This Is Why Traditional Special Education Practices Are Bull S*#@

Special education… Ah. The best and worst B.S. out there. We love it, we need it, and we hate it. In this article you will never read “public school” special education is B.S… because the special ed. crap certainly is not limited to public schools. And some public schools actually do have their crap together. However, for the most part, traditional special education practices are just plain bull crap.

The laws and practices that are meant to serve children with disabilities has become a noose of bureaucracy that is slowly suffocating our students. Now don’t get me wrong, as I said in the first paragraph, we NEED special education. Without special education students wouldn’t have resources to help them socially, emotionally, physically, and academically. Without special education legal accommodations would not occur. Legal protections would not exist. Staffing to help provide these protections and resources would not be available. I also believe that some help is better than no help. And currently there are students who improve from the “some amount of help” that traditional special education systems are giving.

But currently special education is really sucking. Here are some of the ways that make me crazy:

  1. Pull Out Also Means “Miss Out” – Pulling students out during their core subjects to catch up on missing skills will NOT catch them up.
  2. Forced Curriculum – Buying curriculum for special education teachers to use, but then mandating that they only teach with those curriculum is not “individual education.”
  3. Parents Abuse Their Rights – The protections that are meant to help students succeed, end up making school districts bow down to parent’s whims.
  4. Parents Don’t Know Their Rights – On the flip side of that, if parents don’t know how to work the system, their child is utterly forgotten.
  5. The IEP Evaluation Process Is Crazy – This is a mess for teachers and parents. There are specific steps, timelines, and loop holes that are hard to do and keep straight!

1. Pull-out Also Means “Miss Out”

Currently, the most common form of special education instruction looks like this: Students who are struggling to access grade level material are pulled out during the area they struggle to perform in. (i.e. students with reading disabilities are pulled out of their classroom and get help in the special education room for a portion of their reading time) While there are studies that show that students need time to catch up and time to be included, students can’t miss grade level content that they will need for the next grade level.

There are multiple research studies that indicate students with disabilities who have as much time as possible included in the classroom, actually score better than students who are pulled out entirely. In fact there are several studies that show that a combination of these two settings produces much higher achievement than students who only had one setting. (Check out these articles at the bottom of my post)

A note to parents: This does NOT mean keep your child out of special education or insist on keeping them out of the special education room. It DOES mean that you should advocate for special education during non critical instruction time. And trust me, there is time that is not critical.

2. Forced Curriculum

IEP stands for Individualized Education Plan. INDIVIDUALIZED. How can a catch all curriculum always work for every student? There has to be room for experts in the field (yes I mean teachers currently teaching), to be able to make data driven decisions based on specific child needs.

Most of the curriculum I have worked with were actually very well made. However, first, it was not always great for all my students. And two, if we are always teaching something different than what is taught in the classroom, how students getting pull out instruction ever going to catch up? The gap between students with disabilities and students without is a difficult gap to close, and students who struggle rarely are able to generalize their skills in the resource setting to the general ed setting.

3. Parents Abuse Their Rights

This has become a freaking nightmare. Since the whole special education process is imperfect, parents often take it upon themselves to be their child’s personal bulldozer… even if it means that they stop listening to the experts. Remember the teachers that are not trusted by the district to decide curriculum? Well they also get the brunt end of parents’ mistrust.

Parents, I get it. This is a broken system. And without advocacy, students get lost. I know it. But when a parent refuses to make a decision based on actual the needs of their child (data based, observations, etc.), then they are crippling the very experts who are trying to help their child.

On top of that, giving a child with a disability a freebie every time something is really hard, is NOT preparing them for adulthood. It sucks to watch children struggle. But if they do not know how to work through those hard things, they are always going to rely on you (the parent) to fix things for the rest of their life. Do you actually want that?

4. Parents Don’t Understand Their Rights

Now on the flip side, a lot of parents don’t know special education rights until their child is really in trouble. That means that these parents do not know how to find help, and then when they are finally filtered to special education, they are exhausted. They just go with whatever is said because they don’t know what else to do. This causes just as many problems because students need an advocate. Not a bulldozer (refer to #3), but rather a member of a team. They need your head in the game and thinking through these problems with the experts.

