Assistant Secretary Johnny Collett, Department of Education – RespectAbility Summit 2018


I’m delighted and honored to turn the podium
over to Judith Creed who is going to introduce our speaker, Judith is one of our amazing
board members and she is not only amazing in that capacity, she is the founder and leader
of JCHAI, an important Philadelphia based Nonprofit organization that enables people
with disabilities to live in the community to have independent housing and supports and
over 70 percent of the people that she serves have jobs despite the fact that in this country
only three — one in three people with a disability have a job. So, this is one of the model programs that
we’re always showcasing. She and her husband Robert Schwartz have the
Schwartz Foundation which is one of the most important education funders in Philadelphia
and in New Jersey. And so, I turn it over to my fellow board
member Judith Creed to introduce our fabulous first speaker. [Applause] I don’t think I’ve ever been introduced before. I always do the introducing. Thank you, Jennifer. Well, I’m assuming that everybody in this
room knows RespectAbility and what RespectAbility does. And their formidable founder, Jennifer Mizrahi,
I think you all know that RespectAbility represents an organization that fosters inclusion in
education and the work space and is trying to move the needle on the way people perceive
other people with disabilities, if they perceive the capabilities of people with disabilities. But, I’m sure, what you don’t know is what
Johnny Collett does, and Johnny Collett does the same thing, only he’s been doing it for
his entire life. Johnny Collett, something I have to read here
so I don’t get it wrong. Johnny Collett is Assistant Secretary for
Special Education and rehabilitation services at the United States Department of Education. So, let me just say that his influence now
is on the whole country, but when he was younger, he started doing this on Kentucky local level. He was a former high school special ed teacher. He was Kentucky’s Director of special ed. And the program Director of special ed outcomes
and the council of chief state school officers. Well, that’s a long life of doing good and
carrying about and having compassion for people with disabilities. Think about it. And think about how good he was at this job,
so that now, he can influence the whole country on helping people see people with different
disabilities in a different more positive light. His actual mandate is: He serves as the advisor
to the US education secretary on matters related to the education of children and youth with
disabilities. As well as employment and community living
for youths and adults with disabilities. The mission of his office, is to improve early
childhood educational and employment out comes and to raise expectations for all people with
disabilities, their families, their communities and now, the nation. And you know, I’m going to sneeze. We’re very lucky, some people get jobs, just
because they know somebody. This man has gotten this job because of all
of his knowledge and capacity and record for achieving these goals. So I’m really honored and excited to be introducing
Johnny Collett that I’ve never met before, but I’m hoping I will keep in contact with
him for the rest of all of our lives because he’s standing with us. Johnny Collett. Good morning. Well, Carlos, thank you very much. I don’t know where you are but thank you so
much for, hey, there you are, nice to see you and thank you so much. I’m always moved by our National Anthem, so
I was moved again today again today, Carlos, thank you very much for that. Judy, thank you for the invitation. Jennifer, thank you as well and the board
here at RespectAbility I think that Jennifer and I first met at my confirmation hearing not
far from here. We met a couple of times since then and it’s
been great to get to know her and to get to know your work here at RespectAbility and
we’re excited to share with you today a little bit about what is driving us in terms of values
and thoughts at the, hang with me here, it’s a really long title. The Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative
Services. So, I’m just going to say OSERS is that okay
with you? I promise it will save you and me a lot of
time. So I’m excited to talk about that. I want to recognize our Deputy Assistant Secretary Kim Richie who is also here. Thank you on behalf of Education Secretary,
Betsy DeVos for this invitation. Secretary DeVos could not be here today to enjoy this
day with you but we are excited to be here representing her, representation our work
at the Department of Education. So let me share for a few moments about again
what is guiding our thoughts key values for us as we think about the millions of children
youth and adults with disabilities across our country that we serve every day. OSERS is committed to improving out comes
and raising expectations for all people with disabilities, their families, their communities
and nation. One of the things I say often I hope that
you will remember today from our time together is while we are committed to improving outcomes for all individuals, what that means for us and I think for all of us is to be
mindful that there’s really only one way to do that. The only way to improve outcomes for all
individuals, is to be mindful of the particular needs of each individual. The math simply does not work any other way. So, we are deeply committed to that. As I speak today for these few moments I hope
