A Gap in Expertise

I participated in close to 300 IEP meetings in my career. For more than half of these, I acted as the IEP coordinator. I chaired the remainder as the local education agency (LEA) designee. Most of these meetings included related service providers such as occupational therapists, physical therapists, and speech language pathologists. Something became apparent to me after the first few meetings. The therapists seemed to know their jobs better than the teachers knew theirs.

My lack of confidence accentuated this apparent imbalance. Those early IEP meetings intimidated me. Although I had ample student performance data and solid suggestions for appropriate goals, I really didn’t know what I was talking about. The reading and mathematics levels I had collected were abstract and I couldn’t offer much elaboration. I had no answers for how to improve competencies for high school students. Any interventions or strategies I recommended were generic and largely based on common sense. I had little business calling myself an expert of any kind. Roughly half the teachers around me shared my level of experience and doubt.

Meanwhile, the therapists on the IEP teams were veterans. Most had poise distinct from the teachers I knew. No matter how much data I had, they had more. Their contributions were clinical and thorough. They spoke with certainty about their methodology, findings, and recommendations. Their conversations with parents were concrete, involving treatment plans and equipment use. I tried to speak in such measurable, quantifiable terms. What I had to say sounded like filler after the therapists spoke.

Experience only solidified my sense that therapists were the more reliable experts. As the special education liaison of one school, I oversaw every piece of special education paperwork created by staff. Documents showed the contributions of teachers alongside the contributions of therapists. Nearly without fail, the teachers included less performance data than the therapists did. Typically, the data provided by teachers lacked the specificity of what the therapists submitted. Therapists routinely gave paragraphs of highly detailed information, while teachers too often gave raw performance levels and a few vague sentences about aptitude and attitude. This disparity stood out in reevaluation reports and IEPs. If I noticed it, discerning parents likely noticed it as well.

I found notable gaps in other areas. Therapists were mandated to record treatment notes. Their treatment sessions were billable, thus requiring strict documentation. When dealing with sensitive cases, I had to request anecdotal records from teachers. This could be revealing. While some teachers were fastidious, a few didn’t keep these records. Others kept piecemeal records that only undermined the school’s defense. Without mandated accountability, many teachers slacked in record keeping.

Disputes with parents further highlighted the gap. Therapists approached disputes with greater assurance than teachers did. Their treatment plans were based on medical prescriptions. They could support their positions with copious notes and detailed assessment results. Rarely did I see teachers have comparable ammunition when approaching conflicts with parents. Therapists seldom backed down (although sometimes doing so would have simplified matters). Teachers often cowered.

The difference existed across schools. Being a special education liaison at a special education center school, I sometimes presented to groups of therapists from other buildings. I did so at their professional developments and I sat in on these. The content of their sessions impressed me, as it was more clinical than similar sessions for teachers. I understood why. Reading and mathematics level tests aren’t especially precise instruments. Test-taking strategies are little more than notions of what might help. Classroom management techniques can hedge on ridiculous. In contrast, treatment models used by related service providers have a medical basis and can be highly specific. The differences between conversations in a room full of therapists versus a room full of teachers shouldn’t be surprising.

These observations reflect a broader circumstance. Occupational therapists, physical therapists, and speech language pathologists all must have Master’s degrees before practicing. Special education teachers only need a Bachelor’s degree to teach. With alternative certifications tracks and outright desperation in some states and school districts, many teachers begin with scant credentials. Teachers must validate their certifications through continuing education in some states, but often they can use accumulated credits rather than an additional degree. A popular suggestion is that teacher-training programs should be offered only at the Master’s level, thereby forcing candidates to get a separate Bachelor’s degree first. This won’t be plausible in states with dire teacher shortages and attrition rates.

The importance of this gap is another matter. Teacher preparation, in particular for special education teachers, sends possibly ill-prepared recruits into the field. Despite this, most teachers figure out what they must do while on the job. They usually figure it out well enough to thrive. The majority of teachers I’ve known have done so. If teachers can do their jobs, then they need not be compared with other school professionals. Unfortunately, their ability to do their jobs is a matter of perception.

Parents who are paying attention may well notice differences in the quality of data and recommendations teachers and therapists provide. Closing this gap might not be possible, because most therapies by nature are more precise than teaching. The expertise gap threatens to taint the image of special education teachers to some parents. Teachers can appear to be the least knowledgeable members of IEP teams. I listened to parents point out discrepancies while reviewing documents and during meetings. When parents questioned therapists, they tended to disagree with findings. When parents questioned teachers, they tended to criticize the absence of evidence. The latter is more problematic for schools in due process cases.

Special education teachers should be specific and detailed in what they present and suggest. They should emulate the level of professional exactness demonstrated by other IEP team members. This isn’t to save face. It isn’t to provide data for the sake of data. Small actions that dignify the field raise standards for all involved. The gap I’ve described won’t close in the near future, but teachers can improve their craft via the example of their teammates.

