Special Education Reform?

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.

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