Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Why Does Special Education Have to Be Special?

Thanks to the federal Individuals with Disabilities Act passed in 1975, students who have some kind of identifiable disability that gets in the way of keeping up with their able peers, get service from special education teachers in schools throughout the United States.
While practices vary from state to state, there is some similarity as to how these services are provided. The law is well intentioned, and there is no doubt that much of what special education teachers do is helpful. However,  we spend too much money and time on bureaucratic procedures that wastes funds that could be used to pay more teachers to give more help. For example the Seattle School district recently spent over $500,000 on the services of two consulting companies, the TIERS group and SENECA family of services. 

The process that a child has to go through to become classified and therefore eligible for service creates a barrier that favors students with strong parent advocates, at the same time it leaves some poor kids who aren't quite disabled enough out of luck. 

Unlike Finland where services are provided to about half of the students at some point before they fall too far behind, we limit these kind of services to roughly 12% of the student population, and often wait until students are far behind their peers before we provide it. As an elementary school principal where 90% of the students were poor, 25% were refugees, and 20% qualified for special education services, I've seen this process close up. I have great respect for the teachers involved, but found that we spent way too much time in meetings trying to determine if a given student was classifiable rather than just helping kids who seemed to need help.

If districts would adopt evidence based curriculum and engage learning disability experts focused on student results vs paper work compliance then there's a chance the educational needs of all students could be met without increases in cost.

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