A Gap in Expertise

Considering Alternate Diplomas and Certificates for Students with IEPs

Students with IEPs often have atypical school experiences. They might follow the general education curriculum with some support, or they might work on learning to get dressed. Performance expectations vary with their disabilities. Unsurprisingly, their paths to graduation diverge from the norm.

Options for completing high school are broader for students with IEPs than for their peers. Most graduate according to whatever requirements are in place for the majority of students. Others graduate by meeting their stated IEP goals. A few exit school at twenty-one more than they truly graduate. Their programs stop regardless of their progress.

Recognizing the various graduation paths for special education students and how these differ from traditional paths, states and school districts have responded with multiple ways to acknowledge program completion. Controversy begins here. The initial question is about equity, but surrounding circumstances are more about accountability. If students with IEPs complete non-traditional paths to graduation, how should their efforts be noted? Should they get traditional diplomas regardless of requirements, or should they be awarded in a way reflecting their actual achievements? Answering these questions can be complicated and revealing.

A dominant trend in education is adherence to standards. The bulk of students with IEPs follow a standards-based curriculum, but even these students veer from general education expectations by leaning on IEPs. Their defenders say accommodations grant equitable and comparable opportunities, therefore these students deserve typical diplomas. This argument becomes strained for students needing modified content.

Select students with IEPs work towards standards, just not grade level standards. The vagueness of and redundancy between standards reduces the significance of grade level adherence. However, a high school student following a functional academic curriculum based on rudimentary skills plainly isn’t doing high school work. Comparisons completely cease for students working on basic life skills such as feeding and hand washing. Looking beyond the curriculum, many students with IEPs are either excused from having to actually pass statewide competency tests required for graduation, or they can take alternate tests. Some of these same students can be excused from required senior projects. The truth is many students with IEPs do not have to complete traditional high school requirements.

Alternate means of recognizing program completion are reserved primarily for these students. States use certificates of attendance or achievement, vocational diplomas, and even special education diplomas. Certificates show that students participated in or completed a program, but the program wasn’t based on general education standards or curricula. Special education diplomas do the same, but usually after credit, course, and performance criteria have been lessened.

By qualifying the degrees awarded to students with IEPs, states and school districts acknowledge that these students followed alternate paths to graduation. To counter the argument of those claiming students with IEPs still deserve traditional diplomas, the qualified degrees recognize the equitable work the students have performed while specifying the nature of this work. This doesn’t satisfy all decriers. A debate over fairness could ensue, but state and school district motivation for these different degrees isn’t about fairness.

Before discussing the genuine motivation, consider what high school diplomas are worth to the general public. They are cheap. Most people have one. Possessing one is taken for granted in some sets. Not having one garnishes more attention. To some, a high school diploma may represent a momentous accomplishment. To most, it doesn’t.

Further diminishing their value is what they offer, or perhaps what they don’t. Earning potential for those with a high school diplomas alone lags behind those with nearly any form of post-secondary education or training. Conversely, in the most blighted communities, the difference between having and not having one might be nil due to the community’s dearth of opportunities. This can make bothering to get one not seem worth the effort.

Value becomes more questionable upon examining graduation paths for general education students. Examination quickly spirals into philosophical inquiry. Some high schools are more rigorous than others. Courses of study within them have varying demands. Graduation rates are low enough in certain schools that essentially handing out diplomas is necessary to offset attrition. Every student is different, leading to notions of equitable difficulty for students in vocational versus advanced programs. Even as efforts mount to solidify national standards, can any two diplomas be considered equivalent indicators of aptitude and accomplishment?

This returns the discussion to students with IEPs. Apparently, graduation paths vary for all students. Arguing that awarding diplomas to students with IEPs diminishes diploma value is nearly facetious. Diplomas already carry low value. Furthermore, relatively few students have IEPs. The value of a diploma might matter most to the special education student. It could be his or her terminal degree and possibly the highlight of a resume. Students and parents haven’t been clamoring for alternate recognition. Even if these students aren’t strictly beholden to standards, why not just award diplomas in all cases?

Again, the issue isn’t just about fairness or value. It isn’t merely a matter of accurately recognizing achievement. States and school districts have another motivation: accountability.

Under the ESEA/NCLB, states and school districts must report graduation rates. The states establish criteria. Many states include competency tests with their requirements. Credit completion within a standards-based curriculum is required by most. Students with IEPs can jeopardize performance on these measures. If states change graduation requirements for these students and offer alternate paths that all lead to graduation (with corresponding and legitimizing recognition), states can assure improved graduation rates while preserving test averages.

The alternate paths benefit states and school districts. They might undermine outcomes for students. Most students receiving certificates or alternate diplomas won’t seek competitive employment or post-secondary education. For the few who do, employers or programs might not accept diplomas that come with a disclaimer. Those touting the rights of these students can continue to argue that equitable effort deserves equitable recognition while claiming alternate diplomas or certificates impede post-secondary outcomes. Whenever anyone perceives right infringement involving students with disabilities, litigation is likely to follow.