5. The IEP Evaluation Process Is Crazy

The IEP process was created to make sure that professionals were thorough, but it has become a bureaucratic machine in the public school system. Here’s a few problems:

  • General Education teachers are not supported enough to help them complete reteaching or response to interventions before a child can be referred.
  • Teacher are not encouraged to talk parents through the different ways their child can get into the evaluation process for fear of abuse of the system. (really that just keeps some parents in the dark)
  • When a student doesn’t fit a specific list of criteria that is called a “disability,” it’s very hard to get them help. Once I had a student with an IQ slightly above the qualifications for Intellectually Disabled (formerly mentally retarded), but since his academic tests showed he was scoring at the level his IQ predicted him to score (MUCH lower than a typical student though), we weren’t able to qualify him with a disability! But this student clearly needed help. It took a lot of additional tests and information to prove this student was really struggling.

These hard lines are meant to protect over diagnosing children, but sometimes it keeps children out of special education.

My Advice To Parents

Don’t deliberately keep your child out of special education until you talk with an expert. If a disability is “found” through testing, an IEP can be a really positive tool for you and your child. Especially for students with severe disabilities who have needs that can’t be met in a general education classroom. (i.e. struggling to speak, aggression, intensive sensory struggles, intensive attention struggles)

However, for children with mild disabilities, I would be very involved in the timing of your child’s special education services. At the same time, going into the school district and demanding that your child have all hard things removed will harm your child. I have spent hours pouring over research on what makes children academically successful, and the most poignant skill was the ability to manage social and emotional skills… a.k.a dealing with hard stuff. This means that keeping children away from their typically performing peers can be bad for children, AND parents coming and demanding that nothing difficult can occur in the classroom ALSO harms their child.

There’s a balance. Look at the data. Listen to experts. Don’t just read a blog (even mine) and think you know all the answers. Some pull out is needed to help catch up the child (emphasis on the some here). Some failing grades will probably happen. That doesn’t mean your child is going to be a failure in life. Help work with the experts to strike a balance (and don’t forget to watch WHEN the additional help is happening).

My Advice To Professionals

The best and closest system I have seen to addressing student needs has been to keep all students in their core subjects, and then create time after instruction for intervention and extension. During intervention or extension, students can be pulled out for more help or given further instruction if they are ahead.

Intervention time specifically addresses those skill gaps (listed on the IEP), but also this time needs to help students access the general education curriculum that they need help with. The timing here is hard, but doable. Push-in time wastes less time during transitions, but there are only so many special education teachers to go around. I would suggest having the special education teachers rotate through intervention time and then have paraprofessionals fill in the other times.

My most rewarding experience teaching special education was when I took a group of sixth graders and followed their general education curriculum. I watered down the material and just hit the critical points. Then every other day we spent 20 minutes on specific IEP goal work. Those students were so confident and excited to learn! They told me that they were excited to take their state tests because they felt more ready than they ever had. Now, if I could have done that in addition to them staying in their regular math class, they could have learned even more material. (since I was viewed as the inexperienced special education teacher, I didn’t get to decide the schedule for my own students)

Now What?

Advocate, advocate, advocate. We have to stay involved if we want these things to change. Talk to the professionals you work with. Talk with administrators. Vote for school board members who align with your goals. Talk with the district about your concerns. Since school districts are scared to be sued, parents have way more power than teachers. Let’s work to change these bull crap practices.

The Research Behind My Points

(Please take the time to read them too!)

  1. Fernandez, Naomi. Hynes W., James. (2016). The Efficacy of Pullout Programs in Elementary Schools: Making it Work. The Journal of Multidisciplinary Graduate Research. Volume 2, Article 3, pp. 32- 47.
  2. Hannes, Karin. Von Arx, Ellen. Christiaens, Evelien. Heyvaert, Mieke. Petry, Katja. (2012). Don’t Pull me Out!? Preliminary Findings of a Systematic Review of Qualitative Evidence on Experiences of Pupils with Special Educational Needs in Inclusive Education, Procedia – Social and Behavioral Sciences. volume 69, pg. 1709-1713.
  3. Hurt, James Matthew. (2012). A Comparison of Inclusion and Pullout Programs on Student Achievement for Students with Disabilities. Electronic Theses and Dissertations. Paper 1487.
  4. Marston, Douglas, (1996). A comparison of inclusion only, pull-out only, and combined service models for students with mild disabilities, The Journal of Special Education, volume 30, issue 2, starting on page 121.

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