained numerous prejudicial statements and conclusions that were not part of the independent evaluation, as well as statements and conclusions that were not approved or considered by the IEP team.
  • The district and the AEA did not document whether or not the student had a specific learning disability.
  • The judge found that the interventions the district used in November 2007, February 2008, and January 2009 were not designed in accord with sound scientific principles. Furthermore, the judge ruled that these general education interventions served to delay a full and individual evaluation of the student’s disability and educational needs, and that these interventions were done without advising the parent of the parent’s right to trigger a full and individual evaluation within sixty calendar days of consenting to such an evaluation.

As a result of these findings, the district was found to be in violation of numerous provisions of state and federal special education law due to their delay in initiating a full and individual evaluation after they had reason to suspect disability and need for specialized instruction.

Additionally, the failure of the respondents to provide written notice of their refusal to conduct a full and individual evaluation was also a violation. Additionally, the failure of the respondent’s to make an individualized determination of need was found to be contrary to the Eighth Circuits rule as set forth in Yankton vs. Schramm, 93 F.3d 1369 (8th Cir. 1996) as well as to the long-standing position of the U.S. Department of Education.

Additional rulings also called into question the district’s failure to present the Educational Evaluation Report dated July 21, 2009 to the parent on or before the eligibility determination meeting held on July 21, 2009. It was ruled that this presented a prejudicial violation of IDEA and that this was inconsistent with the basic principle that a parent is a full partner in making eligibility determinations. Furthermore, the assessments given to the student were found to be a violation of various standards set forth because the assessments were not used for purposes for which the assessments or measures could be considered reliable and valid.

Concluding rulings called into question the district’s violation of their duty to use information provided by the parent, the district’s use of objective and consistently measured tests to monitor the effectiveness of designated interventions, and failure to obtain informed consent from the parent prior to administering the assessments.

On the basis of these findings and rulings, the judge awarded the Complainant reimbursement relief for the costs of securing a tutor, compensatory education for past denials of eligibility and appropriate services, and attorney fees. In addition, the school district was ordered to conduct an IEP team meeting as soon as possible in order to develop an IEP for the student under that legal directive that the school district focuses the IEP on the student’s deficits in reading comprehension. The Administrative Law Judge retained jurisdiction of this matter to insure good faith compliance with this order.

Common Problems

In both cases, it would appear that both districts had a motivation to not suspect disability or eligibility for special education, at least initially. Perhaps this motivation was financial; however, both cases serve as cautionary tales for school leaders. It cannot be ignored that the final rulings in the District A case were much more favorable for the district than in the District B case. I have to believe that this was due, at least in part, to the substantial data collection and documentation procedure that District A appeared to have in place.

However, a key take-away from both cases appears to be to that school leaders should take the disability suspicion process very seriously and that documentation and timely communication are essential for proper legal compliance. Perhaps it would be prudent for the school leader to proceed with the assumption that every disability suspicion process could become a court case at some point and therefore, to follow all the proper channels and legal requirements and to ensure that all staff are properly trained on the disability suspicion process.

Finally, it appears essential that school leaders navigate and lead a special education identification process that values the input of all stakeholders, including parents, staff, and trained professionals. All must remember that they have a moral imperative to do what is best for the child and to work together in the child’s best interest.


Why Great Ideas Fail: The Importance of Building Consensus and Infrastructure


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As an aspiring administrator, it will be vitally important for me to develop a process for managing the system I will be leading. Too often, leaders of educational systems rush to implement the shiny new initiative or next great thing, believing it will lead to dramatic improvements to their system. However, the actual results are frequently underwhelming

Why do so many of our well-intentioned ideas go awry? Why have too many of our veteran teachers adopted a “wait and see” approach in regard to anything new? Surely, they didn’t always hold this opinion. I would like to believe that when they began their careers, they were eager and willing to invest a great deal in new and innovative ideas. However, something must have happened to them along the way, perhaps several times, to disappoint them and create this more pessimistic mindset. What have they learned that the rest of us haven’t?

As administrators, it would be very easy, and completely unproductive, to blame our teachers when initiatives A, B, or C fail to produce the results we intended. A more constructive approach would require us to first look inward at ourselves and critically examine how our own leadership may have caused the idea to underperform or even fail in its implementation.

When the problems emerge, leaders must seek to understand and identify the weaknesses and flaws embedded within the system. In regard to implementing innovative ideas and approaches, this often begins with careful reflection about how well the original idea was communicated our stakeholders. Did the change happen to them or with them? This is a clear line of distinction. How much time, effort, and resources did we invest in education and in taking the time to build understanding and consensus among our stakeholders?

As a future administrator, I realize I will need to be mindful of being both efficient and timely, and at the same time, inclusive of the voices of diverse stakeholders. Clearly, ideas that are steamrolled over people rarely generate anything more than mild compliance. No initiative can take root and grow under such conditions.

Therefore, true success is only possible when a critical majority of the stakeholders in a system are genuinely committed and determined to ensure that a particular idea becomes successful. This will only happen when the people believe in and trust one another. Trust comes from inclusion and mutual respect between the leader and their followers.

Even after doing the hard work to engage critical stakeholders and enable them to take ownership over an idea and make it their own, it still becomes incumbent upon the leader to carefully manage the system to ensure that good ideas can take hold and prosper. It also requires that a system that is built with the right infrastructure in place.

In a school system, this means creating a learner-focused curriculum, instruction, and assessment experience for our students that is aligned, data-informed, built on best practices, and inclusive of all learners. As administrators, building this requires us to wisely invest our resources and time to best support the needs of the teachers and staff in our buildings.

It is only after taking adequate time to build consensus and create the infrastructure to enable success, that we can than begin lead our systems and have committed followers. In doing so, we also ensure that the good ideas of those we lead, as well as our own, are implemented with greater fidelity.

