Education in America: The Biggest Challenges in Special Education

Today instead of tackling a myth, we’re going to dig into special education, and maybe shed a little light on an often misunderstand branch of public (and to a lesser extent, private and charter school) education.   Before we get into the challenges, let’s all get a working definition of what special education means.

First of all, special education is not a place, it’s a system of services, accommodations and supports designed to help students with disabilities achieve specific, measurable goals which will assist them in meeting long term objectives.  Phew.  Let’s break that down.

Students who receive special education services have a few characteristics in common.

1. They’ve either received a medical diagnosis or it’s been determined through a series of standardized, research-based tests that something tangible is interfering with the student’s ability to meet academic and developmental milestones at the same rate as typically developing chronological peers without intervention.

2. The path of their education is determined by a team of individuals, ideally a special educator, a general education teacher, any therapist or expert who provides in-school services, a representative of either the building, district or special education department administration, parents or caregivers, the student, and anyone who has a significant role in the student’s education.

3. That educational path is spelled out, in detail, in an individualized education plan (IEP) which lays out long term objectives, the short term goals the student needs to master to meet those objectives, any accommodations the student needs to the environment or curriculum and a detailed description of the services the student will receive.   Since NCLB, IEPs have also included sections explaining how a student with special education services will participate in high stakes testing.  Any accommodation the student may have to complete high stakes testing must be outlined in the IEP to be allowed.

Special education law, at the national level, is determined by the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act(IDEA), most recently reformed in 2009.  Each state has additional special education laws.

Special education services are typically specialized by disability, meaning the services a visually impaired students receive are necessarily vastly different than a student with a significant cognitive disability will receive, and those services will be managed and delivered by specialists and hopefully experts in each student’s specific disability.

This brings us to the first challenge facing schools who need to offer quality special education services; a lack of highly-qualified special educators with the proper license to teach the neediest students.  This problem has a few bullet point-ready factors.

  • There are insufficient schools of education which offer the necessary classes to obtain an intensive interventions teaching license.
  • There is a shortage of potential teachers who choose intensive interventions as a specialty.
  • The turnover rate for teachers with intensive intervention is extremely high.
  • There is a higher chance of teacher burnout among special educators with an intensive intervention specialty than any other.
  • At most, there will be one or two intensive intervention teachers in a building, which limits the ability for schools to provide experienced, highly successful mentors to novice teachers.

Source: Center on Personnel Studies in Special Education (COPSSE) reports:

Teacher Turnover in Special Education; Special Education Teacher Education: An Update; Special Education Teacher Attrition: What We Know, What We Can Do (all are available for download at link.)

The second obstacle facing public special education programs is that we’re still relatively new at providing comprehensive services to many of our students.  In many cases, districts are still throwing ideas at the wall and hoping something sticks, and definitions of what is or isn’t a best practice for providing a high quality education with special education support are constantly changing.  In an attempt to keep up with NCLB requirements, which don’t always accept that students are not monolithic, many districts have begun to adopt one-size-fits-all programs for teaching students with disabilities.   I have an anecdotal story to share that might illustrate the reasons this might not always work.

After I left teaching, I worked with several families as an advocate.  One family was called to a meeting because of an increase in unwanted behaviors from the student.  The first part of the meeting was spent describing how the school used the most cutting edge curriculum, which had been determined to be the best practice for all students who shared this child’s disability.  The second part of the meeting was to discuss placing the student on homebound teaching because he wasn’t performing to expectations.   In summary: “We use the very best method for students like your child, but it doesn’t work for your child so your child has to go.”

This rigidity in deciding on only one method of teaching takes the “individualized” right out of the IEP process.

The third obstacle facing special education is the bone-deep budget cuts to not only education, but related services and therapies.

Special education teachers never work in a vacuum.  As mentioned above, there is frequently a team of specialists involved in providing services to students with special needs.  Visually impaired students can receive orientation and mobility training or training in Braille.  Students with physical disabilities can receive physical and occupational therapy at school.  Students with communication difficulties can receive speech therapy. Some schools have even offered mental health services to students, at no cost to families.  Many school districts of all sizes and demographics are facing severe budget cuts, as are the social services that provide these supplemental services to schools and communities.

The final challenge I’m going to discuss in this piece is that NCLB and most current plans of education reform don’t recognize the special education students who have goals that can’t be measured by filling in a bubble.  For many who receive intensive interventions in school, the goal isn’t grade-level mastery of math facts and grammar rules, it’s taking another step towards living a meaningful and independent life.

It’s important to note that one factor which separates the U.S. from the educational super-achievers we’re often compared to, such as South Korea, Finland and Japan, is that we provide a public education for all children, regardless of any disability.   None of these countries provide special education services to those who need the most intensive interventions to achieve independence.

Don’t let the students who need schools the most be collateral damage in the “race to the top.”

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[E] Selena MacIntosh*

Selena MacIntosh is the owner and editor of Persephone Magazine. She also fixes it when it breaks. She is fueled by Diet Coke, coffee with a lot of cream in it, and cat hair.

3 thoughts on “Education in America: The Biggest Challenges in Special Education”

  1. As an education student and when I did my student teaching, I ran into a lot of Special Ed teaching students and actual Special Ed teacher who clearly wanted to be in it to “help slow kids learn to read,” which is not at all what Special Ed is about.

    Ranty anecdote time! On the first day of school, I knew that I had a student in my class who had OCD. I picked him out almost immediately. He was nervously arranging his markers on his desk and clearly getting frustrated that the tilty desk was making this difficult. She confiscated his markers, which was clearly stressful, since he started doing the same thing with his pencils. I managed to step in before she did, and was like “Hey, I see you are really well-prepared, and that’s awesome. It looks like you might not have enough room on your desk, though, with all those pencils; would you like me to keep some on my desk? I have plenty of space, and if you need another one, just raise your hand, okay?” The look of relief on the kid’s face is one of the reasons I’m kind of sad I’m not in Education today.

    Okay, yes, I have mild OCD (was not in special ed since it didn’t express itself until I was much older) so I may have a better understanding of what the kid was going through. But still. (She also knew which students had which IEPs at that point, which I didn’t.)

    I also hold a grudge because this was the teacher who spent significant amounts of time trying to get a class to sit still when about 60% of them had ADHD and they were all in 7th grade anyway.

    Man… things keep happening to remind me how much I loved teaching.

    1. I ran into a lot of Special Ed teaching students and actual Special Ed teacher who clearly wanted to be in it to “help slow kids learn to read,” which is not at all what Special Ed is about.

      I feel that in a way this is what RtI is trying to help “fix.”

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