What Does the Future Hold for Special Education Teachers? (Part 4)

This final piece focuses on the more immediate future. All three previous pieces (Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3) describe future scenarios in which special education teachers might become marginalized by policy or technology. These changes could be coming, but not just yet. Special education teachers will continue to have a vital and familiar role in schools for many years.

The Horizon Remains Distant

Those seeking to teach students with disabilities will find opportunities.

1. Jobs still are available.

Schools continue to hire special education teachers—plenty of them. Special education is a high-needs area and by most accounts will remain that way long enough for several cohorts of college graduates to find jobs. What about all those factors set to affect the role of special education teachers? They’re coming, but something else is happening and isn’t likely to stop: turnover.

Special education is a demanding career. People quit. Certain schools with large proportions of students receiving services are difficult places to work. More people quit in these schools. Certainly, new positions are created per population growth and a corresponding growth in students needing services, but turnover allows for positions to be available even after being filled just a year or two earlier. Add to this the apparently shrinking pool of undergraduates seeking to become teachers and you have a market in which jobs continue to be out there.

Safeguards exist, too. Thanks to teacher-student ratio mandates on caseloads, many special education positions are protected from budget cuts. In some states, special education teachers are hired from a different budget than general education teachers, which additionally helps to protect these positions. Unless these ratios change through legislation, many positions will be protected out of legal necessity.

Finally, don’t forget about the Baby Boomers who are retiring. That wave started a few years ago. Members of Generation X are still a long way off from retirement, but many have left the field by now out of frustration, leaving positions available for younger candidates and second-career types.

2. Schools will be slow to make changes.

Little happens quickly in schools. They aren’t known for being crucibles of change. Education law has a way of reacting to issues rather than anticipating them, and schools have a way of dragging themselves to comply with laws. If something is a recommendation rather than a mandate, don’t count on schools subscribing to it with any haste. For example, RtI models have existed for decades at this point and some schools are just now beginning to explore how to use these. Thus, some of the changing services I described in Part 1 aren’t going to materialize anytime soon in a way that drastically will cut into hiring. Delivery models will remain as they’ve been in many districts well into the next decade.

3. Students continue being identified.

Specific disability categories under IDEA have been growing, especially autism and other health impairments (ADHD falls under OHI). Questions remain as to whether these increases are due to actual increases in proportionate incidence, better evaluation tools, or overreactions by evaluating teams. Meanwhile, for every parent who opposes an evaluation because of a concern for the stigma identification might bring, another demands an evaluation and wants every possible service. Often the parent is right and the child needs something the school has been reluctant to provide. Other times, schools concede and placate the parents to avoid further legal entanglement. 

The reasons don’t matter for special education teachers looking for positions. They just need to know that growth (or at least stability) in identification means more potential teaching positions, even if these are with highly specific populations. 

4. And charters remain an option.

Those who want to teach students with disabilities do need to consider all the places where those students receive services. Urban districts have larger than average special needs populations, thus more special education jobs. Charter schools are most common in urban areas. Over the next decade, a larger percentage of the total population will attend charters. Prospective special education teachers willing to keep all options open must remember this.

I make no claim that this series of possibilities is exhaustive or certain. Some of it seems quite likely, but how any of it plays out could be much different than expected. Feel free to comment with any other ideas about what special education teachers might face in the near or not-so-near future.

What Does the Future Hold for Special Education Teachers? (Part 4)

What Does the Future Hold for Special Education Teachers? (Part 3)

In Part 3, I cover broader societal changes, some wrought by technology, that could alter the field and the role of special education teachers. See Part 1 here and Part 2 here.

Long-Term Dynamics

Each of these starts somewhat small before ballooning.

7. As special education becomes more rote, teachers might decreasingly fit the scheme.

Visit a few special education classrooms and be prepared to see something potentially surprising. Students are likely to be using very dry, mechanical direct instruction reading interventions. Programs such as Corrective Reading and DISTAR are common phonics-based interventions for students with IEPs. This isn’t a matter of policy, but might lead to a different kind of change than those in Part 1.

