Dangers Within Indicator 13

The IDEA is filled with edicts intended to benefit students with disabilities. Sometimes these result in unintended negative consequences. Many of these consequences begin with the IDEA’s performance indicators. One of twenty present in the IDEA, Indicator 13 is the percent of students with IEPs who have appropriate transition plans. Per Indicator 13, students sixteen and over should have measurable post-secondary goals and sufficient opportunities for making progress towards these goals. Teams are expected to discuss and plan for post-secondary education or services. Teams also must invite students to be part of this planning.

Though they appear to be student-centered, the performance indicators are not measures of student achievement. Along with its companions, Indicator 13 is a measure of school compliance with the IDEA. It is a reactionary provision. The authors of the IDEA and its revisions have understood that despite previous special education mandates, students with special needs continue to struggle after high school. These students have been getting better services in school, but post-secondary outcomes have been comparatively poor. Scant opportunities exist for some adults with disabilities, a problem schools might not be able to correct. Despite this, the IDEA’s authors have insisted schools work to improve transition planning as a means of formally addressing the issue. Indicator 13 serves to provide proof that these school-level interventions are happening. It stops short of requiring much information about student progress post-graduation.

To avoid noncompliance, schools must respond to Indicator 13’s requirements. This is a positive consequence in most respects. IEPs for students over sixteen should include ample information regarding transition readiness. Reading and mathematics levels and results from interest inventories or transition skills assessments are crucial. From these, teams can plan post-secondary outcomes and create annual goals meant to move students towards outcomes.

The dangers of Indicator 13 begin with whether or not teams can create such plans. Schools sometimes fail to collect worthwhile data and may design inadequate goals. If so, they have themselves to blame. However, even with appropriate information and goals, parents may feel the school’s efforts aren’t enough. They may misunderstand the relationship between outcomes and goals and may not accept certain steps in pursuit of outcomes. For example, parents may argue that improving direction following isn’t a worthwhile transition goal, even if a student needs to improve this before pursuing competitive employment as an outcome. Parents may question the suggested outcomes. Disagreement about pursing post-secondary education is a frequent and turbulent battle. Schools regularly placate parents in transition planning, sometimes resulting in inappropriate plans.

Disagreement over plans isn’t necessarily a problem because of Indicator 13, but other problems are. While well-designed transition plans would benefit most students with IEPs, Indicator 13 makes some plans exist for the sake of existing. With the most disabled students, fulfilling all of what Indicator 13 requires can be facetious. Teams may need to create nearly arbitrary goals for students with barely measurable skills. This can set a school up for failure, because goals either have to be rudimentary and meaningless, or too far beyond the student’s reach.

Parents may misinterpret outcomes as guarantees. Schools create achievement summaries for exiting students, which list what steps parents and students can take in pursuit of outcomes. These are recommendations alone. Parents and students are expected to follow through, possibly with outside agency assistance. Schools are obligated to help families make connections with agencies involved in post-secondary outcomes, but schools can’t assure these outcomes will develop as planned. A parent may take exception and fault the school if the student can’t reach the given outcome. Sometimes parents seek reparations over such issues. They may ask for students to be reenrolled after graduation, or they may seek compensatory education. Instances of similar sentiment have occurred at the collegiate level, with students suing colleges because career service offices didn’t get them a job. The threat created by such sentiment drives some schools to try to keep as many students with IEPs as possible until twenty-one, an obviously costly venture.

Keeping up with the expectations of Indicator 13 should make for better transitioning planning for students. In most cases, it does. It also creates some casualties, as many other well-intentioned components of the IDEA have done.

Dangers Within Indicator 13

How the IDEA Obscures Where Help is Needed Most

The IDEA includes twenty indicators meant to measure of the effectiveness of special education programming and adherence to special education law. States, districts, and schools must report performance according to these indicators. The relative success of the IDEA hinges on such reports, as they reveal areas of progress and need. Much like in the classroom, if diagnostic tools are flawed or used incorrectly, educators cannot design useful interventions. Two particular indicators seem to have potential for misinterpretation or misuse.

Indicators 9 and 10 are compliance indicators measuring the percent of students from specific racial or ethnic groups receiving special education services due to inappropriate identification. Indicator 9 is the percent receiving services, while Indicator 10 is the percent in specific disability categories. Emphasis is crucial. As with many other indicators, these are not measures of student need. Instead, these are measures of appropriate school practices.

The first aim of Indicators 9 and 10 is to identify significant disproportionality, or a disproportionate number of students receiving services from specific groups. An example would be a district with a 50% Black overall population, but a 75% Black special education population. Another example would be 30% of Latino students receiving special education services versus 5% of Asian students. If significant disproportionality exists, the second aim is to scrutinize identification methods for possible biases leading to over-representation, and to correct these methods should biases exist.

Over-identification of students with disabilities would be a problem. Special education services are restrictions by law. Restrictions limit access to the general education curriculum to which all students are entitled. Unnecessary restrictions would infringe upon rights. Additionally, special education services are costly. Educational funding should not be spent erroneously.

Importantly, these indicators are not mere protections against unneeded services and costs. They are protections against perceived discrimination. The IDEA acknowledges over-representation of particular racial and ethnic groups. Indicators 9 and 10 are meant to rule out discrimination as a cause. Though biased or misused identification practices could explain some over-representation, the implication that school practices might be the principle culprit is part of a larger trend.

