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Special Ed's Greatest Challenges and Solutions

Here are the top five special ed issues that affect school administrators, with resolutions for ea

Thirty years ago, Congress announced that more than half of American children with disabilities were not receiving appropriate educational services. Today, American schools have a world-class system for differentiating instruction for all students, regardless of cognitive, emotional or physical limitations. That's quite an accomplishment, and something about which educators should be proud.

Alas, there's a rub. While children with disabilities are now welcomed into classrooms with open arms, it can be hard to find educators embracing the kind of frank discussions that normally accompany such a sea change in instruction. Whether it's because teachers and administrators are all leery of being called prejudiced, embarrassed about some of their past policies or simply too overwhelmed with day-to-day work to get their arms around the bigger issues, the result is the same: There are a number of seemingly insurmountable challenges in special education, and not much is being said about them. Issues like racial disproportion. Abysmal teacher morale. Nonexistent academic programs. Paperwork roulette. The good news is, some districts have found ways to rectify, or-at the very least-cope.

Culture Change

The issue: Not all special ed students have gotten the education they deserve.

If educators are going to be really honest, they must admit they have let a lot of special needs kids down through the years. Say what you will about NCLB, but prior to its enactment a lot of children in special education classes were simply not being exposed to academics. Gerry Altieri is the technology coordinator for special education in the Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools, and he's seen it firsthand. "Three, four years ago," he says, "we had a lot of special ed teachers with nothing in their classrooms. The first thing we had to do was to make sure that [these] teachers had textbooks."

And even if there were textbooks, that didn't mean everyone was using them appropriately. "We'd say we wanted to increase the reading skills of our students," says Susan Kelch, director of special education in the Socorro Independent School District in El Paso, Texas. "But students in seventh grade who started at a second-grade reading level would work on the same second-grade reading book in eighth and ninth grade. We didn't offer materials that would actually improve reading skills."

Kelch's district took a three-pronged approach to increasing student achievement, beginning with aligning the SPED curriculum and creating a benchmarking system. "Now we can see how students are progressing," she says. The district also replaced special ed aides with teachers, pairing general and special ed teachers in inclusion classrooms.

"If educators are going to be really honest, they must admit they've let a lot of special needs kids down through the years."

And the district began using the Response to Intervention model of instruction. Historically, students having difficulty in a general ed classroom would have to fail before they could receive services. RTI starts before failure occurs. For instance, Kelch says, the district now runs a "reverse inclusion" preschool program in which general ed kids (called "language masters") are asked to join a group of kids who are struggling with language skills. Another innovation has helped El Paso's large number of ELL students not be placed in special services because of language problems. The district now runs dual-language schools to expose non-English-speaking students to English speakers to bolster their skills.

Some Teachers Left Behind

The issue: Special education teachers are often considered second-class citizens.

"The two most ego-satisfying jobs in the world are a D.J. and a teacher," says Joye H. Thorne, a consultant and former special education administrator for the Aldine (Texas) Independent School District. Thorne says a classroom teacher is the boss and that "special education teachers are considered something of a threat." What's more, she thinks general ed teachers have a notion that special educators have some kind of "magic" way to reach special needs students-and therefore, only special ed teachers should work with them.

It's ironic that at a time when so many teachers feel disrespected due to NCLB's highly qualified teacher provisions, their colleagues feel general ed teachers treat them disrespectfully. "Regular ed doesn't like to be told what to do by special ed," says Sam Dempsey, director of the Exceptional Children's Program in N.C.'s Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools. "By and large, they feel they know education better than we do."

Part of this tension comes from the fact that, traditionally, special ed teachers have handled "process" while general ed teachers were all about the academics. Barbara Burke, director of special services at White Bear Lake (Minn.) Area Schools, says there is a different mindset in terms of focus. "In special education, we're looking at the individual student, while general ed focuses on the class and on the curriculum." In an effort to bring the two groups together and broaden everyone's focus, White Bear Lake began offering joint summer institutes several years ago. Week one focuses on training. During the second week, teachers collaborate on projects using what they learned in week one.