Schools like to use direct instruction programs because they’re research-based and relatively cost effective. Many current special education teachers spend all day, every day “teaching” these explicitly scripted lessons. Does a person need a Bachelor’s degree to run a Corrective Reading lesson? Probably not. The programs require some skill to administer, but many paraeducators could do this for less. Some schools have gone that way already. Certified teachers still need to be in the room—for now.

Meanwhile, electronic programs such as IXL and Fast ForWord provide repeated practice and immediate feedback that benefit students with disabilities. Crucially, they require scant facilitation. In districts across the country, students with IEPs spend hours per week drilling on such programs. They don’t completely replace special education teachers—for now.

Why “for now?” These rote programs might continue to be the standard in special education indefinitely. Sooner or later, some elected officials and DOE bean counters will realize certified teachers aren’t needed for implementation. If paraeducators can run these programs with similar results and computer-based programs can do the same with an adult in the room to maintain order, will such considerations influence federal and state decisions about teacher-student ratios and the need for highly qualified special education teachers? Could not there be one or two technicians hired to write all the IEPs (implemented by general education teachers anyway) while the interventions are handled with large groups as described above? Wouldn’t this have great appeal in big-box schools? I guess we’ll see.

8. Special education becomes more remote.

Parents seeking to have their children with disabilities attend the safest, most controlled school environment can elect home as that environment. Various software, applications, and even cyber charter schools have enhanced homeschooling options. Cyber charters in particular have become popular among parents of children with disabilities. Special education teachers continue to be sought for distance education, but as software like that described in 7. becomes more intuitive and responsive, teacher-student ratios could grow. Uncertified tutors eventually might replace teachers in these scenarios.

9. Automation greatly alters the job market for students with disabilities.

Automation will benefit people with severe disabilities by making some services more accessible. It has the potential to increase autonomy, at least for people with physical and sensory disabilities. Technology in general has helped make the workforce more accessible to individuals with disabilities, but the next wave of automation could be different. Although the actual outcome is pending, it might create some new jobs in the wake of those it eliminates. The problem lies with the latter. Automated systems are poised to wipe out thousands of entry-level jobs currently available to students with mild learning disabilities, emotional disturbances, and autism. Adults with such disabilities already face limited job prospects. The concept of a universal wage might not be that much of a shift for them.

What does this have to do with teachers? There could be an acknowledgement as students with mild disabilities fail to find traditional entry-level employment that vocational education must change. Special education teachers will need to teach skills they haven’t traditionally taught, such as coding. While this is happening in some schools and is part of a history of shifts in response to markets, it presents another case of special education teachers being somewhat behind the content they’re expected to teach.

The changes described in 7. and 8. also relate to automation. Special education teachers might feel nervous as they see how effective and efficient advances in learning software are and will continue to be.

10. Advances in genetics change the incidence of disabilities.

Whether or not anyone wants this to happen, it will: genetic conditions that cause disabilities will be amendable. Parents will be able to deselect certain genetic anomalies, possibly leading to their elimination. If parents could nix the possibility of a child having a disability, wouldn’t they make that choice? Would it be unethical not to? The ethics of this are in dispute, including what message such desires send to people who have conditions targeted for deletion.

In a generation, special education teachers—especially those working with low-incidence populations—could see far fewer students per such advancements. Ironically, medical science had been allowing students with the most severe disabilities to attend school. The future could see a reversal as conditions are deselected. This might not stop at severe disabilities. Imagine if parents had the option of deselecting some trait found to increase the likelihood of ADHD or dyslexia. There is little reason to believe they wouldn’t. One might wonder who would be left to receive special education, or if definitions of disabilities would shift.

I have one more installment. It will detail some points that might actually help special education teachers, at least in the short term.

 

 

What Does the Future Hold for Special Education Teachers? (Part 3)

What Does the Future Hold for Special Education Teachers? (Part 2)

This installment continues my discussion of what special education teachers might face in the coming years. Part 2 examines larger scale changes to policy and protocol. See the first part here.

Changing Conditions

Working conditions for special education teachers will be shaped by forces beyond the walls of schools.

4. Defunding reduces resources.

Anyone aware of special education’s history knows that IDEA has been funded at a fraction of what originally had been envisioned. As of this writing, IDEA has not lost funding per the first budget of the Trump era. That doesn’t mean the current Department of Education won’t look for roundabout ways to scale back IDEA in the coming years. Should this happen, money available for interventions, testing materials, and even paraprofessional support could be in jeopardy. Such cuts are speculative right now, though. Cuts to Title II, which would affect funding for professional development rather immediately, are less speculative. Also quite real are attempts by state departments of education to cap percentages of students receiving services (Texas, for example).

