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)

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: 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?

How Parents Assure Quality Through Persistence

In special education, the most challenging cases schools face aren’t necessarily the ones involving students with the most intense disabilities. Instead, schools might have the greatest difficulty managing cases involving the most demanding parents. Tense relationships can develop between the schools that attempt to provide for students and the parents who insist that what the schools provide is never enough. Progress can get stymied as the parties bicker. However, sometimes the students at the center of these flurries end up with better than average IEPs. Some adage about squeaky wheels would apply here.

Highly involved parents get disproportionate attention by the virtue of being demanding. These parents establish reputations that might follow them throughout their children’s school careers. School officials handle such cases with extra care. The school members of IEP teams give special attention to the wording of documents and have heightened insistence about the correct implementation of services. Nervousness over the possibility of due process leads to the creation of IEPs that indulge the whims of parents. In an effort to avoid conflict, schools can end up creating model IEPs.

This level of commitment to quality should be available for all students with IEPs, regardless of their parents’ relative involvement. Unsurprisingly, it isn’t. Schools scramble to appease persistent parents. With absentee parents, schools might succumb to complacency. School officials meet with frustration when attempting to correspond and collaborate with parents who would rather not be bothered. Calls to home go unanswered and unreturned. Certified mail gets returned undelivered. IEP teams have to meet without parents. These meetings can be little more than perfunctory formalities. Understanding that parents won’t be paying attention, teams might create generic IEPs so team members can move on with their respective days.

The imbalance in attention can disproportionately affect poor students. Schools serving impoverished communities often see less parental participation in IEP creation than schools in more affluent communities do. While multiple factors fuel the imbalance in opportunities between blighted and wealthy schools, parental attention to special education protocols widens the gap. This simply compounds the dearth of opportunities for students in underfunded schools.

Even in schools serving economically depressed communities, the most vocal parents are more likely than absentee parents to secure the best crafted and most carefully implemented IEPs for their children. What tends to happen in any school is these parents unintentionally take attention away from other students. Administrators and teachers focus on the sensitive cases while merely making time for less urgent cases. The attention shift isn’t just in the details of the documents. The less urgent cases actually can suffer as the more urgent ones consume school officials.

As cases become heated, school officials become immersed in documentation, possibly in preparation for mediation or due process hearings. Only so many hours exist in a workday. The layers of paperwork and protocol generated in sensitive cases quite literally devour the time available for school employees, causing them to have to delay more routine maintenance of other cases. Planning and preparing for instruction can get interrupted. Teachers can get called out of their classes to attend emergency meetings to deal with sensitive cases. Special education teachers frequently find they spend grossly imbalanced amounts of time and effort on just a handful of the students on their caseloads.

Parents can’t be blamed for this, however. They are entitled to want the best for their children. In many cases, parents have to be vocal and insistent because schools would otherwise fail to provide adequate support. While parents influence the actions of school officials, they aren’t the ones selecting to disregard less sensitive cases. School officials prioritize out of fear of legal sanctions. The root of this fear really is the special education law that allows parents to seek damages for mistakes made by schools. Ideally, schools would be able to provide for all students with special needs without being harangued to do so. With the myriad constraints schools face, the ideal can be out of reach. Complicating this are parents who demand something beyond the ideal.

For as time and resource consuming as this might be, school teams should create every IEP as though an attorney will be reviewing it. Scrutiny of this level—especially in the early grades—might simultaneously prevent later conflict with parents while ensuring effective programming for students. An early investment in program design could pay dividends for all parties involved. If solid programming and stable relationships are formed early, schools might not have to operate under educational triage later. Those squeaky wheels shouldn’t be the only ones getting grease. Actually, they shouldn’t have to be squeaky in the first place, but that might be chasing an ideal.

How Parents Assure Quality Through Persistence

A Gap in Expertise

I participated in close to 300 IEP meetings in my career. For more than half of these, I acted as the IEP coordinator. I chaired the remainder as the local education agency (LEA) designee. Most of these meetings included related service providers such as occupational therapists, physical therapists, and speech language pathologists. Something became apparent to me after the first few meetings. The therapists seemed to know their jobs better than the teachers knew theirs.

