Special education professionals work to promote students’ overall behavioral, social and academic growth. Special education professionals aide students in developing socially appropriate behavior within their family, school and community. Teachers of special education help students become more confident in their social interactions. Special education professionals administer activities that build students’ life skills.
What Does the Job Entail?
Are you interested in helping others? Can you handle and care for people who learn differently and have other behavioral problems? Do you want to make a difference in a young child’s life? If you answered “yes” to any of these questions, then you might consider a career in special education. Below is a breakdown of the short and long-term responsibilities of a special education teacher.
First and foremost, special education teachers focus on the development and academic needs of children with disabilities. They encourage learning in disabled students by implementing educational modules and behavioral techniques. Special education teachers work alone or with general education teachers to individualize lessons, develop problem-solving techniques and integrate children into group projects with other students. Furthermore, special education teachers are responsible for ensuring that the needs of disabled children are met during assessment periods.
Did you know that special education teachers work with a team of professionals, qualified staff and family in order to fulfill their job requirements? It is true. In fact, special education teachers work in conjunction with these entities to create an Individualized Education Program (IEP) for each student. An IEP is designed in collaboration with a child’s parents, school principal, social worker, speech pathologist and general education teacher to ensure effective implementation. An IEP targets a student’s needs and growth areas for maximum response. The specialized goals set by the IEP are woven throughout all aspects of a child’s daily activities. Teachers of special education must monitor a child’s setbacks and progress and report back to parents and administrators. Planned goals and tasks are outlined for family members to refer to while a student is at home as well.
The types of disabilities a special education teacher might encounter are difficult to predict. For one, the qualifications for special education services vary greatly from mild disabilities to extreme cases of mental retardation or autism. Types of disabilities include, but are not limited to, the following: speech impairments, hearing disabilities, emotional disturbances, orthopedic impairments, brain trauma cases, blindness, deafness and learning disabilities.
Do You Exhibit These Qualities?
Now that you have an idea of the job’s demands, let’s see if you have the right qualities to be a special education teacher.
Recognize the symptoms and needs of special needs students
Ability to work with one or more parties to achieve short-term and long-term goals
Strong communication skills
Ability to motivate others
Ability to multi-task
Knowledge of the most recent education modules, medical research and behavioral practices
Knowledge of the latest medical technology relevant to special education
Taking the Next Step toward a New Career
Once you have decided to enter the field of special education, you will need to follow several steps. Due to the specialization of the field, special education teachers in all 50 states must receive licensure before employment. Licensures are approved by each state’s board of education, and the requirements for certification differ between states. Nevertheless, the growing shortage of special education teachers has led institutions of higher education to offer more special education degree and certification programs. In fact, special education degrees are offered at the bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral levels throughout the nation. Not to mention, the booming field of distance learning has made certification more accessible from any location in the United States.
In many cases, hopeful special education professionals do not meet the requirements of special education licensure due to their prior completion of degree programs outside of the field of education. Therefore, several states have begun to offer alternate forms of certification. The hope of these programs is to attract new special education professionals and fill the growing need for teachers. The chance to positively impact the lives of special needs children is one of the driving motivations and benefits of entering this field.
After several years, some special education teachers look for new opportunities within their field. In the most common situations, special education professionals transfer to administrative or supervisory positions. Others, after receiving a higher degree, become college professors and educate new students in the field of special education. Experienced teachers of special needs students have also moved up to serve as mentors to incoming special education teachers.
As for the future of special education and employment, there are many changes on the horizon. Most significantly, the job market in special education, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), is projected to “increase faster than the average of all occupations by 2014.” Due to the new emphasis on education and training in legislature, special education professionals will become even more valued.
Can I Make a Living as a Special Education Teacher?
As mentioned previously, the special education job market is on the rise. In 2004, the BLS reported 441,000 employed special education teachers in the nation. While only 6 percent worked within private schools, over 90 percent were employed by public schools or districts. In rare cases, special education professionals were involved in home or hospital care.
This article is an introduction to special education in Irish secondary schools. The past then years have witnessed a sea change in special education provision in Ireland. The Department of Education and Science has issued numerous directives and guidelines in relation to policy, provision, structure and supports. Since 1998 there have been ten pieces of legislation passed through the Dail that relate, one way or another to children and special education needs The National Council for Special Education (NCSE) has been established along with the Special Education Support Service (SESS). Both these organisations oversee and coordinate all special education initiatives nationwide. Ireland’s primary schools have pioneered these new directives. Special education provision at primary level is developing at a rapid pace and great strides are being made. The next horizon for improvement is secondary school.
