What would parents think if they knew?
I find that the majority of first year teachers I support teach in multi-age, self-contained special education classrooms. Many of the challenges they face are unique to this setting and predictable to administrators and veteran teachers in the school. Many of these challenges are also driving potentially long term and high quality special educators out of these settings and into other positions.
There are two major issues of equity that I see as prohibiting these programs from being the vehicle by which students’ transition back into the general education setting is supported and encouraged.
Access to Curriculum
There are two issues within access to curriculum. First- teacher expertise. I have yet to see a school or district find a way to provide the same professional development opportunities to the classroom teacher with students in grades 5-8 in his room as provided to the sixth grade math and science teacher next door. By professional development, I mean more than just the once or twice yearly content and strategy workshops (although that would be a start). The sixth grade math and science teachers meet bi-weekly as a cohort to plan, develop common assessments, problem solve around student misconceptions and work together to design ways to skillfully differentiate instruction by scaffolding a challenging topic in next week’s lessons. Throughout their time together, these teachers reflect, build on experiences, analyze student work and support each other. The good news for the students in sixth grade general education math and science classes is that they will reap the benefits of their teachers’ work for years to come. The level of expertise of these educators continues to grow as they interact as a community of professionals. This is an excellent example of teachers leading their own professional development. They’ll likely pass along any materials they created to Tim, the self-contained special educator, and someone will probably stop in his room to recap the learning… but just like in a classroom where 21st Century Skills are paramount, the growth and development of the learners is a result of actively participating in the learning experience, not just accessing the paper and pencil product. All of these teachers have the best of intentions.
Meanwhile, Tim did not attend because he meets with a different cohort. Several teachers in the district are charged with the daunting, paperwork-intensive task of administering the state’s Alternate Assessment to one or more students on their caseload. Administering this assessment is a year long process of assessment, data collection and analysis, time-stamped data entry into the statewide system, and strict record keeping. The other students on his caseload will participate in the same standardized tests as the students in the general education classroom, so Tim will still administer those assessments in October just like his general education his colleagues.
The second curriculum issue is materials. Jill teaches all four core subjects in her self-contained special education class of students in grades 1,2,3 and 4. Her school is lucky enough to have a great Reading Series. She has heard her new colleagues talk about how much better they feel about teaching reading now that they have these great materials. It’s the second week of school and the second grade teacher and the fourth grade teacher have each given her an extra student copy of the anthology. Both the first and third grade classes are full, so those teachers don’t have any extras to share. All of the teachers have offered to let Jill borrow and photocopy pages from their teachers’ manuals. When she visits the first grade teacher to look through the manual, she sees poetry chants hanging low to the ground around the perimeter of the room and comments to the teacher about how amazing it is that she found so many poems full of short /a/ words. The first grade teacher says she can’t take credit, they come with the reading series, and adds that she’s never seen students more engaged than since she’s begun using these. Jill asks if when the first graders in this class move on to an different vowel sound… she might be able to use some of the short /a/ posters, and the teacher agrees without hesitation. Jill wonders how long it will take for it to be her students’ turn to use these. On her way to return the second grade teacher’s manual during her lunch, Jill sees the second graders sitting in partnerships reading thin, brightly colored books to each other all around the room. When she pauses to listen to a student with a green book proudly reading aloud to her partner, she notices the name of the reading series on the cover. The little girl looks up and cheerfully explains, “we’re all reading about how apple sauce is made, but we have different books!” Leveled readers… what a great idea for students working at a variety of reading levels in the same classroom! Unfortunately, there are exactly enough sets of all of the reading materials for the number of general education classrooms in the building. Jill’s principal explains to her later, “we just don’t have the money to buy more. You’ll find in this building though, teachers are very willing to share!”
