Discussion Starter: Teachers or Technicians?

In a series of recent posts, I discussed possible future scenarios for special education teachers (Part 1 here). One of the scenarios I described involved teachers morphing from instructors to facilitators as innovations such as personalized learning software encroach. Similar changes are happening now. Special education teachers in many districts have relinquished roles closely associated with teaching: lesson planning, assessment design, and content instruction. Instead, they’re implementing scripted lessons as part of commercial direct instruction programs. General education teachers could experience a shift of their own. Some would claim they have already in an age of test preparation.

My question for readers is this: should classrooms be in the hands of teachers or technicians? I’m not asking who readers want in charge of classrooms. I’m asking who should be in charge. Do we want teachers to maintain their roles as designers and implementers of instruction, or do we want them to facilitate highly individualized learning modules that students navigate on their own? Do we want teachers creating original lessons in response to performance data, or do we want them remediating through research-based programs?

I anticipate responses being solidly on the side of teachers continuing to be teachers. What I press readers to consider is whether they would continue to want this if research would begin to indicate methodology that alters the role of the teacher is more effective than what we’ve done in the past. My position in education always will be that we should do whatever yields the best results. Research already shows the effectiveness of direct instruction remediation for students with learning disabilities, which is why schools use it. More evidence is needed regarding personalized learning, but if it works, should we not be using this, even if it reduces the role of teachers? Would opposing it be akin to preventing progress?

Implications will range from changes in teacher preparation to consideration for how much educational technicians should get paid. I invite readers to think about all this and respond with what roles teachers should have in the coming decade. This need not be an either-or. Many versions of each role and combinations of the two are probable, especially with technology still emerging and school structures varying so much. Roles for licensed professionals might change, but that doesn’t mean they’ll disappear. Share your thoughts about however you think roles should be reconciled.

Discussion Starter: Teachers or Technicians?

What Does the Future Hold for Special Education Teachers? (Part 4)

This final piece focuses on the more immediate future. All three previous pieces (Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3) describe future scenarios in which special education teachers might become marginalized by policy or technology. These changes could be coming, but not just yet. Special education teachers will continue to have a vital and familiar role in schools for many years.

The Horizon Remains Distant

Those seeking to teach students with disabilities will find opportunities.

1. Jobs still are available.

Schools continue to hire special education teachers—plenty of them. Special education is a high-needs area and by most accounts will remain that way long enough for several cohorts of college graduates to find jobs. What about all those factors set to affect the role of special education teachers? They’re coming, but something else is happening and isn’t likely to stop: turnover.

Special education is a demanding career. People quit. Certain schools with large proportions of students receiving services are difficult places to work. More people quit in these schools. Certainly, new positions are created per population growth and a corresponding growth in students needing services, but turnover allows for positions to be available even after being filled just a year or two earlier. Add to this the apparently shrinking pool of undergraduates seeking to become teachers and you have a market in which jobs continue to be out there.

Safeguards exist, too. Thanks to teacher-student ratio mandates on caseloads, many special education positions are protected from budget cuts. In some states, special education teachers are hired from a different budget than general education teachers, which additionally helps to protect these positions. Unless these ratios change through legislation, many positions will be protected out of legal necessity.

Finally, don’t forget about the Baby Boomers who are retiring. That wave started a few years ago. Members of Generation X are still a long way off from retirement, but many have left the field by now out of frustration, leaving positions available for younger candidates and second-career types.

2. Schools will be slow to make changes.

Little happens quickly in schools. They aren’t known for being crucibles of change. Education law has a way of reacting to issues rather than anticipating them, and schools have a way of dragging themselves to comply with laws. If something is a recommendation rather than a mandate, don’t count on schools subscribing to it with any haste. For example, RtI models have existed for decades at this point and some schools are just now beginning to explore how to use these. Thus, some of the changing services I described in Part 1 aren’t going to materialize anytime soon in a way that drastically will cut into hiring. Delivery models will remain as they’ve been in many districts well into the next decade.