Ireland’s secondary schools are driven by an exam-oriented curriculum. Subject area specialists teach all of the curricular content. The supports available to children with special needs are not extensive or as tested as those at primary level. In what follows we will look at the needs and entitlements of children entering secondary school who have identified special education needs and those who are entering and later discovered to have a special education need.
My child has been receiving extra help in primary school. What should I look for in a secondary school?
You should look for a school with a special education teacher in place on a full-time basis to support all children with special needs in the school. It is important to also be sure the school has a commitment to supporting and educating children with special needs. The school should have on its staff teachers who have had some training in how to differentiate their methodology and curriculum for children with special needs. There should be an accepting attitude on the part of all staff. Remember, your child is entitled to enter fully into the life of the school and avail of all it has to offer. How do you find out these things? Talk to the school principal and ask questions about the topics listed above. Remember, your child may be eligible for special consideration at the time of Junior Cert and Leaving Cert but this will have to be determined about a year before these exams will be taken.
What is s/he entitled to?
A child who has been receiving special education resources or support in primary school is eligible for continued support at secondary level so long as they continue to have a special education need. It is possible that a primary school child, after receiving several years of support, could no longer be deemed to have a special education need but this is the exception not the rule.
Your child will be entitled to the same general provision he or she received in primary school. Typically this takes the form of specialist teaching from a Learning Support or Special Education Resource teacher (both are now often being referred to simply as Special Education teachers. This support is to be determined based on need with the number of hours of support being determined by the Individual Education Plan (IEP) drawn up in the last year of primary school. In addition to the IEP there should have been a Transition Plan completed during the last year of primary school The Transition Plan will devise the structure of transition to secondary school and may alter the IEP for a short period of time. If this happens there should be a team meeting in about six months or less to write the secondary school IEP. In general students in secondary school are eligible for the same supports as in primary school. This may include a Special Needs Assistant (SNA).
How do I go about making sure they get that?
Generally speaking your child’s Individual Education Plan is the map which documents exactly what services your child will receive, when he or she will receive them and from whom. The IEP is your best protection against a child not receiving the services they need. IEP’s will eventually become legally binding documents on all parties and a school must provide the services outlined in the IEP. An IEP cannot be changed or implemented without your consent. Remember that upon entering secondary school a Transition Plan may be in place that slightly alters the previous IEP. This will have to be reviewed within a short span of time to be sure the child receives appropriate support services. Don’t be afraid to talk to the school principal because he or she is ultimately responsible to see to it that children receive the services they are entitled to receive.
What are my options if we run into difficulties?
Should problems arise you should first speak to the Year Head and address your concerns. The Special Needs Organiser (SENO) assigned to the school should be alerted as well as the appropriate special education teacher(s). A team meeting, of which you are entitled to be a member, can be convened within a reasonable time frame and your concerns will be discussed. If this meeting does not satisfy you or not result in the child receiving the services you may contact the National Council for Special Education for further information and support.
It is important to take things one step at a time. Speak to your child’s special education teacher first and be clear about your concerns. Be assertive and not aggressive. Remember, generally speaking everyone is doing the best they can. Do have your child’s IEP in front of you when you are speaking to the teacher or other staff member. Be aware of your rights to appeal as outlined in the NCSE and SESS websites. Don’t rush to judgement, try and work things out amicably before you make threats to appeal. The next most important port of call will be the Special Needs Organiser assigned to the school.
Not all children who have special education needs come to the attention of parents or educators in primary school. The human brain is an organ that tries to meet the demands placed upon it at any given time. As anyone who has gone to school knows, the demands of the curriculum get greater and greater each year of schooling. In secondary school the curriculum subjects become incredibly complex each year. The fact that a student is being educated by many different teachers each year further complicates matters. There are students who have had no difficulty suggestive of a special education need at primary school who suddenly seem to have a lot of difficulties in secondary school. Unfortunately they are often perceived as “lazy” or “unmotivated” and sometimes as “difficult” students.
If these labels stick and no thought or concern raised about a possible learning difficulty being present the student can become trapped in a cycle of failure and rejection by teachers. The result could be early school leaving, behaviour difficulties to hide the learning problem, lowered self-esteem, loss of self-confidence and trouble at home. It is important to recognise that some students, no matter how well they performed in primary school, may have a special education need that doesn’t appear until secondary school.
