By Rob Schroeder
“With the environment we are in, we are not able to meet those needs. There is not enough people, there is not enough hands.”
Michelle Parker-Katz calls Chicago’s special education environment “an ugly perfect storm.”
She and other educators saw the front building more than a decade ago: in the mid 2000’s, waves of Baby Boomer teachers began retiring, better assessments of students for identification of autism and other disabilities increased the number of students who could benefit from special education services, a disproportionate rise in special education identification among Black and Latina/o students swelled the special education population, and 50 percent attrition of teachers from urban districts within their first five years of teaching staggered the teaching ranks.
By the time this storm blew past Chicago’s shores, the district reported a staggering 349 unfilled special education teacher positions in 2013 and an improved but still challenging 243 openings in 2014. And Chicago is not alone: according to WTTW Chicago, 98 percent of school districts across the nation report a shortage of special educators, and by 2020, the Bureau of Labor Statistics says the shortage gap will increase by 17 percent.
The problems are exacerbated by the rise of charter schools supplanting public schools in urban districts, as charter schools in districts such as Chicago, Detroit, Philadelphia, New York and Newark are likely to enroll a smaller proportion of students with special education needs and more likely to cater to students with high incidence special education needs, or the most commonly occurring and lowest impact needs.
Left in the wake of this storm are the Black and Latina/o students with special education needs, already overrepresented, growing in numbers in public schools ill equipped to handle their strengths and needs.
The storm is not over, but the clean-up is direly needed.
Since 1975, U.S. federal law has required school districts to provide individualized education plans (IEPs) for students with special education needs that spell out, minute by minute, how a student with special education needs works through the school day.
At a west side CPS school, Ariella*, a College of Education MEd Special Education alumna, says that task is a near impossibility with six special education teachers servicing approximately 107 students with disabilities.
“You’re taught to write this intricate IEP where you do not exaggerate the minutes (of service) given to each child but you are providing enough minutes for them to learn, but with the environment we are in, we are not able to meet those needs,” Ariella said. “There is not enough people, there is not enough hands.”
Ariella’s responsibilities include writing IEPs, co-teaching, writing lesson plans and advising teachers on best practices for students with special education needs in inclusive classrooms. That workload, which varies from supporting 15 students with IEPs to more than 20, leaves her little time to meet with teachers one-on-one to discuss how well the school is accomplishing inclusion. Teachers at her school, which features a student body that is 90 percent Hispanic and 99 percent free or reduced lunch, are cognizant of issues of overrepresentation and as a result are hesitant about referring children for special education services. At the same time, Ariella says the school’s administration pushes for answers when students do not meet testing standards in reading and math, subtlety pushing towards a special education identification. In both instances, the school is too short-staffed to accurately identify students’ special education needs.
She says the school is under-resourced to effectively engage in co-teaching. Specifically, the school has failed to define what exactly the role of a special education teacher is in a general education classroom. Ariella says she thinks she has a voice in the school, but her voice is not always listened to; she presents the theories and research that were a part of her education at the College of Education, but she finds some general education teachers reject research-based methods in favor of their on-the-ground learned experiences.
“Have I figured it out? No, but I’m making progress,” Ariella said. “Before I would adhere to the guides and regulations they give you in school, but now I’ve pretty much made up my own, how to deal with teachers.
“I work with seven teachers, and if even if they are all teaching the same curriculum, I have to somehow modify myself besides modifying the curriculum to figure out how to work with them.”
The chaos at this west side school is emblematic of the special education scene across CPS. Parker-Katz, PhD, professor of special education at the College of Education, says the IEP law means all special education students are at least receiving some sort of accommodation. But for many students, given the lack of special educators, that accommodation comes at the hand of a substitute teacher who does not possess the deep pockets of knowledge, skills and research-based practices.
Currently, 60 percent of CPS students with a disability study in a general education classroom for about 80 percent of the day. Parker-Katz says research shows this inclusion is key to positive adult outcomes, but inclusion cannot work as effectively without a dedicated special education to provide supports for the general educators and classroom.
In literacy lessons, Parker-Katz argues classic literature such as Mark Twain’s “Huck Finn” and Toni Morrison’s “Beloved” require could require a range of different supports for students with disabilities. Both books promote themes of racism, poverty and social injustice that Chicago students can connect with. However, students with disabilities may have trouble accessing the text because the language and vocabulary employed by the two writers differs from the language used in students’ lives.
