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Today’s Special Education Challenges and Solutions

The legislature movement to guarantee quality education for special needs students is now in its third decade. Much has been learned in that time span, some by our failures and some through our progress. It seems an appropriate time to take a step back and reflect on the current state of special education:

Problem # 1: Combining grade appropriate subject content with special skills training.
Special educators now recognize that many school districts have put the emphasis on basic skills training at the expense of academic stimulation. Like all students, special ed students need intellectual stimulation to motivate them to keep plugging at basic skills acquisition which can be boring and exhausting for most. There are too many segregated special education classrooms where a teenager reading at the 4th grade level is reading 4th grade content. The concomitant embarrassment is likely to make misbehavior a very attractive alternative to feeling embarrassed and bored.

Solution # 1: Expose special ed students to age appropriate content most of the time.
You do not have to be a good reader to participate in lively and interesting class discussions. Math and science problems can be approached conceptually even when basic skills are subpar. An understanding of the need to do this was a major impetus for mainstreaming. Mainstreaming can indeed help to achieve more parity in academic content, but that is not enough unless careful attention is paid to not pulling special students out of class in ways that interrupts the flow of age appropriate class participation. These disruptions are less likely to occur when school administrators understand that smarter and more engaged a special needs student is, the harder he or she will work on improving their basic skills.

Problem # 2: Special education teachers are often viewed as second-class citizens.
Regular classroom teachers are the “boss” of their classrooms and may view the special ed teacher as telling them what to do and therefore may treat them disrespectfully. Sam Dempsey, director of the Exceptional Children’s Program in N.C.’s Winston-Salem schools says it all: “By and large, they [regular ed teachers] feel they know education better than we do.”

Solution # 2: Conduct more teacher training aimed at integrating regular and special ed teaching plans.
If regular teachers feel that their content is being reinforced by the special ed teachers that work with their students, their attitude is going to be more positive. Similarly, if a special teacher becomes more confident that their conversations about his or her students are truly taken into consideration in the regular classes, the regular/special educator rapport will inevitably improve.

Problem # 3: Special education paperwork overwhelms teachers and administrators.
Because we are the most litigious society in the world, special ed teachers spend about as much time on paperwork as they do on lesson planning and more time than they spend on grading papers, or communicating with parents and colleagues. “CYA” paperwork is often cited as a primary reason for special ed teacher “burn out.”

Solution # 3: Invest in technology to streamline and automate paperwork.
A less litigious America is not realistic (at least yet), so schools need to prioritize investing in software than will speed up the paperwork process and prevent electronic filing until all the required fields have been completed. Too often school districts are “penny wise and pound foolish” in relation to investing in upgraded software that makes paperwork responses as succinct and error free as possible.

Problem # 4: A disproportionate number of children of color end up in special education.
A landmark study by the Civil Rights Project at Harvard University found that in most states, African-Americans are one-and-a-half to four times as likely to be identified as having learning or emotional problems. This glaring fact is pooh-poohed in too many school districts.

Solution # 4: Teachers need to become leaders in talking about race more common.
Today, teachers are not any better trained or prepared to talk about race than the rest of society. School administrators can change this through intensive training on fostering discussion about race. Connecticut, for example, has started a program for teachers and administrators called Courageous Conversations about Race to talk about these issues as openly and honestly as possible. Such training brings home the reality that race is a general educational problem, and not a special education one.

Solution # 5: The number of special ed students per classroom or teacher grows as the number of dollars shrinks.
Race, morale, and paperwork pale for many school districts compared to smaller budgets and larger numbers of special ed students. To compound the problem, autism and other more severely impaired diagnoses require more skilled allied health professionals. The involved students that had been sent out of district, now stay local due to budget cuts. Higher teacher turnover further adds to special education costs.

Solution # 5: We need to stop growing the categories of students that qualify for special education.
None of us want to live in a world where the school districts end up with 30% of their students in special education programs. Giving services to too many will damage the education of the most in need. In addition to tightening standards for qualification, special and regular educators to make sure that learning needs are handled on a continuum, and not as being “in” or “out” of special ed. Expecting special educators to cover all aspects of a student’s education is a fantasy. Forward-looking district administrators need to take the lead in integrating regular and special education to improve efficiency and avoid the growing unfairness to kids with mild to moderate learning issues getting short changed in comparison to the severely impaired.

Robert Hoyt, Ph.D.
Allied Health Professionals LLC

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