Snow is forecast for today, three days before Halloween. For those of us with gardens, we’ve felt the chill coming on for three weeks, but what a surprise to suddenly have temperatures in the 30s, a whipping wind, and no more time to bring in plants or put tools away until spring. Early frost would always prompt my mother to say, “Frost is on the Pumpkin” with a twinkle in her eye that good times and good food were ahead. So with the snow swirling outside I finally have time to write this blog today. There are so many things to think about-
The Wall Street sit in and the 99 %- Why aren’t special ed groups and organizations represented there and in sit-ins across the country? We have been locked out politically and educationally for at least a decade with a law that nobody enforces. Yet I see no overt political activism, even with this Wall Street opportunity. Are there no leaders left? Is there no interest left in making our plight public?
Increased use of computers in classrooms. Every newspaper has at least one story a week about using laptops as a substitute for textbooks and the amount of money they cost. Yes, we must rethink education in the digital age. But do we do that and sacrifice a teacher’s salary? Increasingly software programs promise to teach children to read who have been unsuccessful using other methods. These programs never say “disability” but assure the school that they can succeed with students where others have failed. I have never, ever seen a computer program teach a child to read. Sesame Street didn’t and neither will these. Instead, we need to deploy a greater variety of teachers with more specific teaching skills that meet the varied reading needs of students.
Oh, Lord! Look at this! My list will be too long: Relaxing special education standards, a National Assessment of IDEA of July 2011, some important court cases, testing costs, a lot of stuff. But the one that is at the top of my list today is the special education teacher shortage. I was there when it started and watched it unfold since 1982. There has been periodic reporting on this problem, but nobody has gone back to its roots. So with the frost on the pumpkin and people on the march, here is the story.
From 1980-1985 I went to graduate school at Teachers College (TC), Columbia University in New York in the Neuroscience and Education program. Remember that special education was born in 1975 and nothing like it had ever existed before. There were lots of regulations that controlled what teachers did, how they were to be trained and how that training was to continue so that skills were always updated. Then the election of Ronald Reagan occurred in 1980. He hated special education and put it at the top of his hit list to deregulate as soon as possible. His actions and positions were hot topics at TC among both faculty and students. That was the first time I heard the word “generalist”. I wanted to specialize in applying neuroscience to special education curriculum design and teaching methodology. My advisor explained why that was not a good career path…”You know, Marilyn, they are doing away with all of the special education programs across the country. It’s come down from the feds that they want us all to become “generalists”. So we’re closing the special education department. You can take courses, though. I tell you, they have no idea what they are doing! This is going to come back to haunt them!” Ah, Yes! The perfect Halloween story on this cold day.
The irony for me was that I was also doing special ed hearings at this time and knew the awful state of teacher training in special education. They simply had no idea and nobody was teaching them. I took every special education course offered at TC while there. And in the process, the emphasis within the college on being a generalist grew. The concept was that everybody in a school was supposed to be able to teach every child in the school. Special education was to provide tools to individualize for every child, not only those with disabilities. We were to understand testing and how it translated into instruction when I started at TC in 1980. When I left in 1985 it was on the cusp of the Inclusion movement. I had been a regular education teacher since 1961 and my daughter was born in 1968 with multiple disabilities. I was totally unequipped to give her what she needed and began to teach myself and take courses when I could afford them. But generalist? It was the dumbest thing I’d ever heard.
The prophecy of my advisor came true. The weakening of the requirements for a special education degree, or specialization, came at the very moment the teaching profession was trying to understand what was special about special education. Because this was never spelled out with the clarity it required, special education teaching was doomed it before it could grow into a viable field. At that time, nobody would have dared talk about “accommodations” or “modifications”. You taught students skills so that neither accommodations nor modifications were needed. Politicians and university administrators mixed the vocabularies together of physical disabilities, developmental disabilities, and learning disabilities so that the specific differences and the specific needs of these specific handicaps were glossed over in graduate programs. The only time you learned the nuances and needs of a disability was when you had a child with a handicap that required specific handling- or, all of them.
Then came the Inclusion Movement. We had fewer and fewer special education teachers because those graduate programs had been dissolved. We had a desperate drug problem in the schools, the emergence of Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS), and Minimal Brain Dysfunction became A.D.H.D. The growing fall out of poverty, poor health and the medical miracles of saving babies who would have died were inherited by the public schools. Special needs populations swamped school systems and the bureaucracies and politics escalated, along with the increased roll of school attorneys. Less and less specialized teaching staff was available. Teacher burn out increased as the teaching environment became untenable in many instances. Entire classes of FAS and coke addicted babies were in large urban classrooms without the benefit of special education services because even then, systems could not afford to serve them. So they were grouped together in classrooms, all viewed as disabled, but without the label. The federal government pushed the Inclusion model and colleges and universities could only get grants if they implemented inclusion program teaching practices. They rarely told graduate students that Inclusion was a philosophy and not the same as least restrictive environment. They gave no other information to them but the alleged civil right mandate to include all disabled children into the general education classroom. When I questioned their statements, I was told privately to keep my mouth shut or I would not graduate.
In the beginning of special education there was an excitement, a mission, and the belief that we could use new research and medical information to improve and provide specialized instruction to children who had been unable to learn. We were to work with their parents as partners to make it happen and so that what we did could carry over into the home. But like everything else, it got caught up into the web of politics and state’s rights. As a result, there is a catastrophic lack of special education teachers. In March 2011, the U.S. Department of Education Office of Postsecondary Education published a list of “Teacher Shortage Areas/Nationwide Listing through 2011-2012”. Grants up to $4,000 per year would be given to students who agreed to teach in high-need fields that serve low income students.
Co-teaching, the pairing of a special education teacher with a general education teacher, is something I did in the 1970s in New York, but which is gaining increased favor now because of the increased number of special education students in regular classrooms. In Crews Lake Middle School, Pasco County, Florida, the concept of generalist for special education teachers have come full circle. What had been a co-teaching model was eliminated due to budget cuts. Now, special education teachers teach regular classes so that the special needs population can be met at the same time as those without disabilities. (http://www.tampabay.com/news/education/k12/crews-lake-middles-initiatives-in-special-education-working/1190278) It’s a startling idea, but maybe the right one. How about every teacher being trained as a special education teacher? But when would the content specialization of the subject be taught? Maybe at the bachelor’s level, but it’s a deepening chasm- content mastery versus special needs mastery. Nobody, no where, no how is looking at this issue. And when they do look, will they understand it? Special education is not general education. It is a field requiring different coursework, a different way of thinking, and a commitment to finding the answers to problems that most will not even acknowledge. It has absolutely nothing to do with modifying a curriculum.
How do we get and keep more special education teachers? We must give them college course work that is honest, specialized, and academically rigorous. We must give them a support system once they begin to work in schools so that they don’t burn out. We need to provide them with legal training so that they know what the structure is for the work they do. Most have no idea. This is a desperate problem, increased daily with the numbers of children who need services and are not getting them, and the number of teachers who want to provide them with help and don’t know how.
The frost is on the pumpkin. There will be winter that is followed by spring. We can find an answer to this problem even in these economically challenging times. But that will not happen unless we are truthful to each other and to ourselves and understand the history behind the dilemma.