3. Students continue being identified.

Specific disability categories under IDEA have been growing, especially autism and other health impairments (ADHD falls under OHI). Questions remain as to whether these increases are due to actual increases in proportionate incidence, better evaluation tools, or overreactions by evaluating teams. Meanwhile, for every parent who opposes an evaluation because of a concern for the stigma identification might bring, another demands an evaluation and wants every possible service. Often the parent is right and the child needs something the school has been reluctant to provide. Other times, schools concede and placate the parents to avoid further legal entanglement. 

The reasons don’t matter for special education teachers looking for positions. They just need to know that growth (or at least stability) in identification means more potential teaching positions, even if these are with highly specific populations. 

4. And charters remain an option.

Those who want to teach students with disabilities do need to consider all the places where those students receive services. Urban districts have larger than average special needs populations, thus more special education jobs. Charter schools are most common in urban areas. Over the next decade, a larger percentage of the total population will attend charters. Prospective special education teachers willing to keep all options open must remember this.

I make no claim that this series of possibilities is exhaustive or certain. Some of it seems quite likely, but how any of it plays out could be much different than expected. Feel free to comment with any other ideas about what special education teachers might face in the near or not-so-near future.

What Does the Future Hold for Special Education Teachers? (Part 4)

What Does the Future Hold for Special Education Teachers? (Part 3)

In Part 3, I cover broader societal changes, some wrought by technology, that could alter the field and the role of special education teachers. See Part 1 here and Part 2 here.

Long-Term Dynamics

Each of these starts somewhat small before ballooning.

7. As special education becomes more rote, teachers might decreasingly fit the scheme.

Visit a few special education classrooms and be prepared to see something potentially surprising. Students are likely to be using very dry, mechanical direct instruction reading interventions. Programs such as Corrective Reading and DISTAR are common phonics-based interventions for students with IEPs. This isn’t a matter of policy, but might lead to a different kind of change than those in Part 1.

Schools like to use direct instruction programs because they’re research-based and relatively cost effective. Many current special education teachers spend all day, every day “teaching” these explicitly scripted lessons. Does a person need a Bachelor’s degree to run a Corrective Reading lesson? Probably not. The programs require some skill to administer, but many paraeducators could do this for less. Some schools have gone that way already. Certified teachers still need to be in the room—for now.

Meanwhile, electronic programs such as IXL and Fast ForWord provide repeated practice and immediate feedback that benefit students with disabilities. Crucially, they require scant facilitation. In districts across the country, students with IEPs spend hours per week drilling on such programs. They don’t completely replace special education teachers—for now.

Why “for now?” These rote programs might continue to be the standard in special education indefinitely. Sooner or later, some elected officials and DOE bean counters will realize certified teachers aren’t needed for implementation. If paraeducators can run these programs with similar results and computer-based programs can do the same with an adult in the room to maintain order, will such considerations influence federal and state decisions about teacher-student ratios and the need for highly qualified special education teachers? Could not there be one or two technicians hired to write all the IEPs (implemented by general education teachers anyway) while the interventions are handled with large groups as described above? Wouldn’t this have great appeal in big-box schools? I guess we’ll see.

8. Special education becomes more remote.

Parents seeking to have their children with disabilities attend the safest, most controlled school environment can elect home as that environment. Various software, applications, and even cyber charter schools have enhanced homeschooling options. Cyber charters in particular have become popular among parents of children with disabilities. Special education teachers continue to be sought for distance education, but as software like that described in 7. becomes more intuitive and responsive, teacher-student ratios could grow. Uncertified tutors eventually might replace teachers in these scenarios.

9. Automation greatly alters the job market for students with disabilities.

Automation will benefit people with severe disabilities by making some services more accessible. It has the potential to increase autonomy, at least for people with physical and sensory disabilities. Technology in general has helped make the workforce more accessible to individuals with disabilities, but the next wave of automation could be different. Although the actual outcome is pending, it might create some new jobs in the wake of those it eliminates. The problem lies with the latter. Automated systems are poised to wipe out thousands of entry-level jobs currently available to students with mild learning disabilities, emotional disturbances, and autism. Adults with such disabilities already face limited job prospects. The concept of a universal wage might not be that much of a shift for them.

