Obstacles for Special Education Teachers
With the word “accountability” on every teacher’s and parent’s lips these days, one controversial tool that’s emerging is state mandated proficiency exams. Statewide assessments become truly ‘high stakes’ when school quality, teacher competence, and individual student capability are judged by their results. The stakes hit the ceiling when these test scores are used by states and school districts as the sole determinant of whether students pass to the next grade or graduate. The reauthorization of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act has pushed the notion of accountability into the world of special education. The law says that students with disabilities should have access to the general education curriculum and that these students should be included in state- and district-wide assessments. And that includes high stakes testing. Currently, many states are implementing or considering implementing high stakes testing.
Paperwork Is Number 1 Obstacle for Special Education Teachers
In response to a new survey on Special Education Teaching Conditions, respondents overwhelming cited overburdensome and duplicative paperwork as the number 1 obstacle to effective practice. High caseloads ranked a close second, and conflicted role expectations rated third. A complete breakdown of the survey results follows.
Overwhelming Paperwork – 79%
Caseloads, Class Sizes – 61%
Conflicting Role Expectations – 58%
Lack of Collaboration with General Education Teachers – 58%
Lack of Problem-Solving Opportunities with General Educators – 55%
Lack of Administrative Support – 44%
Lack of Access to Technology – 43%
Lack of Access to the General Education Curriculum – 37%
Poorly-trained Paraeducators – 34%
Poor Preservice Training – 27%
Unqualified Personnel – 26%
Lack of Opportunity for Professional Development – 26%
Following are selected comments from our respondents.
Planning appropriate lessons for my students is done on Sundays because my planning period is spent in meetings, hall duty, making phone calls, and/or more paperwork for upcoming Individualized Education Programs (IEPs). With 13 years behind me, I have found the situation with special education has become worse, with no support from anyone.
The paperwork problem has increased for us significantly this year, preventing us from providing the services the students truly need from us. We are so bogged down with documentation on monitoring and cooperative consultation students that we rarely, if ever, know who they are as a person. Offering them our time to assist them has become virtually impossible. This along with large class sizes, means we cannot truly provide the services and individual attention needed and deserved by so many kids.
I am working with 38 students in four grade levels (3-6). Each had an IEP for me to write. I need to be in contact with 10 teachers for which I get no extra planning time, nor concurrent planning time. Each child is wonderful, and each child deserves much more of me than I can give.
I feel the focus should be on the child and taken off the endless paper chain. I spend more time making sure I have correctly filled out special education forms and organizing folders than I do making lesson plans. An IEP is only as good as the teacher, and we could be better teachers if we could focus our attention on the children and less on the paper load. Educators, legislatures, state department officials, and parents should work towards getting back to the basics by not worrying so much as to what is written on the numerous special education forms (that change yearly if not sooner) but on what is actually happening daily in the classroom.
I feel the amount of paperwork special educators have compared to general educators is not enough to gripe about. The amount of paperwork is becoming unbearable. It is taking away from my students’ time with me. The average length of our IEPs here are 45 pages and take 5-8 hours to complete. That doesn’t count time for conferences.
When I started Teaching, I would estimate 80% of my time was spent working directly with students, 20% in paper management. As the years have progressed, the percentages I stated above have reversed. The inordinate amount of time spent pushing papers directly impacts my ability to deliver a special education to the students with special needs. As a resource teacher, I feel like a person trying to fix a broken leg with a band-aid.
I am at a point in my career that I question my effectiveness as a special educator. I am tired, stressed, and really disappointed. We are asked to push more papers and deliver a service that is almost impossible. Our caseloads need to shrink and our job responsibilities need to be less. I want to be able to sit across from a parent at an annual review and feel good about the services I was able to provide their child. I do not want to sit there and feel like all IA could do was provide a band-aid for the child’s broken leg.
High Case Loads/Class Sizes
It seems that case management is a full-time job in and of itself. It has become impossible to teach, consult, and manage cases.
