Posted by: cornvillenutmeg | July 19, 2012

The Growing Sped


     Andrew Coulson is the director of the Cato Institute Center for Educational Freedom.  In the Wall Street Journal  (7/10/12) he writes that “according to the latest Census Bureau data, special ed teachers make up barely 5% of the k-12 work force.”  The title of his op-ed was “America Has Too Many Teachers.”  He pointed out that since 1970 the work force in public schools has doubled while the number of students has only risen 8.5%.  Now obviously if you’re paying more than twice as many teachers to teach fewer than ten percent more students, it’s going to cost you a lot more.  Since there is no empirical evidence that the increase in the number of teachers has had any positive impact on student learning – as measured by things like test scores, graduation rates – why not just go back to having fewer teachers? 

     An interesting point, I thought, but it was that 5% figure that caught my attention.  Among us certified, dues paying or management fee paying (me) teachers, the belief about Special Education was that it ate up 25% of the overall cost of Public Education

     Now it may well be that Mr. Coulson is correct;  I have no reason to doubt that 5%  datum, but I assure you that the cost of Special Education is far, far greater and is getting more so.  While the number of certified, special education teachers is apparently minimal, there are myriad others who devote all or most or much of their time to special education students.  Eeach special education student comes with his own support team, sometime small, often large.  For instance, twice in my career I taught deaf students, sisters as it happened.  Both, of course, spoke American Sign Language.  I did not.  To assist teachers to communicate with them, each sister traveled from class to class with an interpreter whose salary was an item in the Special Education budget.  Another student had Asperger’s syndrome.  She was assigned an aide who attended classes with her.  Aides who attend classes are fairly common with  Special Ed students, as are tutors and note-takers.  Another former student suffered from MS.  By the time I had the pleasure, she managed very well  without her aide, but Special Ed did supply her with a laptop computer into which she could type a question or answer, which the computer would then “speak” for her.  Most Down Syndrome students attend mainstream classes, and all are accompanied by an aide.  I’m not saying in any way that all these supports are a bad thing, by the way; I’m just saying there’s more to this 5% than meets the eye.

     See, Special Education is pretty much owned by the Federal Government by virtue of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, which used to be the Education for All Handicapped Children Act.  (I’m pretty sure that the latter didn’t get a lot of traction because the acronym is kind of bad sounding.  EAHC.  The best you can do with that is, “E-yack,” which I’m pretty sure is the sound a rare Maldivian shore bird makes during mating season.  IDEA is way cooler.)  For many reasons that would bore you, E-yack finally became IDEA in 1997, and we were off to the races.

     Let’s say you’re a teacher.  You want to talk to Mrs. X about her child, who happens to be a Special Education student.  That should be fairly simple.  As simple in fact as looking up Mrs. X’s number and calling.  And to be fair, sometimes that works out.  Mostly not, though.  Anything that happens with a Special Education student has to be documented, which is to say there are forms, and the forms lay out steps that must be taken and who must take them and who must know about those steps. 

     The first thing that happens at the beginning of a year is you get a list of all the special education students who will be in your classes.  And each of those students has his or her very own special education teacher (not to mention the para-professionals attached to the hips of particular special education students).  Each of those teachers will send you each week a form to fill out so that the Sped (to use the acronym that everyone in public education uses despite the fact that it sounds like a slur of some kind) teacher can keep up to date on the progress or lack thereof of each of his Sped students.  You’d think maybe this could be taken care of less formally not to mention better through a weekly conversation.  Perhaps so, but those forms are all part of the Federal Government’s due diligence in making sure that the Federal dollars being sent to that school for those Sped students are not being frivolously spent.

     So, instead of calling Mrs.  X, you make your comment on the form to Mr. Sped.  Now Mr. Sped may or may not relate that information to Mrs. X.  Sometimes Mr. Sped’s judgment is that since Mrs. X is prone to fits of rage during which she does less than nice things to her Sped child, passing on your, the mainstream, classroom teacher’s, comment is not the best idea.  Then again, Mrs. X is more than likely a very nice lady who cares deeply about her Sped child, so that comment does get related.  Next thing you know, you’re invited to a meeting.

     A meeting.  With you and the Sped teacher and the Sped child and Mrs.  X.  Not a bad outcome, right?  Well, maybe, except for no such meeting as simple as that is ever going to happen when IDEA is running the show.  The meeting must include an administrator, a guidance counselor, Mr. and Mrs. X, assuming there are one of each and further assuming both want to be there – their presence is not actually required but they are sent a notice of and invitation to the meeting, which necessitates the meeting being scheduled well in advance (and if you’re thinking that a meeting so long in the future might have a kind of diluting the affect on the concern you had that you wanted to discuss with Mrs. X in the first place, you’d be right).  Also at the meeting will be one or both the school psychologist and school social worker, the head of the Student Services for the school system, and the Sped student’s Sped teacher (and Sped aide should there be one attached to this Sped student).  And, any other of the Sped student’s mainstream, classroom teachers who might want to attend because they are all sent an invitation. 

     It will not surprise you the teacher that once the meeting gets rolling and the administrator who is running it explains why it has been called, and he turns to you to reiterate your concern from a month and half ago, your mind will be mostly fuzzy.

     Now think about the cost of special education.  In terms of cost per hour devoted to this one student, what’s your best guess?  And don’t forget that by the time that meeting is over, life is different for everyone because no meeting under the IDEA umbrella can be over until a written and copied and filed plan for dealing with the issue is made, written, copied, and filed.  And that plan will become part of that form Mr. Sped will send you to fill out each week.  And won’t you be sorry you ever made that comment?  And do you think you’ll be likely to make another one any time soon?

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