In too many schools, special education hurts instead of helps kids. Students with special needs are pulled out of core instructional classes and seldom get extra instructional time with a talented teacher. Even worse, too many students with special needs receive instruction from paraprofessionals who seldom have strong teaching skills or content expertise. In short, well-meaning efforts to help kids in need are doing just the opposite.
Luckily, some school systems have been rolling out important overhauls. Vermont is leading the way, and this summer, the state passed sweeping changes that dramatically revamped the approach to special education.
Under a Vermont law that goes into effect this school year, children with special needs will be far more integrated into traditional classrooms. Struggling students in the state will also get more instructional time, and they will have teachers and interventions better targeted to their academic needs.
Perhaps most surprisingly, the state has rolled out these changes in special education without increasing funding, and many believe the changes will save the state money in the long run.
What’s clear is that special education is in crisis. Achievement of students with disabilities is low, the achievement gap high, and despite heroic efforts by schools and teachers, the gap isn’t closing. Few students with even mild disabilities are prepared for college or career.
For their part, school systems argue they don’t have the staff or tools to fully support students with disabilities. One suburban school district in Pennsylvania, for instance, recently argued it would go bankrupt in part because of rising special education costs.
A big part of the problem is the way special education funds are spent. Too often, the dollars are spent on increasing the number of adults, such as paraprofessionals. But these assistant teachers seldom have the expertise to help students master academic subjects.
At the same time, special-education teachers are asked to do far too much, including manage students’ Individualized Education Programs, help with behavior issues, be experts in the law, write reports and teach reading, math and writing. No one can be an expert across such a diverse range of skills.
This strategy is bad for kids, bad for teachers and bad for taxpayers. Hiring more skilled staff and allowing them to play to their strengths works better and doesn’t cost a penny more. Staff morale also rises because teachers do more of what they are great at.
Schools that have taken this approach have seen achievement rise and the gap close. By restructuring its special-education systems, one school district in Massachusetts reduced the achievement gap between special-education and general education high school students by some 40 points in math and English and reduced the number of struggling readers by two-thirds at the elementary level.
To a degree, the reason for these gains is just common sense: When students with special needs have access to highly skilled teachers and strong curriculum, they learn more because the standards are higher, the materials are better and the instruction is more rigorous. Then add in extra time with expert teachers focused on students’ specific needs — and it’s not surprising that learning skyrockets
Vermont’s changes have been a long time coming. The effort began in 2002, when a statewide coalition began advocating for students with special needs to have the same types of learning opportunities — and within the same learning environments — as students without disabilities.
The resulting law passed in May, and it discourages districts from using paraeducators for academics; encourages general education staff to help students with special needs; and supports the creation of a cadre of highly skilled interventionists, strategies strongly supported by special-education parents, teachers and leaders.
Other states and district might soon follow Vermont’s lead. Georgia, for instance, recently lost a major lawsuit because a judge found that its system of educating students with emotional and behavioral disorders — a program that served tens of thousands of children annually in separate classrooms, or separate buildings, with separate staff — was unconstitutional.
To be sure, Vermont’s overhaul alone will not be enough. Both general education and special-education teachers are going to need new teaching approaches, more student-centered schedules, leaders willing to allow their staff to specialize. Fortunately, the Vermont law will help with this, too.
But in the end, special education hasn’t kept up with the times. Meeting the needs of students with disabilities requires a forward-thinking approach grounded in an expectation that even students with the most significant needs are capable and ready to learn with the right support.
Nathan Levenson is a former superintendent of the Arlington, Mass., schools; a school board member; and a private industry CEO. He is managing director of the District Management Group.