Special education: Improve staff . . .

October 09, 1998|By Michael S. Rosenberg

LIKE MOST special educators I know, I chose the teaching profession because of a deep commitment to children, fueled by the belief that all students, regardless of socioeconomic status or disability, can benefit from an appropriate education.

Consequently, the recent series in The Sun "Lost Learning" filled with an uneasy combination of thoughts and feelings. For example, I was angry that so many city students were unable to learn to read and outraged that compensation for such deficiencies took the form of electronic gadgets and cruises in the Caribbean. But, mostly, I was embarrassed that the profession to which I have dedicated my adult life was characterized in the most indelicate of terms (bloat, lavish spending, failure and academic bankruptcy).

Many concerned citizens -- professional educators, parents and policy-makers -- share my anger, outrage and embarrassment. Quite understandably, such emotions prompt people to look for quick, simple solutions to complex problems. As noted by H. L. Mencken, for every complex problem there is a simple solution; unfortunately, it is always wrong.

One of the proposed solutions for dealing with the special education situation, simply retesting for eligibility for special education services, is more cosmetic than substantive and will have little effect on efforts to improve the quality of instruction delivered to underachieving students and those with disabilities.

Rather than removing legal mandates designed to ensure that students get the help they need for their academic and social problems, we should focus on determining why, despite millions of dollars spent, special education and general education, as components of a unified system, seem to be failing a generation of urban kids. Rather than quibbling over how to refer to students with academic and social or emotional deficiencies (e.g., special ed, at-risk, Title I, etc.), we should move beyond simple labels and categories and address the factors that preclude the delivery of an appropriate education.

Why are urban students in both general and special education failing to meet basic academic expectations? Clearly, we cannot overlook poverty and less-than-satisfactory family variables 1b prevalent in many urban centers.

James Gallagher, a noted education scholar, has observed that education alone is rather weak treatment, accounting for about 25 percent of the total educational outcome we are trying to achieve. But what of this potential 25 percent? One answer lies in the quality of the personnel teaching our children.

Here are some startling statistics accrued from a variety of sources, including the National Commission on Teaching & America's Future: About 25 percent of newly hired teachers lack qualifications; more than 12 percent have no formal training. Nearly one-fourth of secondary teachers do not have even a minor in their main teaching field. In high-poverty urban areas, students have less than a 50 percent chance of getting a science or math teacher who holds a license and a degree in the field he or she teaches.

In special education, these numbers are more shocking. A national shortage of more than 29,000 fully certified special education teachers is exacerbated by large numbers of personnel -- 32 percent of all new special educators -- who lack appropriate credentials. According to a recent report by the Association for School, College and University Staffing (now the American Association for Employment in Education), more than 42 percent of public school special-education positions in central cities remain vacant, and many of those slots become a revolving door of well-intentioned emergency licensed beginning teachers and short-term substitutes who have little understanding of the needs of students with disabilities, much less the intricacies involved in providing effective academic supports and environmental accommodations required for success in school.

What we have is a vicious cycle of failure fueled by the lack of qualified personnel in both general and special education settings. Over and over again, underprepared general educators, unaware of recently developed educational strategies, programs and techniques, are unable to structure their classrooms to prevent academic failure. Then, in what can be best described as desperation, they use the ever-present safety net of the special education referral process to address needs that could be (and usually are) addressed by highly qualified and licensed teachers. Special education is not a place. It is best conceptualized as a system of supports and services provided to students with identified cognitive, emotional, sensory and physical disabilities. Examinations of the special education system are not new and the question of how best to address the needs of those with and without disabilities continues to spark controversy.

We must be careful, however, to identify the real reasons for failed implementation of policies and procedures. In the case of "lost learning" in urban schools, the data are clear: In the face of major advances in the art and science of teaching, far too many uncertified teachers lack adequate preparation and are unable to meet children's needs. This problem will only get worse unless we get serious about standards and come up with creative solutions for increasing the capacity for developing, retaining and supporting qualified general and special educators with full credentials.

Michael S. Rosenberg is a professor and chair of the Department of Special Education at Johns Hopkins University.

Pub Date: 10/09/98

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