How many times does an educator feel like they are working in the midst of a circus? The job description of teachers should include the role of juggler. On any given day, good or bad, a teacher has several balls, or maybe I should say sticks of fire, carefully thrown and caught in the air, perfectly balancing the structure of a classroom, including the art of teaching, classroom management, parent involvement, curriculum, and accommodating the needs of students.
How do we know when to accommodate the needs of students?
Currently we rely on several systems to determine when students need special interventions to provide them support to master academic concepts and succeed in their current grade level. The RTI approach provides educators with a structure to document the students’ response to interventions, communication amongst stakeholders, and reflection/suggestions from peers to attempt different strategies to meet the needs of struggling students. When those are not successful, the school psychologist may assess the students to determine if there are deficiencies between their intellect and academic abilities. If there are gaps in those areas, then the student may be referred to Special Education, and a team of special educators and support providers is assembled to create an Individualized Education Plan to assist the child in the general education setting. It usually includes time in Special Education, Speech, and OT/PT classrooms, providing accommodations to fill in the holes. Sounds like a perfect plan, right?
But all perfect plans are usually not perfect.
In my case, I consistently observe several breakdowns in the system, and I assume I am not the only one feeling the same frustration. Most schools have different interpretations of the RTI approach, and what should be a systematic and formulaic structure is bogged down with the mire of inconsistent administration, lack of understanding of current accommodations/modifications, confusion of the current educational policy, lack of properly trained special education personnel, and “why me, poor me” attitudes of educators. The Special Education system is also struggling as parents still fear of the stigma of the term “special education,” an off balance ratio of special educators to students who need services, and lack of special education teachers graduating from colleges. It’s frustrating to have students leave at parts of the academic day to receive their separate interventions to then miss out on what we are teaching in the general education setting. So when the terms “RTI” and “Special Education” are mentioned in the school or personal settings, I usually observe professionals and parents involuntarily wince. They aren’t happy words to throw out there. Yet they could be the perfect way to help children.
How do we reverse the stigma associated with these systems, and recreate a positive, professional Special Education structure?
My opinion is that we eliminate the separate Special Education classroom entirely. Instead of students going out of the classroom to receive Special Education services in academic areas, they would be receiving them in the classroom. (Obviously Speech and OT/PT services would still be provided by their professional providers, and students who are unable to function in a general education setting would still be taught in an inclusive classroom setting.) As some districts have attempted the Special Education “Push In” model (when SPED teachers come into the general education classroom to support the students in class), I’ve seen it go down in flames because they were required to do this in addition to having their small group instruction in the Special Education classrooms. If we took away the separate classrooms, then current Special Education Teachers could do the “push in” approach 100% of the time, supporting and collaborating with the General Education Teachers, and working with the students in their mainstream setting.
Sounds like a lot more work on my plate…
Actually, it isn’t! We are required to have interventions in place for our struggling students, including small group instruction. Usually my students in small group instruction are the children in RTI or Special Education already! If Special Educators are coming into the classroom to help work with small group instruction, then the students in RTI would proactively receive the services they need. Also, with two educators in the classroom, the frequently overlooked and under-serviced “benchmark” students could get more individualized instruction as well.
Instead of Response to Intervention…
We should have Individualized Education Plans for every student. Yes, every student. Think about it, if we did that, we would eliminate RTI and all the excessive paperwork for Special Education Teachers. Instead of constantly running around while scheduling formal IEP meetings, updating data, and writing long legal forms, Special Education Teachers could actually spend time researching current educational interventions and writing effective, innovative small group lesson plans. What if Special Education Teachers were given the gift of time? The retention rate would rise dramatically!
Whoa, EVERY STUDENT? Then wouldn’t General Educators have more work?
An effective teacher should already have some kind of system of tracking data about their students, besides grades and observational notes on behavior. If we created a hybrid IEP for students that included their IQ and academic progress with data, behavioral notes, and quarterly reports of how they responded to interventions, whether at advanced, benchmark, or intensive levels, then each and every child would be monitored in the classroom at a higher level of awareness. Also, if this was the focus of our weekly Professional Learning Community (PLC) and Professional Development meetings, we would be producing plans and strategies worthwhile and meaningful for all stakeholders involved. These IEPs would be the document shared at Parent-Teacher conferences as well.
A safety net for all my students would keep me accountable to meet each and every child’s specific needs.
Maybe it’s time to think of General Education as Special Education for all students!