Ed Amundson, a special education teacher in Sacramento, believes an individualized education program (IEP), driven by student needs, is essential to making good decisions for a student with disabilities. It can help figure out lots of issues, from what classes to take to whether placement in a regular education classroom or a self-contained setting is the best choice.
But this is what’s happening: Schools are often making these decisions based on what works for budgets, not for students.
Delegates to the 2015 NEA Annual Meeting and Representative Assembly adopted New Business Item 47 to speak out against cuts to special education programs that mean larger class sizes and fewer opportunities and services for students.
We’re also urging schools to pay attention to the IEP, a plan for students who can’t follow the standard curriculum in the typical way. The IEP is devised by school staff and parents (and students as well, when appropriate) and includes a process for consistent communications with parents and regular updates and tweaks.
We know this approach works. We know it provides students, regardless of their challenges, with educational experiences that uplift them and build their skills and abilities. Yet, the IEP is not always the guide that it can and should be, because decisions are made for reasons that have nothing to do with what students actually can benefit from.
Some schools are shifting to wholesale mainstreaming to cover for the chipping away at special education programs. Mainstreaming can work well when done according to the guidelines of an IEP, but it isn’t the best approach for reaching and inspiring all students.
Here’s an example. Ed, the educator in Sacramento, was teaching a work-experience course to students with disabilities earlier in the academic year. He instructed students in time management, communication, and other good workplace habits. But in an article on NEAToday.org, he lamented that the class was canceled. He was assigned to co-teach a geography class that incorporated “inclusive practices.”
Unfortunately, many self-contained classes in Amundson’s school – and in schools nationwide – have fallen by the wayside because of budget cuts. On top of that, staff members are not being added. This makes it harder for teachers, as well as paraeducators such as teacher’s aides and instructional assistants, and specialized instructional support personnel (school psychologists and social workers; nurses; counselors; occupational, creative arts, and physical therapists; and speech-language pathologists), to do their jobs.
Their jobs, by the way, require doing lots of things at the same time. (These folks could give jugglers a few lessons.) Aside from instructing and working one-on-one with students, they are also partnering with teachers on lesson plans, managing students’ IEPs, holding IEP meetings, and monitoring students. That’s why, also as part of NBI 47, we’re advocating a shift in how schools and districts account for these professionals’ work.
Typically, districts use “caseload data”: the number of students assigned to an educator, without regard to what services the educator is providing. That’s like reading only excerpts of a book. Raw numbers give you a paragraph or maybe even a chapter, but they don’t tell you the whole story.
We have a better idea: a “workload analysis model” that actually takes into account educators’ daily responsibilities and duties. For instance: How much time are they spending collaborating with a student’s parents or coordinating with outside agencies or adapting course materials? That offers a much more nuanced – and far more accurate – assessment and provides a formula for a school or district to consider additional staffing.
Most of all, we’d like to see increased funding for the Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA), the 41-year-old law that commits the federal government to ensuring that students with disabilities receive the high-quality educational opportunities they deserve. IDEA says the federal government will pay 40 percent of the cost of these opportunities, but that has never happened.
For several years, we’ve been part of a coalition that includes the National Center for Learning Disabilities, the Council for Exceptional Children, and the National Association of State Directors of Special Education. We’re pressing Congress to, for the first time in the history of the law, fully fund IDEA.
Students deserve the very best programs and resources public education can provide. Let’s not allow some of them to be confined to a small corner; through the positions we take and our advocacy, let’s use our voices to open the world up for all.