D.C. Public Schools are perhaps best known for their abysmal under-serving of the District’s Special Education students. Although Deputy Chancellor for Special Education Richard Nyankori has facilitated tremendous improvements, DCPS still shells out millions of dollars each year to pay for tuition at private schools for some of its students whose needs were not being met or cannot be met at the public schools.
Special Education is an incredibly tricky and complex issue within the realm of education reform. Those neighborhoods that have the worst schools (for any student) are unfortunately also more likely to have higher populations of students who qualify for Special Education services – studies have shown, for instance, that Black males are particularly likely to have some sort of learning disability. It’s hard enough to overcome a learning disability if you have affluent parents to advocate and/or pay for the services you need, but if you’re depending solely on the school system for diagnosis and follow-up, you’re much more likely to get the shaft.
Ideally, teachers will identify a student as having a potential learning disability and refer that student to someone in the Special Education department for screening. If a diagnosis is made, the child then receives an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) which includes a list of adjustments and special procedures that the student’s teachers must make in order to best serve the student. IEPs strive to place students in what is called the “least restrictive environment”, which means that if the disability is mild enough that the student can stay in a general education classroom, that’s where the student will stay.
Remaining in a general education classroom certainly helps students to feel more normal, but in struggling schools, this can end up being a pretty restrictive environment. Although teachers receive a list of all their students with IEPs and all of the adjustments pertaining to each, it’s pretty challenging to differentiate for all of the kids and all of their various challenges. Legally, teachers are obligated to provide whatever the IEP states is necessary for the student, but that doesn’t always happen. I admit that I often failed to differentiate and hoped that providing that student with more individualized attention at some point during the class would suffice… but that’s usually not enough. Even more unfortunately, I got the sense that my students with IEPs were pretty ignorant of what their individual challenges were or how to be proactive about tackling them. I never once had a student approach me and say “it would help me if you could explain something like this…” I’m not saying that teachers shouldn’t be held accountable – they absolutely should – but I think it’s also important to empower students to be their own advocates, especially given the reality that many new teachers will naturally de-prioritize the minority in favor of the majority.
Special Education teachers really need to be the sort who see no limits to the potential of any of their students. They must be more idealistic and resilient than the average teacher because they face challenges much greater and more frustrating. And they must be creative so that they can present material in new and different ways.
It’s hard to find people like this. It’s even harder to find any who know something about Special Education and the various disabilities/learning disorders that fall into that spectrum.
The professor of my Special Education class during my last semester as an MAT student told us: “special education is just good teaching”. The things that Special Education teachers do – differentiation, individual attention, etc – are things that all good teachers should do regardless of the population of students they teach. As with all things, teachers need support – regardless of whether teachers pursued certification through traditional or alternative means, they undoubtedly learned only a minimal amount about Special Education and how to apply their teaching skills to aid their students with additional needs.
Special Education is just another lens through which to look at teacher quality and accountability. Teachers should be evaluated based on how well they address the IEPs of their students, and they should be provided with meaningful feedback and suggestions for how to do better.
I remain convinced that most problems in the field of education ultimately lead back to teachers. If we have better teachers, we have better education. Period.