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 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

A Few Reasons Nothing Seems to Get Done in Special Education

Everyone who has any contact with special education can attest to its languid pace. Certain processes move forward at a crawl. School employees and parents alike lament this unfortunate tendency. Newcomers to the field gradually become accustomed to it. Everyone involved seems fond of commiserating about the red tape and redundancy. They simply accept this like they accept bad weather. Why?

Some of those doing the complaining might be jaded and cynical. However, others might be accurately describing the reality of special education. It does come wrapped in layers of bureaucracy and regulation. Most of these layers are meant to protect the rights of students and parents, while some exist so schools can protect themselves. Laws inadvertently create some of the gridlock in the field, but certainly not all of it.

One of the fundamental reasons special education moves so slowly is that everyone working in the field has too much to do to get any of it done effectively. This is a generalization, of course. Some schools presumably have adequate staff to serve their relatively small special needs populations. Then there are all other schools, where the effort to meet the demands created by exceptional learners is an exercise in frantic scrambling.

The following is a typical scenario. A school has a set team of special education teachers, related service providers, and administrators. This team might grow based on the number of identified students in the school and the neediness of these students. Then again, it might not. Already busy with providing requisite services, these teams are forced into unsustainable overdrive by requests for additional services by parents and advocates. The professionals who only have so many hours in each workday (and would like to have lives outside work) do what they can to respond to these requests. Their responses routinely fall short, too often because IEP teams agree to do what they probably can’t do. It usually isn’t a matter of competence or will. It’s a matter of time.

As school teams fail to meet demands, more time is lost in attempting to redress the failure. Legal entanglements ensue. Sometimes these end up benefiting students. Often they don’t in any measurable way. While teams are mired in focusing on a few extraordinarily squeaky wheels, other students suffer. Their needs too often get neglected (or at least glanced over) if their parents aren’t as noisy. These parents might become noisy, though.

At the classroom level, special education teachers only can handle so much. Their training isn’t going to cover all the complexities they’ll face. Parents might be aghast to know how little special education teachers actually know about their craft. Teachers make mistakes. They overlook details, which sadly is excusable considering the number of details to which they’re beholden. The missteps result in further gridlock as parents and advocates call out the school.

Administrators have limited ability to help. Many aren’t keenly aware of special education protocols, another fact that chills parents. In truth, special education law is so convoluted that few school officials have more than a slight understanding of it. As much as they’d like to help, administrators often are wrapped up in coping with macro tasks such as budget reviews or micro tasks such as student discipline. They’re busy. They sometimes fail to respond to teachers and parents in a timely manner, thus further delaying processes. Special education administrators similarly are too busy to help all the teachers who are trying to soothe impatient parents. Teachers ask them for support, such as approval to move ahead with certain processes the teachers themselves lack the authority to initiate. Special education directors and supervisors receive dozens of emails every day asking for the same. The best they can do is triage, which tends to favor cases concerning money. Parents don’t like when they find out they weren’t a priority.

Unrealistic demands can hurt progress as well, with many parents upset that special education doesn’t seem to be fixing their children. Frequently, parents seek some kind of refund for the poor results. While difficult to prove, a few attorneys might be preying on this more than they’re advocating for the rights of children. In some schools and districts, staff can lose track of who wants what with the number of dissatisfied parents seeking solutions. Parents are in their right (most of the time) to want more for their kids. When they all ask at once, everyone is likely to get less.

Special education creaks along because of all this. The lack of time and the constant racing sometimes stem from staffing issues, which usually are budgetary issues. Each also has to do with how much is being asked of schools by parents (which sometimes results from schools not being able to provide enough due to said budgetary issues). Meanwhile, mandated timelines seem too short for school teams, but parents sometimes find these to be suspiciously too long. The required paperwork and record keeping bog down everything. Little issues such as actually teaching during the day get in the way of special education teachers attending to everything else demanded of them. When teams rush to make everyone happy, they end up making many people upset. One shouldn’t be surprised with how unhappy many people are in the sphere of special education.

A Few Reasons Nothing Seems to Get Done in Special Education

4 Ideas for Cultivating Vocational Opportunities in School (Repost from iAchieveLearning.com)

This week’s repost from iAchieveLearning.com focuses on ways teachers can develop workplace behaviors and aptitudes in school settings.


4 Ideas for Cultivating Vocational Opportunities in School (Repost from iAchieveLearning.com)

A Guide To Special Education Documents (Repost From KokuaNetwork.com)

Below is an article about understanding special education documents I wrote for kokuanetwork.com. Visit Kokua Network to find resources for parents of children with special needs.


