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

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

Changing Services

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

11 thoughts on “What Does the Future Hold for Special Education Teachers? (Part 1)

  1. Hi Jeffrey, I am so, so impressed with this blog entry. I love the way you have explained the new laws and policies. This is quite helpful to me in my own work because I really want to stay tuned with what’s happening in the schools. I assume these are national policies you’re referring to….

    I agree that the disability umbrella has been pushed too wide and needs to be pulled back. My god, everyone is claiming one now. No no no. It actually harms people deeply to call them “DIS-abled.” Just listening to that word makes me cringe. I am vision-impaired now (maybe low vision is a better word because it fits me, being a short person, after all…should short people have low vision???) but I feel like I have better insight and a quicker wit. So am I disabled?

    As a child I spent maybe a week in “special ed.” I was sent there because my teacher was totally fed up with me and finally said, “Julie, if you don’t like it here, I’ll let you change classes. You can change to any class you want.” So I changed to the special ed class. She didn’t expect me to choose that class (I was in “advanced placement”) but now that decades have passed, of course, it makes total sense that I would make this choice.

    Back then, perhaps I would have been labeled with some “behavior problem” such as ADHD. But if you were to ask my mom, I had no trouble concentrating and loved reading. I acted out, but always for a reason. You mentioned ADHD in your post. While it’s true that a doc or social worker I suppose is the one to diagnose this, did you know that it can be diagnosed in TEN MINUTES? Many psych diagnoses are done in ten minutes or less!!! Gone are the days of the real interview. They don’t sit down with kids and listen anymore, nor truly listen to parents’ and teachers’ real concerns. These docs will diagnose arbitrarily anyway. If the doc’s speciality is “childhood bipolar,” the unfortunate kid will end up with that, and there’s no basis for it, either, except the doc’s wallet. My advice is to run fast from these fools.

    So why did I pick special ed? I wanted a few things in life very badly. I wanted to be taller, so I would no longer be picked on. I wanted to stop striking out and hit a home run and be everyone’s hero. Since I wasn’t really growing any faster, and my progress at bat wasn’t making the grade, I seemed doomed forever. However, where did I truly excel? At the academic stuff. In fact, the only time the other kids hung around was Test Day, that day, they wanted to copy my answers!

    So of course I wanted Special Ed! I wanted to be a hero, a leader, not a loser anymore. I wanted to help other people! I wanted to bring people up and bring a smile to other people’s faces. I didn’t want to be the disappointment of the baseball team any longer.

    I like the idea of Universal Design. I know in my heart that accessibility means no one is singled out. No one has to be called “DIS-ABLED.” The UN defines ‘disabled” differently from the US. Their documentation is amazing and worth looking at. Here is the link. I am well familiar with the work of Tina Minkowitz who was hugely instrumental in developing this.




  2. Another thing I have discussed over the years with friends is that in some ways, I’m wondering in light of your questions how the new laws will affect bullying of those perceived as disabled. (Perception including self-perception as well.)

    A friend tells me he was the same way as I am, as is one of his kids. His son, he tells me, also does not know his right from his left. I cannot believe it took neurologists so long (2006!) to figure out that some people simply do not. Well, it’s something spacial going on there. You tell me, “Go to the right,” and I’ll look at you like you asked me to go to the moon. I was a flop at waitressing as well. I can read maps fine, though. There’s something to this, and I don’t think it has been discovered yet. I found that I was more that thrilled to give up driving.

    But as you pointed out, this “dis-ability” thing can go way, way too far. And of course it has happened, both on the medical end via overdiagnosing to the extreme and on the consumer end.


    1. Jeffrey, I applied for a teaching job. Just now! I’m on pins and needles…..

      Anyway, I see your point about the attorney lapping that one up. Oh…just like spilled McDonald’s coffee. Discrimination can often end up a battle of “he said she said” which is why either side might use bias to win a case which may or may not be viable.


      1. Thanks Jeffrey. I did not get the position. Another job application down the drain. I’ve been applying for jobs since 2015, no luck. I was accepted at one that pays so little it’s insulting, well under minimum wage, just busywork really. I feel that going back to it or admitting I have worked for them only undermines my credibility and undermines my master’s degree.


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