Saturday, March 3, 2012

My Ideal Special Education World

I’ve been thinking a lot about what would make Special Education in inner-city schools successful. While doing some research, I came across this article. My own experience being a Sped teacher at a south side elementary school in Chicago was that schools were not able to come anywhere near what was needed to meet all the kids’ needs. There were not nearly enough staff and the school was far too overwhelmed by the intensive daily needs of practically every other student. I felt the school used my classroom, the resource room, to warehouse children for nearly the entire day, without even an aide or a cohesive curriculum to teach them. And when they weren’t with me, they were thrown back into the overcrowded general education classrooms completely unsupported. Much like this article says, “The pressure from high stakes test-based performance assessments leaves no incentive for teachers and administrators to invest general education class time for individualized attention or to implement diverse culturally responsive teaching methods.” It always came down to a resource issue and the lack of staff to meet these kids needs. They were effectively swept under the rug, away from view. On the other hand, the school where I did my student teaching ran a full inclusion program where the kids didn’t have much opportunity for those necessary 1:1/small group skills-building programs to increase reading skills. I say neither a full inclusion or full pull-out model meets these children’s needs. They need something flexibly in between.

Here’s my vision (putting the issue of money to the side for a moment. Hey, a girl can dream, right?):

I see a school where every single classroom, or at least inclusion classroom and early grades K-3, has two main teachers for the entire school day. These teachers would share the burdens of planning, grading, assessing, and classroom management equally. And they would be equally responsible for every child in the classroom, regardless of special education status. At least one should be trained in special education and ideally at least one should have 5 or more years of experience in the classroom. (This would dilute the negative impact of inexperienced teachers on low-income students with special needs.) The class size should still be capped at a relatively small size. I would say no more than 20 children in a group.

In addition to full, day-long, consistent inclusion services, there would be at least one additional (and more depending on the number of students) pull-out teacher. He/She would pull students out for individual or at most groups of 2-3 students with similar ability levels for intensive, skill-based, comprehensive reading or math practice. I believe those kids would get more in a 20 or 30-minute individual session to work on skills than an entire day thrown into a cross-categorical dumping grounds like we have now. The pull-out would focus on those essential reading or math skills, while the inclusion teacher would make sure that all children had access to the content at grade-level.

Teachers and the school would also be given flexibility on curriculum and teaching content. The team-teachers would decide based on the students’ interests and needs which topics should be covered and how. (Again, I do realize this autonomy is nearly impossible by our standards-loving, test-crazed current educational landscape.) There could be some general topics (standards) that needed to be touched upon, but otherwise the two professional teachers would be given extreme freedom on how to reach each student in the class.

There would also be a strong focus on early identification of learning or behavior problems. An intervention specialist should be assigned to the lowest grades to support the teaching and to be in charge of collecting data on any student that is struggling beginning in Kindergarten. The RTI paperwork would be completed by this staff member and taken off the shoulders of the teachers.

The school would have a full-time social worker who would run lessons with each class every week on appropriate social skills and conflict resolution in addition to meeting with students individually. I would love to see a social worker assigned to each grade-level cluster (K-2, 3-5, 6-8). Also, a full-time school nurse would also be present in the classrooms as an advisor and instructor on healthy living at least once a week.

The school would use positive behavioral supports, and would not ever suspend or expel a student in all but the most extreme cases. (Actually, I would honestly say they should never expel a student. There is always a way to help. I don’t understand how the word “expulsion” is used at all for the legally-mandated public education every child is entitled to.) There would be “cool down” rooms for agitated students, places that were not a punishment, but a place to refocus in order to quickly come back into the group. Perhaps older middle school students could sometimes advise younger students on how to calm and return to class. There would be individualized and age-appropriate/action-appropriate interventions which focused on learning from mistakes and making amends with the classroom community, not penalties. And there would absolutely never be a “no excuses” or "zero tolerance" discipline policy.

I get that these interventions would take extra money. But it’s money that would be better spent than the slew of consultants, test preparation materials, and punitive alternative placements and lawsuits currently being given exorbitant funds. And it would not just help the special education students but ALL students saving on later remedial academic classes. And by focusing heavily on the younger grades we could circumvent the later costs of special education and alternative schools for middle and high school students. Also, it seems to me that the over-representation of poor, and minority students identified for special education speaks more to how poorly we resource their schools during that critical time when children are learning to read. At the school I taught in, I could have theoretically identified over a third of any class as meeting special education criteria, but the real problem was lack of appropriate early interventions compounded by classroom environments not conducive to learning like large class sizes, few books, and lack of early special education services. (My school didn’t even offer special education services until the third grade. This is criminal.)

I suspect that affluent districts are doing something closer to what I describe above. They are not having to make the choice of whether to educate kids appropriately or to throw them away in a ‘resource room’ or self-contained room in order to “save” the learning environment for the other children. This better of two evils approach is also how charters and turnarounds justify not serving all students. If kids just don’t “fit in” to the school culture, then the school is off the hook in meeting their needs. I always thought that special education meant meeting a child’s individual needs no matter where they were behaviorally or academically.

I think the charter schools and turnarounds actually make the situation worse, as they set up strict “no excuses” discipline policies which practically guarantee that the kids with outward behavior problems will not succeed. And as every special education teacher knows, those behavior problems are often tied to learning problems.

At the end of the day, most inner city schools are too overwhelmed and too understaffed to truly meet the needs of every child. And I don’t believe many alternative placements are better. They have concentrated behavior problems which unfortunately lead to more chaotic and violent places for young people. Recently, a student was stabbed and killed during an incident outside one of these alternative schools in Chicago. While some alternative schools are resourced well enough to handle these tough behaviors, most are just holding grounds, with staff doing what they can, but it is rarely is enough. My kids at the psychiatric hospital where I work repeatedly tell me horrific stories of daily fights, gang activity, and lack of staff. It’s heartbreaking.

I think these kids with special needs, or just any child who struggles (I don’t believe the label is important), need to be our main focus in education reform. I think any school that is struggling should be given a two-teacher model with additional support staff being used constantly. I think the schools should have a wide and rich curriculum so children who don’t excel at math or reading still have a chance to shine in art, music, or athletics. And if kids have inclusion teachers all day, they should continue to have inclusion support in art, music, and gym. And of course these kids need recess and down time, time to be children, not academic robots.

I hated that job in CPS because I knew I couldn’t give the kids what they needed alone. No matter how I played around with the staffing or schedules, it was never enough. At first I blamed myself and sunk into a depression. But later I began to see how I was set up to fail. I saw why all the special education positions needed to be filled every single year. Before working in CPS, I always had believed that advocating for students professionally and with a sound research and practice base would be enough. But I was sadly mistaken. My administration did not want the pot stirred, they did not want to hear about the deficiencies in our program. They wanted me to shut up, close my door, and keep the kids occupied and as far away as possible from the other students. And when I continued to fight for those kids, I felt the very real retaliation and threats that administrators hold over their staff. I understood for the first time why due process rights matter and how union protections were necessary. I was a first year teacher and I learned the hard way why teachers need unions.

But I am lucky because I now have a position outside the school system, which means I can (relatively safely) advocate for students with special needs and ultimately all children in these underserved communities. So watch out CPS, I intend to make some noise!!!


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