Burke points to an accelerated math teacher's experience as a good example of how this can work. After picking up information about differentiated instruction from the special ed teachers, the young man told Burke that since he'd always "gotten" it in math, he just assumed that if he stood up in front of the class and told the kids what to do, they'd get it, too. "He said that nowadays he's tying instruction into projects and using a wider range of examples," says Burke. "It opened up a whole new way of teaching for him."

Susan Butler, director of special education for Anoka-Hennepin School District in Minn., says she and her staff attend every principal meeting in the district to reinforce the idea that they're all on the same educational team. But, despite advances with the principals and a growing respect from the general ed teachers, Butler says she's never seen a crash of morale like the one her special ed teachers are undergoing. "Suddenly, the law says special education teachers-many of whom have been working with children for 20 years-are not highly qualified," she says. "They'll go through the alternate process created by the state and be OK, but it's demoralizing. We keep telling them to focus on competency."

An Endless Paper Chase

The issue: Special education paperwork overwhelms teachers and administrators.

"Special education works because of positive relationships," Burke. "But all the regulations and the 'CYA' paperwork has resulted in an adversarial relationship between parents and schools. That's what special education burnout is all about."

Paperwork-or the lack thereof-is also what lawsuits are all about, and that's part of the reason it's such a burden. The staff knows that one false move could cost plenty. Take Thorne's experience. At one point, she and a number of others were sued for conspiring to deny a four-year-old with special needs of his civil rights. "We were found guilty," say Thorne. "Nothing was wrong with the procedures, but I had not dated a form that would have proven that I gave the parents information in a timely manner." The district was fined $35,000. "After that, if anyone sneezed in my office, I demanded that they date it," says Thorne.

Susan Butler feels Thorne's pain. She claims a local attorney targeted her district for a while. "We had a lot of experience learning about what kind of documentation was necessary to prevail in court," she says. The district asked Assistant Director of Special Education Sherri Peterson to work with the Central Minnesota Educational Research and Development Council on a data-management system called the Due Process Reporting System. Peterson gave the research council feedback on the system, which now "has all the bells and whistles required in the law," says Butler. Today, when Butler's staff puts together an IEP, there is a complex set of prompts in place to ensure that they follow legal protocol as well as best educational practices.

Paperwork does not limit itself to legal concerns. It's also expensive in both man-hours and printing costs. Switching to a tech-based solution helps streamline the process and greatly reduces the need for photocopying and mailing. Roxanna Carpenter of Baldwin County Public Schools in Alabama uses STI's Special Education Tracking System, paired with the Alabama Learning Exchange, for IEPs. SETS helps teachers manage data and create forms, while the state exchange database gives teachers access to state standards and curricular goals that they can paste into forms and adapt for individual students. "We're held to writing standards-based goals," says Carpenter. "The technology has made writing IEPs much easier."

Altieri uses Spectrum K12 School Solutions' Encore system to handle all of the Nashville special education data. "It allows us to plan better, allocate resources better and look at how an individual student is doing on an ongoing basis." So far, switching to the online database has saved the district about $50,000 in annual printing costs, and administrators are considering staff reductions because of the reduced paperwork.

Race Wars

The issue: A disproportionate number of children of color end up in special education.

Statistics don't lie: Children of color get labeled special needs more often than white kids. In fact, a landmark study by the Civil Rights Project at Harvard University found that in most states, African-American children are one-and-a-half to four times as likely to be identified as having an emotional disturbance or being mentally retarded.

Nancy M. Cappello, an education consultant for the Connecticut Department of Education and a former special education teacher, has worked on racial inequity issues for four years, ever since a 2002 class action suit forced the issue. Cappello says the first step is acknowledging the problem. For instance, a number of Connecticut school leaders pooh-poohed racial inequity until Cappello literally drew a map and circled districts with overrepresentation problems in bright red. "It was very public," she says. "When districts got the data, they were forced to ask themselves why black students in their districts were three times as likely to end up in special ed."

Identifying the problem can be easier than rooting it out, though, and a wide range of cultural, economic and access issues come into play. Nonetheless, Cappello says "literacy and behavior seem to be the reasons children are identified for special ed when they first enter the school. We had to ask ourselves what we were or were not doing before the child was first referred." In Connecticut, that's meant refocusing professional development to include literacy and positive behavioral support programs right from the start.