Schools may over-identify students from some groups, or they may have historically. Indicators 9 and 10 have been in place long enough to expect the correction of flawed instruments. To an earlier point, assessments must be accurate to be useful. Test makers have redesigned instruments to eliminate racial bias, and schools have worked to eliminate discriminatory practices. Indicators 9 and 10 remain in the IDEA, forcing schools to be vigilant.

Beyond the IDEA, schools have felt significant pressure regarding other forms of over-representation. Suspensions have been a recently popular media target, with advocates claiming schools suspend too many students from specific groups. Graduation rates for specific groups have been a perennial topic. Amid this pressure, a question remains. What if students from specific groups are not being over-identified? Specifically concerning special education, what if they really need services more often than students from other groups?

The most over-represented groups in special education are Black and Latino students. Advocates and professional organizations point to failing schools contributing to an achievement gap. Certainly, many schools are poorly equipped to serve their underprivileged students, just as some identification methods may be inadequate. In both instances, the notion that the students themselves are disproportionately needy is unpopular. Though unpopular, it might be true.

Black and Latino students experience poverty at higher rates than White and Asian students. Poverty is highly correlated with dozens of factors that inhibit school performance. Populations with high rates of poverty should need extra support in schools, and over-representation in special education populations should not be surprising. Compliance with the IDEA forces schools to be wary of identifying too many of these students. Over-identification also feeds the argument that schools discriminate. Both pressures could lead to schools identifying too few rather than too many.

Schools should not implement unneeded services. However, not implementing services to avoid implied discrimination might be worse than the implication. In an effort to undo discrimination, the IDEA fuels a potentially damaging trend. The insistence that schools create the lagging performance of specific students could lead to a refusal to admit where help is needed. The true burden rests with those who interpret and enforce the IDEA. An honest, clear-eyed approach to identifying needs must supersede pressure to blame schools for over-representation.

How the IDEA Obscures Where Help is Needed Most

The Helping Industry

Supporting children and adults with disabilities requires the combined talents of professionals representing several disciplines. Teachers, nurses, therapists, social workers, and doctors might all be involved in planning and caring for those with special needs. The severity of an individual’s disability largely determines the services needed. Though some individuals with disabilities may elect to forgo available support, some can’t deny help as a matter of their survival.

Individuals with disabilities, in particular children and their parents, have relationships with those who support them. The children and parents enter these relationships by circumstance. All others involved choose their specialized roles. Importantly, most of those offering support receive compensation for their efforts. These people who provide education or advocacy or medical care make up a field that could be called the helping industry.

Throughout history, various civilizations and societies have had means of providing (or not providing) for people with special needs. In our society, this has grown into a massive and lucrative business. Entire professions have developed around the need to support individuals with disabilities. Publicly traded companies thrive on the need for specialized equipment and services. Supporting individuals with disabilities is more than a hallmark of an inclusive society. It is a way for that society to generate revenue.

Some conservative critics might suggest that too much of the public’s money is spent on the needs of individuals with disabilities. Such criticism has merit. Costly infrastructure renovations can seem questionably worthwhile per the number of people benefitting from them. Certainly, special education spending in public schools is more than a little warped. The most callous arguments against such spending suggest the public expenditures are too far out of balance with what society gains from them. One counter argument could be the inherent importance of all members of a society and the responsibility of that society to care for its own. The argument these critics are more likely to hear is that despite the significant public outlays for individuals with disabilities, providing for them helps the economy.

All the distinct disciplines involved in the helping industry share an important role. Most of the individuals working to provide support earn a professional salary. They use these professional salaries to purchase homes and cars. They plan families around having solid incomes. Families spend more than single people do. Some will invest a portion of they what earn, distributing the benefit of their earnings. As part of the helping industry, many of these individuals are paid via taxpayer money, but they channel this money back into their local economies and the economy at large.

The most disabled individuals who rely on helping industry workers might never be able to contribute directly to society. Their disabilities could be of such severity that they will never work or have any degree of independence. While the existence of those with such needs could be viewed as a monetary drain, it isn’t. Those with pervasive, lifelong care needs require the creation and continuation of helping industry jobs. Some severely disabled individuals might require full-time nursing care, which might provide three of four full-time skilled nursing jobs. These individuals might need to live in group homes. The resident assistants who will support them are all helping industry beneficiaries.

In schools, the helping industry has its deepest reach. Some of the most disabled students require such highly specialized transportation that a district might employ one bus driver for one student. Students with behavioral needs often are seen as sources of disruption in schools, but many require therapeutic support staff or other behavioral specialists. These are additional skilled professional positions. Districts have to employ school psychologists to identify students with special needs. Absurd as this may seem, most districts need certified professionals to oversee and help process mandated special education paperwork. Schools abound with helping industry jobs.

Others on the periphery of the helping industry still reap benefits. Attorneys do well for themselves, whether they’re suing or defending school districts, or representing adult clients seeking assorted damages. Universities pay professors to train future members of the helping industry. Don’t forget: these future members are paying tuition just to be part of the exchange. Educational publishers and special products manufacturers can charge what they wish because school districts and other organizations have to buy their products, sometimes by court order. Even those infrastructure projects are part of the revenue stream, because someone is getting paid to lay the concrete. Taking time to think about the layers of support quickly reveals a multitude of professions and trades taking part in the helping industry.