a couple things will be here, I hope it will be clear that I believe that high expectations
are not negotiable. So, in other words, I’m not going to have
a debate or a long conversation with someone about whether or not we should have high expectations
for each and every individual. I believe that high expectations are non-negotiable
but I also believe that those are individually realized. And I think both of those things matter a
lot. I hope it will be equally clear I’m not going
to — I don’t mean this to sound negative I hope you hear me I hope it will be equally
clear that I have a low tolerance for two things: So here they are, I have a low tolerance
for low expectations for individuals with disabilities. And connected to that, I have a low tolerance
for adults in a system who cannot figure out how to work together on their behalf. At any level. So, when you put those two things together
that’s really what I hope you remember from today is okay, well, he said a lot of things
I think he has high expectations for each individual he is going to model and push folks
working together collaboratively across systems to improve outcomes for each individual. You guys are familiar, I’m sure, with an individualized
education programs many of you have heard about IEPs in schools. I was a high school teacher and I remember
one of my first IEP team meetings was my students last IEP team meeting, so he was transitioning
out of high school and moving on to what was next for him in his life and I remember that
meeting, at the end of it, we handed him this massive binder. It was just this huge binder of inordinate
number of names and contact information for people that he might reach out to if he continued
to need help after he left high school. So, I didn’t think about that as much then
as I have since but I promise every day one way or the other I think about this, while
that was, that was better than nothing, to have handed him this binder with all the name,
all the contact information, hey, if you need anything call these people, whoever these
people are, while that was better than nothing, I became convinced very soon after that that
it was not the best we could have done. To support him in his transition needs after
he left high school. So, I became driven, from that moment on to
make sure that from wherever I was leading, that I involved all the relevant actors as
early and as consistently as possible, so that we can make sure we were providing the
best services to students with disabilities that we served. And then when I went to work at the state
Department of Education, that continued, and I began thinking about how we could model
at a state Department of Education the kind of collaboration that’s really necessary to
lead change at a local level. But we didn’t stop there. We knew that it wasn’t good enough for us
at a state Department of Education just to think about these things, we needed to be
very intentional about how we were working with other state child serving agencies, so
I had many opportunities and routine opportunities to meet with heads of other child serving
agencies in our state and that same commitment effective collaboration with all those who
have a stake in the success of individuals with disabilities is something that continued
when I was at the state Department of Education. So, it was really an obligation that compelled
me and then when we were meeting together all these individual agencies, we’re beginning
to think about continuous improvement, they were beginning to think about how do we get
better in our state agencies at the work that we do. So, as we sat around tables and had really
important meetings about the issues facing individuals in our state and started to try
to problem solve some of those issues, that were a couple of things that became immediately
significant to us and those two things probably not lost on this group, but it was just one
day in a meeting it just sort of rested on us and we’re like wow I wish we could have
come to this sooner but I’m glad we figured it out. So we’re sitting with all these different
agencies around the table. Two significant things occurred to us, number
one, we were serving the same kids. Right? So, I called them him a student. Someone at that end of the table called him
a client. Someone over there called him an incarcerated
youth. Over here they called him a patient. Over here they called him a job seeker. Turns out, we were serving the same kids and
families. That were you one thing that occurred to us. The second thing that occurred to us is that
we could not be content to just get better in isolation. That’s what we were doing, getting better,
but we were getting better in isolation. So what we determined is that might lead to
isolated impact, but what, what kind of collective impact might we have if we could really figure
out how to work together across state child serving agencies. That was something that has been a key part
of my life and my career and something that continues to inform me in this role through
which we get to lead now. So, we started at the state to rethink what
we did and how we did it and to question everything and I believe when we started to think that
way and to rethink the things that we did and how we did it and when we did it with
whom we did it, it really put us in a position to better serve individuals in our care. So during this time I also learned a number
of things that I wanted to share with you today. Again, that continue to inform the work that