Minnesota's Butler says an influx of children of color has brought racial inequity in special education to her district, too. "We're working hard on that," she says. "Our growing ESL population is over-identified with

special needs. We're trying to put new procedures in place with our evaluation teams, and to factor in cultural and other factors."

When all is said and done, though, Cappello says a big part of the problem is that teachers are no more comfortable talking about race than the rest of society-and that's exactly the discussion that needs to take place to stop racial disparities in schools. Connecticut has started a program for educators and administrators called Courageous Conversations on Race to talk about the issues as openly and honestly as possible. "We've learned it's a complex, challenging issue," says Cappello, "but I really believe that it's not a special ed issue at all. It's a general ed issue."

Budget Reductions

The issue: Numbers of special-ed students grow as number of dollars shrink.

Race, morale, paperwork. For many districts, these issues pale compared with the daunting reality of smaller budgets and larger numbers of special-needs kids. "Autism is growing exponentially," says Baldwin County's Carpenter, which now has four center-based programs for elementary, middle and high school kids with autism. In her district of 26,000 students, 4,000 or about one in six students receives special services. "About 25 to 30 of our kids require a licensed nurse at all times, for things like catheterization. That means there's always an LPN on campus with the child, and an LPN must travel on the school bus, too," she adds. For some kids, that requires two shifts per day. And these kids also require a paraprofessional, which means the school gets hit up for another salary. Dual certification is one solution Carpenter's exploring.

In the old days, a district might simply have said we can't handle it and sent a child with severe needs out of district. But out-of-district placements are not an option for lots of schools. Susan Kelch in El Paso says that the Texas School for the Blind is 400 miles away, making outplacement a moot point. And states don't much like outplacement, anyway. "We were sanctioned for sending too many kids out of district," explains Elaine Dykeman, CSE-CPSE supervisor for Ravina-Coeymans Selkirk School District in upstate N.Y. "We had to bring our numbers down." Dykeman says 65 of the district's 430 special ed students are outsourced. The majority of children who are going out of district are students with behavior problems.

Dykeman says the district has experienced a paradigm shift in the way it educates special-needs students. General ed teachers are being told that a student is a student is a student, and if you're the content specialist, you're going to teach them all. "That caused quite a hoopla," she says. To help teachers through the change, Dykeman created several programs. First, the district got a $40,000 grant to study the kind of professional development needed to move special education forward. Now teachers are being trained in functional behavioral management, developing co-teaching programs and working on RTI models. The district is also testing a variety of six- to 10-week reading programs to see which strategies work best for different students. And Dykeman's team has put Instructional Support Teams in place in every school to identify at-risk students earlier.

Hope for the Future

When all is said and done, it's important to be realistic about the expectations of special education programs. According to Winston-Salem/Forsyth County's Dempsey, there will always be a bell curve of abilities, and using special education to get low-achieving kids extra help may not be the best way to go. Dempsey says once you've done the most obvious things for students, such as offering tutors, mentoring and cross-grade grouping, you're still faced with the reality that a child with an IQ of 70 to 85 will have a hard time performing on grade level, which is mandated by NCLB by 2014. "I'm not sure that any of us wants to live in a world where three out of 10 people is identified as special needs," says Dempsey.

Two things seem most likely to help educators cope. First, tech-based assessment and data management tools are finally offering educators a true picture of student abilities. At White Bear Lake, they've instituted NWEA's MAP testing, which allows educators to look at individual student achievement data and at the progress of a cohort over a number of years. Not surprisingly, says Barbara Burke, "Kids with disabilities are not always the lowest students. That gets us asking questions like 'What's different about this particular kid'"-a different question altogether from does this kid know his multiplication tables. Burke loves the data, but she says the coolest thing that's happened to her in years is the relationship she's forged with her district's assessment coordinator. "She was the gifted and talented specialist," says Burke. "She gets that she needs to include us. It's such an extraordinary experience for me professionally to have someone else-someone in general ed-take the lead on inclusion." Indeed, says Susan Butler of Anoka-Hennepin, if special ed thinks it can go off and achieve all that needs to be achieved without working with general ed, "they're having a fantasy." She says she's tied her star to the star of the building administrators, because she firmly believes that working hand-in-hand is the way to go. "We are part of a continuum."

Pamela Wheaton Shorr has been covering education for the past 10 years.