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

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