5. Paths to certification become muddier.

The traditional path to teacher certification has included a Bachelor’s program in education (getting certified through a Master’s program could count here as well). This path has splintered to include alternates available through online universities and what amount to be internships or residencies through organizations such as Teach for America or Relay. Urban districts have been offering emergency certification paths for years in states that will condone these. Some states allow charters to employ high percentages of uncertified teachers or teachers with non-traditional types of certifications.

These paths still result in certifications, but they could change prospects for teachers following traditional paths. Those teachers going the way of a Bachelor’s in education might find themselves getting pinched out of jobs in schools that rely heavily on alternate certification paths to fill vacancies (think large urban districts and charter schools). This affects all teachers, but since urban schools employ a disproportionately large number of special education teachers, it hits them hardest.

In the same category would be the relative complexity of that traditional path. Some states have made certification more complicated and specific for special education teachers in recent years. This increase is meant to act as a filter, ensuring high-quality teacher candidates. It has worked too well in some colleges of education, resulting in a dearth of students making it to teacher candidacy. The testing requirements alone have caused some universities to consider shuttering their teacher preparation programs per the low number of students passing the tests.

6. Continued legal strife makes the field unwieldy.

The past few years have seen a decrease in the number of special education cases going to due process. Much of that drop has resulted from significant drops in a handful of specific states, but it’s still a drop. Schools could be getting better at complying with IDEA and various state regulations. Parents also might be catching on to the lack of actual damages that can be recouped through due process (in other words, they don’t get a cash settlement, which surprisingly isn’t obvious to all parents).

This doesn’t mean special education is now free of consternation. Consider the case of Endrew F. v. Douglas County Schools and the prospect of reexamining educational benefit. The precedent set by this case seems poised to give parents more opportunities to apply pressure to schools on issues of service and progress. Schools could find themselves tripping over this precedent for years as they struggle to figure out how to satisfy educational benefit for low-incidence students. Attorneys representing parents are likely grinning. Administrators and special education teachers should be at least somewhat wary. The risk of inadvertently discriminating against a student isn’t going away.

In the next section, I’ll talk about broader societal and even scientific changes that could rock the very existence of special education.

What Does the Future Hold for Special Education Teachers? (Part 2)

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)

The Lasting Draw: Why People Still Become Special Education Teachers

Enrollment in teacher preparation programs seems to be decreasing. This has sounded a few alarms. Amid the speculation about causes and the panic about fallout, new enrollees are continuing to arrive in colleges of education. Perhaps against all reason, some of these recruits are signing up to become special education teachers. How is this still a draw?

The enrollment trickle deserves a brief look. A perception of deteriorating conditions in the field might be stopping perspective teachers before they start. Testing requirements for certification could be too much of a barrier for some candidates. States are offering alternate paths to certification, some of which lure non-traditional students who now might balk at four-year programs. At the same time, other fields might be exerting more of a pull.

These factors might have a real effect, but the drop isn’t exclusive to education. The last few years have seen a temporary dip in the number of 18-20 year olds available to enroll in any programs per a birth rate decline in the mid-90s. Also, after a few years of relaxing admission standards, some universities are tightening these, thus creating a drop in overall enrollment (or more accurately, a leveling off). The intimidating costs of any college education could be another deterrent.

Even with these influences affecting admissions, a drop in the number of new teacher candidates still appears to exist relative to decreases in other majors. Colleges of education around the country report dwindling numbers. The surface impression is that the field has lost some status among young people. This shouldn’t come as a shock, considering the steady stream of negative press about it. Sadly, much of it is accurate.

This would seem poised to affect special education disproportionately. It might be the least attractive arena of education for incoming teachers. Many districts consider special education a high-needs area, partly due to the number of students needing complex services, but partly due to relatively small number of candidates willing to be special education teachers. Special education comes with the inherent difficulty of teaching students with disabilities coupled with the most maddening bureaucracy in the field. Everyone knows this from the start.