A general education teacher with 20-35 students has limited time to create adaptations for one or two students with disabilities. A dedicated special educator brings wealth of knowledge on using reading comprehension strategies, creating reading guides, building organizers and turning to research-based activities to learn vocabulary that enable students with disabilities to understand the big ideas in these texts and connections from chapter to chapter.
“You don’t have to read every word to understand the themes of racism that abound in these texts,” Parker-Katz said. “We can adapt texts so all kids have access, and once we make those adaptations, there are likely other students in those classes who may not have an identified disability who could really gain from the adaptations.”
Missing the life lessons from “Huck Finn” or “Beloved” may sound trivial, but Parker-Katz emphasizes the lack of special education professionals to help kids glean the significance is undermining a school’s connections to families and communities. Successful adult outcomes for students with disabilities demand strong family and community roles in terms of seeking employment, post high school education and inclusion in leisure activities and building a healthy lifestyle. Special educators enhance those relationships with families and communities, and their absence hinders schools’ abilities to reach out in individualized ways.
When New Orleans girded itself for Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the most vulnerable citizens were the ones largely left in the storm’s wake, figuratively and literally.
The same trend is playing out in urban schools nationwide; children with lower incidence disabilities, the disabilities that occur in a smaller proportion of the population, are taking the brunt of the service availability gap. Overwhelmed special educators often lack chances to learn best practices for students with autism, intellectual disabilities and multiple disabilities that affect social and cognitive growth. At the same time, because charter schools are generally enrolling lower proportions of students with lower incidence disabilities, many other schools find themselves serving higher numbers of students with lower incidence disabilities.
The rebuild, however, is under way, thanks to funding from the U.S. Department of Education Office of Special Education Programs.
The College’s MEd Special Education program has launched a five-year federally funded project called Project PULSSE, Preparing Urban Leaders in Secondary Special Education. The project provides graduates with the Illinois Learning Behavioral Specialist II (LBS II) endorsement that recognizes a special kind of teaching and learning is necessary to successfully reach out to students with significant disabilities.
In the mid-2000’s, Illinois created a cross-categorical licensure structure allowing one special educator to work with learners ages 5 to 21, across and within all disability types. Working collaboratively with other special educators, these teachers run the broad gamut of services mandated for all students with a range of disabilities and delivered in general education and in an array of small student groupings for intensive intervention. Parker-Katz says the system creates a special educator who knows a whole lot but does not have the chance to prepare in-depth.
The LBS II program goes one step further: creating special educators to be leaders who are equipped for the breadth of the job but are skilled in handling the intricacies of each individual case. Preparing to serve students with lower-incidence special education needs, students in the program focus on knowledge and learning best practices like working with assistive technologies such as mobility equipment, assistive listening devices or computer-based instructions; studying human development and its relationship to disabilities; practicing behavioral interventions and building skills in post high-school transition, when students with special education needs exit public support services.
The College is also taking the lead determining why students with behavioral disabilities have the worst short term academic outcomes, long-term employment challenges and higher rates of incarceration than any other category of students with disabilities.. The National Center for Leadership in Intensive Interventions (NCLII), which includes UIC, will prepare doctoral level scholars to be experts in the development and evaluation of interventions for these students with the greatest academic and behavioral needs.
“We are not quite there in terms of whether we need more intensive interventions or different types of interventions,” said Daniel Maggin, PhD, assistant professor of special education. “We don’t know what it is about these kids causing them to not respond to programs that tend to work for most kids, even the most struggling readers.”
Students with the most severe behavioral disabilities are called non-responders, and these youngsters are a central focus of the NCLII’s efforts in 12 school districts across the country implementing intensive interventions. The new grant will prepare new leaders in special education research at UIC, Vanderbilt University, Southern Methodist University, University of Connecticut, University of Texas at Austin and Virginia Commonwealth University.
Doctoral scholars will focus their research on developing new methods for interventions; studies may include examining amount of time spent with a student with reading problems, targeting particular areas of the way a student learns, building intensive behavioral interventions and experimenting with combinations of interventions. Scholars will also examine how content-specific curricula in reading, math and science impacts the learning needs of non-responder students.
“This is something we have all been trying to figure out, why working with non-responders is so difficult in urban areas,” Maggin said. “I have to think there is more of a community aspect that might be making things more challenging in these urban contexts.”