Jill wonders about the IEP goals that recommend a research-based, multisensory, structured approach to reading instruction. She knows the reading series is research based and that teachers say they have great results… but how will her results compare if she only has parts of each grade level’s materials? How will she complete all of the recommended mini-lessons when she needs to deliver lessons written for more than one grade level? It looks like the more experienced, general education teachers need the whole morning teaching their one grade level! She can’t imagine she should be skipping parts of the instructional sequence when teaching students who have more intense needs…
Instructional Minutes Allocated
In the schools and districts I have worked, a general educator is typically out of their classroom for professional development for about 4 days of each school year. If that teacher services special education students, he can expect to be absent from one class period per special education student to attend the annual IEP meeting. In a classroom that is managed well, by a teacher who leaves great sub plans, student learning is barely disrupted. In the special educator’s classroom however, the same scenario plays out quite differently. Let’s assume that the district is only sending the special educator to PD connected to one of the four grade levels he teaches. That pulls him out of the classroom for the same 4 days as his general education counterpart. He’ll also need to attend a day of training on the new IEP computer system and another two days on the state’s Alternate Assessment System. And, because three of his nine students will be part of this data-intensive assessment, he will be out of the classroom crunching more numbers than he ever did in his college Statistics class for 4 more days over the course of the school year. He’ll need to hold IEP meetings for each student on his caseload as well this year, so that’s 9 class periods he’ll miss. He’ll leave the best sub plans he can… in fact he’ll probably be at school until 5:00 or 6:00 trying to get them just right… but he realizes that he’s just not sure what the best way to tell a sub to handle Miguel, who kept his head on his desk and refused to participate in class for the first two weeks of school. On the Third Tuesday, Miguel finally announced, “I’ll play a math game for you. You seem okay.” Needless to say despite the best sub plans, during those 11 days and 17 class periods that Mr. P is out, Miguel puts his head down. His learning comes to a screeching halt.
When Mr. P is in school, there is still competition for those instructional minutes. For example, several of his students receive services from the speech pathologist. She’s fantastic and provides Mr. P with some great strategies he can use to help his students process ideas more thoroughly. On Mondays and Wednesdays though, the speech pathologist takes 4 students out for a social group. This is making a huge difference for these students, as they really struggle to initiate or sustain exchanges of reciprocal conversation. Unfortunately, these students miss 30 minutes of reading instruction on Monday and science instruction on Wednesday. This is also a challenge for the rest of the class because so much of their learning is rooted in peer interaction. Mr. P does his best to schedule accordingly, but this is a constant challenge. On Tuesdays the occupational therapist is in the building and he takes two students toward the end of the day. This therapy session often happens during the class read-aloud, to which these students are glued! After a couple repeated instances of tantrums and students refusing to attend their session, Mr. P found a solution. If on Wednesday, he lets these two students eat lunch in his classroom he has just enough reread the previous day’s chapter while they chew! One of the students typically buys lunch… so Mr. P sends him to buys his lunch during the last few minutes of social studies, so he doesn’t lose 10 minutes of the 22 minute lunch period waiting in lines and walking to the cafeteria and back. Mr. P doesn’t eat lunch on Wednesdays, but at least he has solved the scheduling problem! The last service provider to work with this class is the school social worker, and luckily she is willing to work with his whole class, right in Mr. P’s classroom! She comes in twice a week, when it works for her schedule (she is the crisis intervention coordinator, so she is at every building emergency), and conducts a social therapy “group.” It’s a time for the class as a group to process the week’s success and struggles or debrief about recent social interactions or issues. Mr. P weaves a lot of the social worker’s language into his day-to-day teaching. He’s grateful for her expertise and patience. He also wonders if he’d have a better shot at “closing the achievement gap” if his students had as much instructional time as the students who didn’t have speech, occupational therapy and social group.
These are in no way isolated examples, and the realities are much harsher than the pictures I’ve painted. We sit at IEP meetings as a team of family and educators invested in student learning. We complete Service and Support Pages declaring that students will benefit from “a structured, consistent classroom environment” and “extra time to compete tasks.” How can we deliver on the promises within the pages of these documents when we allocate fewer instructional minutes devoted to academics to these students than to their general education peers?
What would parents think? Well, I think in one sense parents would be relieved to know how many professionals are fighting for their child’s success. They’d be grateful to teachers if they knew how much they were doing behind the scenes just to get their child equity in accessing the instructional materials and opportunities that other students have. But, I also think they’d be furious… furious about how many people have sat with them in those meetings and praised the programs available, saying “I really think this is what’s best.” The question parents might really need to start asking is, “but how is it different… exactly?”What does a typical student’s day look like minute-by-minute and how does that compare? What if we let parents’ decide what they are willing to sacrifice? Would they make the same choices? Maybe the parent who can get speech therapy through their health care provider would decide to opt out of the school’s service if she knew her child was being pulled out of math to attend? I don’t have the answer… but I think it’s time for an honest discussion. Special educators work for their districts and therefore can only say so much, while keeping their jobs. They are doing so much within the confines of a broken system! Imagine what they could accomplish in a better situation?
Hoping we can put our heads together,