What does this have to do with teachers? There could be an acknowledgement as students with mild disabilities fail to find traditional entry-level employment that vocational education must change. Special education teachers will need to teach skills they haven’t traditionally taught, such as coding. While this is happening in some schools and is part of a history of shifts in response to markets, it presents another case of special education teachers being somewhat behind the content they’re expected to teach.

The changes described in 7. and 8. also relate to automation. Special education teachers might feel nervous as they see how effective and efficient advances in learning software are and will continue to be.

10. Advances in genetics change the incidence of disabilities.

Whether or not anyone wants this to happen, it will: genetic conditions that cause disabilities will be amendable. Parents will be able to deselect certain genetic anomalies, possibly leading to their elimination. If parents could nix the possibility of a child having a disability, wouldn’t they make that choice? Would it be unethical not to? The ethics of this are in dispute, including what message such desires send to people who have conditions targeted for deletion.

In a generation, special education teachers—especially those working with low-incidence populations—could see far fewer students per such advancements. Ironically, medical science had been allowing students with the most severe disabilities to attend school. The future could see a reversal as conditions are deselected. This might not stop at severe disabilities. Imagine if parents had the option of deselecting some trait found to increase the likelihood of ADHD or dyslexia. There is little reason to believe they wouldn’t. One might wonder who would be left to receive special education, or if definitions of disabilities would shift.

I have one more installment. It will detail some points that might actually help special education teachers, at least in the short term.



What Does the Future Hold for Special Education Teachers? (Part 3)

What Does the Future Hold for Special Education Teachers? (Part 2)

This installment continues my discussion of what special education teachers might face in the coming years. Part 2 examines larger scale changes to policy and protocol. See the first part here.

Changing Conditions

Working conditions for special education teachers will be shaped by forces beyond the walls of schools.

4. Defunding reduces resources.

Anyone aware of special education’s history knows that IDEA has been funded at a fraction of what originally had been envisioned. As of this writing, IDEA has not lost funding per the first budget of the Trump era. That doesn’t mean the current Department of Education won’t look for roundabout ways to scale back IDEA in the coming years. Should this happen, money available for interventions, testing materials, and even paraprofessional support could be in jeopardy. Such cuts are speculative right now, though. Cuts to Title II, which would affect funding for professional development rather immediately, are less speculative. Also quite real are attempts by state departments of education to cap percentages of students receiving services (Texas, for example).

5. Paths to certification become muddier.

The traditional path to teacher certification has included a Bachelor’s program in education (getting certified through a Master’s program could count here as well). This path has splintered to include alternates available through online universities and what amount to be internships or residencies through organizations such as Teach for America or Relay. Urban districts have been offering emergency certification paths for years in states that will condone these. Some states allow charters to employ high percentages of uncertified teachers or teachers with non-traditional types of certifications.

These paths still result in certifications, but they could change prospects for teachers following traditional paths. Those teachers going the way of a Bachelor’s in education might find themselves getting pinched out of jobs in schools that rely heavily on alternate certification paths to fill vacancies (think large urban districts and charter schools). This affects all teachers, but since urban schools employ a disproportionately large number of special education teachers, it hits them hardest.

In the same category would be the relative complexity of that traditional path. Some states have made certification more complicated and specific for special education teachers in recent years. This increase is meant to act as a filter, ensuring high-quality teacher candidates. It has worked too well in some colleges of education, resulting in a dearth of students making it to teacher candidacy. The testing requirements alone have caused some universities to consider shuttering their teacher preparation programs per the low number of students passing the tests.

