Falling short: How reform is failing our special education students

There are two kinds of “reform” happening in schools these days: special education reform and corporate education reform. In my experience, these reforms often harm the very students they were intended to support.

The premise of the reforms is that a child’s zoned school must provide needed services, whether that means speech therapy, small group interventions, an Integrated Co-teaching (ICT) class with two teachers or a 12:1:1 class, with 12 high need students, a teacher and paraprofessional. Within this new mandate, there is a loophole for flexible programming, meaning that schools can provide equivalent alternatives to the setting the child needs. For example, a student mandated for a smaller class setting, might spend a few hours a day working in a small group outside the classroom. This kind of programming often includes many transitions throughout the day, which can be especially disorienting for some some students with disabilities. The real problem, however, is that under these new reforms, when a student is evaluated,  schools tend to make sure the new IEP reflects the school’s needs not the child’s. Schools don’t want to open new classes or spend money on more services. Moreover, schools get more money per student for ICT students than for those with 12:1:1 mandates, a fact indicative of a system-wide push against smaller class settings for high need students.

At my school, the school psychologist evaluated two of my students and determined that they needed to be in a smaller class setting, due to severe developmental disabilities. She verbally expressed this, but on the children’s IEPs she did not include this in their mandates because the administration did not want to open a new class mid-year. These students have spent the year frustrated, overstimulated, and unable to participate in most learning activities in our second grade classroom. One of the students, who has autism and is intellectually disabled, has become so frustrated by his inability to communicate with his peers – by the social and academic demands of a second grade classroom – that he has started physically attacking other students. We tried to get him a crisis paraprofessional, but were told that was impossible. Needless to say, keeping this boy safe and trying to get him to engage takes us away from our other students, the ones who are in the appropriate setting and desperately need our attention.

There are at least 10 other students at my school who are not in the appropriate setting. And this problem is widespread. I’ve talked to teachers at other schools where students are similarly not getting the services they need, and school circumstances consistently take precedence over children’s learning needs. And of course, most students with IEPs in the public school system come from low income families, often with parents who speak little English and are unaware of their rights. Some of these students parents are disabled themselves, and likewise unable to advocate for their kids.

Meanwhile, the national “reform” movement with its focus on high stakes non-diagnostic testing and rote curricula, does more to keep students with learning disabilities from learning.  The point of an IEP is to allow schools to meet individual learning needs, and many students with IEPs need to learn in a different way that might be more sensory, more structured, more kinesthetic, or more visual. But they still have to take the same tests. Even kids with severe intellectual disabilities (low IQs, low-function autism, severe memory, language or processing disorders), have to sit through hours of testing they will certainly fail. That’s hours and hours of testing, and hours and hours of test prep. I spoke to a colleague who taught in a self contained class last year and she said her kids were literally banging their heads against their desks in frustration, and almost all of them cried during a practice test. Why are we torturing these kids?  Why are we giving them test prep instead of what they need?

Yet another screwy part of subjecting students with IEPS to testing is that their score usually doesn’t to matter. Schools can write in special promotional criteria for them so they can be promoted to the next grade whether or not they pass the test or have mastered grade level skills. For some students, repeating a grade may  not address whatever skills they are missing and they should be promoted. For others, such as a few of my ICT students, they would greatly benefit from retention, but the school won’t allow it because they have IEPS, and that is considered enough of an intervention- as if we don’t expect them to really be able to learn. I have a student who started speaking in first grade, and was still promoted to second. So not only are we forcing these students to sit through demoralizing and exhausting testing regimes, but also, their scores are meaningless.

Sometimes, it seems that the main priority in special education is to move kids through the system as fast as possible, with the least cost to schools.There are steps being taken to make testing less onerous for children with severe disabilities. Hopefully, this modest accommodation is the first of many changes to the testing of students with and without IEPs. Now is the time we should be investing in these kids, in all our kids, in building their real life skills- problem solving, independence, communication, empathy, creativity and flexibility.  If we don’t we will pay the price down the road.