we’re leading at OSERS and the values we have and thoughts we are applying to particular
issues that we face. So, during this time that I was just sharing
about there were several other things that I learned that I want to share with you. The first is this: Meaningful and effective
collaboration with all those who have a stake in the success of individuals with disabilities
is critical to them achieving the success that we envision
and most importantly that they envision. Meaningful and effective collaboration. That’s why partnerships like this are so important
to us. And meeting with folks like you and getting
to learn the work that you lead and the unique perspectives that you bring and the particular
expertise that you bring is incredibly important to us. We are deeply committed to meaningful and
effective collaboration with those who have a stake in the success of individuals with
disabilities. Another thing that resonated with me back
then that still stays on my mind today is that it’s not just about working hard, right,
this work that we do, not just about working hard, I don’t know anybody who doesn’t work
hard. So, if it was just about working hard, we
would have probably already achieved our goals by now or maybe a lot more than we have or
wish we had. So, working hard is important. I believe in working hard. But it’s not just about working hard. Working hard is not going to get us to our
goals, what’s going to get us closer to our goals is working differently and more collaboratively,
not just about working hard, about working differently and more collaboratively. Another thing that resonated with me then and still does and I hope it does with you in some way, is that our work is about preparing individuals, it’s not about
protecting turf. Sometimes I get in conversations and I’m not
real sure what’s being advocated for here. Is it the individual or is it someone’s particular
agenda? Right? So, I don’t, you may already know, I don’t
do well in those meetings. Because if the focus isn’t on the individual
then I’m going to start asking questions, right? So, this is, this is about preparing individuals,
it’s not about protecting turf. It’s about each individual and their needs,
about rethinking and questioning anything that puts uses in a position to better serve
them. It is about what’s best for individuals, not
what’s convenient for those around the individuals, right, because it won’t always be convenient,
it won’t always be comfortable. It will be difficult. It will be messy. It will require change. One of the things we believe is that that
kind of approach and commitment might just be right. And this might just be a time for us to be
able to do that together it may be like we’ve not before. Let me share a few other things again that
are important to us I think it’s fair for you to know what’s on our minds as we lead
this work at the Department of Education specifically in the Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative
Services in our efforts to raise expectations and improve outcomes for each individual in
our country, I’m convinced what I call tinkering around the edges is not going to get us there. Just tweaking stuff, tinkering is not going
to get us there, not going to be enough to address the challenges we face. it’s not going to be sufficient to truly embrace the opportunities I think we have. So, I believe that we must demonstrate the
courage and persistence necessary to make needed changes at the federal, state and local
levels if we’re going to really see the success that we envision and again most importantly,
the individuals we serve envision. Anybody here been engaged in any level of
systems change before? Others of you have, you’re just too tired
to admit it. [Laughter] Because system change is hard, right, there’s
nothing about, if somebody comes to you and tries to sell you something that says systems,
let me help you with systems change and it’s going to be easy, good indicator of who not
to talk to much longer, right. So, systems change is hard. It doesn’t happen quickly. It’s not accomplished by just a few, but
it’s worth it, because at the heart of the system are the individuals that we serve. And individuals that, might be you at the
heart of that system, individuals we serve and their futures, that’s why it’s worth it. And the work is too important, the need is
to urgent and the stakes are too high we believe to settle for anything less than whatever
it takes to deliver on the promises we made to individuals and families in our country. And that’s a commitment we have at OSERS and I
hope you’ll help hold us accountable for it as well. So, let me try to conclude here. I’m afraid I’m going to run out of time, but
this notion of whatever it takes commitment, what might that look like? I want to suggest a few things that we are
thinking about each day: Whatever it takes commitment will address that will mean we
have to address deeply embedded and complex issues nothing about this is going to be easy. Nobody knows that better than you. You’ve done this. You continue to do this. You lead this every day in work that you’ve
done, in work that you’re conceptualizing, in innovations that you are a part of, nobody
knows better than you perhaps that this is certainly not going to be easy and we’re going
to have to address deeply embedded and complex issues. Let me suggest a few of those from my perspective,
some of those might be the systems that do not facilitate the kind of improvement that
we know is necessary. Structures that limit opportunities for individuals