My lack of confidence accentuated this apparent imbalance. Those early IEP meetings intimidated me. Although I had ample student performance data and solid suggestions for appropriate goals, I really didn’t know what I was talking about. The reading and mathematics levels I had collected were abstract and I couldn’t offer much elaboration. I had no answers for how to improve competencies for high school students. Any interventions or strategies I recommended were generic and largely based on common sense. I had little business calling myself an expert of any kind. Roughly half the teachers around me shared my level of experience and doubt.

Meanwhile, the therapists on the IEP teams were veterans. Most had poise distinct from the teachers I knew. No matter how much data I had, they had more. Their contributions were clinical and thorough. They spoke with certainty about their methodology, findings, and recommendations. Their conversations with parents were concrete, involving treatment plans and equipment use. I tried to speak in such measurable, quantifiable terms. What I had to say sounded like filler after the therapists spoke.

Experience only solidified my sense that therapists were the more reliable experts. As the special education liaison of one school, I oversaw every piece of special education paperwork created by staff. Documents showed the contributions of teachers alongside the contributions of therapists. Nearly without fail, the teachers included less performance data than the therapists did. Typically, the data provided by teachers lacked the specificity of what the therapists submitted. Therapists routinely gave paragraphs of highly detailed information, while teachers too often gave raw performance levels and a few vague sentences about aptitude and attitude. This disparity stood out in reevaluation reports and IEPs. If I noticed it, discerning parents likely noticed it as well.

I found notable gaps in other areas. Therapists were mandated to record treatment notes. Their treatment sessions were billable, thus requiring strict documentation. When dealing with sensitive cases, I had to request anecdotal records from teachers. This could be revealing. While some teachers were fastidious, a few didn’t keep these records. Others kept piecemeal records that only undermined the school’s defense. Without mandated accountability, many teachers slacked in record keeping.

Disputes with parents further highlighted the gap. Therapists approached disputes with greater assurance than teachers did. Their treatment plans were based on medical prescriptions. They could support their positions with copious notes and detailed assessment results. Rarely did I see teachers have comparable ammunition when approaching conflicts with parents. Therapists seldom backed down (although sometimes doing so would have simplified matters). Teachers often cowered.

The difference existed across schools. Being a special education liaison at a special education center school, I sometimes presented to groups of therapists from other buildings. I did so at their professional developments and I sat in on these. The content of their sessions impressed me, as it was more clinical than similar sessions for teachers. I understood why. Reading and mathematics level tests aren’t especially precise instruments. Test-taking strategies are little more than notions of what might help. Classroom management techniques can hedge on ridiculous. In contrast, treatment models used by related service providers have a medical basis and can be highly specific. The differences between conversations in a room full of therapists versus a room full of teachers shouldn’t be surprising.

These observations reflect a broader circumstance. Occupational therapists, physical therapists, and speech language pathologists all must have Master’s degrees before practicing. Special education teachers only need a Bachelor’s degree to teach. With alternative certifications tracks and outright desperation in some states and school districts, many teachers begin with scant credentials. Teachers must validate their certifications through continuing education in some states, but often they can use accumulated credits rather than an additional degree. A popular suggestion is that teacher-training programs should be offered only at the Master’s level, thereby forcing candidates to get a separate Bachelor’s degree first. This won’t be plausible in states with dire teacher shortages and attrition rates.

The importance of this gap is another matter. Teacher preparation, in particular for special education teachers, sends possibly ill-prepared recruits into the field. Despite this, most teachers figure out what they must do while on the job. They usually figure it out well enough to thrive. The majority of teachers I’ve known have done so. If teachers can do their jobs, then they need not be compared with other school professionals. Unfortunately, their ability to do their jobs is a matter of perception.

Parents who are paying attention may well notice differences in the quality of data and recommendations teachers and therapists provide. Closing this gap might not be possible, because most therapies by nature are more precise than teaching. The expertise gap threatens to taint the image of special education teachers to some parents. Teachers can appear to be the least knowledgeable members of IEP teams. I listened to parents point out discrepancies while reviewing documents and during meetings. When parents questioned therapists, they tended to disagree with findings. When parents questioned teachers, they tended to criticize the absence of evidence. The latter is more problematic for schools in due process cases.

Special education teachers should be specific and detailed in what they present and suggest. They should emulate the level of professional exactness demonstrated by other IEP team members. This isn’t to save face. It isn’t to provide data for the sake of data. Small actions that dignify the field raise standards for all involved. The gap I’ve described won’t close in the near future, but teachers can improve their craft via the example of their teammates.

A Gap in Expertise