Back to the Future of Special Education

Back to the Future of Special Education

special-eductaion-weekAs a forty-year veteran of special education, I often think back to two individuals who had a profound influence on the manner in which I view special education. Over the course of time in which I was engaged in my Masters- and Doctoral-level courses, I was blessed to have the guidance of two spectacular professors at The Johns Hopkins University. As is so often the case of those we recall most fondly, they were both “characters” with a keen wit and always-entertaining style of teaching. Given the small numbers of students in the program, we became a family of sorts. It was also very evident that this was not just a career choice for them, it was truly a passion. It meant the world to them that we became the best we could be and carry the mission of a diagnostic/prescriptive model of special education with us as we went forth into our various schools and programs.

Over the course of my career working in special education, I can honestly opine that I have seen quite a few pendulum swings in this field. At the beginning of my career, I learned that there is something truly special about special education. Something that is qualitatively and quantitatively different than general education. It is not a matter of providing the same standards and materials with modifications and accommodations. It is far greater than supporting students in general education with copies of notes and materials read out loud—the list goes on and on. A student may graduate having earned credits through years of accommodations, but that same student may only read on a third-grade level. For what have we prepared these students to do with their lives, and what was special about the special education they received?  One is left to wonder: what is the answer? I firmly believe it lies in going back to the future. Come along with me as I look back on special education through the years . . .

In my early years as a special education teacher, I experienced the rollout of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). I was a part of the history that included writing the first Individualized Education Plans (IEPs)! Of course, in 1975, these were written by hand and consisted simply of documentation of strengths and needs based on assessment data followed by goals in each area of need. It was an extremely individualized plan based exclusively on the needs of the student; there was no attempt to align to general education standards. At that time, services were universally a pull-out model. We assessed students initially, developed the IEP, and set up an intervention protocol utilizing the best methods and materials available at the time. Reading intervention, for example, was for the most part based on Orton-Gillingham and other multi-sensory methods of teaching. It is interesting to note that, at that time, training on methods such as Orton-Gillingham and others was done through our graduate program. I, for example, took at six-credit sequence exclusively designed to train masters-level students in Orton-Gillingham. As I look back, this was truly a diagnostic and prescriptive model of teaching. Also important was the fact that the role of the special education teacher was not blurred. We knew our roles. We could not be mistaken for a general education teacher.

The advent of the Regular Education Initiative (1984) led the way for “best practices” and “inclusion.” The focus of REI centered on “best practices” for all students, regardless of whether or not the student was a part of general education or special education. The thrust was on training teachers to be able to work with those practices determined to be best for ALL students. Inclusion, the practice of serving IEP students in general education to the greatest extent possible, became the norm. Special educators now had two roles: one was to implement the IEP, the other was to support students in general education classes through accommodations, modifications, and shared teaching roles. Specialized training (e.g. Orton-Gillingham) effectively disappeared from college course offerings in favor of cooperative learning and whole language. Further, special educators spent increasingly greater time in the general education setting with few opportunities for specialized intervention in a small-group pull-out setting.

The 1990s and 2000s brought other new initiatives largely geared to standards-based instruction. Sadly, earlier models of service delivery and specialized instruction had not resulted in measurable gains for students in special education. The gap was widening between general and special education students. As a result, initiatives such a No Child Left Behind (NCLB) shifted focus even further away from specialized instruction towards standards-based measures. A major thrust of this legislation was to raise the floor for special education students and minority groups in order to provide access to standards for all students. Again, the line for special education vs. general education was blurred. With the expectation that all students meet grade-level standards, educational emphasis also veered further from specialized methodologies to instruction of the same material presented in general education with accommodations.

Fast forward to 2015. NCLB has been replaced by Common Core, Smarter Balanced, and other rigorous State standards. Again, the line for special education is blurred. Special education teachers are faced with choosing between targeting grade-level standards during instruction—a charge that many school districts require of special education programs—or addressing severe skill deficits in need of systematic, intensive remediation. When the former is addressed primarily, the risk to special needs students is significant. They may become increasingly more frustrated with school and develop behavior problems largely due to the mismatch between their instructional levels and difficulty of the material being presented. Well-intentioned and dedicated special educators watch students struggle and have great difficulty finding time to provide targeted intervention (specialized instruction) to those students most in need. Further, schedule limitations and other district requirements and priorities supplant opportunities for specialized teaching.

The advent of Response to Intervention (RtI) models, a general education initiative designed to identify struggling learners through increasing tiers of intervention, is required by many districts before any students are identified with a learning disability. RtI is a very promising practice when carried out with fidelity by teachers trained in more intensive supports. However, this may significantly delay the identification of learning disabled students, in particular, along with the specialized methodologies they deserve. In addition, there is extant research supporting the effect of RtI on our most struggling students.

Let’s go back to the student who graduated with the help of accommodations, but is still reading on a third-grade level. I submit that to close the skill gaps for this type of student, some portion of their time in special education would have been better served by receiving research-based interventions by well-trained special educators on a regular basis.

Since 1998, beginning with the work of Reid Lyon, Sally Shaywitz, Joseph Torgesen and many others (all my heroes), research has steadily grown and proven that students, particularly those with reading disabilities, need to receive a highly systematic, intensive, sequential approach targeting the key areas of reading: word identification, phonemic awareness, fluency, vocabulary, comprehension, and written expression. Specialized reading programs that are Orton-Gillingham-based have a research-backed proven track record when implemented with fidelity, intensively, and with sufficient dosage to effect change.

This is what is special about special education.

We also know that using data to drive instruction is of critical importance. Comprehensive baseline assessments that reveal the specific skill deficits allow special educators to align programs, materials, and methodologies with the specific needs of each student. Data-based individualization, formerly known as a diagnostic/prescriptive model, empowers teachers to target skill areas for remediation. It is interesting that this is exactly the model that I learned to follow back in 1975.

In the end, there is no reason to throw the baby out with the bath water. I support CCSS and other rigorous state standards. I believe that it is possible to work towards the standards and provide effective and highly individualized remedial programs to our most struggling students. We owe that to each and every one of them who are placed in our care.

Over my forty years in special education, I have never lost sight of what is special about special education. During my years in the public school system, I initiated multiple training programs for our teachers to become experts in specialized interventions. Throughout my eighteen plus years with SESI, I have done the same—only with much more control over the schedule, training, and materials. I am proud of the fact that I remember the roots of special education and have seen the many trends it has gone through only to find that a diagnostic/prescriptive model targeting remediation of skill deficits is what is special about special education. Thank you, Dr. Gilbert Schiffman and Dr. Paul Daniels, for instilling that passion in me, mentoring me, and reminding me what it means to be a special education teacher. You both are forever in my memory!

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