What are the warning signs?
It is not possible to list the many warning signs of a hidden disability but generally speaking one should be considered any time a student with a previously successfully record in primary school begins to exhibit difficulties in secondary school. There are a variety of causes to school failure at second level but a hidden disability can often be reasonably suspected when one or more of the following difficulties become noticeable:
oRefusal to go to school
oProblems with written language expression
oDifficulty organising thoughts into speech
oInability to recall facts from yesterday’s lesson even if they seemed retained the night before
oUnusual spelling problems
oUnusual difficulty with more advanced mathematical problems
oPronounced difficulty in foreign language class
oBehavioural difficulties not present in primary school
oMood swings or sudden mood changes that last several hours
oReluctance to engage with parents about school difficulties
Although a partial list it is a good guide for parents and teachers to thoughtfully consider the presence of a hidden learning disability.
I think my child may have a problem. Where do I go from here?
First speak with your child’s teachers. Ask for the facts: what does teacher think the problem might be? How often is this occurring? When? Is it serious? Present your own perception to the teacher(s) clearly and succinctly. If you have done some Internet homework on your own be clear about it and raise it as a query needing to be resolved. Try and get some samples from homework you have seen and ask for some samples of the child’s work in class if it is appropriate to do so. Speak to the Year Head and ask him or her to get some information about your concerns from all teachers. See if you can spot a pattern that validates your concern.
If you become more concerned then you have a right to ask for an assessment. Sometimes the special education teacher, with your permission, can perform some individually administered tests to discover if the child is seriously behind in reading or math achievement age. It is possible to discover if there are significant written language deficits in some cases. If this assessment leads to more significant concerns then you should request a psychological assessment. These can be provided free by the National Educational Psychological Service (NEPS) but be mindful that a lengthy waiting list may be in place.
The most important thing is to be persistent and to talk to the right people. Begin with teachers, speak to Year Head, go to Principal if necessary and don’t forget the Special Education Needs Organiser (SENO). If an assessment is carried out there will be a team meeting to discuss the results and to begin the process of writing an IEP.
In the case of a diagnosis, where do we go from here?
If your child is found to have a special education need an IEP should be written. This is, as stated previously, a road map to your child’s education plan. It should be reviewed annually but can be reviewed more frequently if it is decided to do so. The special education team, often referred to as a multidisciplinary team, will be responsible for writing the IEP. You are a member of that team. Your child is also entitled to be a member of the team and it is particularly important for secondary school students to participate in this stage of planning. This gives them a sense of ownership and control over their educational life.
Be sure that the plan covers all the areas of concern that have been discovered in the assessment process. Plans for children with social and behavioural difficulties that address only academic issues are useless and doomed to fail. Special education planning is a thoughtful and time-consuming process when it is done correctly. Don’t feel rushed into accepting a plan you don’t think will work. Take it away and ask if you can return in a week to revise it with the team. This may not make you the most popular parent in the school but it is responsible parenting.
Autism/Asperger’s in Secondary School
There are large numbers of children with an Autistic Spectrum Disorder that are having considerable difficulty finding a secondary school to enrol them. The problem revolves around the lack of supports at second level and the lack of teacher training in this speciality area. Unfortunately there is little that can be done if a school refuses to enrol a child on the autistic spectrum. What is needed is the development of resource support. By that I mean resource rooms where these children can get services by a specialist teacher. Availability to the teachers of advanced training. Availability of print and video resources teachers can access to learn more about the spectrum. Along with this there should be a whole-school commitment to inclusion for children on the spectrum so they are not isolated from same-age peers.
The education of children on the spectrum is not that difficult once educators get the knowledge about how to do it and have the proper attitude towards these children and their families. Of course they present us with challenges but the good news is that once we get it reasonably right for them we begin to improve the education of all children. There are considerable challenges in the future to our secondary schools in education these children and it is time to get it right. Those schools which stubbornly refuse to enrol children on the spectrum are in the stone age of education. There is a clear choice for secondary schools in relation to these children: be in the forefront of change and development or be left behind forever. Parents will not forgive or forget. It’s time to get it right once and for all.
Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder affects about 5% of all children and adults. Unlike other special education conditions, children and adolescents with ADHD are frequently blamed for having the condition, perceived as hostile or unmotivated, lazy or cheeky. When ADHD goes untreated it becomes a serious condition affecting self-esteem, motivation, behaviour, self-confidence and relationships with adults and peers. ADHD is a high-stakes condition and it needs to be recognised that students who have it didn’t choose to be the way they are.
ADHD is a condition that is caused by brain chemistry and activity. It is a neurobiological condition. People with ADHD often have difficulty paying attention and concentrating, especially on things that require sustained attention and concentration. The can have problems controlling their emotions and impulses, can rush to finish things or have considerable difficulty waiting their turn. They often ask questions without thinking them through and sometimes make unfortunate comments in front of others.
ADHD is a life-long condition. One never grows out of it but the symptom picture changes over time. Often the impulsivity and high level of activity, if they were initially present, disappear in the teen years. The learning problems associated with ADHD do not go away easily and it is vitally important for them to be addressed in school. As in the case of children on the autistic spectrum, once educators and schools get it correct for children with ADHD they have improved the educational provision of all children.
Understanding is critically important. Adolescents with significant ADHD do not chose to be in trouble with and in conflict with adults. Constant rejection and criticism, constant punishment, and in severe cases expulsion from school is not the answer. Corrective teaching is the answer and appropriate support from specialist teachers is vital.
I remember 20 plus years ago when I was getting my graduate degree in Special Education and a buddy of mine getting his degree in elementary education told me that his father, a school principal, said that I probably shouldn’t waste my time getting a masters in Special Education. He said that Special Education would be eventually fading out of public education. I was almost done with my masters at this point so I figured I would have to take my chances with it, besides what other choice did I have anyways at that point?
I got a Special Education job and taught for about 10 year. There were a lot of ups and downs over those 10 years, and eventually I decided that I wanted a change so I got certified and switched over to high school history. At this point in my career I remembered what my friend had said a decade ago and wondered if I was ahead of the curve on schools no longer needing special education teachers, even though it was 10 years later. I wondered if my job was now safe in my new-found home in the history department.
Well, I loved teaching history, but life has its own funny ways that aren’t aligned to us and what we want, so after a decade of teaching history I personally got a first class education on budget cuts and my job was eliminated. Thankfully, I landed on my feet back in Special Education, believe it or not.
It had been more than two decades since my old graduate school buddy told me that the need for special education teachers was disappearing. During the previous two decades my friend had gone from graduate school to elementary school teacher to assistant principal to principal, just like his father had done. I had gone from graduate school to special education teacher to history teacher to back to special education teacher, like nobody else that I know had done. And believe it or not there was still a bunch of special education jobs available when I landed there for a second time. As a matter of fact, there was actually plenty of jobs there because there is a shortage of special education teachers in 49 out of our 50 states. Imagine that… Two decades after I was told that Special Education was going away, and I find that they still can’t seem to get enough special education teachers.
Fast-forward a few more years to today and there is a new and interesting twist affecting Special Education called full inclusion. Now inclusion isn’t a new thing to our schools. As a matter of fact inclusion has a long interesting history in our schools.
Six decades ago there was the Supreme Court Case of Brown v. Board of Education. In 1954 the new law of the land became integrated schools for all races. Four decades ago the ground-breaking law of Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) began to take effect and help ensure that more than six million students with disabilities have the right to a free and appropriate education, which means they too get to be included in with the general education population.
To help this happen schools create a Planning and Placement Team (PPT) that meet and discuss a student’s Individual Education Program (IEP) and then place the student in the appropriate educational setting based on the student’s needs and the law. The placement also needs to be the least restrictive environment (LRE). I can still remember my college professor describing the least restrictive environment in a short story that one would not bring a machine gun to take care of a fly. Rather, one would just bring a fly-swatter to take care of a fly. In other words, if a kid’s disability can be dealt with in the neighborhood school, then the kid doesn’t have to be sent across town or even to another town’s special school.
Today, many schools are trying to improve on this inclusion model and least restrictive environment by going from a partial to a full-inclusion model. Schools in the Los Angeles School District have moved a vast majority of their students out of their special education centers within the last three years and into neighborhood schools where they are fully integrated into elective classes like physical education, gardening and cooking. They are also integrated into regular main stream academic classes as well, but it’s usually not to the same degree as electives.
Michigan schools say that want to break down the walls between general education and Special Education creating a system in which students will get more help when they need it, and that support doesn’t need to be in a separate special education classroom.