The issue becomes more complicated as tests are considered. Counter-intuitively, many anti-testing parents are seeking to have their children identified for services to get support for or even exclusion from standardized tests (previously, parents sued to have their identified children tested like all other students). More insidiously, poor performance on standardized tests could become a new compensatory education opportunity for parents. Attorneys might successfully suggest students fail not because of inappropriate tests, but because schools didn’t effectively address deficient aptitudes. Why wait until now to press for this? The tests provide detailed, criterion-referenced evidence. States and school districts could be wise to keep these students away from such tests.

So what is best? In the spirit of special education, there isn’t a best. Rather than states absolving some students from requirements out of self-preservation, graduation criteria and acknowledgements should be IEP team decisions. According the IDEA, they already are. State level planning hasn’t reflected this exactly. States have been putting options in place, which seems like a special needs-sensitive move until motivations are considered. IEP teams must be assertive. The importance of transition planning can’t be over stated. Conversations about transition must be thorough, forward thinking, and realistic. As mentioned in a previous post, such conversations aren’t easy to cultivate. The point, as always, must be what will work for the student.

Considering Alternate Diplomas and Certificates for Students with IEPs

A Question for Those Embarking on Their Careers

Working with student teachers was one of the highlights of my career. I served as a cooperating teacher for nearly a decade. Even after leaving the classroom, I continued my involvement with them by presenting sessions on special education protocol and holding practice interviews. I volunteered to do all of this. I’m glad I did so.

My connection with student teachers was rewarding. I felt a need to share my knowledge and insight with those entering the field. This need stemmed from my positive experience as a student teacher. I had a splendid cooperating teacher and supervisor. They were instrumental in my decision to continue with my career path. Their push was crucial, because I had doubted whether or not I wanted to teach. I didn’t commit until near the end of my assignment. The system of priming teachers turned out to be pivotal for me. As I advanced in my career, I carried a desire to give back to this system.

Giving back resulted in reciprocal relationships. I enjoyed helping them hone their craft while imparting what wisdom I could. All throughout, they helped me grow, even if they didn’t realize it. I felt I had to be at my best while they were in my classroom. Their presence improved my performance. They rejuvenated me too, as their enthusiasm helped me shake off some cynicism. Although I sometimes felt humbled by how they were able to take over my classroom with such ease, I appreciated what they brought out of me.

I’m now on the outside of the field, having essentially fled it. I maintain contact with some former students and colleagues. The colleagues include former student teachers. Despite these remaining connections, I no longer have that direct connection with those staring at the field. I might lack that connection, but I do have this platform as a way to reach prospective teachers.

I posed a question to many of the student teachers with whom I worked. I never expected any of them to answer it. In fairness, I didn’t expect them to be able to so early in their careers. The question seemed crucial, so I encouraged them to remember it and reflect on it at a future juncture. I’ll never know how many formed an answer.

As a way of continuing my connection with anyone considering special education as a career, I’m going to offer the question here. It requires some context. I’ll provide that and then I’ll pose the question directly.

By several measures, special education is a failure. If the goal is merely the provision of services to qualifying students, it more or less succeeds. If instead the goal is to engender qualifying students with the aptitude necessary to functionally participate in adulthood, evidence points to sorely disappointing results. Students with IEPs drop out at rates higher than those without. In some districts, more than half of students with learning disabilities drop out. Think about that: as many as half of the students on an elementary level special education teacher’s caseload—the students he or she gives to every day—might not go on to graduate. Worse scenarios exist. Urban districts serve students with behavior disorders who are nearly as likely to be incarcerated as they are to be employed as adults. Nationwide, unemployment is disproportionately high among all adults with disabilities. Disability benefits are the primary source of income for many former special education students. Such dire outcomes follow decades of special education legislation.

While the field struggles to help students forge independent adult lives, it costs an exorbitant fortune. Students with disabilities routinely cost two to three times more to educate than their non-disabled peers. Those requiring approved private schools or intensive health services can cost as much as a half-dozen general education students. The most disabled and vulnerable students are often the most expensive to teach. This means the students with the least potential tend to have the highest price tags. Special education employs many people, but it consumes resources like no other aspect of education. Unfortunately, it does this while infrequently making a satisfactory difference in post-secondary prospects for those receiving services.

Here is the question, posed directly to student teachers, or to any others about to enter the field: considering all of this, how do you justify the effort and expense that go into special education? Posed another way, how do you explain why schools, states, and our entire society continue with such outlays for such poor results? I’ll offer yet another phrasing: why should we bother?

Having done this for a living, I feel someone signing up to do it needs to be able to answer this question. An answer might help rebuke a critic of the field or explain a career choice to a doubter. More importantly, it might provide a sense of purpose for a new teacher. For some, the answer could veer from any supposed mission. A person simply might need a stable income. One might seek a job with built-in time off. Fine. With what awaits, I think more personal reasons to press on might be helpful.

