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OSEP Opens up the Purse Strings

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The U.S. Department of Education's office of special education programs has divided $2.4 million among 20 universities around the country to help those universities train highly qualified teachers of students with "high incidence" disabilities. Such disabilities include emotional disturbance, mental retardation and learning disabilities like dyslexia.

These grants are part of the Special Education Preservice Training Improvement Grants Program, and will cover the first year of what are expected to be five-year projects at the colleges.

I first started covering special education in November 2004, right after the reauthorization of IDEA. A few months later, I wrote an article about the deep concern many special educators felt about the highly qualified provisions of the law. Many teachers feared that it would be difficult to find instructors highly qualified both in special education and in a particular subject area.

It sounds like Education Secretary Margaret Spellings heard the same complaints, based on this statement released by the department: "We consistently hear from state, local and higher education officials that personnel preparation programs for special education teachers should be restructured or redesigned for graduates of these programs to meet the highly qualified teacher requirements in IDEA."

I'll be writing a little bit more about what these universities plan to do with their money for the Aug. 13 issue of Education Week.

4 Comments

Ideally, we need teachers knowledgable about both content and individuals with exceptionalities. My experience has been that special education is a hybrid field, spanning the gamut between psychology, counseling, pedagogy, and exceptionality. Precisely because of this hybridization, the roles of special educators need to be more clearly deliniated systemically.

Content knowledge needs to be equally emphasized in our teaching requirements, so that students who are challenging to teach because of manifestations of their disabilities get what they need academically, socially, emotionally, and behaviorally. These intensive requirements beg the question: Since special educators need education and experience over and beyond what general educators have, how should special educators' roles and pay be structured to correspond with these qualifications? I have found that often in inclusion models special educators work in subordinate roles to general educators, especially since NCLB has hyperfocused on content, possibly to the detriment of students with intensive academic, behavioral, and social-emotional needs. I am not sure this is progress.

Kim:

I think I have seen both the best and worst of what you describe vis a vis inclusion models. At the very least there is (in some cases) a huge attitudinal barrier that needs to be overcome (the one held by some on the "regular" side who would rather not be bothered--and hold to some belief in a right to not be bothered owing to not having chosed a "special" certification). On the "special" side, there is also the problem of well-seasoned "rescuers" who are protecting "their children" from all that is worst on the other side.

If I were to dream a dream of what makes sense regarding training and certification, it would be that special education certification be a master's level certification, available only to teachers with prior experience with content on the "regular" side. For too many years the "special" certification mixed true believers with others who were seeking a back door into the regular classroom. Perhaps an entry qualification for the special education advanced degree program might be experience teaching side-by-side with a special education teacher in an inclusion program.

I had high hopes when special education teachers were required to have content knowledge in order to be highly qualified that we would see an increase in good quality inclusion programs pairing content teachers with special education teachers. In my district the number one factor dictating the presence or absence of inclusion classrooms is still the willingness of teachers (not the needs of the students). Team teaching is as rare as hen's teeth. Meanwhile, teachers who have NO degree in mathematics have been hurried through summer workshops to become "highly qualified" to teach courses like Algebra and Geometry to high school students who largest area of disability is the poor education that they have received previously and the unwillingness of better qualified teachers to have them in a classroom.

Margo,
I, too, have been disappointed by the real world application of the "highly qualified" requirement. IMHO, teachers do need at least a bachelor's level degree in the content area(s) they teach. This usually equates to about 10 3-hr. courses, hopefully at least half of which are at the upper division level. I very much like your ideas about master's level degrees in special education, with content area bachelor's degrees as an entry level prerequisite for teaching. I think courses in pedagogy are also important, and definitely need to be paired with classroom internships (real internships, not the kind that just look good on paper). What you are proposing makes alot of sense.

Regarding co-teaching, it seems to seldom work. I know there is an extensive body of literature that discusses mentoring, and points out that the most effective mentoring relationships are the ones that occur naturally, rather than are assigned by some outside authority. I would guess this may be true of effective co-teaching relationships, too. Regardless, as you said, it is problematic that the needs of the students are going by the wayside while we struggle to improve the system.

And as to the seeming unwillingness of some teachers to teach students with exceptionalities: I have experienced this, too. What worries me is that I'm not sure this ability/willingness/desire/proclivity/interest can be taught. Hopefully, I am wrong.

Kim:

Unwillingness is a tough nut to crack, but I do think that it is something that has to be reckoned with, given the things that we know about the effects of segregating kids with disabilities. The kids all need one another. Certainly one thing that would be supportive of the relationships of "regular" teachers and "special" kids would be to provide sufficient structure to guarantee a good early experience for teachers.

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