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.
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.