March 4, 2019; Truthout
Year after year, advocates and education experts indicate that students with disabilities fall far behind their peers without disabilities. A mere 66 percent of students with disabilities graduate on time, as compared to 83 percent of their peers without disabilities. An even more alarming statistic is that with proper support, 90 percent of disabled students could graduate high school in four years.
Depending on who you talk to, you’ll likely hear different reasons why the US school system is failing students with disabilities. For instance, if you talk to students with disabilities and their families, you may hear that teachers need more training about diverse learning styles and communication. If you talk to a group of teachers, you may hear that they need more administrative support and less paperwork.
The problem first begins with being classified as a special education student. “Special education” is an umbrella term. Any student who is diagnosed with a disability covered under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) is eligible to be placed in a special education classroom. But, these students can and do vary widely in their learning abilities. For instance, a student with hearing difficulty can still excel at math, reading, and critical analysis, and would likely succeed in a general education classroom. A student with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) likely needs some help focusing but can learn and understand grade-level material. Yet, these students are often relegated to special education classrooms where they are not challenged or given the tools they need.
Kitty Cone, a special education lawyer from Arkansas, says, “For many children with disabilities, they’re capable of far more than their schools give them credit for. Their education falls far short of what federal law requires or even what common sense dictates.”
Once in a special education classroom, the student-to-teacher ratio is ridiculously high, and teachers are both ill-trained and ill-equipped to handle the complexities of teaching material to students with a wide variety of learning styles while managing possible behavioral issues.
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Courtney Cole, a writer for Rooted in Rights, argues, “Teachers all over the country struggle to meet goals and adhere to Individualized Education Programs because there is not enough attention to go around and not enough proper training. As a result, a lot of time is spent on getting the behavior of a few students under control and much less time is spent actually helping students develop skills that are needed.”
In fact, a 2015 survey of special education teachers in Michigan indicated that trainees felt unprepared for the realities of being in the classroom. Furthermore, in many cases, these trainees were only required to take one course about special education.
For special education students, this means not learning grade-level material, not being challenged to learn more and do more, not developing the skills to succeed post-graduation. For teachers, this means little job satisfaction and burnout. It comes as no surprise that the attrition rate for special education teachers is double that of general education teachers.
It can and should be argued that the issues plaguing special education could begin to be solved through appropriate funding. Raising teacher salaries to pay them what they are actually worth, providing them with the tools, resources, and learning opportunities to help them succeed in their roles. Adequate salaries could then attract qualified and compassionate individuals to the field, relieving teachers of huge classroom sizes, and giving all teachers the opportunity to give individualized attention to their students.
In Virginia, former Governor McAuliffe’s plan to address an increasing teacher shortage was to allow undergraduate programs in the state to offer education majors. Essentially this decreases the amount of time it takes to become a teacher by one year, thus reducing the cost of tuition and lost time required to become a teacher. Moreover, incorporating this education over four years could create more effective teachers and allows more room in the curriculum for disabilities education courses and inclusive classroom practices.
This barely scratches the surface, though. How the US trains its teachers desperately needs re-evaluation if we ever hope to break away from the special education model to inclusive schooling, decrease teacher attrition, increase job satisfaction, and challenge students with disabilities to achieve scholastic success.—Sheela Nimishakavi