Some questions linger regarding whom the helping industry benefits most. Of course, those receiving services benefit. Without services, some disabled individuals would die, so benefit is quite clear. The role of the helping industry is curious, as it exists because of those who aren’t able to adequately participate in our society without assistance. It will exist as long as there are people with great need. Helping industry workers tend to have intentions other than profit. They aren’t merely exploiting individuals with disabilities, but most wouldn’t do what they do for much less than they make. Supporting others is their livelihood. They might act out of a sense of compassion or obligation, but the existence of disabled people pays for their furniture, vacations, and health insurance. The ultimate beneficiary might not be any group of people, though. It might be the local and even national economy.

The helping industry is gigantic. It owes its expansive growth to the civil rights petitioning of the mid-to-late Twentieth Century. Much of what happens in the helping industry happens in the name of protecting the rights of individuals with disabilities. This is true in schools, especially regarding students who may be so disabled that educational benefit is highly questionable. The law still requires schools to provide an education. Protecting rights is important, but helping industry workers come to their professions with some desire to improve the immediate lives of those who will be in their care. True as this many be, they also join their fields because they will get paid.

Critics too often miss this aspect of providing for society’s most needy people. The helping industry could be seen as a form of vicarious public assistance. Any such entitlement exists so people without means can continue to take part in the marketplace. No, the helping industry doesn’t necessarily allow disabled children or adults to participate directly. It may help some reach this level of independence, but most often it won’t. It does ensure the existence of individuals with disabilities, especially severe disabilities, isn’t merely something for taxpayers to begrudgingly shoulder. The costly enterprise of providing support is really an economic stimulus. One would be repulsively insensitive to reduce the importance of disabled individuals to that of economy boosters, or to view their struggles as fiscal assets. Beyond such reasoning, one would be naïve not to recognize the helping industry as being helpful to more than just those receiving support.

The Helping Industry

The Problem of Staff Quality in Urban Schools

Urban schools tend to struggle with every aspect of their collective mission. Educating exceptionally needy students while struggling to pay electric bills makes for a disheartening endeavor. Compounding this, the public can be less than sympathetic to the travails of these schools and their employees. Taxpayers often see the imbalance between expenditures and results as a reason to cry foul. The public directs most of its scorn at school leadership. However, this same public reserves a fair share for those working at the school level. Having worked at the school level myself, I sadly must admit that an unspoken issue weighing on urban schools is the quality of their employees.

Teachers often take a beating in public forums. My experience as a teacher should make me ready to defend them. I can’t do this without qualifying whom I’m defending. Throughout a fourteen-year career, I worked alongside several remarkable individuals who happened to teach for a living. I was privileged to know talented, dedicated educators whose efforts too often went unheralded. Similarly, I can praise several of the administrators with whom I worked. Many were model leaders. I worked with dozens of para-educators, several of whom could’ve run classrooms themselves. These aides and assistants impressed me as much as the teachers and administrators did. Such consummate professionals represent the hope within urban schools. Then there is everyone else.

I didn’t go to school in a city, but I moved to one to begin my career. As condescending as this may seem, part of what made me think I could teach was recalling the quality of teachers I had as a child and teenager. I figured I couldn’t be any worse than them and if they could do it, I surely could. During college, I felt disappointed and disillusioned that some of my fellow students eventually would be responsible for teaching someone’s children. The gravity of this prospect didn’t hit me until I worked in a large urban district. I soon realized the situation was worse than I could’ve anticipated. All along, I’ve been the first to admit my shortcomings. I’ve recognized where I’ve lacked. What I found in urban schools made me feel overqualified.

As a special education teacher, I usually worked in tandem with a classroom assistant. Before beginning at one school, I remember the principal advising me to be judicious with the kind of contact I allowed the assistant to have with students. His advice confused me until I met my assistant, who told me forthright that she “couldn’t read too good.” I wondered what she was doing working with children in a public school, but I didn’t ask. Over several months, I found her limitation wasn’t unusual. Several of the para-educators had precious little basic reading and writing prowess. Attempting to see this as something positive, I thought perhaps this boded well for the employability of the students I taught.

The aides and assistants weren’t the only limited staff members. Though I met wonderful secretaries, I met many others who seemed only slightly more competent than the students in our charge. Several of the school police officers I knew were valuable assets to schools, but several others were liabilities. For every knowledgeable and effective counselor, therapist, or librarian I met, I unfortunately met others who shouldn’t have been responsible for any part of anyone’s education.

What disappointed me most were the teachers around me. Special educators tend to share data, so I had many opportunities to read my colleague’s writing. Doing so revealed grave incompetency. I shivered knowing these people taught literacy skills. The impression they must’ve made on parents made me embarrassed for the profession. Too many were too disorganized to handle their responsibilities. I often scratched my head wondering how these people would manage in the private sector. I realized they couldn’t. Perhaps that was why they were teaching.

My disappointment didn’t end with teachers. I met administrators barely able to form complete sentences. When administrators sent home letters to parents, I sometimes cringed upon looking at the quality of the letters. In meetings with parents, I’d writhe listening to some administrators speak. I wondered what hope there was when leaders lacked fundamental literacy.