6. Continued legal strife makes the field unwieldy.

The past few years have seen a decrease in the number of special education cases going to due process. Much of that drop has resulted from significant drops in a handful of specific states, but it’s still a drop. Schools could be getting better at complying with IDEA and various state regulations. Parents also might be catching on to the lack of actual damages that can be recouped through due process (in other words, they don’t get a cash settlement, which surprisingly isn’t obvious to all parents).

This doesn’t mean special education is now free of consternation. Consider the case of Endrew F. v. Douglas County Schools and the prospect of reexamining educational benefit. The precedent set by this case seems poised to give parents more opportunities to apply pressure to schools on issues of service and progress. Schools could find themselves tripping over this precedent for years as they struggle to figure out how to satisfy educational benefit for low-incidence students. Attorneys representing parents are likely grinning. Administrators and special education teachers should be at least somewhat wary. The risk of inadvertently discriminating against a student isn’t going away.

In the next section, I’ll talk about broader societal and even scientific changes that could rock the very existence of special education.

What Does the Future Hold for Special Education Teachers? (Part 2)

What Does the Future Hold for Special Education Teachers? (Part 1)

Per the title of this article, I’m asking how the fundamentals of being a special education teacher might change in the next decade or so. I have a few ideas I’ve categorized and explained below. Some of these ideas concern the field at large, but still influence what teaching could mean for those working with identified students. I’m breaking the article into sections, which I’ll post on successive days.

Changing Services

Delivery models are morphing gradually. As this continues, the roles of special education teachers could morph as well.

1. Response to Intervention (RtI) might reduce identification.

RtI is somewhat new. The IDEA revisions of 2004 gave states the leverage to use pre-referral strategies when considering how to support struggling students. The intention was to stave off identification for students who might benefit from less invasive interventions than special education, thereby mitigating the need for services under IDEA. A specific target was the over-identification of students with learning disabilities.

Adoption has been slow. Some schools have embraced RtI more than others have. As more schools incorporate systematic RtI and implement it effectively, it could begin to noticeably impact the number of students needing to be evaluated. It could become the filter it had been intended to become. This might mean proportionately fewer students receiving special education (as RtI comes before special education, for the most part). Fewer special education dollars would come to schools per special education teacher-to-student ratios, possibly meaning fewer special education teaching positions.

2. Universal Design further reduces the need for special education teachers.

If general education classrooms, programs, and materials are designed from the start to anticipate needs and include naturally occurring tiered and differentiated learning opportunities, the need to respond to disabilities with specially designed instruction might subside. Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is an idea and an ideal rather than a policy or mandate dictating practice. It underscores thinking about instructional design. Much of special education today is a reaction to need. UDL would address a variety of needs preemptively, lessening the urgency to develop special education plans.

Schools are a long way from realizing true UDL. It requires a massive investment in time and effort up front. As the field moves towards it, educators might rethink the need for dedicated special education for students with mild impairments. If general education teachers can do much of this themselves, some students might have their needs met and not go on to need special education services. Again, special education teachers get pushed aside here possibly to a consultant role.

3. 504 Service Agreements begin to replace IEPs for mild disabilities.

This is happening now. Schools are reexamining whether or not every slight delay caused by a disability denotes a need for an IEP. What if the team can keep the student in general education with some other form of support? Enter the 504. Schools often see scenarios such as the following: a doctor diagnoses a child with ADHD or some other condition. The parent presents the diagnosis to the school. The school agrees that some aspect of performance is lagging, but not to the degree that would trigger an evaluation. The school puts a 504 Service Agreement in place to address the needs, authorizing some subtle accommodations to presentation or access.

How does this affect special education? The 504 isn’t part of IDEA and services through it don’t count as special education. The general education teacher provides the 504, at least on paper. Schools will need to review how effectively this can be done without additional support. Should these plans become significantly more common, we might see some special education teachers working under different titles, such as “specialized services coordinator” and being hired as generalists. Teaching students with IEPs could be just one of the services they provide as they float between groups of students identified under different laws, possibly functioning as general education and special education teachers. The other possibility: fewer special education teachers would be needed because strictly speaking, fewer special education students would exist.