Some school districts in Portland, Oregon are a little further along than the Los Angeles schools that are just bringing special education students back from special schools and Michigan schools that are just beginning to try full integration of its students and eliminating most of the special education classrooms.
Being a little further along in the process Portland makes an interesting case study. Many of the parents who initially supported the idea of integrating special education students into regular education classrooms in Portland are now worried about how the Portland Public School System is doing it. Portland is aiming for full-inclusion by the year 2020. However, some of the teachers in Portland are saying, “Obviously the special education students are going to fail and they are going to act out because we are not meeting their needs… If there’s not the right support there, that’s not acceptable, not only for the child, but for the general education teacher as well.”
A Portland parent said, “I would rather have my child feel successful than for them to be ‘college-ready’.” She further states, “I want my children to be good, well-rounded human beings that make the world a better place. I don’t think they necessarily need to go to college to do that. I think that children are individuals, and when we stop treating them as individuals, there’s a problem.” Sadly, many parents and teachers have left the Portland School District, and many more are fantasizing about it because they feel the full-inclusion model isn’t working there how they pictured it would.
How much should schools integrate the special education students is the burning question of the hour. In my personal experience some integration is not only possible, but it’s a must. With some support many of the special education students can be in the regular education classrooms.
A few years ago I even had a non-speaking paraplegic boy in a wheel chair who was on a breathing respirator sitting in my regular education social studies class. Every day his para professional and his nurse rolled him into and sat with him. He always smiled at the tales I told of Alexander the Great marching across 11,000 miles of territory and conquering much of the known world at that time. By the way, Alexander the Great also practiced his own model of inclusion by encouraging kindness to the conquered and encouraging his soldiers to marry the captured territory’s women in order to create a lasting peace.
Other important factors to consider in special education inclusion is the much needed socialization and the saving of money integration offers. Kids learn from other kids and money not spent on Special Education could be spent on general education, right? Hmm…
If you noticed, I said a little bit earlier that many special education students could be integrated, but I did not say all or even most should be integrated. There are just some students that are going to take away too much of the teacher’s time and attention from other students, such as, in the case of students with severe behavior problems. When we put severe behavior problems in regular education classes it’s just outright unfair to all of the other children in there. Similar cases could be made for other severe disabilities too that demand too much of the main stream teacher’s individual time and attention.
Hey, I’m not saying to never try out a kid with a severe disability in a general education setting. But what I am saying is that schools need to have a better system of monitoring these placements and be able to quickly remove students that aren’t working out, and are taking precious learning time away from other students. Furthermore, schools need to do this without shaming the teacher because the teacher complained that the student wasn’t a good fit and was disrupting the educational learning process of the other students. Leaving a kid in an inappropriate placement isn’t good for any of the parties involved. Period.
Over the last two decades I have worked with more special education students than I can remember as a special education teacher and a regular education teacher teaching inclusion classes. I have learned to become extremely flexible and patient and thus have had some of the toughest and most needy kids placed in my classes. I have worked miracles with these kids over the years and I know that I am not the only teacher out there doing this. There are many more out there just like me. But, what I worry about is that because teachers are so dedicated and pulling off daily miracles in the classroom, districts, community leaders, and politician may be pushing too hard for the full-inclusion model thinking that the teachers will just have to figure it out. Setting up teachers and students for failure is never a good idea.
Furthermore, I hope it’s just not the money that they are trying to save while pushing this full-inclusion model forward because what we should really be trying to save is our children. As Fredrick Douglas said, “It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.” Regardless of how the financial educational pie is sliced, the bottom line is that the pie is just too small and our special education teachers and our special education students shouldn’t be made to pay for this.
In addition, I have been a teacher for too long to not be at least a little skeptical when I hear the bosses say that the reason they are pushing for the full-inclusion model is because socialization is so important. I know it’s important. But, I also know that too many people are hanging their hats on that socialization excuse rather than education our special needs students and providing them what they really need. I have seen special education students whose abilities only let them draw pictures sitting in honors classes. There is no real socialization taking place here. It just doesn’t make sense.
Well, finally coming full circle. It will be interesting to see where this full inclusion thing goes. The wise ones won’t let their special education teachers go, or get rid of their classrooms. And for the school districts that do, I imagine that it won’t take long before they realize the mistake they made and start hiring special education teachers back. To my friend and his now ex-principal father from all those years ago who thought special education was going away, well, we’re not there yet, and to tell you the truth, I don’t think we ever will be.
