Is There Anything Special about Special Education?

For the last two decades of my career, I spent a significant amount of energy trying to get students into the special education program.  I argued about how difficult the entitlement process was, I moaned about the roadblocks, I didn’t understand why students had to wait to get the help they needed via special education, and I cheered when the new IDEIA appeared to make the process more efficient.  Unfortunately, it wasn’t until about four years ago that I started to really think about what happens to a student once the student was entitled for special education.  What special thing happens when a student gets special education?

My first “aha!” moment came when I was sitting in an entitlement meeting for an elementary student and a parent asked what kind of instruction her child would receive in special education.  When we explained that her student would get help in the special education room, she pushed us to tell her what exactly that help would look like and how it would be better than the Title 1 services her child was currently receiving.  Suddenly, the seas parted and I saw the ocean floor for the first time; you see, I knew exactly what her child was going to receive and it was not only not very special, it was certainly not very effective.  Her child was going to go to a special education room instead of getting help via the regular classroom teacher.  In that classroom, the special education teacher would also be serving six other students who were from different grade levels, had various goal areas from Reading to Writing to Math and did not have the same specially designed instruction needs. The sped teacher was on a temporary certificate with no Reading endorsement.  What were we doing to this child?  Would the child actually make more progress; even if the child remained discrepant from peers; staying where they were at and receiving the services through the general education/Title 1 program?

I know what is supposed to be special about special education.  It’s the specially designed instruction (SDI), the centerpiece of why we entitle a student.  We are supposed to look at the myriad of super-duper assessments we give in special education, reach into our toolbox of targeted instructional interventions, provide the SDI through a highly qualified teacher who has been trained to provide sped services to a roster of students while not only knowing the right SDI to deliver, but also know the content in the core curriculum, and then close the gap so the student can be staffed out of sped and return to the regular classroom.

Let’s talk about the elephant in the room, shall we? In too many instances, we don’t know what Specially Designed Instruction looks like that moves students forward in the grade level core curriculum and reduces the gap.  We have the best picture in the early grades in Literacy, but, even then, I am not convinced that we are providing anything more special during sped time than we are during Title 1 or the tiered interventions under RTI that are provided to all students.  We know less as students get older.  What does SDI look like for an 8th grade student with a Math goal?  An 11th grade student with a Reading goal?  A 6th grade student with a behavior goal? We know where the SDI takes place; either in a sped classroom with a sped teacher or in a co-taught classroom.  We have options with the where; it’s what we do when the kid gets there that is the big question mark.

Part of the problem is that students are not grouped for instruction when they go for their SDI with the sped teacher.  The bigger problem is knowing what the SDI should look like even if students are grouped for instruction, let alone if they are not.  I cannot tell you the number of times I have walked into a secondary sped classroom to see students working on noun worksheets, dividing multi-digit number worksheets, reading a story and answering questions from the Jamestown probes, getting an all-group lesson on social skills, working on homework, the sped teacher co-teaching as a glorified paraprofessional in the back of the room, etc. It is not always because I am observing a teacher who is inept; it is because the teacher does not know what effective instruction looks like within specially designed instruction.

I have seen the flowcharts for RTI on literacy, even attempted to implement this system in the SDI classrooms at a high school.  We gave the BRI, put kids into the four box quadrant, bought the instructional materials such as Rewards, put the kids into groups, and then provided SDI around the narrow skills areas where we assessed the student to be discrepant.  We saw some limited progress; unfortunately the progress was in the narrow skill area and did not generalize to the big picture skills such as comprehension and other grade level standards.  The big question is how do we provide SDI that moves the student forward in the grade level core content standards while, at the same time, recognizing that there are times when providing SDI in a narrow skill area makes sense for a particular student?

We have to decide what is special about special education.  If there isn’t anything special (or effective) about it, we need to stop telling ourselves, and parents, that there child is now entitled to all the special pieces that special education has to offer.

(October, 2013)