In a few days I’ll continue with thoughts on how various conditions might change.

What Does the Future Hold for Special Education Teachers? (Part 1)

To Future Teachers Graduating This Month

My commencement address would be titled “Envious, But Not That Envious.”

Most colleges and universities will be wrapping up their commencement ceremonies by the time of this post. Thousands of education majors will be hitting the field in earnest, ready to wave their degrees and certificates at schools with vacancies. A few fortunate (or ambitious) types will have positions locked before graduation and will be spending the summer prepping for that petrifying first day. Many more will be scouring the market for whatever position they can find, possibly continuing the search into the fall. It’s a dizzying time for all.

I’m envious of those experiencing any of this. To specify, I’m envious of the moment they’re experiencing. Completing college feels great. Proud reflection on accomplishment mixes with the realization of being free from coursework. The word “career” still refers to a set of aspirations rather than a collection of memories. The moments that will become memories haven’t had the chance to be qualified as fond or regrettable.

Addressing the graduates directly, yes, I’m envious of the moment you’re having. Even if you end up having a second career at some point, no moment will feel quite like this one. What I’m less envious of is your fortune entering the field in its current state. I won’t spoil your moment with a diatribe about education. I will say that the dumb luck of your timing isn’t great, at least from my perspective. Based on my experiences, I’m glad I’m not entering the field right now.

This sentiment risks seeming like that of the guy in his forties lamenting the current music scene and claiming the music of his youth was “real music.” I’m sure some teacher could have pulled me aside back in 2000 and told why I was making a mistake becoming a teacher, along with how much better everything was when she started. If I would do the same today, I’d be ignoring a decade and a half worth of advancements in technology, methodology, and even accountability that have improved conditions for students and enabled the effectiveness of teachers. Echoing the jaded not only doesn’t help much, but it might not be accurate.

I have to echo it a little, though. Every aspect of getting a teaching job has become more complicated since I started. I’d like to say this helps in some way, but I’ve struggled to see how. The day-to-day of being a teacher has become more complicated as well, largely in detrimental ways. The whole of public education stands to take a hammering at a policy level, all while it’s becoming an option rather than an expectation. I promised not to rant, so I’ll stop here. Comparing my early experiences in the field with what I know teaching currently entails, I can’t say I’d want to get started in 2017.

I’m not starting this year though, dear graduates. You are. You don’t have the perspective I have. I didn’t know any better in 2000 when that crotchety teacher would’ve given me an earful about the descent of everything. Without a point of reference, you’re entering the field as though it has always been as it is. This returns my perspective to envy. I think you’re going to have a rough go of it, but you won’t know anything but this.

My hope is that each of you prospective teachers leaving the safety of college for the wilds of the field lands in a position that suits you. That might matter more than anything else right now: a strong match between personality and the culture of a work environment. If these align, wonderful. If not, be not afraid to retreat and regroup. You don’t owe some school your sanity. Don’t forget that while time might not feel like an asset at the moment, it is. I’m becoming more envious as I write this.

Best wishes Class of 2017. I hope you’re still at it in 2037.


To Future Teachers Graduating This Month

The Lasting Draw: Why People Still Become Special Education Teachers

Enrollment in teacher preparation programs seems to be decreasing. This has sounded a few alarms. Amid the speculation about causes and the panic about fallout, new enrollees are continuing to arrive in colleges of education. Perhaps against all reason, some of these recruits are signing up to become special education teachers. How is this still a draw?

The enrollment trickle deserves a brief look. A perception of deteriorating conditions in the field might be stopping perspective teachers before they start. Testing requirements for certification could be too much of a barrier for some candidates. States are offering alternate paths to certification, some of which lure non-traditional students who now might balk at four-year programs. At the same time, other fields might be exerting more of a pull.

