In recent years I had the dubious pleasure of serving as head honcho of special education for a rural school district. I say "dubious pleasure" because while I learned a great deal, and liked my colleagues, the job was impossibly stressful and frustrating. I left the position voluntarily after I concluded that at the governmental level, the special education system is ridiculously mired in red tape. The legal system has effectively trumped the educational system when it comes to program delivery. Actual instruction of students with disabilities is at the tip of an unnecessarily bureaucratic, legislatively-driven and expensive iceberg.
Not only that, but even after several decades, special education remains the bastard child of the educational system. The shuffling of kids with disabilities into the mainstream, then back into special classes and schools, then back into the mainstream again, seems less a function of their educational needs than it does a reflection of State budgets and backroom politics. Student placements are rationalized as "good for the child" depending whether the bucks are available.
I admit to being cynical about this matter; but, I do believe special education as we know it will collapse under it's own weight unless certain problems are addressed. Here are some of them:
Administrators & General Education Teachers
- The majority of school administrators and general education teachers have little or no training in special education. Many administrators view special ed students as thorns in their side, detrimental to standardized test results and as "discipline problems." Many general educators -- and particularly secondary education teachers -- resent the fact that special education students are placed in their classes. That is because they have not been properly prepared for inclusion of special education students, and because increasingly, they are being held accountable for test-outcomes.
- Students with disabilities should never have been thrust upon general education teachers who have not been adequately prepared to deal with them, or who do not want them. Such teachers may do more damage than good to a student with disabilities. Most general education teachers require extensive, additional training if they are to work effectively with students with disabilities. Even then, close administrative supervision is necessary.
- It is also true that -- through no fault of their own -- most special education teachers are insufficiently trained. Special educators are unrealistically expected to be "experts" in cognitive, affective, social and physical disabilities, as well as child development and instructional technique. Many feel overwhelmed by the needs of the student population. Special education teachers are often responsible for a high number of students with disabilities, each one of whom has his/her own Individual Education Program (IEP). For these reasons, many special education teachers leave the field after only a few years.
- Students with disabilities often have significant mental health issues, but few special education teachers have sufficient understanding of the psychology of students with disabilities. Even though most states require teachers to hold a Master's degree, even that doesn't cut it. Special education teachers need advanced training in child psychology. Mental health professionals also need to be housed in schools so they may provide direct and indirect services to students with disabilities.
- Some educational classifications (for example, Emotional Disturbance) are so broad as to be nearly meaningless. If special education teachers are to truly meet the needs of students with disabilities, student concerns must be given greater definition. Concerns for student mental health should be given equal footing with scholastic concerns. In addition to instructional needs, attention should be given the emotional and psychological needs of students with disabilities.
- Since the Individualized Educational Program (IEP) determines the "curriculum" a classified child receives, and since each student has his/her own IEP, it is difficult for teachers to provide coherent, group classroom instruction. Differentiated instruction is difficult to deliver, given individual student needs and the limited preparation time provided to most teachers.
- Although most students do receive the special education services listed on their IEPs, a significant minority of kids gets many more services than they need. Those who get more than they need usually have parents who are insisting upon certain services, thinking "more is better," and threatening districts with legal action.
- Significant funds are expended by districts trying to ward off what are often frivolous lawsuits. Unscrupulous attorneys needlessly initiate legal action against districts, knowing the districts will not waste time and money fighting them.
- Some "student advocates" are nobly committed to their work, and perform an important service for students with special needs. But, some work for attorneys and care more about a pay check than about kids' needs. A hard-core few have an ax to grind, and are out to "get" school districts or administrators. Parents may have a hard time telling the difference. There is a need for certification of student advocates to ensure they meet standards supporting quality instruction.
- At base, special education is legally-driven, not educationally-driven. Special education law has been drafted by attorneys, not educators. IEPs are legal documents that often bear little relationship to classroom realities. The law changes constantly, and it is humanly impossible to keep up with it.
- Many services rendered to classified kids have no empirical basis, but are provided because (a) they have historically been available, or (b) parents want them. "Hippotherapy" (horseback riding) is but one example of such a service. Behavioral optometry or "vision therapy" is another. And, many services that have only temporary impact are provided for the same reasons: Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA), for example.
- Even "useful" services may be provided long past the time they are effective. For example, some kids receive occupational therapy (OT) or physical therapy (PT) while making negligible progress. Special education administrators may provide such services on a student's IEP simply to keep the legal wolves away from the door.