A Few Reasons Nothing Seems to Get Done in Special Education

Everyone who has any contact with special education can attest to its languid pace. Certain processes move forward at a crawl. School employees and parents alike lament this unfortunate tendency. Newcomers to the field gradually become accustomed to it. Everyone involved seems fond of commiserating about the red tape and redundancy. They simply accept this like they accept bad weather. Why?

Some of those doing the complaining might be jaded and cynical. However, others might be accurately describing the reality of special education. It does come wrapped in layers of bureaucracy and regulation. Most of these layers are meant to protect the rights of students and parents, while some exist so schools can protect themselves. Laws inadvertently create some of the gridlock in the field, but certainly not all of it.

One of the fundamental reasons special education moves so slowly is that everyone working in the field has too much to do to get any of it done effectively. This is a generalization, of course. Some schools presumably have adequate staff to serve their relatively small special needs populations. Then there are all other schools, where the effort to meet the demands created by exceptional learners is an exercise in frantic scrambling.

The following is a typical scenario. A school has a set team of special education teachers, related service providers, and administrators. This team might grow based on the number of identified students in the school and the neediness of these students. Then again, it might not. Already busy with providing requisite services, these teams are forced into unsustainable overdrive by requests for additional services by parents and advocates. The professionals who only have so many hours in each workday (and would like to have lives outside work) do what they can to respond to these requests. Their responses routinely fall short, too often because IEP teams agree to do what they probably can’t do. It usually isn’t a matter of competence or will. It’s a matter of time.

As school teams fail to meet demands, more time is lost in attempting to redress the failure. Legal entanglements ensue. Sometimes these end up benefiting students. Often they don’t in any measurable way. While teams are mired in focusing on a few extraordinarily squeaky wheels, other students suffer. Their needs too often get neglected (or at least glanced over) if their parents aren’t as noisy. These parents might become noisy, though.

At the classroom level, special education teachers only can handle so much. Their training isn’t going to cover all the complexities they’ll face. Parents might be aghast to know how little special education teachers actually know about their craft. Teachers make mistakes. They overlook details, which sadly is excusable considering the number of details to which they’re beholden. The missteps result in further gridlock as parents and advocates call out the school.

Administrators have limited ability to help. Many aren’t keenly aware of special education protocols, another fact that chills parents. In truth, special education law is so convoluted that few school officials have more than a slight understanding of it. As much as they’d like to help, administrators often are wrapped up in coping with macro tasks such as budget reviews or micro tasks such as student discipline. They’re busy. They sometimes fail to respond to teachers and parents in a timely manner, thus further delaying processes. Special education administrators similarly are too busy to help all the teachers who are trying to soothe impatient parents. Teachers ask them for support, such as approval to move ahead with certain processes the teachers themselves lack the authority to initiate. Special education directors and supervisors receive dozens of emails every day asking for the same. The best they can do is triage, which tends to favor cases concerning money. Parents don’t like when they find out they weren’t a priority.

Unrealistic demands can hurt progress as well, with many parents upset that special education doesn’t seem to be fixing their children. Frequently, parents seek some kind of refund for the poor results. While difficult to prove, a few attorneys might be preying on this more than they’re advocating for the rights of children. In some schools and districts, staff can lose track of who wants what with the number of dissatisfied parents seeking solutions. Parents are in their right (most of the time) to want more for their kids. When they all ask at once, everyone is likely to get less.

Special education creaks along because of all this. The lack of time and the constant racing sometimes stem from staffing issues, which usually are budgetary issues. Each also has to do with how much is being asked of schools by parents (which sometimes results from schools not being able to provide enough due to said budgetary issues). Meanwhile, mandated timelines seem too short for school teams, but parents sometimes find these to be suspiciously too long. The required paperwork and record keeping bog down everything. Little issues such as actually teaching during the day get in the way of special education teachers attending to everything else demanded of them. When teams rush to make everyone happy, they end up making many people upset. One shouldn’t be surprised with how unhappy many people are in the sphere of special education.

A Few Reasons Nothing Seems to Get Done in Special Education

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