These factors might have a real effect, but the drop isn’t exclusive to education. The last few years have seen a temporary dip in the number of 18-20 year olds available to enroll in any programs per a birth rate decline in the mid-90s. Also, after a few years of relaxing admission standards, some universities are tightening these, thus creating a drop in overall enrollment (or more accurately, a leveling off). The intimidating costs of any college education could be another deterrent.

Even with these influences affecting admissions, a drop in the number of new teacher candidates still appears to exist relative to decreases in other majors. Colleges of education around the country report dwindling numbers. The surface impression is that the field has lost some status among young people. This shouldn’t come as a shock, considering the steady stream of negative press about it. Sadly, much of it is accurate.

This would seem poised to affect special education disproportionately. It might be the least attractive arena of education for incoming teachers. Many districts consider special education a high-needs area, partly due to the number of students needing complex services, but partly due to relatively small number of candidates willing to be special education teachers. Special education comes with the inherent difficulty of teaching students with disabilities coupled with the most maddening bureaucracy in the field. Everyone knows this from the start.

Unsurprisingly, shortages among special educations teachers predate the current dearth of enrollees. What might be surprising is that shortages aren’t necessarily worsening under this most recent decline. Reports are mixed, as the numbers aren’t evenly distributed across states, universities, or even departments within universities. In some colleges of education, the special education programs are the only ones growing. Applicants for special education teaching jobs are still approaching districts. Certain regions can experience a glut due to the number of graduates coming from teaching programs. At least a few people continue to want to be special education teachers, possibly for reasons that defy rationality.

What draws them? Old arguments might have included somewhat permissive entrance criteria, employability and security, and pay compared with other four-year degrees. Some of these notions have taken a beating. Alternate paths to certification have been springing up just as traditional paths have become bumpier. Employability might be stable in many areas for special education teachers, but job security for all teachers has changed, as many who have been displaced by budget cuts can attest. Yes, these do hit special education teachers too sometimes, especially in districts losing seats to charter schools. Pay has never been a great incentive, but now some sharing industry jobs are creeping up on what a beginning teacher might earn in some states.

Is there anything else? What about autonomy for special education teachers? This has dissolved somewhat per inclusion and the move towards co-teaching and push-in support. How about the small number of students? Ratios still favor special education teachers, but the neediness of students has increased per the amount of service and intervention needed. Aren’t special education teachers exempt from grading? Well, sometimes, but more than half the job is now meetings and paperwork, displacing any work saved.

What could be left? One possibility is young people maintain a vision of supporting students with disabilities that hasn’t yet been tainted but the unsavory aspects of the field. This could be for the best, because it might allow for another remaining attraction to develop: the broad idea of helping others. This might be more of a specific draw in special education than in other teaching disciplines. Elementary and secondary education majors want to positively affect the lives of students as well, the aim being to do so by cultivating independence through skill and content instruction. Special education teachers certainly want to do the same, but there often is an heightened emphasis on the charitable aspects of the field. The desire to work on behalf of people who experience a disadvantage of some kind is characteristic of special education teachers. Many see themselves as being advocates as much as instructors, championing the civil rights of students. Again, this exists for other teachers, but it is deeply embedded in the motivations of many special education teachers.

This might be the root of what continues to draw candidates to the field. It isn’t about the logistics. It’s about a drive to support those who need support. This drive has a rational component, but it also is highly emotional for many. Indeed, some come to the field because of experiences with siblings who have disabilities, or because the candidates themselves have disabilities. Some second-career special education teachers become involved because they have children with disabilities. Religious reasons drive some, as do social-political reasons.

The lasting draw could be that students continue to have special needs and schools continue to need to pay people to teach them. Federal guidelines dictate certain student-to-teacher ratios, so a set number of teachers tends to remain. Still, against all the reasons not to begin a career in special education, candidates step up to do so each year. The reasons above are independent of unfavorable logistics. This could stand to make them independent of at least some of the forces acting on teacher preparation enrollment, resulting in a core of candidates that never diminishes below a particular threshold. The draw remains for those who view the field as more than a vocation.


The Lasting Draw: Why People Still Become Special Education Teachers