Special education can be a bleak field. The job can drain the enthusiasm out of the most dedicated teachers. Look at rate of flight from the field if you feel I’m exaggerating. Rolling a heavy rock up a slippery hill has the potential to crush someone. To be more direct, getting up every day to fight a losing battle (or a battle in which victories are quite small) can be demoralizing to the point of driving someone to quit. Without a well-reasoned answer to the above question, I think a new special education teacher’s career could be drastically short, or worse yet, long and miserable.

Much of what new teachers will encounter can’t be taught. When I started, I didn’t realize how dealing with obstinate students who were completely resistant to being taught would feel. I didn’t realize how many parents would be outright combative and how frustrating coping with most irrational among them would be. Dealing with special education bureaucracy wasn’t yet a concern. I hadn’t figured out that I would be a service provider spending at least half of my time staring at paperwork rather than an actual teacher working with students. The desperate imbalance between efforts and results didn’t sink in until after I had started. Hence, I don’t expect incoming teachers to have the perspective to form an answer. This is an inherent problem, but I figure the earlier they can begin to contemplate one, the better.

I might be the wrong guy to ask the question I’ve posed. My aim here is to pose it to others and encourage its consideration. If I can get even one person on the brink of his or her career to pause and reflect on why it might be worthwhile, this article will have served its purpose.

A Question for Those Embarking on Their Careers

A Lingering Need for Clarity

Early in my career as an educator, I believe I became proficient in the art of explanation. I had to explain directions and concepts to students. Most of the students I taught had IEPs, so explaining anything to them could be a nuanced affair. For some students, I had a script to follow when offering simple explanations. Repeating scripted directions the same way every day was exactly what many of my students needed. Procedures or concepts requiring more complicated explanations tested my creativity, but I accepted such challenges. Being a special education teacher also meant explaining documents to parents that some might have otherwise found bewildering. I was comfortable with all of this. I had signed up for it.

As my career unfolded, I found myself having to explain more and more to the adults around me. My job was somewhat peculiar and its requirements changed over time, so I understood to the need to explain what I did all day to friends and family. Few of them had much experience with the population I taught or with special education as a whole. I didn’t mind offering explanations to them, even if I had to repeat myself on occasion. Perhaps they were merely being polite, but many seemed to hang on my words when I shared stories with them highlighting the absurdities of being a special education teacher.

What surprised me throughout my career was how often I had to explain the essence of special education to my colleagues. I’m using ‘colleagues’ in the most encompassing sense. Working with student teachers put me in touch with those on the precipice of their careers. They knew special education more based on what others had shared with them than through their own experiences. I forgave their misconceptions, though I was tempted to fault those who had been responsible for teaching them. I know I left college with only a vague idea of what was to come. Beyond student teachers, I found a lack of clarity about special education among veteran teachers and administrators alike. I could understand my students not being clear about why they had IEPs. I could understand the parents of my students having distorted expectations about special education. Finding fellow teachers and even principals who didn’t get the basic premise of special education reminded me that a large-scale lack of understanding must exist.

This platform will not allow me to redress the issue. I know enough about teaching and learning to know that expressing a message clearly to someone and then having that person repeat it back to me in his or her own words, experience it again using several modalities, and practice using it across environments over time still will not ensure that person will learn anything. This won’t be certain even if I’m keeping strict progress records and employing interventions when necessary. Being a special education teacher did teach me something, I suppose. Understanding this, I’m going to attempt to offer some clarity nonetheless. I’ll do so from this point forward as though you’re a total novice. Ready?

Special education is a service. In practice, it’s a set of supports provided to students with qualifying disabilities. These supports are meant to give identified students access to the general education curriculum to the greatest extent possible. The supports largely consist of accommodations to the delivery of content as well as modifications to the content itself. If per an evaluation a student needs instruction different enough from the general education curriculum to warrant an alternate curriculum, than that is what the student will get. Occasionally, additional services like assorted therapies are needed to help students access the appropriate curriculum. Stated briefly once again, special education is a service.

Importantly, I said this is what special education is in practice. In the United States, special education is governed by the IDEA (the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, if you don’t know), a curious law if there ever was one. The IDEA is a set of protections for students with disabilities and their parents. The protections are in place to prevent schools from infringing upon the rights of students identified as having disabilities. The law does this primarily by putting mandates in place for states and school districts to follow. It also gives the parents of these students ample opportunity to legally cry foul if they feel a school hasn’t fulfilled an obligation. One of these obligations happens to the provision of the supportive services I’ve described. The services are what can be seen and measured in schools, thus constituting special education in practice. On a larger scale, special education is a canopy of legal protections, which includes the supportive services.