Unsurprisingly, shortages among special educations teachers predate the current dearth of enrollees. What might be surprising is that shortages aren’t necessarily worsening under this most recent decline. Reports are mixed, as the numbers aren’t evenly distributed across states, universities, or even departments within universities. In some colleges of education, the special education programs are the only ones growing. Applicants for special education teaching jobs are still approaching districts. Certain regions can experience a glut due to the number of graduates coming from teaching programs. At least a few people continue to want to be special education teachers, possibly for reasons that defy rationality.

What draws them? Old arguments might have included somewhat permissive entrance criteria, employability and security, and pay compared with other four-year degrees. Some of these notions have taken a beating. Alternate paths to certification have been springing up just as traditional paths have become bumpier. Employability might be stable in many areas for special education teachers, but job security for all teachers has changed, as many who have been displaced by budget cuts can attest. Yes, these do hit special education teachers too sometimes, especially in districts losing seats to charter schools. Pay has never been a great incentive, but now some sharing industry jobs are creeping up on what a beginning teacher might earn in some states.

Is there anything else? What about autonomy for special education teachers? This has dissolved somewhat per inclusion and the move towards co-teaching and push-in support. How about the small number of students? Ratios still favor special education teachers, but the neediness of students has increased per the amount of service and intervention needed. Aren’t special education teachers exempt from grading? Well, sometimes, but more than half the job is now meetings and paperwork, displacing any work saved.

What could be left? One possibility is young people maintain a vision of supporting students with disabilities that hasn’t yet been tainted but the unsavory aspects of the field. This could be for the best, because it might allow for another remaining attraction to develop: the broad idea of helping others. This might be more of a specific draw in special education than in other teaching disciplines. Elementary and secondary education majors want to positively affect the lives of students as well, the aim being to do so by cultivating independence through skill and content instruction. Special education teachers certainly want to do the same, but there often is an heightened emphasis on the charitable aspects of the field. The desire to work on behalf of people who experience a disadvantage of some kind is characteristic of special education teachers. Many see themselves as being advocates as much as instructors, championing the civil rights of students. Again, this exists for other teachers, but it is deeply embedded in the motivations of many special education teachers.

This might be the root of what continues to draw candidates to the field. It isn’t about the logistics. It’s about a drive to support those who need support. This drive has a rational component, but it also is highly emotional for many. Indeed, some come to the field because of experiences with siblings who have disabilities, or because the candidates themselves have disabilities. Some second-career special education teachers become involved because they have children with disabilities. Religious reasons drive some, as do social-political reasons.

The lasting draw could be that students continue to have special needs and schools continue to need to pay people to teach them. Federal guidelines dictate certain student-to-teacher ratios, so a set number of teachers tends to remain. Still, against all the reasons not to begin a career in special education, candidates step up to do so each year. The reasons above are independent of unfavorable logistics. This could stand to make them independent of at least some of the forces acting on teacher preparation enrollment, resulting in a core of candidates that never diminishes below a particular threshold. The draw remains for those who view the field as more than a vocation.

 

The Lasting Draw: Why People Still Become Special Education Teachers

Some Thoughts on Co-Teaching

Co-teaching has become a default model for delivering special education. It comes in many forms, but the unifying characteristic is having the special education teacher in the general education classroom to ensure the facilitation of special education programming. It makes sense in many situations. It doesn’t in others. How schools implement it varies tremendously. So does how well it works.

How did we get to co-teaching? An inclusive approach to special education is no longer a theoretical notion. It’s how schools deliver special education to most students with IEPs. By law, these students must have access to the general education curriculum alongside their peers who don’t have disabilities. Increasingly, schools are pushing to make inclusion an afterthought, with classrooms being designed from the start to accommodate a range of needs.

To make this happen, general education teachers need help. Here is where special education teachers enter the fold. For many years, special education teachers were supporting cast members, taking needy students aside to work with them in resource rooms or other settings. Special education teachers would collaborate with general education teachers to make adjustments to assignments and tests that would improve access for special education students. Today, special education teachers continue in this collaborative role, but the trend is for them to allocate most of their time in general education classroom with the general education teacher, ideally incorporating some form of co-teaching.

