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)

To Future Teachers Graduating This Month

My commencement address would be titled “Envious, But Not That Envious.”

Most colleges and universities will be wrapping up their commencement ceremonies by the time of this post. Thousands of education majors will be hitting the field in earnest, ready to wave their degrees and certificates at schools with vacancies. A few fortunate (or ambitious) types will have positions locked before graduation and will be spending the summer prepping for that petrifying first day. Many more will be scouring the market for whatever position they can find, possibly continuing the search into the fall. It’s a dizzying time for all.

I’m envious of those experiencing any of this. To specify, I’m envious of the moment they’re experiencing. Completing college feels great. Proud reflection on accomplishment mixes with the realization of being free from coursework. The word “career” still refers to a set of aspirations rather than a collection of memories. The moments that will become memories haven’t had the chance to be qualified as fond or regrettable.

Addressing the graduates directly, yes, I’m envious of the moment you’re having. Even if you end up having a second career at some point, no moment will feel quite like this one. What I’m less envious of is your fortune entering the field in its current state. I won’t spoil your moment with a diatribe about education. I will say that the dumb luck of your timing isn’t great, at least from my perspective. Based on my experiences, I’m glad I’m not entering the field right now.

This sentiment risks seeming like that of the guy in his forties lamenting the current music scene and claiming the music of his youth was “real music.” I’m sure some teacher could have pulled me aside back in 2000 and told why I was making a mistake becoming a teacher, along with how much better everything was when she started. If I would do the same today, I’d be ignoring a decade and a half worth of advancements in technology, methodology, and even accountability that have improved conditions for students and enabled the effectiveness of teachers. Echoing the jaded not only doesn’t help much, but it might not be accurate.

I have to echo it a little, though. Every aspect of getting a teaching job has become more complicated since I started. I’d like to say this helps in some way, but I’ve struggled to see how. The day-to-day of being a teacher has become more complicated as well, largely in detrimental ways. The whole of public education stands to take a hammering at a policy level, all while it’s becoming an option rather than an expectation. I promised not to rant, so I’ll stop here. Comparing my early experiences in the field with what I know teaching currently entails, I can’t say I’d want to get started in 2017.

I’m not starting this year though, dear graduates. You are. You don’t have the perspective I have. I didn’t know any better in 2000 when that crotchety teacher would’ve given me an earful about the descent of everything. Without a point of reference, you’re entering the field as though it has always been as it is. This returns my perspective to envy. I think you’re going to have a rough go of it, but you won’t know anything but this.

My hope is that each of you prospective teachers leaving the safety of college for the wilds of the field lands in a position that suits you. That might matter more than anything else right now: a strong match between personality and the culture of a work environment. If these align, wonderful. If not, be not afraid to retreat and regroup. You don’t owe some school your sanity. Don’t forget that while time might not feel like an asset at the moment, it is. I’m becoming more envious as I write this.

Best wishes Class of 2017. I hope you’re still at it in 2037.

 

To Future Teachers Graduating This Month

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

Discussion Starter: Educational Benefit, Pt. 2

Back in January, I wrote about Endrew F. v. Douglas County School District. The US Supreme Court recently reached a unanimous decision in the case, siding with the family. Fry v. Napoleon Community Schools caught national attention earlier this year, partly because of a cute dog. This latest decision became attached to Neil Gorsuch’s Senate testimony per his ruling in a similar case. Both cases briefly stirred headlines for reasons other than their importance in special education.

Endrew F. eclipses Fry in potential magnitude. The core of the case is educational benefit. Must schools ensure students with IEPs simply make some measurable progress, or must they prove this progress is meaningful? The Supreme Court has found something closer to the latter, with the ruling mandating schools must prove students are making appropriate progress per each student’s circumstance. Although the difference might seem subtle, the scope is enormous. Future special education teachers will study this case as undergraduates.

“Appropriate progress” will be the focus of case-by-case deliberation, but it’s a leap from the previous requirement of schools to demonstrate discernible growth within a student’s program. The new implication suggests there is an acceptable range of progress for each student. Defining this range could be difficult. Some families will reject any deterministic range based on evaluation findings that the schools offer. Some might interpret “appropriate progress” as needing to be aligned with age and grade level progress. Such a conception of progress would be ideal, but in many cases would belie the range of abilities that led to a special education evaluation. Regardless, the built-in controversy seems to forecast a bumper crop of due process hearings.

As with Fry, advocates have heralded the decision in Endrew F. as a victory for students with disabilities. I wonder if it will be. My prediction is the same schools that currently struggle to meet the requirements of IDEA and of existing IEPs will continue to struggle. Now families will have more leverage to come after these schools for compensatory education when students fail to make “appropriate (and possibly unrealistic) progress.” I suspect this ruling will do at least as much to create additional settlements as it will to help students with disabilities get better at reading, writing, or doing math. It certainly will increase pressure on schools and might set some up to lose.

Any thoughts from readers? How will IEP teams define “appropriate?” To what degree will this decision shift special education in practice and even in concept? Does anyone else see this as a path to increased litigation? Share your insights in the comments.

