The recent report about special education from Washington State is not alone in its use of frightening language about what is happening to programs for students with disabilities. Many states are using the get tough talk, following Arne Duncan’s lead. And there are many parents who no longer accept the idea of special education. They want general education and nothing more. They see no future hope for their students if they don’t attend a general class.
I am not sure why we do not hear more from these same parents when it comes to the many charter schools that reject students with disabilities, or the increasing practice of charter schools for students with disabilities which offer no hope for inclusion what-so-ever.
Let me first say, that I am not opposed to inclusion. On the contrary, I worked many years with students with learning disabilities in a middle and high school resource situation, and one of the objectives was always to help students master regular class content. I would say that inclusion is best when:
· general ed. class sizes are small;
· general ed. teachers have coursework and preparation concerning students with disabilities;
· SPED teacher/teachers are available to provide support;
· seamless transition protocols are in place;
· students are permitted various accommodations as designated by the IEP; and
· choices and accommodations are offered concerning assessment.
I worked more directly with students who mastered the content, primarily in language arts and math, better in a smaller, more personalized setting in the resource class. And I worked collaboratively with the general ed. teachers to assist many of my students in the regular classroom.
Then there are students who receive instruction in mostly full-time self-contained classes where they might attend PE and other extracurricular classes with their non-disabled peers. Most of their instruction takes place in one class with primarily one teacher.
The above two set-ups, resource and self-contained classes, are what many parents call “segregated” and “stigmatizing.” The Washington report is filled with those two words. This kind of negative language is not necessary, nor does it help children who have special needs and who would benefit from such classes.
I, and many others, argue that there should be a continuum of services for students with disabilities in our public schools and that special class placement should not be seen as a loss for students but a gain for more small group and individualized attention!
Words like stigmatizing and segregation unnecessarily condemn special ed. classes!
Such placements should provide students with a rich and varied curriculum that brings out their best capabilities and eliminates their difficulties. And sometimes, when the disability cannot be overcome, teachers instruct students how to adjust and compensate for their difficulties.
For many children extra help, especially if it is small group and/or individualized, in a self-contained or resource class, provides the long-term future gains that put students back on the right track to success!
There is much to be worried about with the Washington report when it comes to the needs of students. The report mentions the following:
1. Changing the funding and the structure of special ed. Students in special education usually qualify for more funding, so by eliminating resource and self-contained classes you cut the budget. Unfortunately budget cuts and personnel cuts have become a dark reality for students in general, and especially students with special needs. See this 2013 report from the Council for Exceptional Children.
2. Teachers should be certified differently. This is education speak for eliminating teaching credentials and making way for a less trained workforce. The report emphasizes reforming teacher preparation and professional development. They do not go into detail, probably because they know parents want professional teachers.
3. Unnecessary divisions exist between special ed. and general ed. General ed. and special ed. should work together so that students can transition back and forth easily with the primary purpose being to assist the student in reaching their academic and social goals. But that is not what they mean here. They want general ed. only and they discourage special education.
4. The claim is that no. 3 leads to a student being stigmatized and segregated. Students who sit in large general ed. classes and wind up with little assistance to grasp concepts can face more stigmatization. The report may call for accommodations but with the emphasis also on budget cuts, how much assistance in the regular class (often overcrowded) will these students receive? Many of us know of inclusion set-ups where students get very little, or no, support. This is a nightmare for parents and students!
5. Making sure students with disabilities are involved in the new statewide assessment system. Whether they mean Common Core or regular statewide assessments, when so many students in general classes are opting out, what does this mean for students with disabilities being tested and pushed to succeed at a level too quickly?
6. They stress core curriculum and aligning instruction. This, of course, implies one way of teaching and the same standards for all students. It alludes to Common Core State Standards which are increasingly more controversial despite hyper attempts by the media to sell the program to parents.
7. Litigation should be curtailed. I know quite a few parents who are dissatisfied over lacking SPED services who cannot afford an attorney. Are school districts attempting to halt the onslaught of class action suits that will come their way if they eliminate special education services altogether?
There are references to equity in regard to preschool transition to kindergarten in the report. I am not sure what they mean here. And they appear to want schools to work more closely with outside organizations when it comes to mental health services, et cetera. Working with outside services in a community sounds like a good thing, but schools should also address the teaching of students who have such disabilities in a resource or self-contained classroom when necessary.
One concern of those involved with the report is student employability after high school, which I will discuss another time more in-depth. But rest assured that this overall report is an effort to dissolve special education classes as we have known them and have all children in general education full-time.
This may not be a surprise for those of us who are older and have watched for years as politicians and anti-SPED policy makers have cut special education.
This statement appears on page thirteen of the Washington report:
Most opinions reflected a desire to ensure all learners were educated to the maximum extent possible in general education settings with appropriate supports for their disabilities. Therefore, using the word “special education” in the name of the group was also determined undesirable.
If you are a parent who wants your student with disabilities in general classes, than you should document why your child would do well in these classes, and you should push for it. But don’t be critical and try to get rid of the classes that offer more support. Many parents depend on those services.