In closing, if we can commit to do the hard work in the beginning, innovative ideas can truly take hold and be sustained, creating the necessary momentum for the innovation needed to best meet the needs of our learners in the 21st century.

~Brad Hurst



What Every Principal Needs to Know About Special Education: Part 2 Reflection

Below is a reflection on part 2 of Margaret J. McLaughlin’s book called, What Every Principal Needs to Know about Special Education as an assignment for my EDL 277 course, Current Issues in Special Education Administration, at Drake University.

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Reading over section 2 of McLaughlin’s book, several key themes emerged. First, McLaughlin begins by reminding the reader about the historical model of isolating special education students away from general education students. The unintended consequence of this isolation was the creation of two separate learning systems for students with and without disabilities. In essence, students were theoretically learning the same guaranteed and viable curriculum. However, McLaughlin indirectly asserts that the systems were far from being in alignment.

Within the current reality of recent educational legislation, specifically the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act of 2001, and the more recently adopted Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), such systems of isolation are no longer permitted to be in operation. Instead, this new legislation has created a dramatic shift in both the philosophy and approach regarding special education in our school systems.

Gone are the days of creating segregated systems of learning for special education students. Instead, the legal expectation and requirement has shifted to one where all students are, first and foremost, general education students. Therefore, the more modern approach of special education is to create the conditions and supports necessary to enable special education students to learn and be successful in general education classrooms and within the general education curriculum.

McLaughlin aptly notes that while special education students are general education students first, they also may need additional supports and skill building in areas not served in the general education curriculum. Therefore, our schools have a moral imperative and legal responsibility to prepare every students for success beyond high school. While students with mild or more severe disabilities may have some limitations in their abilities to perform specific tasks, all students are capable of success. Therefore, it becomes imperative that our school systems work to ensure that all students have the skills necessary for their future success, whatever that may look like.

Another key topic in this section was the difference between accommodations and modifications. Often, even among educators working in the field, these words are used interchangeably and there appears to be some general confusion regarding the distinction between the two terms.

According to McLaughlin, the intent of accommodations is to offset the impact of a student’s disability so he/she can learn the same content as his/her peers w/o disabilities. Accommodations do not change the content or performance expectations, but may change the sequence in which information is presented, or may entail differentiated instruction. When creating learning accommodations, it is important for the content-area and special education teacher to have opportunities to collaborate to ensure that the accommodations do not alter the major learning outcomes expected of students in the curriculum. This will ensure the maintenance of a guaranteed and viable curriculum for all students. McLaughlin stressed that the principal also has a crucial oversight role to ensure that the accommodations being made are best practice and align with and reflect the needs of the individual student, not what is convenient or readily available.

Modifications, on the other hand, involve changes to the performance expectations, topics taught, curriculum sequences, or the type of instruction being delivered. McLaughlin asks educators to exercise great caution in creating modified learning experiences for special education students, as they often reduce a student’s opportunity to learn the critical knowledge, skills, and concepts needed for long-term success. She also notes that modifications can reduce the rigor of the curriculum to the extent that a student no longer has access to the general education curriculum, which is a legal requirement.

Another idea that really connected with me was the idea of creating standards-based IEP’s. More and more educators are implementing standards-based or standards-referenced learning practices in the general education curriculum. In such a system, learning expectations are clearly communicated with students, enabling them to continually assess their level of learning in reference to a particular learning standard. Systems like this enable students to use performance data to self-diagnose areas of learning deficiency. Students are able demonstrate learning on a timeline that is more individualized for their ability level. Students can accelerate, participate in remediation, and gain a deeper understanding of course content through receiving more targeted feedback and practice opportunities.

If this is educational best practice in the general education curriculum and if all students are general education students, why not utilize such approaches in all facets of the educational system? For example, could such practices be implemented be when writing and monitoring Individual Education Plans (IEPs) for special education students? McLaughlin suggested that such a process was attainable when content-area and special education teachers are given opportunities by principals to engage in collaboration centered on the identification of priority learning standards, differentiated learning opportunities, and the creation of a system of supports to ensure the success of students with disabilities in the general education classroom.

The last part of this focused on the need for principals to cultivate relationships and build partnerships with parents. As educators, we must remain mindful that we are entrusted with that which is the most sacred to our parents: their children. McLaughlin reminds us that our parents have a personal relationship with their child that starts at birth and spans a lifetime. Our parents knew our students first and they know them best. Therefore, they represent a crucial component to the learning success of our students. We must therefore seek to leverage their expertise and unique insights about their child to create more personalized learning experiences for every student.

Furthermore, McLaughlin notes that our parents of students with disabilities often have unique anxieties about their child in school, including fears about their student’s safety, acceptance by their peers, teasing, bullying, and fears their student is not learning or making enough progress. Sometimes, the only interaction these parents have with the school system is in IEP meetings, which for the parents can serve as a constant reminder of their student’s disability. In such meetings, McLaughlin notes that parents often do not feel competent to make critical decisions, relying on experts and professionals to explain to them what their child needs. This requires a great deal of trust in people that are often strangers or mere acquaintances to the parents.

Our parents of students with disabilities deserve better. They deserve to be genuinely heard and listened to. They deserve more opportunities to engage in and provide insight on their children’s education and the education of all students with disabilities. Therefore, McLaughlin advocates that educators, especially principals, work to create ongoing partnerships with parents based upon open communication, trust, respect, and time on the part of the staff and the building leader.

From such experiences, parents will build trust in the people working with their child. As an ancillary benefit, they will also gain a better understanding of the system their child is learning in and develop a broader perspective of where the system is moving, why it is moving there, and how special education and the educational needs of their child fit into this system.



  1. McLaughlin, M.J. (2009). What every principal needs to know about special education. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.