 

 

 

Discussion Starter: Educational Benefit, Pt. 2

Discussion Starter: Possible Repercussions of Fry v. Napoleon?

Often when special education practice or protocol change because of a precedent-setting legal case, the public scarcely pays attention. In mid-February, a case made its way to the Supreme Court and then through the news cycle, getting a handful of people talking along the way. For the most part, the ensuing conversation was about incidental factors rather than about the actual issue before the Court. I’m wondering just what the longterm effects of the Court’s decision will be.

To any readers unfamiliar with the case, Fry v. Napoleon Community Schools examined whether or not families must exhaust recourses available through IDEA before seeking damages for discrimination via other laws. The case also involved a young girl with cerebral palsy and her service dog, a photogenic Goldendoodle. Most people will remember the case being about the school denying a service (and an adorable, fluffy service) to this girl. It really wasn’t about that.

True, its genesis was the school’s denial of the girl’s use of the service dog on campus. With paraprofessionals in place to meet the girl’s needs, administrators saw the dog as unnecessary. The family eventually pulled their daughter and placed her in a school that would allow the dog. This wasn’t before the moment that generated a discrimination suit.

In an effort to determine whether or not the dog could assist the girl as the family claimed, staff had the girl demonstrate how the dog could help her in a bathroom. She didn’t have to use the bathroom in front of staff, but instead she had to show the dog’s capacity to assist her physically. Per the family and their attorney, the scenario was invasive and humiliating enough to warrant a discrimination suit seeking emotional damages.

District Court dismissed this. The reason? The family hadn’t followed due process through IDEA before seeking damages. Such emotional damage suits aren’t within IDEA’s scope, as it deals with issues of access. Regardless, the decision stood. The parents appealed.

The Supreme Court heard the case in the fall and issued their decision this winter. They sided with the family, stating the need to go through IDEA due process shouldn’t apply in situations that involve emotional damage claims and other similar forms of discrimination.

What will this mean for various stakeholders? Perspective matters here. My experience in special education suggests this could become a new area of disability law for attorneys to exploit. Parents of children with disabilities might have greater leverage from which to seek emotional damages in various instances of perceived discrimination. Potentially any situations in which schools allegedly single out children with disabilities could be claimed as spurring an emotional hardship. Limits would exist of course, as some students end up being singled out at times per the delivery of their IEPs. Still, parents might be more encouraged to pursue damages knowing fewer hurdles exist per this precedent. I could see this becoming expensive for schools.

The other perspective to take would be to see this as a victory for parents and for children with disabilities. Another protection against discrimination could emerge from Fry, thus holding schools accountable in instances of genuine wrongdoing. It may clear some of the confusion over how to redress such wrongdoings. Instead of looking at this as a new way for schools to lose, one could look at it as a way to keep schools in check, and thus improve services.

What do my readers think? Will this case be a precedent-setter? Will it lead to the increase in discrimination suits I predict? Do you see it as more of a loss for schools or as a victory for families? Share your thoughts in the comments.

 

 

 

 

Discussion Starter: Possible Repercussions of Fry v. Napoleon?

Discussion Starter: Educational Benefit?

Last week, the US Supreme Court began hearing a case regarding one of special education’s trickiest corners: educational benefit. Parents and schools have clashed over the concept for decades. The essential question involves how much benefit students with disabilities are expected to, even entitled to receive from their education. Take a moment to consider how nuanced this question is. Should the expectation simply be that students make at least some progress? How will the acceptable level of progress be quantified? Is there any definitive way to prove a lack of progress is the fault of the school?

The case in question concerns a student with ASD and ADHD not making progress in a public school. The parents sent him to a private school, at which he allegedly made progress. The family wants the district to pay for the placement. Such requests are fairly common. The key to the case will be proving the student wasn’t making progress at the public school due to some lacking on the part of that school, thus making the placement at the private necessary for educational benefit. Also before the court is the issue of what should be considered an acceptable level of progress. Was the student reaching this? Was providing access to an appropriate curriculum enough, or did the school have to ensure a certain echelon of performance? If so, what should that be? 

Many advocates push for schools to ensure meaningful progress. This will be difficult to define. A student with a severe intellectual disability and a sensory impairment will have a different capacity for growth than that of a student with a learning disability who is also gifted. If meaningful progress is quantified and applied to schools via precedent or even an eventual adjustment to IDEA, what is that going to mean for schools that are barely able to keep enough paraprofessionals in their building to help students go to the bathroom? Will schools be expected to move beyond the notion of simply providing access to FAPE and towards an expectation of the best possible educational opportunity? What happens when students, despite a school’s best effort, still make insufficient progress? Will pending adjustments result in better educational outcomes, or simply an increase in due process cases schools in which schools have little means of defense?

I turn the matter to my readers. Should schools be lashed to a requirement for meaningful educational benefit? What should be the definition of “meaningful?” How will it differ from the current expectation of progress being noted during an IEP term? I don’t think any issue in special education is as wrought with controversy. I look forward to your comments.

Discussion Starter: Educational Benefit?