Tuesday, January 01, 2008

"Special Education": a very complicated topic

Continuing to cover education while the kids are out of Christmas break, The Washington Post, Metro Section page B1, on New Years Day Jan. 1, 2008, has a story on special education by Michael Allison Chandler, “Waiting Too Late to Test? Parents Protest as Area Schools Delay Learning Disability Screening in Hopes of Avoiding Costly Special Education,” link here. http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/12/30/AR2007123002447.html

A 1975 federal law gave students with learning disabilities a right to special education at public expense. Over time, the percentage of students in special education has tended to increase, and ranges between 10% and 18% in most school districts. Schools sometimes try to delay special education placement with “Response to Intervention” or RTI strategies.

Actually, special education covers many levels and kinds of disability. When I started substituting in the spring of 2004, I found myself getting calls for special education even when I did not put it on my profile (and at the time it included calls in Fairfax County for PHTA, or Public Health Training Assistant). There is one sequence of classes available until age 22 for severely disabled students (this encompasses a large variety of medical diagnoses ranging from specific forms of retardation to autism). There are a variety of other programs for much more moderate disabilities, categorized in many ways, including emotional disturbance. Depending on the grade (especially in high school), nature and level of disability, students may take some classes in “team taught” mainstream classes in English, math, social studies, etc. They can take electives like music which are not team taught. In some cases, students are accompanied or assisted by “teaching assistants” or “instructional assistants” which are hourly positions requiring less education and licensing than is expected for teachers, and these also have subs. In middle school, special education students will generally spend most of their time in one room with one teacher, and perhaps be mainstreamed to just one or two classes, if any. Every student has an individualized education plan, or IEP. Special education teachers are supposed to have specific license endorsements which generally require specific courses and extra (education course) classroom hours, and all university teacher programs address this. Practice has shown, however, that special education endorsement does not enable teachers to handle all of the problems that occur. From a psychological point of view, teachers find this field easier to enter when they decide to do so when young (while still in college or in a master’s program).

Statistics show that minorities have a larger percentage of students in special education (as in the article), but the range of problems is wide and the needs can arise unpredicably with any parents in any social background or income level. Autism seems to be increasing (one in every 160 children, greater in boys) but it is hard to tell if this is because of more diagnosis and reporting. Asperger syndrome is considered a form of autism (or at least a “pervasive developmental disorder”) but may not always be so, and the social environment of the student (with the social isolation from or teasing by other students) is then a major issue, but often there is no academic impairment, or only very limited, circumscribed impairment. Dyslexia is a special problem that may be addressed with special attention. The same may be true of ADD. All of these problems are different and tricky, and proper placement of the student is often very difficult.

Special education students may sometimes be waived from taking conventional SOL’s by assembling binders that prove that certain learning goals are met. These are tedious for teachers to help prepare (they require precise attention to the details of each learning objective), and tedious to score (school districts hire subs or retired teachers, or sometimes retired employees from companies, to score them).

I did very well in first and second grades. I had the measles in June following the first grade (we have to come home early from an Ocean City, MD vacation). In the third grade, I suddenly found I was the subject of taunts by other students and was not liked by my teacher. I don’t know exactly what happened, but the measles (with the neurological effects – all prevented today by those controversial vaccines) might have been involved. We had a kids’ newspaper called “My Weekly Reader” (link) which came out periodically with color-coded banner headlines. Three times a year MWR gave a reading test of 60 multiple choice questions, that might resembled the SOL’s in grade school reading today. I remember that he highest grade on the first one was 44/60. As the teacher passed out the tests, she said “poor little Bill got 16”. But I got a 44 on the second one, whereas one girl got a 60. I slipped back. I might have been a candidate for special education, but snapped out of it and was a pretty good student again by fifth grade, and did well thereafter. I really don’t know what happened, but I did not get along with the (female) teacher I had in third and fourth grade, who was very determined to make a man out of me. I think this little story demonstrates the complexity of maturation. Girls mature faster than boys at elementary levels. One other factor is that I started piano less in February of 1952, when I was in third grade. Music lessons (with their grounding in mathematical concepts) and especially public performance (whether as an individual or in chorus or orchestra) seems to improve the overall academic performance of many students.

Special education is a very complicated issue and matter. Many students are misclassified, and to many parents it still must be a mystery.

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