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)