The issue that stands out to me is urban schools draw many of their employees from their communities. This makes many employees of urban schools products of the schools themselves. Knowing what is known about the competencies of students leaving these schools should make this prospect alarming. Some urban schools graduate entire classes of students who hadn’t scored at basic levels on state reading and mathematics assessments. Graduates of these schools who go on to work in city schools become part of a cycle of educational inbreeding. Their only experiences are with dysfunctional schools. While they might relate well to the students in these schools, their possibly deficient skills and warped expectations are undeniable detriments.

I’ve seen several examples of how urban schools weaken themselves by drawing from their own. Over the course of a decade, I took nine student teachers into my classroom. All were students from a nearby university. Only one was a product of the local school district. I can say objectively she was the weakest teacher candidate with whom I worked. Her writing was poor. Her spoken language was a horrendous model for students. Her ability to meet deadlines and manage projects was enough of a problem that it undermined her grades. Making all this worse, she had a propensity to blame others for her inadequate performance. She stood out from her peers in drastically negative ways. Importantly, she had graduated from one of this city’s magnet high schools.

Questionable academic competencies aren’t the only problems urban school graduates bring with them when they become employees. Conduct can be an issue. I’ve witnessed fights between staff members in urban schools. One in particular stands out. It involved a teacher and a classroom assistant, both graduates of the district in which they worked. Each woman had a reputation for being confrontational. However, a fistfight in full view of students was unprecedented for either of them. They had a loud skirmish in the middle of a hallway. After exchanging barbs and gathering a crowd, one took a swing and the fight went to the floor. They rolled together punching and screaming obscenities while teachers and other staff members kept students clear of the melee. They stopped as they got winded. After they separated, the school day resumed for all. Both combatants were in school the next day and for the rest of the week. The principal didn’t report a serious incident. Neither brawler received a formal reprimand. Eventually, the classroom assistant got an assignment to another school, but administration didn’t disclose why. Years later, the teacher resigned following an incident involving a parent and an extended leave of absence.

Brawling is an extreme example of misconduct, but I watched other more subtle types which may have been more damaging. Many teachers would saunter into work in the mornings at their leisure. Those most guilty of this usually weren’t the ones who had gone to parochial schools or suburban districts. These same tardy teachers would be late to meetings and late with requisite paperwork. They were the same ones forgetting to call parents. They were the same ones without sufficient data to support the grades they gave. They were the same ones with attendance problems. Schools are complicated entities and making them run effectively requires a cooperative effort. One can’t expect a school serving needy students to do so effectively with so many weak links.

The weaknesses extend far beyond classrooms and even schools. Large urban districts rely on small armies of support staff in administrative offices. Many of these support positions don’t require college degrees. Graduates of the districts fill a disproportionate number of these positions. They represent the machinery of an urban district. The efficient logistical management of such a district largely rests in the hands of its graduates. I’ve never read anyone suggesting this could be a problem for these districts. Perhaps I’m exaggerating the potential for it to be so, but I have to think the potential exists.

Please understand I’m not suggesting most urban school graduates who go on to work in urban schools end up being part of the problem. I’m confident many of them go on to make the schools they serve better places by fulfilling whatever roles they play. My suggestion is that an unspoken limitation of urban schools could be the poor performance of their homegrown employees. Yes, these schools face more pressing limitations. Insufficient funding, deteriorating facilities, and challenging students come to mind as just a few of these. When reformers look at how to improve these schools, I think an additional consideration should be the competencies of those working in them and for them.

Addressing this could be problematic. States have certification tests in place and if these employees pass them, they’re good enough on paper. Unions push back against calls for stricter reviews of employees at all levels. These districts have positions that must be filled and they have to fill them from somewhere. Certainly, districts can’t discriminate blatantly based on alma maters. Adding incentives to attract employees from outside urban systems might require more than budgets will allow. With such hurdles, what can be done about the issue?

Determining the scope of the issue would be the best start. Beyond my observations, genuine research would help identify just how much of an issue this is. Some tracking between groups of employees with differing educational backgrounds would be needed. Do teachers who come from urban schools have lower college GPAs, lower certification test scores, and lower ratings on the job? How do para-educators from the city do with whatever certification tests or classes they have to take? Do many support staff members come from traditionally underperforming schools? If the answers are what I suspect they will be, some action could be warranted.

Perhaps these districts need to do more to entice their best students to consider working for them. Early forms of internships might catch some promising seniors who may want to try becoming teachers, counselors, or therapists. Following the model some charter schools use, these districts might do well to run magnet schools that focus on administrative office skills as a vocation. Urban education academy schools could be effective (though I know of an urban district that has one of these that does little with the model). Such a school could partner with local universities to become a lab school for teacher candidates interested in urban education. Perhaps some of the student teachers passing through will be motivated to stay. Well-advertised job fairs that reach out to colleges—in and out of the city—could help send the message of need and the notion of districts being worthwhile places to work. Though budgets might limit this, maybe incentives could be used to draw employees from outside the cities. A university partnering with one of these academy model schools might be able to spare some tuition vouchers for those willing to commute to work in cities.