At the core of special education law is the notion of Least Restrictive Environment (LRE). Students with disabilities are expected to follow the general education curriculum with the supportive services their teams feel are appropriate. Though services might be necessary, each service is viewed as a restriction according to the law. A strange dichotomy exists in that students are to have as few restrictions as possible, because they have a right to access the general education curriculum unabated. Their LRE is the closest to unabated access the students can get as individuals. At the same time, they have a right to the necessary supportive services, which are seen as restrictions. The balance between these poles is a student’s specific Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE), another concept central to special education law. Perhaps this give and take between LRE and FAPE may appear confusing and at times contradictory, but such is special education in our great land. Perhaps I shouldn’t be so surprised by how many colleagues have struggled to understand all of this.

Here is what special education is not: teaching. Here is what special education teachers have no guarantee of ever doing: teaching. The concept I’ve had to explain to colleagues most often is the basic description of what special education teachers are paid to do. Their job is to provide services. Actual instruction is just one service that a special education teacher might provide. When I reviewed my first job description, it did not contain the word “teach” in any variant. It did contain the word “service” several times. My role was clear from the start. I would design supportive services for students and ensure the effective provision of these services through detailed programs (Individualized Education Programs, or IEPS, to be exact). I might teach skills or content to students, but more likely I would team with another teacher to help him or her implement the accommodations and modifications the students on my caseload needed. As an IEP coordinator, my job was going to be overseeing service programs, not teaching students. Increasingly, this is what most special education teachers do. They support. They make certain services happen. With the exception of those teaching especially needy populations, most do not run their own classrooms. They’re on the payroll to put services in place. Really, they’re on the payroll because the IDEA indicates they have to be.

Explaining special education in these terms has left startled and defeated expressions on the faces of incoming and veteran educators. The truth can do that to people. What I’ve tried to instill in others is the concept of a service model. The analogy isn’t perfect, but essentially the school and its special education teachers provide a service to clients. The clients are students and their parents. They aren’t exactly customers, because they aren’t paying. They have rights that the school must recognize and honor. Services are among these rights. Special education teams are in place to provide these services satisfactorily. Special education teachers get paid to oversee this endeavor of providing services. That is all. They might teach, or they might not. The most important aspect of their job is to design and implement appropriate IEPs for students. Anything else is ancillary and at the discretion of district officials. No matter what nonsense a principal might require of a special education teacher, the law is clear about what that teacher’s job must be.

Feel free to reread if you have to. Make yourself some graphic organizers or mnemonics, or explain what you’ve read to a partner. Trace the word “service” in a sandbox, or do whatever else you need to do to understand what special education actually is. I understand that those getting started in the field could be perplexed, as schools of education typically focus on theory and pedagogy. I was perplexed until I saw that first job description. I understand that students with IEPs could be flustered by their own need for services and that parents could hold misguided ideas about what special education can do. For colleagues under the delusion of being teachers, please understand that even if you do some teaching during the day, teaching is a subset of what you are required to do as a special education teacher under the IDEA. Perhaps the word “teacher” should be stricken from job descriptions and replaced with “special education service provider” or “educational program specialist.” Maybe the existing “IEP coordinator” is clinical enough. Clarity might help those in the field grasp their roles while preventing those investigating the field from signing up for the wrong line of work. It also might prevent me from having to continue repeating myself.

The quiz will be Friday. Of course, if you need extra time or have to take it in a separate room, arrangements will be made.

A Lingering Need for Clarity

Relationships and Blame in Special Education


A complicated and often tense set of relationships is necessary for special education to have a chance at being effective. The roles vary, but the principle players in this dynamic are typically teachers, school administrators, and parents. Notably, students seldom have a role beyond receiving services. The key adults involved in each student’s education form a triad. If those in this triad can work cohesively, they can establish and effectively implement plans for meeting the student’s needs. This happens well enough in most cases. When the corners of this triad are at odds, they allow some of the most profound failures in education.

The education business sometimes resembles an exercise in blame. A consensus that public education is lacking, maybe even failing, exists across several disciplines. Proponents of reform need targets. Those targeted need scapegoats. Criticism begets defensiveness. On a large scale, such castigation and refutation might amount to little more than a clashing of rhetoric. In some instances, however, it might lead to changes in policy and practice. At the school level, the cycle of blame rarely results in anything other than delays and frustration.

Identifying where blame begins is next to impossible. Teachers are most often in the middle of school level conflicts, so beginning with them makes sense. A common coping mechanism for teachers is to pass blame for the various obstacles they face. They can criticize insufficient funding, arbitrary requirements, and even questionable evaluation practices. Attacking systemic inadequacies can be cathartic, but this can’t fix much of a teacher’s work experience. Their more immediate patsies are school administrators. Troubled teachers regularly blame their administrators for making poor or self-serving decisions while harboring unrealistic performance expectations. The sentiment colors interactions and could possibly undermine the will to invest in a school’s mission.