with disabilities. We have to address this. We have to address policies and practices
that put the need of a system over the needs of an individual. From my perspective, not okay. Right. We have to address laws and regulations that
don’t provide enough flexibility to states, to districts, to schools, to parents, to others,
doesn’t provide enough flexibility to be innovative. To dream. And to try things that may challenge the status
quo. And then perhaps the most difficult we’re
going to have to address even mindsets that are opposed to any notion of a challenge to
Special Education in this country. So, I hope you’re hearing from me again will
help hold me accountable for, these are issues that we are thinking about and where do we
add value in these conversations but my commitment to address these deeply complex and embedded
issues on behalf of individuals with disabilities my commitment to that is unwavering. And I’m excited to continue to do this work. These are all issues that affect kids and
families across our country, right. These things we struggle with. These things that are hard. They are all issues that impact and affect
kids and families across our country. What I always say to groups like this and
partners like you is while these are issues that affect kids and families, they’re not
kids and families problems to solve. They’re our problems to solve. On behalf of kids and families that’s why
we at the federal and state and local levels have to figure out how to work together. Remember what’s one of the things I have a
low follow tolerance for, low expectations is one what’s the second one. [From Audience: Collaboration] when adults in a system cannot figure
out how to work together on behalf of individuals and families I just can’t manage that long
in my head, right? Again the work’s too important, the need
to urgent stakes too high for us to continue not doing this well together. So we’re deeply committed to this. None of us want to watch. None of us want to watch another generation
of kids fail to achieve outcomes they could have achieved just because adults in a system couldn’t
figure these things out. So I’m not questioning how hard it is. I will never question how hard it is. I know how hard it is. I’m suggesting how hard it is not the question. The question is will we demonstrate the courage
and persistence necessary to make changes at the federal, state and local levels that
may be needed for us to really support individuals with disabilities in this country to the outcomes
that they dream and want to achieve. So everywhere I go I’ve been asking people
to do something, I’ve been asking people to join me in rethinking Special Education and
in asking difficult questions that challenge status quo of Special Education in our country. So, I’m asking similar thing to you I’m asking
you from wherever you lead will join me in demonstrating that kind of courage and persistence
to challenge the status quo, to rethink anything that puts you from where you lead and certainly
our nation in a position to best serve the individuals in our care. So, I think I’m going to kind of conclude
here. I don’t want to run out of time, I want to
be sensitive to that. I want you to know that I’m proud of the progress
that we have made in our country since Congress passed PL 94-142 over 40 years ago, now the
Individuals with Disabilities Education Act I am incredibly proud of the progress we’ve made. But part of being proud of the progress we’ve
made is to remain committed to working collaboratively and differently with each other to make sure
each individual with a disability has what they need, when they need it to be successful
and prepared for their next step. I’ll leave you with this. Every individual in this
room may be personally you are an individual with a disability or face some other barrier
to the success that you envision in your life, every individual in this room, organizations
in this room, your states, your local areas or entities, we as a nation, we all have a
stake in the success of individuals with disabilities and I want to leave you with this: while we
all have a stake in the success of individuals with disabilities, I think you’ll agree with
me that no one has more of a stake in their success than they do. And we are committed and I am committed to
working with you on their behalf, so thank you very much for your time. [Applause] Thank you, I just, before the Assistant Secretary
departs I want to personally thank you. We had the opportunity to come and visit on
some particular issues that we at RespectAbility are concerned about, which is particularly
transition from school to work, programs that are proven like project search and bridges
to work and other high expectations for seamless employment we had had a lengthy conversation
about children of color with disabilities and English language learners with disabilities,
we’re particularly concerned about suspensions and absenteeism and low expectations around
students of color and English language learners. We felt that you listened very acutely to
our concerns on those issues and we very very much appreciate your two core agenda items
which is the high expectations for all students regardless of their background and ability
status. And your desire for collaboration across the
different groups to solve these very difficult challenges so, Assistant Secretary Collett
we are delighted that you were here with us today.

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