A Guide To Special Education Documents (Repost From KokuaNetwork.com)

On Not Liking Students

Teachers expect to have some fondness for the students they teach. They enter the field motivated to help students make progress. Their desire to foster success leads them to focus on their students’ most positive attributes. Teachers become cheerleaders for their students. To the great disappointment of many teachers, certain students test that spirit of unwavering support.

Most teachers meet at least a few students they find difficult to like. Expecting to like every student is unrealistic, even for the most idealistic teachers. Special education teachers in particular are likely to work with some students who exhibit behaviors most of society would deem unacceptable. While many special education teachers elect to work with these especially needy students, actually dealing with toxic behaviors day after day can wear at a teacher’s resolve.

Teacher preparation programs tend to leave out some details. Few professors will tell a room full of undergraduates that some of their future students will be unlikeable. Acknowledging this makes starry-eyed teacher candidates uncomfortable. Although this is upsetting to consider, teachers will meet particular students who offer few redeeming or likeable qualities. In place of these qualities will be a host of unsavory attributes that have the potential to lengthen a teacher’s workday and shorten a teacher’s career. Perhaps these students are more pleasant at other times of the day, but teachers have to deal with them during school hours.

Students might be unlikeable for several reasons. Relationships are crucial in education. Sometimes issues might have to do with a mismatch in personality. A student might behave quite differently with one teacher versus another. This doesn’t account for those students with disruptive or antagonistic behaviors that interfere with every relationship they engage. A few students have personalities that bother everyone around them. Often, these students deliberately upset other people for amusement. Others have behaviors that they can’t control resulting from their conditions. They’ll act out by no fault of their own, but this doesn’t make their behaviors any easier to endure.

The larger group consists of students with unlikeable personalities. They have disagreeable, belligerent attitudes. They create problems for others and show little remorse. While some might not understand what they’re doing, some fully understand and revel in it. Teachers can strive to find the good in these students. They can consider how lonely these students might feel. They can try to make a positive difference for them. Occasionally, teachers who reach out in such a way find the students take advantage of them. All sociopaths start somewhere. Society has no shortage of people who make everything around them worse. Classrooms are dotted with budding scam artists, domestic abusers, and assailants. For as much as teachers might wish to turn these students towards more positive pursuits, this fails more often than it succeeds.

Less common are the students who are just as unlikeable, but are unable to control that which makes them so. These students might have conditions that cause them to behave in unorthodox or even violent ways. Behavior modification and medication sometimes help. Sometimes nothing helps. A teacher working with students who have autism or multiple disabilities might face a classroom with two or three students who do little but scream and hit themselves (or others) all day, every day. That teacher might want so badly to help these students, but might not be able to do much beyond keeping them safe, clean, and fed. Feelings of inadequacy are likely, but so is a sense of exhaustion. Some people only can take so much of listening to a student cry and scream to the point of exhaustion, only to repeat when strength returns.

An intriguing dichotomy in special education exists between idealistic acceptance and programmed rejection. A pervading sentiment of acceptance suggests no one should be excluded because of a disability and all differences should be accepted. At the same time, vast amounts of effort go into targeting behaviors caused by disabling conditions and attempting to extinguish these. Advocates for the rights of students with disabilities promote acceptance while practitioners identify unacceptable behaviors to eliminate. The notion of behavior modification suggests that some behaviors are too negative to exist, even if these behaviors are a natural part of who someone is.

Esoteric musing asides, teachers who work with unlikeable students face difficult scenarios. Working with students who exhibit problematic behaviors will accelerate burnout in all but a few teachers. Sadly, some new teachers end up in classes filled with difficult students because no one else wants to teach them. Too often, this forces new teachers out before they get to learn what they’re doing. Veterans can get caught in this as well. Whatever the case, when a teacher dislikes many of his or her students, something has to change. Unlikeable or not, those students are entitled to an education. If a teacher can’t muster the will to help these students despite their behaviors, that teacher might need to get out. Someone else will come along and give it a try. In the meantime, teachers do have to consider their own quality of life, which can take a hit when working with foul-tempered or out-of-control students.

Disliking a few students is human and difficult to avoid. One or two particularly unruly students can ruin a teacher’s day, week, or year. Teachers must seek support when they need it regarding troublesome students. Counselors, administrators, and other team members might be able to offer solace. Focusing on what each student needs is vital for individual teachers and for entire teams. Students found by others to be persistently irritating might be in need of highly nuanced support. Even those who are ungrateful, irrational, or outright sinister deserve a fair opportunity. School officials must remember that this isn’t just a matter of equity (which it is), but it’s a matter of the law.

On Not Liking Students