Cynical teachers sometimes hold the parents of their students in contempt. They become exhausted with perceived lack of support. Some cite conditions in the home lives of their students as being insurmountable impediments. Though often correct in recognizing this, teachers too frequently let observations morph into condemnation. Contrarily, teachers might curse parents whom they consider to be too involved. Many teachers grow weary of pressure from parents they feel are combative or excessively demanding. Whether parents seem detached or overzealous, teacher perception can sour the relationships needed for successfully planning and providing effective programs.

Administrators take part in this cycle. When teachers place blame, they usually do so to cope with troubling but immutable situations. Principals, directors, and other administrators have more responsibility and consequently have more to lose. They might feel compelled to finger-point when a conflict or failure threatens the school. Certainly, teachers need to cover themselves as well. Much of what special education teachers do is for the sake of self-preservation. For administrators, the scope of problems is wider. The stakes involved are higher. Thus, administrators might have this vested interest in assigning blame. Not all will do this. Some administrators will stand by their teachers during strife. They might feel professional camaraderie, or they might need to preserve teaching positions as cuts loom. Support and loyalty aren’t necessarily the norm. Many administrators are more than willing to sell their teachers up the accountability river.

Before blaming anyone else, administrators might defend themselves. A common defense is the lack of time needed to address every issue before them. This might be legitimate. School administrators also have the built-in excuse of having to answer to district administrators, many of whom they deem out-of-touch with school issues. The passing of blame doesn’t end with district administrators, as they can cite having to answer to state mandates. They also can abstain from action while claiming school personnel have to resolve their own dilemmas. Again, these excuses have varying degrees of legitimacy.

Questions of legitimacy are more troubling when parents are involved. When facing skirmishes with parents, school administrators regularly choose the least threatening path. They often feel they have to side with parents. They might do so simply because challenging the parents could become a public relations fiasco. Administrators don’t want to appear unsupportive of parents or given to protecting those in the wrong. Because of this, parents have a way of forcing the hands of teachers by pressuring administrators. This might be beneficial sometimes, as some teachers might need a nudge. It also might obliterate morale.

Being within the triad but not on the payroll, parents can blame everyone. Parents of students with disabilities might be in a defensive mode from the start of their relationship with schools. Their own negative school experiences might influence their outlook. They could be frustrated from years of dealing with the perceived shortcomings of other care institutions. Living with and caring for a young person with a disability might have them feeling drained and bitter. A select few might feel some sense of guilt about their situation and might be guarded or prone to lashing out. All of this could strain cooperation with school officials.

Some parents will fault entire school districts for apparent failings. They might view districts as homogenous entities rather than as groups of individuals attempting to fulfill specific roles. Teachers become the face of these entities and the first in line to receive criticism. Parents might blame teachers for everything from poor care to ineffective instruction. Their criticism might be justified, but their expectations might also be unreasonable or tainted. Parents might further criticize or even refuse to work with administrators. As they interact with school personnel, they might favor some over others. They might attempt to play them against one another, worsening everything by doing so.

The role of parents is unique in the triad. The other members readily can be fired or otherwise replaced. Parents tend to be in for the duration. They’re also the wildcards. Though they might be educated and sensible, they’re the least likely team members to have formal training while being the most likely to have histories of mental illness, drug addiction, or legal issues. Finally, in matters of education, they have the most rights and the least responsibility according to the law.

While the triad members shuffle blame, students might suffer. Some students with special needs are highly involved in their educational planning. Due to the severity of their disabilities, others can’t be. They have to rely on the adults in their lives to make sound decisions on their behalf. When adults disagree, crucial programming can be delayed. Useful ideas can get lost amid shouting and petty insistence. Genuinely foolish ideas can end up in programs out of concession. Parties might refuse to act out of pride or stubbornness. Everyone might suffer indirectly when disputes become costly due process battles. Blame can have casualties.

As stated, the triad operates harmoniously most of the time. Unfortunately, it’s most likely to be disrupted where and when it’s most needed, such as in urban schools or with students who have highly exceptional needs. Special education requires more reliance on more parties than general education does. To use an antiquated analogy, the more moving parts a machine has, the more likely it is to break. A preferred contemporary analogy suggests the crowd is able to solve problems more efficiently than the individual can. Repeatedly, case law in special education indicates the first analogy is closest to the current reality of the field. Continuing towards the field’s future, all might be wise to remember the point is to appropriately support students. Special education isn’t an arena for the proud. It’s a service, but this service requires cooperation. Achieving this is up to each individual in each triad. Much like other situations in special education, this can be an asset or a detriment.

Relationships and Blame in Special Education

The Illusion of Safety in Schools

Public response to school violence tends to be shock and disbelief. Such response might be naïve. Perhaps the public should be relieved schools experience so little violence. While school personnel deserve much credit for this absence, school safety might be more in the hands of students than the public would like to believe.