Many smart people have figured out ways to make co-teaching work. Like almost anything else in education, the most effective mode might depend on the array of needs in a class. Possibilities range from having the teachers share the responsibility of working with all students to having the special education teacher work with students needing extra support in a small group. The half dozen or so variants of co-teaching together form a playbook for how to create and maintain an inclusive learning environment. With the playbook already written, one would think schools could run effective programming.

Perhaps the greatest hindrances to making co-teaching work are the rushed or absent preparation teachers too often have for the endeavor along with the lack of common planning time needed. In some schools, teachers have a professional development or two and are left to figure out how to do this on their own. Special education teachers might be told to push in to a general education class with little direction regarding what this pushing in should entail. Meanwhile, co-teachers frequently lack common preparation periods. Sometimes arranging for this isn’t possible. Communication becomes hampered. Functional co-teaching isn’t likely to materialize.

Compounding such problems, more students tend to need support than there are special education teachers available to provide it. If these students are dispersed among several concurrent classes, the special education teachers likely won’t get to work with them but for a few intervals during the day. Teachers need to be flexible, but they can’t be in more than one place at a time. If the students with disabilities are grouped, schools can be accused of tracking them, even if this would facilitate efficient co-teaching. Scheduling headaches trip up good intentions.

A typical scenario follows. The special education teacher is assigned, doesn’t know what to do, and ends up being an expensive assistant. He or she will circulate in the classroom and help wherever possible. This can be of benefit to students, but it might not be the best use of this professional’s skills. It tends to undermine the special education teacher’s standing in the eyes of students as students see him or her as a helper and not as the authority in the room.

Continuing, the special education teacher and general education teacher might not get along famously. They might differ in their views regarding management and in how to best support the needy learners in the classroom. In some highly toxic relationships, the general education might feel the special education teacher is almost an intruder rather than a teammate, while the special education teacher might feel more of an allegiance to the students than to his or her colleague.

Beyond such a scenario, other programmatic pitfalls lurk. These depend on how adamant a school is about having students with IEPs in the general education classroom for the maximum amount of time. One of the longstanding difficulties with inclusion is making certain students who need more concentrated support aren’t being lost. Some students might need pull out service. Administrators might be reticent to arrange for this because they feel pressure per IDEA indicators to keep up the percentage of time special education students are in general education.

When a school is inflexible about this, students can get shortchanged and can be left floundering with minimal support in classes that aren’t appropriate for their needs. As special education teachers are assigned as co-teachers, they might not be available to those floundering students.

Co-teaching doesn’t have to be a jumbled affair. Schools must consider it a tool that might be of benefit when including students, rather than a mandate that must be followed. It also need not be an organizational and collegial mess. Much of the time, it is productive and beneficial. It does require preparation. It does demand organizational forethought. Co-teaching can be a twist in the conceptual paradigm many teachers have about their selected vocation. The autonomy that some might have sought simply might not be there. It can be in the best interest of students for whom inclusion is appropriate, though. The point of all this is the benefit of students. If co-teaching is working, a school should continue using it. If it isn’t, everyone needs to take a close look at why.

Some Thoughts on Co-Teaching

One is the Costliest Number

One of the most expensive and invasive services a school can offer to a student with an IEP is a one-to-one assistant or personal care assistant. What could put more of a strain on a school’s resources than assigning one member of the staff to one student? Occasionally, a student will exhibit needs intense enough to justify such a costly service. Determining necessity and feasibility makes for a complicated and often controversial set of decisions.

Parents routinely request this level of support. Sometimes they demand rather than request. The parent input section of evaluations and IEPs often includes statements about how students need one-to-one help to be successful. Well, almost every student would benefit from having a specifically assigned adult for support throughout the school day. Most students don’t need this, though. Schools don’t have an obligation to provide the best possible education, just one that is appropriate. Nonetheless, convincing a parent his or her child might not absolutely need one-to-one support can be difficult.

Of course, some students do need it. In particular, students with emotional disturbances, behavior disorders, or other conditions that affect behavior are likely candidates. When behaviors interfere with learning and safety to a degree that progress isn’t possible, teams might have to consider one-to-one support as an option. Such an intense level of service could be what helps a student remain focused and engaged in the general education environment. It can be the service that ensures a free appropriate public education.