I feel that I am reaching the point where I am going to have to choose whether I want to be an effective teacher or an effective case manager. No longer do I feel it is humanly possible to do both jobs well.
I’m a high school resource teacher and very concerned about the case load. If the numbers are divided equally, I have about eight minutes of individualized instruction a day for each student. The maximum caseload needs to be lowered for the resource teacher to be effective.
Caseload sizes may not always take into consideration the severity of the population served.
It is not uncommon for special educators to be expected to be actively working in “inclusion” classrooms while conducting resource (and in a few cases self-contained) special education classes simultaneously. Paraprofessionals do much special education instruction simply because special education teachers are unable to be in two or more places at the same time.
I am feeling betrayed. I am a good teacher. I am flexible, adaptable, creative, and dedicated. Simply checking my references would satisfy any concerns or questions one might have about my suitability for a particular Teaching position. I simply do not understand why I could read, reason, write, compute, and teach successfully in some states and be unworthy of practicing my profession when I arrived in Connecticut and Pennsylvania.
The biggest problem is the total lack of support from district administrators for our programs and kids. They are still not thought of as part of the school.
In my experience, administrators top the list of obstacles. Am I the only special education teacher who was disturbed by the way related service personnel and special ed teachers are thrust into a classroom together with no forum to plan?
I have great concern about administrators who view special educators as lower-status teachers when compared to general educators and are simply unaware of what is going on in special education.
Lack of Resources
We use special education software that covers ALL aspects of the special education process. It works well, saves time, and teachers love it. No canned IEP goals and objectives here. Teachers write individual goals and objectives and can save their work to be modified and used again.
What about classroom space in public education buildings? People are expected to work with 20 kids and have an office for space – then administrators get upset when the kids get out of hand.
I am a third-year teacher of a pre-primary cross-categorical unit. I started my first year with a teacher’s desk and not one item more proved from the school system. I had to practically beg for supplies. I would call my special education department and ask for materials and furniture, and they would refer me to my building principal. The principal would tell me he didn’t have to provide supplies for special education rooms. I feel as though I am getting burned out already due to the constant struggle I have to go through to get what my students need.
Lack of Adequate Professional Preparation
A significant obstacle for me and my students is the unwillingness of regular education teachers to accept my students’ abilities and disabilities. As we attempt to implement inclusion, I feel like a leper every time I try to help the teachers adapt instruction to include the students in their classes. I know this is due a great deal to the fact that my district has done very little in the way of teacher inservice on inclusion.
Special education teachers are generally seen as something other than a real teacher. We need desperately to bridge the gap between the factions in our profession. I believe this bridge can be built most effectively in the college environment. Regular and special educators in training need to have more opportunities to understand the basis behind each degree.
If the push for inclusion and the implementation of regular education curriculum is to be effective, the training needs to begin at the college level. In addition, the colleges and universities training new teachers must implement a program that is not only philosophy but what is really happening in the schools today. Too many new teachers are not prepared for the real classroom.
Lack of Respect for Special Education
Special education teachers are at the bottom of the food chain. If the regular teacher is out, they use a special education aid every time. I am supposed to have two assistants. One of my assistants was taken for another class; the other works in the office every day from 1:00 until the end of the day.
I teach all day with no break or lunch. I have students to feed during lunch, so I usually don’t have time to eat? Why do I do this? I really enjoy my students and have a deep bond with each one.
Teachers, parents of exceptional children, and the exceptional children themselves are given little attention by school administrators. The special education teacher is expected to solve all problems, keep a low profile, and ask for nothing. In a few schools, administrators will not provide Teaching supplies and instructional materials on the grounds that the special education funds are supposed to be used, not the school’s budgeted funds. Teachers are often bounced back and forth from school to agency.
I find because of our schedules, it is very hard to make the appropriate contacts needed to benefit our students.
I see building level support as key to success for special ed teachers.
Unqualified Special Education Teachers
It is very disillusioning to see the quality, or rather lack of, in most of the present special education teachers. It seems that school districts will hire anyone to teach a special education class.