Media outlets give concentrated attention to school shootings. National conversations about gun control and mental illness usually follow these tragedies. News media can host partisan debates and use these to bolster ratings. The public feeds the sensationalism by watching and clicking. Mass shootings in schools have happened most frequently in middle class communities in which people aren’t accustomed to violence. The disturbing familiarity of the victims and even the culprits makes the stories resound in these communities.

These same media outlets give less attention to the daily violence particular to urban schools. Though mass shootings are less common in them, violence can be endemic. Fights happen in all schools, but fights in the crowded hallways of urban schools sometimes escalate into small riots. Staff members in these schools often report fearing for their safety. A culture of antagonism and disrespect may exist. Relationships between staff and students often are tense. Violence can be seconds away at every moment.

In urban schools—perhaps in all schools—safety might be at the consent of the student body. Despite metal detectors, police officers, and cameras, no school is a fortress. No one wants believe civil order in schools might be more a matter of student choice than staff control. Consider for a moment that civil order in the general population largely relies on people choosing to not commit crimes. Anyone can commit a violent act if so moved. Students in public schools are no different. If a student wants to hurt someone, her or she probably can with sufficient planning or bravado. This possibility makes the public uncomfortable, so it gets little attention.

A few weeks into my first year of teaching, I felt a chilling and revealing example of this possibility. I team-taught in a large urban high school. As a special education teacher, I worked with an English teacher to instruct groups of roughly thirty students per class. I gave most of my attention to the ten or so special education students, a few of whom were assigned to my caseload.

A special education student returned to the school following a stint in a psychiatric hospital. This stint was following a brief incarceration, though no one told me why that was needed. The student came to class and introduced himself to me. He dressed loudly and much differently than his peers, but he was polite, articulate, and likeable. His small stature and affable demeanor defied any reputation he may have carried. As class commenced, he involved himself appropriately. Then the police arrived.

Two officers and a vice principal entered the room, interrupting class. They surrounded the student and calmly but swiftly removed him. He didn’t resist. I never saw him again. Later in the day, my supervisor updated me. That morning, the student allegedly forced a girl into a bathroom and raped her—at machete-point. He had a thirteen-inch machete on his person when taken from class. No one knew how he snuck it into the building, or what else he planned to do with it.

This school had police officers patrolling the hallways and security guards at every entrance. Students entered through metal detectors. A freshman circumvented these measures. Had he wished to use that machete in class, my colleague and I could’ve done little to stop him. He simply chose not to attack anyone else. The safety of those around him was at his will. I never forgot that students in any school are under control only as much as they choose to be.

A student dedicated to hurting others might only need the will. The logistics of carrying out an attack in a school probably discourages most potential threats. As demonstrated through attacks resulting in casualties, students can overcome logistics. In most school buildings, an armed student only has to neutralize a security officer to access the campus. Lone assailants are the norm in school attacks, but a small yet organized squadron of students could be devastating. An impromptu mass of students deciding to riot within a school could be close to unstoppable, weapons or not. Though rarely considered and with few substantiating cases, almost nothing prevents a staff member from causing havoc.

Any absence of violence in schools might have more to do with students choosing to be civil than to do with staff control of buildings. Like most adults, most students aren’t inclined to hurt others. The number of students who are inclined is difficult to ascertain, but it is definitely higher than the number who act on the inclination. In light of this, control could be a mirage and safety an illusion. The illusion feels real because of the scarcity of incidents. Security measures help tremendously, but truly preventing further chaos could be the lack of precedent in some communities and the fear of reprimand in others. Again, the relatively small number of students bent on violence might be the most significant factor. We all like to believe the number of students thinking about it is smaller than it probably is.

The Illusion of Safety in Schools

Losing My Faith In The Field

The title of this article is misleading. I entered my teaching career with worn and tattered faith in the field. Being jaded before the start might seem like the wrong way to come to a profession. In truth, I might not have tried to teach had I harbored more respect for teachers and teaching.

As a teenager, my aspirations were low. College seemed like a scam to my teenage mind. I didn’t feel I needed to chase a degree. People did this to get jobs. They sought jobs because they wanted money. They wanted money so they could surround themselves with possessions and security that didn’t interest me. I figured I could adjust my expectations and skip the formalities. At the urging of friends and family members, I applied to one school. I got in. I applied for financial aid. I got a grant and a scholarship. Without a better plan, I gave college a try. I stuck with it long enough to get a degree. Choosing to get this degree in education was a default. I didn’t know what else to do.

What drew me to teaching was how accessible it seemed. I got this sense from my experiences with those who taught me from elementary school through college. As conceited as this may sound, I figured I couldn’t be any worse at teaching than any of them had been. Stated another way, I thought if these people could manage to become teachers and make it through each year without getting fired, so could I. They inspired me, but not in the way they may have intended.