Another way of looking at it is the school community at large might need the support. This might resonate with any school employee who has experienced what can happen on a day the one-to-one for a student with behavior issues is absent. Depending on the student, the school day can become a wash, with several staff members consumed in an effort to contain a volatile student. Instructional time and even safety for other students can be compromised. Schools might struggle similarly with students prone to such behavior until teams agree a one-to-one is needed. They might struggle while waiting for a one-to-one to be assigned, too. The point of the service is to support the student, but the result might be a quieter, more functional school day for everyone else.

The rational mind might wonder what the hell students who are so disruptive are doing in schools. Why should schools have to commit such resources to students who can’t be assisted otherwise, students who can’t function in any sort of typical school environment without such a pricey service? The simple answer is the law demands they are taught with their peers to the greatest extent possible. If a one-to-one is necessary for this, the school needs to provide it. The more esoteric answer is these students are entitled to an education despite the conditions that cause their behaviors. Excluding them because of behaviors caused by an underlying condition would be discrimination. One might ask, “What about everyone else’s rights?” Whether or not this is a satisfactory answer, the one-to-one is there to help ensure everyone else can have his or her right to an education unimpeded by the behavior of one disruptive student. This one-to-one is part of a system of supports used to balance the needs (read: behavior issues) of students with disabilities and the students around them.

That system of supports frequently involves outside agencies. The IEP team might determine the need for a one-to-one. The school usually has the responsibility of providing it. However, an agency might end up providing it instead. An interagency team could decide a wraparound service needs to be in place that includes school hours. If the IEP team signs off on it, the agency likely will provide a therapeutic support staff worker or similar service provider. This will be on the agency’s dollar, which is supported through the family’s insurance. Should the recommendation indeed make its way into the IEP as a statement of need, the school has an obligation to supply a substitute in the absence of the person appointed by the agency. Providing this can be tricky, but the school has to do it.

Appointing a one-to-one comes with a host of potential pitfalls. To start, when schools use their staff members for these positions, someone tends to get pulled from some other post where that someone had been needed. The staff members who are used as one-to-ones might not have the most sophisticated training to support their new positions and instead might be poorly prepared for such a role. Many school-appointed one-to-ones are marvelous additions to teams and do a tremendous service for schools, students, and families. To be frank, however, many of the individuals who end up in these roles aren’t well suited in terms of temperament, reliability, and overall professionalism. The positions don’t pay well and the work can be highly challenging, leading to a shallow pool of capable candidates. When schools outsource the service, as many are beginning to do, every person coming through the door is a wildcard.

Therapeutic support staff workers usually have more training and higher salaries than school-appointed one-to-ones. They can bring a greater degree of clinical fidelity and efficacy to their work. The agencies they serve tend to require more of them than schools require of one-to-ones. The supportive program they offer should align with what the school is offering, but most of the time it is more specific and exacting. Again, many of these workers are effective professionals who help students steer straight. Some are liabilities per their incompetency. Crucially, they’re not school employees. This often creates discord regarding professional expectations.

Even with effective staff in place, one-to-one support can become a crutch for students. It generally can’t be replicated for adults in work or school settings. It reduces the possibility of fostering accountability for behaviors. The later into schooling it goes, the more reliant students are likely to be on it. Rarely does it help change a set of behaviors. Efforts to do that might be built in to programming, but the point is to mitigate the effects of behaviors on learning, or even to lessen the impact of behaviors on everyone’s safety. The service might do these things, but isn’t likely to completely extinguish behaviors or address the internal conditions that could be causing them.

One-to-one support is suitable and possibly necessary for students with the most disruptive and difficult to manage behaviors. These students are the least likely to be able to participate functionally in productive adult lives. The service typically doesn’t increase the likelihood of post-secondary success. It’s a bandage at best that keeps disruptions from bleeding all over the school day. Following a fundamental relationship in special education, it’s another example of the students with the least potential getting the most expensive support. Each person can decide whether or not this relationship is justifiable. Keep this mind, though: “justifiable” gets into conceptual territory, while “necessary” deals with the practical here-and-now. Ask a school to remove all the one-to-ones in the building for a week and see what everyone has to say about the need for the service Friday afternoon. Like it or not, it’s here.

 

One is the Costliest Number