I’ve seen urban education at its lowest. To my disappointment, I’ve felt part of what has weighed down the enterprise has been the tendency of these schools to hire their own. In more instances than I can recount, this seems to have been more of a problem than an asset. Critics of urban schools would be wise to consider this as a contributing factor to the slow progress in these schools. Along the way, I’ve seen the work of outstanding professionals, many of them products of the districts in which they’ve worked. These individuals truly are living beacons of hope. Urban schools can mine their resources differently for their betterment. The talent I’ve seen firsthand convinces me that the mediocrity I’ve seen can be surpassed.

The Problem of Staff Quality in Urban Schools

Questioning the Advocates

Advocating for the rights of students with special needs would seem to be the epitome of a noble cause. Offering a voice to those so often marginalized by circumstance should be praiseworthy. One would think those doing so would have the purest intentions and the kindest hearts. All of this might be true of some special needs advocates. Many may be genuine defenders of dignity. However, taking a moment to consider the nature of their work reveals the possibility of less wholesome intentions.

Identifying special needs advocates is crucial to this analysis. The advocates in question represent children with disabilities and by extension, the families of these children. They do most of their advocacy in schools, typically joining parents for meetings with school personnel or guiding parents through educational decisions. Their role is to support the child and family by assuring necessary services are properly in place. So far, this doesn’t suggest anything ignoble.

This role—and even the word ‘advocate’—may connote ideas of legal representation. In this context, these advocates aren’t attorneys, though their roles may blend somewhat with counsel. Attorneys can be advocates of a sort and many market themselves as such. The role of attorneys in special education is monumental, but exists alongside that of special needs advocates. For the purposes of this article, special needs advocates usually are social workers. They tend to have Bachelor’s degrees, though some may have Master’s degrees. Their level of experience varies greatly, but most have some grounding in social welfare before becoming advocates. Again, nothing about this should undermine their standing, or at least not yet.

Despite a possible overlap in training, the work of special needs advocates differs from that of other social workers. Advocates aren’t supports coordinators working for an agency or county office. Supports coordinators are appointed to connect qualifying families with services. Advocates aren’t case managers working in conjunction with a court or other entity. Case managers are assigned to assist families through periods of distress. In most cases, special needs advocates aren’t appointed or assigned. The greatest distinction from other social workers is families usually hire special needs advocates. Being hired separates the work they do from that of their social worker peers, but doesn’t necessarily indicate any kind of fault.

Special needs advocates sometimes work for agencies or nonprofit organizations, but they just as often work as independent contractors. Families seek them on their own or at the recommendation of other social workers or even attorneys. Currently, no certification exists for advocates, so families can’t necessarily filter for quality when shopping. Though most advocates have social work backgrounds, some become advocates by simply calling themselves such. They might not have relevant degrees or training. Variance in experience would be acceptable and has to exist in any field, but variance in training threatens the sanctity of what advocates do. Without a need for credentials, no assumptions can be made about what expertise an advocate brings to a discussion. This becomes a legitimate problem when the perceived importance of their role is exposed.

Families may bring anyone they wish to most special education meetings. Though schools must let families know who will be present, families have no such obligation. This may seem like an imbalance, but it can be a boon to families. Some parents or guardians will bring extended family members or friends to meetings for support, even if these parties don’t possess any education or social work background. Families who hire advocates hope to have a more informed player on their side. The desire for this is understandable.

Special education meetings can be overwhelming. In addition to absorbing the jargon and barrage of information presented at meetings, families have to be vigilant when facing school officials. These officials may gloss over or downplay issues, especially issues resulting from shortcomings on the school’s part. Officials may try to offer minimal supports and may attempt to hurry parents or guardians into signing off on such programming. Less insidiously, schools may have hundreds of students with special needs and because of this, officials may need to hold a dozen or more meetings per week. Even if officials are forthright, time constraints may result in school teams approaching meetings with an unintentionally impersonal feel. Parents or guardians may feel intimidated and thus hesitant to voice concerns. Considering all of this, the role of advocates begins to feel vital.

Perhaps their role is vital in many cases. This is what can make the involvement of advocates so perilous. Families hope to have an informed party to speak up on their child’s behalf, but they might have someone with a title but little understanding of processes. Having such a person involved in the design of an educational plan can be anything from obstructive to dangerous. Families expect what the advocate suggests to have merit. Sometimes it will have merit, though sometimes it will lack any worthwhile place in the conversation. Intrusions like this bleed into the next problem with advocates: the motivations of families who hire them.

For as contentious as special education can be, most teams—which include family members—handle cases without incident. Uninvolved families and intensely involved families exist at opposite ends of a bell curve, with moderate families making up the bulk of the distribution. The families who seek advocates tend to be the more involved type. Often, their high involvement can be traced to them feeling slighted by a school in some way. They may be justified in feeling this. Many schools struggle with providing for students with special needs and some make grave mistakes and oversights along the way. If a parent or guardian feels a school has been failing to support their child, they’re likely to seek support from a third party. They might seek it because they’re expecting to walk into a fight with a school.