My faith began to disintegrate during elementary school. From there, the rest of my story becomes a retelling of what prevented me from finding it again. Between 1st and 4th grade, I had a succession of teachers given to shouting at children. As a child, I found this odd. The oddness wasn’t just that they chastised students for being loud by yelling at them. The true oddness was that they seemed so bothered by the antics of children. One large male teacher berated his students, becoming frothy and red in the face when doing so. He resorted to insults and sarcasm, neither befitting of an adult paid to teach 9 year olds.

The anger in these teachers convinced me that they were no different from the adults in my family. This disappointed me in two ways. First, I had little respect for my family members. Several had tempers that frightened me while others had a propensity for lying. I found myself wondering how my teachers behaved when they weren’t at work. They might have been under less stress and thereby happier. In contrast, they might have been less reserved and even more hostile. Noticing parallels between my family members and teachers led me to the second disappointment. I had accepted this notion that teachers held a special position in society and that they had earned it by being exemplary in some way. As I noticed how easily they became angered and how much they resembled my family members in this, my teachers became mortal to me. To a young person, this was profound. More revelations were to come.

My stepsister was a decade older than me and attended a local university. When I was in 6th grade, one of her college friends got hired as a substitute at my elementary school. This disturbed me. I knew my stepsister’s friends. These were not smart or wholesome people. I’ll admit being somewhat shocked that a school would hire one of them. Already unimpressed with my teachers, I now saw them as being older versions of this young woman. I was generalizing unfairly. I was assuming too much about competency in relation to behavior outside work. Nevertheless, the impression lasted.

Throughout high school, I scratched my head at how teachers could get away with slacking the way they did. I watched teachers fall asleep during class. A few teachers screamed at students with much fiercer ire than I’d seen in elementary school. I recall a newly hired teacher coming to school with hickeys on her neck. She told us to keep busy while she sat at her desk and essentially passed out. Too many of them couldn’t be bothered to exert an effort. Some couldn’t be bothered to show up. Even as an adolescent, I wondered how people who got the summer off could miss so many days of work. Along the way, I had some dedicated and respectable teachers, but I had at least as many who phoned it in. No, high school did not restore my faith.

College was worse, but in a different way. I’ll admit the quality of my instructors improved. A few were terrible, but a greater proportion was at least competent. My college years shredded my feelings about education not through my professors, but through my classmates. Unsure about a major, I went with the suggestion of a friend: special education. I’d been working with developmentally disabled adults at the time, so I was familiar with the population. My friend convinced me I’d be able to get a job. If I was going to leave with a degree, I reasoned it should be in something that made me employable. I finally declared my major. Next, I met my peers. I watched them trample my broken, crumpled faith and kick it into the wind.

I’m not brilliant. If I were, I probably would’ve found something to do other than teaching. However, the people in my undergraduate education classes indirectly explained so much to me. I shook my head at how vapid they were, all while piecing together answers to long-held questions about the education business. Why should anyone be surprised at the state of public education when these smiling fools were the ones running classrooms? Many, perhaps most of these people were going to become teachers. Parents were going to entrust their children’s education to the rather dim bulbs sitting around me. I realized the people around me were the successors of those who had taught me. I also realized that teaching mustn’t be especially demanding, or maybe the entrance criteria weren’t. My pedestrian coursework reinforced this. I found myself alarmed simultaneously by the quality of teacher candidates and the low threshold for admission to the field.

I ended up graduating and getting a teaching job. My enthusiasm wasn’t exactly gushing. Prior to accepting my first position, I looked for something else to do. Finding nothing suitable, I sighed and went with teaching. The job was at a large urban high school. No one wanted to be there. Everyone from administrators to students wore a scowl all day. Teachers hated their jobs. Many hated their students. The supposed professionals in the building were at constant odds with one another. I thought this tension was a symptom of this dysfunctional school, but I found similar tension in every subsequent school in which I worked. Some had it worse than others, but I never found a place that cultivated high employee morale for long.

Along with low morale, I noticed every school was teetering on the edge of an organizational disaster at every moment. Another illusion of youth is that teachers and principals are in control of what is happening throughout the school day. Working in schools, I realized much of the time, no one really knows what is going on. Communication between professionals is shoddy, decisions are made on the fly, and much of what happens is an afterthought or reaction rather than an informed choice. Over and over, I found myself embarrassed to be associated with the organizations that employed me. I repeatedly had to apologize to parents because of something a school did or didn’t do. I struggled to look outsiders in the eye when I explained to them what I did for a living. I had no faith to give me confidence.

I guess I knew all along. Disheartening experiences confirmed my bleak assumptions. Each time some aspect of public education let me down, I acknowledged I had been right. I didn’t enter the field to improve it. My belief that the field could be improved was gone years before I started in earnest. Because of this, I saw the field as an opportunity to collect a professional salary while having scant skill or expertise. I entered because I figured the field would have me without much effort on my part and because I couldn’t do anything to further discredit it. Maybe I’m discrediting it now by revealing my experiences and sentiments. If so, I don’t feel I’m doing anyone a disservice. They have done that themselves.

Losing My Faith In The Field