Special Education: Handicapping America

I have spent much of my adult life working with special needs kids, in one way or another. I’ve tutored and taught mildly disabled students and now work with severely disabled students, and throughout that spectrum I have found kids to be delightful, loving and appreciative, for the most part. The best thing about special education is that it allows special education teachers to meet students where they are and tailor their educational experience to meet a wide spectrum of needs.

Unfortunately, what special education has become is something that is just about as harmful to non-disabled students as it is helpful to the disabled.

During a recent faculty meeting I was speaking with a colleague who teaches a “gen ed” class, our vernacular for a class that is not specifically geared towards special education. In these settings, special educations students are given an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) which is then presented to each teacher. Teachers are legally required to modify assignments for each individual student to adjust for the specified modifications and/or accommodations called for in the IEP. I told my colleague I really felt for him and teachers in his position because out of 30+ students they probably have half or more who require IEP modifications. He said something that made perfect sense, but also made me keenly aware of a growing issue in our public education setting.

“It’s not as hard as you think,” said my colleague. “Look, my largest class has 37 students in it and 25 of them have IEPs. The only thing I can possibly do is modify every assignment for every student and make sure they all get passing grades regardless of what they turn in.”

It may sound strange to hear a teacher talk about passing students who may not have earned passing grades, but this is where education is today. I spent a year teaching English at the middle school level a few years ago and the experience put me off of general education teaching completely. I had a handful of students who truly deserved to fail; I did the mountain of paperwork, which included the relentless (fruitless) pursuit of parental collaboration, and came back from Christmas break to find that all of my failing grades had been “magically” changed to passing grades. Must have been Santa, right? Small wonder the students put forth zero effort on their own behalf; by seventh grade they had figured out they could pass without working.

Fast forward to the 2020-21 school year. Now working with special education high school students while also teaching college classes virtually, I was asked to assist with seniors who were failing English IV. The senior English teacher was fairly overwhelmed because A) a high percentage of her COVID-19-induced virtual students were not participating in the class at all and B) many of her face-to-face special education students weren’t overly concerned about turning in assignments, either. We were able to work together to get every face-to-face senior across that stage by the end of the school year, but many others simply never emerged from their COVID-19 isolation.

We returned to school this year to find – to the surprise of no one – that every single student who failed to show last school year was passed anyway.

On the college side we now have remedial English classes that “partner” with Freshman courses to help students who aren’t prepared for the college curriculum. Any idea how THAT little gem came about? Since when did college become about hand-holding, modification and watering down content and rigor? Well, special education teachers are doing too many modifications and accommodations for their students. General education teachers are then forced to dumb down their content for all students, which in turn handicaps many of the students who would not otherwise have received modified work.

So that’s it, right? Blame the special education teachers?

Not so fast.

The average high school special education teacher at a high school may have anywhere from20-30 students on their caseloads. This means that they have to spend a designated amount of time finding these students in their classes, sometimes helping the general education teachers modify instruction across all curricula (including PE!) and determine exactly which kinds of individualized modifications and/or accommodations those students need. By the way, they only have the first three weeks of school to complete the initial stages of this process. Sound like a tall order? It is! Much like my colleague’s approach above, these teachers are forced to resort to somewhat generic IEPs, which should be a contradiction in terms. They simply check all of the modification boxes, figuring one or another of those options (shortened assignments, written teacher notes, extra time for completion, simplified tests, etc.) is bound to help any student with any disability.

Starting to see the big picture?

School districts love to adopt new programs, and are happy to spend millions of dollars to have some corporation come in and “train” teachers to do some ludicrous thing that sounds good on the corporate website and uses all of the right catch phrases, but what they don’t like to do is STAFF these programs.

One classic example of this is Stetson and Associates, a company that comes into school districts and “helps them” find more inclusive models for their special education students. I have been through their training and have seen it implemented in two different school districts and in each case it had the very impact we’ve been discussing. Special education teachers were asked to take on a much larger caseload with the added responsibility of running all over their schools trying to get some idea of what each students was doing or not doing in class. The first time I was a part of this wonderful, groundbreaking shit show I was assigned to teach seven different classes, no two of which were the same, and two of which I wasn’t remotely qualified to teach, over eight periods. One such class was 8th grade math, which was basically calculus (why???), something I, with my Bachelor’s and Master’s in English, never had to take at all, and certainly not in middle school. I was technically the “co-teacher,” but all I really did was sit there and try to keep up with the actual teacher, who thankfully did know something about math. I was also asked to teach Texas History, a course I never took because I lived in Oregon as a kid. I was also asked to sit in with every department when they did their planning so I knew what the material would be, but I never figured out how to do that since they met during their conference periods, none of which coincided with the Special Education department’s planning period (by design). We always had meetings during our off periods anyway!

The district was happy to pay those Stetson folks for their keen sense of the obvious, what they weren’t happy to do was add the staff members required for implementation.

When the department chair at the high school where I now work told me she was going to Stetson training a couple of years ago, I told her she was going to need a stiff drink afterwards.

And she did.

Strangely, the results of the all-important, federally-mandated tests at the end of the year haven’t been so good. Can’t imagine why! This is seen as a failure of the faculty and staff of the schools, but the truth is it’s a failure of leadership from district superintendents more concerned with building their resumes for their next gig than they are about actually doing what’s best for students.

This really isn’t rocket science, and any special education teacher worth their salt knows how to solve this problem because it is patently obvious. The people making educational decisions about students with special individual needs should be the parents and teachers who know those students best. We pretend this is the case, but it really isn’t. We sit parents down, throw a bunch of district-mandated and corporation-patented jargon their way, have them sign on the dotted line and move on to the next meeting. Not only does this process fail our special needs kids, it’s increasingly handicapping the other students, too!

What districts ought to do is take those millions they spend on ridiculous corporate trainings and invest it in their schools, their teachers, and by extension their students. The only ones who really know the best way to reach individual students’ needs are the people who work with them day in and day out. Those should be the people deciding which settings are most appropriate for students based on actual first-hand data and relationships.

Any other course of action is, as we see in public schools across America, doomed to fail.


4 thoughts on “Special Education: Handicapping America”

    1. That’s actually a great title…. Training to be myself… It’s like I have to sit through all these trainings that are nothing but common sense. Except for the ones that are total garbage of course…. There are plenty of those too.


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