Advocate involvement becomes highly questionable when adversarial parents hire them. True, many parents hire advocates to protect against further school error, but a vast number hire advocates out of defensiveness. Often, the parents are the ones creating the tension. Though this is difficult to quantify, a disproportionate number of parents of special needs children are protective to the point of paranoia. For some, this might stem from the trials of raising a disabled child. For others, the combative stance against schools may result from their own school experiences. It also may be a function of cultural upbringing. Some families come from communities in which schools aren’t trusted or valued. Whatever the reason, advocates frequently accompany quarrelsome families seeking to do battle with school officials.

The advocates who work with these cantankerous families are almost predatory. To justify their involvement, they have to find something wrong with a school’s program for the child. The parent or guardian may have identified this from the onset as it may be some kind of perennial issue. Sometimes no such issue exists, or if it had existed, the team has addressed it. The advocate may feed ideas to a parent or guardian about services or programs that should be in place. While these might benefit the child, the advocate usually isn’t someone with enough of a background in pedagogy to make worthwhile recommendations. Hearing the advocate’s message may place an unshakable notion into a parent or guardian’s head, which can be problematic if the service or program isn’t available or necessary. Furthermore, even if an issue has been resolved, the advocate may need to pick at the school looking for some new issue as a way of staying relevant and needed. This tendency towards self-perpetuation can create unneeded headaches for schools.

Most advocates indeed work for families by hire. A small contingency are appointed, and sometimes by the school. The majority of these are educational surrogates. They make educational decisions for children living in foster or group homes when legal custodians aren’t in place. Though they represent some of the most vulnerable students in schools, their qualifications are the most wide-open of the advocates. Again, some work for agencies and are social workers, but others have scattered credentials and may be on the cusp of adult literacy and functionality. Like the advocates who need to justify their continued involvement, appointed educational surrogates appear most valuable and retainable if they can score some windfall for students they represent. Nobility erodes under these pretenses.

The most troublesome advocates are those with poor understanding of special education protocol plus a misguided desire to defend a student against perceived injustice. Some feel driven to act as civil rights defenders when a child’s civil rights aren’t in jeopardy. They may be acting earnestly, but too often they unnecessarily complicate proceedings. Pushing for legal action is common. Litigation can help a child get a needed provision, but also it can tie up a school’s resources. When legal action is sought for something a child doesn’t genuinely need, the only party benefitting may be the advocate who pushed for litigation.

A related but sensitive issue involves the children often represented. Advocates frequently work on behalf of student with profound disabilities. The ultimate benefit of whatever service or program is in dispute might be marginal at best for these students. Situations such as this again may cause observers to wonder who the advocate’s efforts serve.

Whether advocates are self-serving or delusional, what they do can be seen as exploitative. They can offer a valuable service when supporting families who struggle to navigate the confusing waters of special education. Their assistance is less welcome when they’re poorly informed or when they’re helping families pick unnecessary fights with schools. At their worst, advocates use the predicament of disabled young people as a platform for profit or a sense of civil self-fulfillment. They may resemble the stereotype of vulture attorneys, but they have significantly less expertise. This can make them a costly liability. Much like other phenomena in special education, the work of advocates would seem to full of golden intentions, but is actually steeped in conflict and complexity.

Questioning the Advocates

Revealing Sentiments Through Contradictory Messages

Special education as a field is larger than the provision of services within schools. A massive network makes special education happen. This network includes disparate parties, some of whom are in occasional conflict. For the scope and diversity of the network, there appears to be uniformity in cause. On the surface, all involved seem to agree that children and young adults with special needs deserve equitable opportunities. The consensus appears to be these students are worthwhile members of society regardless of their disabilities. Such sentiments are popular and almost taken for granted. However, some doctrine and practice within this network might suggest an unstated lack of unanimity over these notions of value and could even suggest opposition to them. When pressed, many champions of children with special needs may reveal unexpected division in their sentiments. These champions might not realize they harbor such dissonance until pressed. The admission could be upsetting and unsettling.

The first indication of this wavering sentiment comes from the law. The genesis of special education law indicates not all have felt convinced children young people with disabilities deserve a place in public schools. Examining the 1960s and 1970s, no lawmakers spontaneously sat together and decided to enact laws forcing school districts to educate the most needy and least capable students within their catchment regardless of cost. This reform came after years of lobbying by parent organizations. Though reform efforts found support from prominent political friends, the laws that ensure contemporary special education developed primarily in response to pressure from a dedicated advocacy lobby. In short, legal pressure, not goodwill, made special education exist. School districts had to be dragged into compliance. The constant battles between districts and parents demonstrate how districts continue to struggle with providing what the law demands. Take the laws away and replace them with the mere spirit of goodwill and one may have difficulty picturing districts spending so disproportionately on special needs students. Goodwill might not be enough to open the coffers.

Another gauge also stems from the law, but is more connected with how the law is written and what it implies than with how it came to be. The push in special education is towards general education assimilation. Schools must educate students with disabilities alongside their non-disabled peers to the greatest extent possible. According to the law, any variation from the content or delivery of the general education curriculum is a restriction. These restrictions are to be avoided. A major aim of special education law is to minimize any form of exclusion. In doing so, the law by default suggests specialized, exclusive educational programming is less desirable than general education, even if it happens to be matched to a student’s needs. A natural conclusion is that special education isn’t just different; it is less than. Special education becomes an undesirable consolation for those not equipped to handle general education. By extension, the implication is network members are conceding to give children with special needs something that might suit them, but isn’t optimal.