Perhaps the largest and most pervasive issue in special education, as well as my own journey in education, is special education’s relationship to general education. History has shown that this has never been an easy clear cut relationship between the two. There has been a lot of giving and taking or maybe I should say pulling and pushing when it comes to educational policy, and the educational practices and services of education and special education by the human educators who deliver those services on both sides of the isle, like me.
Over the last 20+ years I have been on both sides of education. I have seen and felt what it was like to be a regular main stream educator dealing with special education policy, special education students and their specialized teachers. I have also been on the special education side trying to get regular education teachers to work more effectively with my special education students through modifying their instruction and materials and having a little more patience and empathy.
Furthermore, I have been a mainstream regular education teacher who taught regular education inclusion classes trying to figure out how to best work with some new special education teacher in my class and his or her special education students as well. And, in contrast, I have been a special education inclusion teacher intruding on the territory of some regular education teachers with my special education students and the modifications I thought these teachers should implement. I can tell you first-hand that none of this give and take between special education and regular education has been easy. Nor do I see this pushing and pulling becoming easy anytime soon.
So, what is special education? And what makes it so special and yet so complex and controversial sometimes? Well, special education, as its name suggests, is a specialized branch of education. It claims its lineage to such people as Jean-Marc-Gaspard Itard (1775-1838), the physician who “tamed” the “wild boy of Aveyron,” and Anne Sullivan Macy (1866-1936), the teacher who “worked miracles” with Helen Keller.
Special educators teach students who have physical, cognitive, language, learning, sensory, and/or emotional abilities that deviate from those of the general population. Special educators provide instruction specifically tailored to meet individualized needs. These teachers basically make education more available and accessible to students who otherwise would have limited access to education due to whatever disability they are struggling with.
It’s not just the teachers though who play a role in the history of special education in this country. Physicians and clergy, including Itard- mentioned above, Edouard O. Seguin (1812-1880), Samuel Gridley Howe (1801-1876), and Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet (1787-1851), wanted to ameliorate the neglectful, often abusive treatment of individuals with disabilities. Sadly, education in this country was, more often than not, very neglectful and abusive when dealing with students that are different somehow.
There is even a rich literature in our nation that describes the treatment provided to individuals with disabilities in the 1800s and early 1900s. Sadly, in these stories, as well as in the real world, the segment of our population with disabilities were often confined in jails and almshouses without decent food, clothing, personal hygiene, and exercise.
For an example of this different treatment in our literature one needs to look no further than Tiny Tim in Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol (1843). In addition, many times people with disabilities were often portrayed as villains, such as in the book Captain Hook in J.M. Barrie’s “Peter Pan” in 1911.
The prevailing view of the authors of this time period was that one should submit to misfortunes, both as a form of obedience to God’s will, and because these seeming misfortunes are ultimately intended for one’s own good. Progress for our people with disabilities was hard to come by at this time with this way of thinking permeating our society, literature and thinking.
So, what was society to do about these people of misfortune? Well, during much of the nineteenth century, and early in the twentieth, professionals believed individuals with disabilities were best treated in residential facilities in rural environments. An out of sight out of mind kind of thing, if you will…
However, by the end of the nineteenth century the size of these institutions had increased so dramatically that the goal of rehabilitation for people with disabilities just wasn’t working. Institutions became instruments for permanent segregation.
I have some experience with these segregation policies of education. Some of it is good and some of it is not so good. You see, I have been a self-contained teacher on and off throughout the years in multiple environments in self-contained classrooms in public high schools, middle schools and elementary schools. I have also taught in multiple special education behavioral self-contained schools that totally separated these troubled students with disabilities in managing their behavior from their mainstream peers by putting them in completely different buildings that were sometimes even in different towns from their homes, friends and peers.
Over the years many special education professionals became critics of these institutions mentioned above that separated and segregated our children with disabilities from their peers. Irvine Howe was one of the first to advocate taking our youth out of these huge institutions and to place out residents into families. Unfortunately this practice became a logistical and pragmatic problem and it took a long time before it could become a viable alternative to institutionalization for our students with disabilities.
