Letter to the editor: State unfair to special ed students
Note: Asa Baker-Rouse wrote this letter as part of his eighth grade activism project at Middlebury Union Middle School. Baker-Rouse studied special education in Vermont.
In special education programs, students are not getting an equitable education. A large number of students are in special education. In fact, “6.6 million or 13% of all public school students receive [special education]”(Kasakove). Some students find classes too demanding, while others find them too unchallenging, and often students graduate unprepared to get a job or for college.
The high school graduation rate for students with disabilities in Vermont is 72% (2015) compared to general education students in Vermont, who have a graduation rate of “91.80% in 2015”(Open Data Network). This is an important issue because there is inequality in our school systems, which are designed to provide equitable educational opportunities for all students.
Mainstreaming is one of the problems here, because it does not always work for certain students. Brad, a special education student from Minnesota says of the topic “Do I think the school did enough? Not really. Did I think they did an okay job? Yeah, it was okay. But I don’t think a school should be going for okay. I think they should be going for good, or maybe better than that, at least”(Kasakove). I had heard this was a problem, and wanted to educate myself and others on this topic.
Two major problems in special education are independent plan failings and teacher licensure. A restricting factor here is budget. It costs a colossal amount to pay for special education, and we do not want to have to pay additional money for any changes we make, because the government pays “about 15 % of total special education funding”(Shea Catania), and the rest is paid locally. So all modifications must not cost more for the district or the state.
Independent plan failings are in spite of the intent of Individualized Education Programs (IEP). IEPs are part of the Federal law IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act), which is a law intended to make special education public, free and appropriate for those who need it. An IEP: “means a written statement for each child with a disability that is developed, reviewed and revised in accordance with this section and that includes:
(I) a statement of the child’s present levels of academic achievement and functional performance, including —
(aa) how the child’s disability affects the child’s involvement and progress in the general education curriculum;
— (IDEA Section 1414(d)).”
The law explains the specifications of an IEP and how to implement them. In simpler language, an IEP is a list of goals for the child for next year, obstacles for the child, what accommodations need to be made to overcome these obstacles, the child’s current performance levels and what classes the student will take. Unfortunately, the implementation of the IEPs does not always help the student the way that it should.
Another problem with special education is teacher licensure. In our country there is a shortage of teachers, and especially of special education teachers. Since there are fewer teachers and because teachers are not licensed in special education, student’s learning will be affected negatively. “Some districts have also started to fill special education positions with teachers having either no prior education experience or having only general education experience”(O’Leary). This is a disaster! Special education has unique challenges, and it should require more training to be in this field. In fact, “Less than 1 in 5 general education teachers feel “very well prepared” to teach students with mild to moderate learning disabilities”(Mitchell).
This is an enormous issue, and it does not solve the problem of the shortage of teachers in schools. In fact, teachers are unprepared for the challenges they could face, and so “teacher retention and burnout is a common problem with this approach” (O’Leary). The number of provisional special education licenses, which are temporary licenses that are given to teachers who don’t have the necessary qualifications, given in a four year period (2014-2018) is more than two times the amount that any other teaching licensure was given. Special education was given 142, elementary education was given 73 and school librarians were given 30.
Students are graduating from high school unprepared for college and jobs, and some are struggling in classes, while others breeze through them. Why is special education not working? Well, there are fewer teachers, and to compensate for that fact, we often throw them into a special education classroom unprepared and unlicensed.
The other part is the one I don’t understand. Students are often struggling in classes, even though in Vermont, every student gets an IEP who is in special education. Why? It could be that we need to plan more for every kid, or that more research needs to be done on how to construct these plans. It could also be that there is a lack of communication between general education teachers and the IEP planning team (this applies only in middle and high school because teachers are less likely to be at meetings, but in elementary school you only have one teacher so they usually are invited to meetings). Any of these could be a possible answer to why IEPs are not doing their job and students continue to graduate unprepared to support themselves or go to college.
Our public school system is fundamentally flawed because the lack of teacher licensure and implementation problems in the IEP means that students are not getting an equitable education.
Possible Solutions to this problem:
• Vote for a higher budget for special education.
• Vote for higher pay for teachers. “Of public school teachers who left the profession in 2012 and said they would consider returning, 67% rated an increase in salary as extremely or very important to their decision to return”(Podolsky).
• Make licensing programs a requirement for special educators
• Give training programs to teachers in integrated mainstreaming classrooms.
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