While the law is necessary for special education to exist and schools are primarily where special education happens, the public face of the field remains the children who need the services. The way society receives these children gives further evidence of divided sentiment. Over decades, a culture of acceptance has emerged through campaigns to educate the public about people with disabilities. The societal response has been evident from media portrayal to language use. Unfortunately, beyond improved educational opportunities and increased public politeness, meaningful participation in society for people with disabilities continues to be grossly limited by ability. Opportunities are contingent upon what infrastructure can accommodate. A simple ratio is the more disabled the person, the less likely meaningful adult outcomes will be. Many occupations just aren’t available to people with certain limitations. If a person lacks requisite abilities, that is an absolute. Special education can’t fix this. Advocacy efforts have made some impact, but outcomes remain only slightly better than several decades ago.

Today, the general public may have an improved understand of disabilities and may be more sensitive to people with disabilities, but yawning yet unspoken barriers stand between understanding and true acceptance. While popular public sentiment might promote acceptance, no one wants a person with drastic limitations doing their taxes, fixing their plumbing, or minding their children. Would even the most dedicated advocate of special education want a person with poor motor control or limited vision assisting during a dental procedure? How would that advocate feel about having a person with a severe behavior disorder paint their bedroom? These examples hedge on facetious, but in truth, opportunities are scare. They’re scare because of the nature of disabilities as much as because a lack of acceptance. One creates the other in some instances. Meanwhile, much of what is in place for people with disabilities is artificial and exists as state-supported charity efforts. Those within the field may wish to remedy this, but the larger consensus seems to be keeping adults with special needs occupied but safely out of the way is adequate.

A more challenging schism to define appears in the patronizing nature of efforts to support children with special needs. Publicity campaigns for charitable organizations tend to rely heavily on emotional appeals, suggesting that children with special needs deserve help out of universal pity. Some are more empowering than others, but many insultingly state the obvious by reminding the public that people with disabilities are indeed people. From there, a common suggestion is people without disabilities should help out of some sense of guilt. The lack of balance in this suggestion is staggering.

In schools, lack of balance manifests itself in relationships. Peer partnerships with disabled students are inherently imbalanced, with non-disabled students often being able to use the experience as service learning. Non-disabled students volunteer to help the poor, pitiful disabled students and get patted on their backs for doing so. College students and community volunteers will do the same. The nature of their interactions calls into question the tense balance between altruism and self-importance. How much of the motivation comes from that pat on the back?

The motivations people have for entering the field continue this imbalance. Special education teachers frequently seem to enter the field because of someone in their lives with a disability rather than a sense of the field’s worth. Some come to the field because of their own disabilities and a drive to give back. Would any of these individuals have sought the field had it not been so close to them? Many who work directly with disabled children cite a sense of obligation to serve based on their faith rather than on purely intrinsic desire. They do so more because their faith tells them charitable work is worthwhile than because they feel people with disabilities deserve equity. The two notions don’t have to exclude one another, but the former dilutes the sincerity of the latter. Public perception of those working in the field is largely sympathetic. The general public often considers those who provide services to be special themselves for having the patience to deal with disabled children. This sentiment is telling. The subtlety in these relationships also is telling of how people in this network often act on external motivation and how those observing from the outside continue to view special needs children as a liability.

The culture of acceptance also has limits, which reveals even more about honest sentiments. Who accepts the student with an emotional disturbance who rapes? Who wants to tolerate the extremely aggressive student with a brain injury who punches his support staff without any noticeable provocation? Who wants to be near the student with cerebral palsy who cannot stop biting herself all day and has cognitive functioning too low to measure? Again, these are extreme examples, but even the more commonplace examples suggest implicit lack of acceptance. Many of the personality traits associated with particular disabilities are the exact opposite of what people seek in friends, partners, and coworkers. Some of the behaviors closely associated with disabling conditions are targeted through interventions meant to extinguish them. Extensive behavioral programming exists to undo or prevent the behaviors that come naturally to some children. Purporting that a child’s natural inclinations need to be eradicated counters any pretense of acceptance.

The cracks continue to show when examining interpersonal relationships. Caregivers often admit the strain and exhaustion of dealing with children with special needs. Special education teachers give away their feelings when they admit relief on days certain students are absent. Even parents admit this when seeking in or out of home respite care or similar services. These sentiments smack of tacit tolerance and not unconditional acceptance.

Perhaps the most poignant example of contrary sentiment is in the campaigns to prevent the existence or recurrence of disability-causing conditions. Gigantic charities exist to raise money for research meant to help prevent certain conditions from forming. The idea of accepting people with cerebral palsy or autism or muscular dystrophy becomes questionable when such institutions are in place to stop new cases. Such campaigns shouldn’t be surprising. Parents don’t hope their children are born with disabilities. Isn’t the prominent parental imperative to desire the best possible lives for children? Can children have the kinds of lives their parents brought them into the world to have when they’re born with disabling conditions? Are there parents who would refuse to take away their child’s disability if they somehow could do so? The concept of unconditional love is noble, but few parents of children with disabilities would turn from a chance to change conditions. Acceptance becomes more and more like a concession when considering all of this.