Now on the positive side, you might be interested in knowing however that in 1817 the first special education school in the United States, the American Asylum for the Education and Instruction of the Deaf and Dumb (now called the American School for the Deaf), was established in Hartford, Connecticut, by Gallaudet. That school is still there today and is one of the top schools in the country for students with auditory disabilities. A true success story!
However, as you can already imagine, the lasting success of the American School for the Deaf was the exception and not the rule during this time period. And to add to this, in the late nineteenth century, social Darwinism replaced environmentalism as the primary causal explanation for those individuals with disabilities who deviated from those of the general population.
Sadly, Darwinism opened the door to the eugenics movement of the early twentieth century. This then led to even further segregation and even sterilization of individuals with disabilities such as mental retardation. Sounds like something Hitler was doing in Germany also being done right here in our own country, to our own people, by our own people. Kind of scary and inhumane, wouldn’t you agree?
Today, this kind of treatment is obviously unacceptable. And in the early part of the 20th Century it was also unacceptable to some of the adults, especially the parents of these disabled children. Thus, concerned and angry parents formed advocacy groups to help bring the educational needs of children with disabilities into the public eye. The public had to see firsthand how wrong this this eugenics and sterilization movement was for our students that were different if it was ever going to be stopped.
Slowly, grassroots organizations made progress that even led to some states creating laws to protect their citizens with disabilities. For example, in 1930, in Peoria, Illinois, the first white cane ordinance gave individuals with blindness the right-of-way when crossing the street. This was a start, and other states did eventually follow suit. In time, this local grassroots’ movement and states’ movement led to enough pressure on our elected officials for something to be done on the national level for our people with disabilities.
In 1961, President John F. Kennedy created the President’s Panel on Mental Retardation. And in 1965, Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which provided funding for primary education, and is seen by advocacy groups as expanding access to public education for children with disabilities.
When one thinks about Kennedy’s and Johnson’s record on civil rights, then it probably isn’t such a surprise finding out that these two presidents also spearheaded this national movement for our people with disabilities.
This federal movement led to section 504 of the 1973 Rehabilitation Act. This guarantees civil rights for the disabled in the context of federally funded institutions or any program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance. All these years later as an educator, I personally deal with 504 cases every single day.
In 1975 Congress enacted Public Law 94-142, the Education for All Handicapped Children Act (EHA), which establishes a right to public education for all children regardless of disability. This was another good thing because prior to federal legislation, parents had to mostly educate their children at home or pay for expensive private education.
The movement kept growing. In the 1982 the case of the Board of Education of the Hendrick Hudson Central School District v. Rowley, the U.S. Supreme Court clarified the level of services to be afforded students with special needs. The Court ruled that special education services need only provide some “educational benefit” to students. Public schools were not required to maximize the educational progress of students with disabilities.
Today, this ruling may not seem like a victory, and as a matter of fact, this same question is once again circulating through our courts today in 2017. However, given the time period it was made in, it was a victory because it said special education students could not pass through our school system without learning anything. They had to learn something. If one knows and understands how the laws work in this country, then one knows the laws always progress through tiny little increments that add up to progress over time. This ruling was a victory for special education students because it added one more rung onto the crusade.
In the 1980s the Regular Education Initiative (REI) came into being. This was an attempt to return responsibility for the education of students with disabilities to neighborhood schools and regular classroom teachers. I am very familiar with Regular Education Initiative because I spent four years as an REI teacher in the late 1990s and early 2000s. At this time I was certified as both a special education teacher and a regular education teacher and was working in both capacities in a duel role as an REI teacher; because that’s what was required of the position.
The 1990s saw a big boost for our special education students. 1990 birthed the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). This was, and is, the cornerstone of the concept of a free and appropriate public education (FAPE) for all of our students. To ensure FAPE, the law mandated that each student receiving special education services must also receive an Individualized Education Program (IEP).
The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 reached beyond just the public schools. And Title 3 of IDEA prohibited disability-based discrimination in any place of public accommodation. Full and equal enjoyment of the goods, services, facilities, or accommodations in public places were expected. And of course public accommodations also included most places of education.
Also, in the 1990s the full inclusion movement gained a lot of momentum. This called for educating all students with disabilities in the regular classroom. I am also very familiar with this aspect of education as well, as I have also been an inclusion teacher from time to time over my career as an educator on both sides of the isle as a regular education teacher and a special education teacher.
Now on to President Bush and his educational reform with his No Child Left Behind law that replaced President Johnson’s Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). The NCLB Act of 2001 stated that special education should continue to focus on producing results and along with this came a sharp increase in accountability for educators.
