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Special Education Reform That's Good for Teachers

Nate Levenson is managing director at District Management Group, a consulting firm that helps schools and districts raise achievement, manage scarce resources, and deal with challenges like improving special education. Nate has also been a superintendent (in Arlington, Massachusetts) and school board member. This week, he'll be writing about the new era of special education reform and who's making it possible. Nate can be reached at [email protected].

Education reform of the last two decades often seems to pit leaders at the federal, state, or district level against the judgment of teachers. Whether it's teacher evaluation or a seemingly endless array of new programs, many reforms have been pushed on teachers, and they have pushed back. The new era of special education reform, which I have dubbed Phase Three, seems different.

In Monday's post, I mentioned that teachers and special education leaders are embracing the new reform efforts that place great importance on core instruction, more instructional time, and teachers with strong content expertise. Today, I'll share why there is grassroots support for this new wave of special education reform.

Teachers and special education leaders know better than anyone else that the current approach to meeting the needs of students with disabilities is just too stressful, as well as not successful enough. All 50 states are reporting a shortage of special educators. They are leaving the profession at ever-increasing rates, and on the way out they tell their friends not to enter the field. Fewer young people are entering special education, while more exit. Teachers, therapists, and school psychologists are voting with their feet.

The new approach to special education has the potential to change this trend because it is as good for teachers as it is for students. It helps in three ways:

  • It's not just up to special educators
  • Teachers play to their strengths
  • There is more time with kids and less time on meetings and paperwork

Central to the new approach to special education is the importance of general education and the pivotal role of general education teachers. This contrasts greatly to the often unstated but widely held belief that special educators can pull kids from class, do their magic (whatever that may be), and return them to class all caught up. Extra help matters, but only when it's in addition to, not instead of high quality, effective core instruction from general education teachers. Shared responsibility feels a lot better than passing the baton.

Also foundational to Phase Three special education reform is the notion that kids who struggle, especially those with disabilities, need and deserve teachers who are highly skilled and trained in the subject or task. The implication for teachers of this simple statement is vast. Many don't realize, but we ask too much of special educators, and they are too nice to say enough is enough (until they leave the profession).

Based on my firm's review of schedules of over 40,000 special educators in over 100 districts, these hard-working teachers are asked to do more than any other role in a school. This includes identifying students with disabilities, writing IEPs, partnering with parents, consulting with general education teachers, teaching math, reading, writing, science, social studies, and managing behaviors. Oh, they also direct paraprofessionals.

Even at the secondary level, where the content is complex, most are asked to teach across multiple subjects, sometimes four content areas in a single day, as well as case manage and help with behavior challenges. No one can reasonably be expected to be an expert in all these fields. Few professionals have training, interest, and aptitude in such diverse endeavors. Ask a high school math teacher to also teach English or a U.S. history teacher to write a behavior plan, and they say, "that's completely unreasonable," but special educators say, "OK."

We shouldn't ask anyone to do this. I'm saddened by how many hands go up when I ask a room full of special educators, "Tomorrow, when you go to work, how many of you will spend a sizable portion of your day doing something that does not play to your skill, training, or aptitude?"

The new era of special education reform allows staff to play to their strengths, be it teaching reading, managing behaviors, writing IEPs, and so on. As we let special educators play to their strengths, we also ask general education reading teachers, math teachers, and English teachers to help out with intervention and remediation as well. Team work and shared responsibility!

Lastly, this new reform effort values student outcomes as much, or more, than compliance. Yes, compliance matters, but nationwide special educators spend more time on meetings and paperwork than being with kids. This is out of proportion and out of alignment with our collective goals.

Through process mapping and explicitly placing greater emphasis on teaching time than compliance activities, schools can provide more instruction to students and more meaning to staff. Few special educators enter the profession because of a burning love for meetings, paperwork, testing, and report writing. In one meeting I hosted with school psychologists, they brainstormed over 20 practical steps that would free up their time to work more with students, and they relished the opportunities this would allow them.

It's not surprising that when the state of Vermont recently passed sweeping special education reform based on these best practices, special educators and the Vermont Council of Special Education Administrators supported the effort. They could see that this would improve the lives of both teachers and students.

As more schools and districts adopt these new special education best practices, they will be helping teachers as much as students, and both deserve better than the status quo.

On Friday, learn why taxpayers also benefit from the new approach to special education.

Nate Levenson

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