Lack of Opportunity Career Paths
Regarding the questions about career options, preservice preparation, and professional development, I see these as personal choices and motivational levels. As for career paths, with all of the changes going on, special educators have a multitude of paths to follow.
The threat of law suits and overdocumentation is driving away many teachers. Please work to simplify the legal part of this profession and let teachers do what they can do best – teach.
Teachers who are actually in the classroom dealing with day-to-day realities of our job should have some input-i.e., having an administrator at every IEP meeting. That would 360 meetings on our campus. Besides, they are not required to sit in on general ed parent conferences, so why should IEPs be any different?
It is hard to continually give and give – with little respect or help, added paper work, and laws always demanding more.
Two teachers are on staff at my school. One is above state caseload by two and the other by four. We do not have a continuum of service, and the new director of special education has no clue about an elementary setting.
Gains and Losses
High stakes testing has engendered pluses and minuses, as well as confusion and anxiety for special education students and their teachers in schools across the nation. For instance, some special education teachers are caught in a basic quandary: do I teach content to my students so that they will do well on the test, or should I focus my energy on helping a student master essential skills such as reading or Mathematics?
Weaver goes on to say that many teachers try to offer the best of both worlds by attempting to meet goals by using content that may be found on state assessments, but no one knows if this technique leads to success for the students. In other cases, special education teachers say high stakes testing and the pressure it brings has caused them to change the way they teach.
While parents of children with special needs support their children’s inclusion in state- and district-wide testing for the most part, they often share teachers’ concerns about what is being lost educationally. For example, the “Teaching moments” that can make all the difference to a child’s understanding of a subject can be forfeited.
However, special educators also say that state- and district-wide assessments can benefit students with disabilities. For example, high stakes testing may prove to be the impetus needed to ensure students with disabilities get a higher quality of educational service from both special and general educators. Another plus is that including students with special needs gives school administrations incentive to devote more resources to special education.
A side product of high stakes testing is the psychological toll on students and teachers. The net effect of the diploma sanction has been an increase in dropout rates, especially for minority, urban, special education, and bilingual students. Special education teachers are also grappling with the question of who can take alternate assessments. Students with disabilities have the option of alternative assessments, but it is expected that only a low percentage of students, between one and five percent, will require an alternative assessment.
The Accommodation Paradox
Children with disabilities must be included in general state and district-wide assessment programs, with appropriate accommodations, where necessary. But the legislation does not specify what constitutes an “appropriate” accommodation, so decisions about which accommodations are allowed during testing are in the hands of the states, and ultimately the student’s IEP team. Examples of accommodations are giving students with disabilities more time on the test or using the services of a scribe or reader.
Then there’s the nagging question of whether a test taken with accommodations is the same test at all. Thus, if a teacher reads a question to a child with a learning disability, is that the same test? At what point does a reading test become a listening comprehension test? Another problem schools are facing with test accommodations and modifications is that they require additional personnel, and some schools do not have the resources for such personnel.
Positioning the Goalposts
In schools where the majority of non-disabled students are struggling to pass standards tests, some educators fear that students with special needs will be left behind. Others are optimistic about the types of success students with disabilities can achieve. But the fact is, we just don’t know what to expect. Even in today’s climate of increased accountability, no consensus has emerged about how much progress is acceptable for students with disabilities.
Emerging Tools for Schools
Special education students can rise to the challenge by using appropriate accommodations, interventions and modifications, layering the curriculum, diversifying instructional delivery systems, implementing multi-level testing, utilizing resource teachers better, and giving general education teachers tools to help them tackle the precise difficulties individual students are having.
A Challenge We Can Meet
While high stakes testing is causing unease and uncertainty, many special educators hope it is a challenge both students with disabilities and they will meet. As for the children, taking statewide tests may be one of the toughest academic challenges they will ever face.
Jeff C. Palmer is a teacher, success coach, trainer, Certified Master of Web Copywriting and founder of https://Ebookschoice.com. Jeff is a prolific writer, Senior Research Associate and Infopreneur having written many eBooks, articles and special reports.