Now, this NCLB Act was good and bad. Of course we all want to see results for all of our students, and it’s just common sense that accountability helps this sort of thing happen. Where this kind of went crazy was that the NCLB demanded a host of new things, but did not provide the funds or support to achieve these new objectives.
Furthermore, teachers began feeling squeezed and threatened more and more by the new movement of big business and corporate education moving in and taking over education. People with no educational background now found themselves influencing education policy and gaining access to a lot of the educational funds.
This accountability craze stemmed by excessive standardized testing ran rapid and of course ran downstream from a host of well-connected elite Trump-like figures saying to their lower echelon educational counterparts, “You’re fired!” This environment of trying to stay off of the radar in order to keep one’s job, and beating our kids over the head with testing strategies, wasn’t good for our educators. It wasn’t good for our students. And it certainly wasn’t good for our more vulnerable special education students.
Some good did come from this era though. For example, the updated Individuals with Disabilities with Education Act of 2004 (IDEA) happened. This further required schools to provide individualized or special education for children with qualifying disabilities. Under the IDEA, states who accept public funds for education must provide special education to qualifying children with disabilities. Like I said earlier, the law is a long slow process of tiny little steps adding up to progress made over time.
Finally, in 2015 President Obama’s Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) replaced President Bush’s NCLB, which had replaced President Johnson’s ESEA. Under Obama’s new ESSA schools were now allowed to back off on some of the testing. Hopefully, the standardized testing craze has been put in check. However, only time will tell. ESSA also returned to more local control. You know, the kind of control our forefathers intended.
You see the U.S. Constitution grants no authority over education to the federal government. Education is not mentioned in the Constitution of the United States, and for good reason. The Founders wanted most aspects of life managed by those who were closest to them, either by state or local government or by families, businesses, and other elements of civil society. Basically, they saw no role for the federal government in education.
You see, the Founders feared the concentration of power. They believed that the best way to protect individual freedom and civil society was to limit and divide power. However, this works both ways, because the states often find themselves asking the feds for more educational money. And the feds will only give the states additional money if the states do what the feds want… Hmm… Checks and balances, as well as compromise can be a really tricky thing, huh?
So on goes the battle in education and all the back and forth pushing and pulling between the federal government and the states and local government, as well as special education and regular education. And to add to this struggle, recently Judge Moukawsher, a state judge from Connecticut, in a lawsuit filed against the state by the Connecticut Coalition for Justice in Education Funding, rocked the educational boat some more when in his ruling he included a message to lawmakers to reassess what level of services students with significant disabilities are entitled to.
His ruling and statements appear to say that he thinks we’re spending too much money on our special education students. And that for some of them, it just isn’t worth it because their disabilities are too severe. You can imagine how controversial this was and how much it angered some people.
The 2016 United States Presidential election resulted in something that few people saw coming. Real Estate mogul and reality star Donald Trump won the presidency and then appointed anti-public educator Betsy Devos to head up this country’s Department of Education. Her charge, given to her by Trump, is to drastically slash the Department of Education, and to push forward private charter schools over what they call a failing public educational system.
How this is going to affect our students, and especially our more vulnerable special education students, nobody knows for sure at this time. But, I can also tell you that there aren’t many people out there that feel comfortable with it right now. Only time will tell where this is all going to go and how it will affect our special education students…
So, as I said earlier, perhaps the largest, most pervasive issue in special education is its relationship to general education. Both my own travels and our nation’s journey through the vast realm of education over all of these years has been an interesting one and a tricky one plagued with controversy to say the least.
I can still remember when I first became a special education teacher back in the mid-1990s. A friend’s father, who was a school principal at the time, told me to get out of special education because it wasn’t going to last. Well, I’ve been in and out of special education for more than two decades now, and sometimes I don’t know if I’m a regular education teacher or a special education teacher, or both. And sometimes I think our country’s educational system might be feeling the same internal struggle that I am. But, regardless, all these years later, special education is still here.
In closing, although Itard failed to normalize Victor, the wild boy of Averyon, he did produce dramatic changes in Victor’s behavior through education. Today, modern special education practices can be traced to Itard. His work marks the beginning of widespread attempts to instruct students with disabilities. Fast forwarding to 2017, for what happens next in the future of education and special education in our country… Well, I guess that depends on all of us…