These antithetical sentiments are hidden but easily revealed. Notions of equity appear to be less genuine upon examination of the behaviors and attitudes of those in the network. The idea that children and adults with special needs belong in our society meets with uncomfortable shrugs when the idea of how to make this happen is questioned. This isn’t to say the entire field is a farce. Instead, it suggests people within it subscribe to an ideal, but half-heartedly or without complete understanding. People want to believe they do what they do for justifiable reasons. People want to feel good about doing what they think is right. These same people might not realize discrepancies between ideals and practices. Supporting children with special needs might serve the members of the support network more than the children themselves. Even contemplating this likely would make many dedicated professionals feel ill at ease. Again, this isn’t to attack what people in this network do. It is to say conflicting sentiments undermine the concepts of equity and value so many in the field would appear to unilaterally advocate. The entire field sends a mixed message to anyone paying attention enough to notice it.

Revealing Sentiments Through Contradictory Messages

Special Education Teachers: Soldiers Misled Into Battle

Special educations teachers have a mission. They come to it willingly, and many are eager to engage it. Before starting the mission, they don’t know all the details, but they have some sense of its urgency. The mission begins and these green soldiers meet doubt. Odds appear greater than anticipated. Casualties mount. Dread encroaches. Many begin to question if they can accomplish their mission, or if anyone could. In droves, the soldiers flee. A few survive to recount the horrors of battle.

Dramatic metaphors don’t capture the essence of what special education teachers face. New and veteran special education teachers have a job that hedges on impossible. This isn’t to make excuses for the performance of these teachers or their students. Instead, this is to emphasize the possibility that special education as a field asks too much of the undertrained few who come to the fight. Please understand: it is a fight.

Three principle perils await special education teachers. They don’t receive enough training to do what they need to do. They play too many roles to be able to adequately fill any of them. Finally and most importantly, far too much is a stake at their level of accountability.

The first peril meets them before they start teaching, yet they don’t recognize it until far too late. Teacher training programs focus on pedagogy. These programs stress the use of specially designed instruction to address differences in learning styles and capacities. Content tends to be abstract and theoretical. New teachers too often enter the field with scant exposure to crucial legal and procedural obligations. This is dangerous for everyone involved.

The effectiveness of teacher training programs is questionable. Many prospective teachers get precious little opportunity to practice applying the theory they’ve learned. Certification requirements vary tremendously across states. Because states need warm bodies in classrooms, programs feel some pressure to graduate as many teachers as possible. Weak candidates may receive teaching credentials. The quality of incoming candidates is another issue, as special education majors historically have carried lower SAT scores than most other education majors. This is in contrast with their high GPAs, making suspect the stringency of these programs.

Special education teachers must fulfill several roles for which they aren’t likely to be prepared. Unlike those teachers who must be experts in a specific content or skill area, special education teachers must be experts on students and their disabilities. However, the range of disabilities they may encounter is far too wide for them to know how to engage each. These same special education teachers also must know content, whether or not they’ve had training in it. They could be charged with teaching content to the students on their caseloads. Along with knowing the content, they must know how to adapt it to the needs of a school’s most vulnerable students. Per their training, they’re more likely to know how to adapt material than teach it outright. While doing this for their needy students, special education teachers sometimes must act as de facto counselors. All teachers must be sensitive to emotional needs of students, but for teachers of students with special needs, anticipating and responding to emotional needs may be the priority. Added to this mix is a constant barrage of complicated and time-sensitive paperwork. This paperwork can eclipse all other priorities in a special education teacher’s workday, a fact preparation programs seem to downplay. Balancing these roles is asking much from a person with a Bachelor’s degree.

Special educations teachers have another role, and one which is more nuanced than any their general education peers fill. As IEP coordinators, special education teachers must be the intermediary between the school and the parent regarding all aspects of a student’s program, including progress. They must oversee all the services a student is supposed to receive. Parents can be at odds with schools regarding progress and services. Special education teachers sometimes inherit battles started long before they had any involvement with a case. Being the mouthpiece of the school can be tense when the school has to report something the parent won’t like. Though administrators may assist, special education teachers frequently are the ones in the proverbial trenches fighting with adversarial parents.

Conflict between the school and parents is the core of the final peril. Special education teachers must deal with the most litigious area of education. The entire field of special education started from lawsuits and it has grown largely because of additional lawsuits. Most of what happens in special education is either a response to a legal precedent or a protection against further litigation. More than any other teachers, special education teachers must remain vigilant with record keeping and reporting. Special education law allows multiple ways for parents to seek damages from schools. Special education teachers step into crosshairs when they take their jobs. Mistakes don’t merely have the potential to disrupt a student’s progress; mistakes can end up costing a school district tens of thousands of dollars. This pressure is particular to those who sign up to teach exceptional students.

The flight of new special education teachers from the field shouldn’t be surprising. Considering what they face, the number who stay should be more of a surprise. These idealistic champions of disabled students take on a mission requiring more of them than they might realize. The scope of the job is broader than any other in education. At a time when other professions are specializing, the field of education relies on teachers with slapdash training to deal with its most nebulous and cumbersome issues. The greatest non-surprise should be the poor reports coming from the front lines. The field puts soldiers in an unwinnable war.

Special Education Teachers: Soldiers Misled Into Battle