Most Americans know all too well the appalling state of our education system: the packed classrooms, the dismal lunches, and the underpaid, undertrained, and underfunded teachers. However, few realize that there is a division within education that receives even worse treatment: special education.
Designed for students with mental, physical, social, and emotional delays, special education needs particular resources disparate from those demanded by the standard school system. However, due to lack of visibility and unfair biases, educators within special education rarely receive even the bare minimum of essential supplies. As a result, students who require extra care end up receiving less than average, and they continue to struggle to gain vital knowledge necessary for success in the real world. College grads hoping to make a positive impact with their careers would do well to learn about this underserved sector of the education system.
What Really Is Special Ed?
There are plenty of cruel schoolyard taunts about being a member of the special education classroom, but few children, and perhaps fewer adults, actually understand what special education means. The dictionary definition is broad: It is the practice of schooling individuals with needs that are distinct from average students and may impact the academic success of those individuals in regular classrooms. This meaning fails to outline precisely what kind of needs special educators must compensate for, and there’s a reason for that imprecision.
Developmental delays come in all shapes, sizes, spots, and stripes. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) names no fewer than 13 categories of disabilities that warrant acceptance into a special education program. Some of these include:
- Autism Spectrum Disorder
- Traumatic Brain Injury
- Intellectual Disability/Mental Retardation
- Visual and Hearing Impairment
- Emotional Disturbance
IDEA stipulates that special education must come at no cost to parents, but it must be specifically tailored to meet the unique needs of each student’s disability. While these conditions seem reasonable, they are, in fact, causing many public and private schools’ special education departments to buckle. Here’s why.
Why Is the Special Ed System Failing?
No two students in special education are exactly alike, which means special education teachers devote even more time and energy than average educators adapting every day’s lesson plan to individual students. It should come as little surprise that few teachers are willing to commit to such back-breaking work. To patch the hole, many states allowed the issuing of temporary teaching licenses to educators interested in the field, but ultimately that has only resulted in a legion of undereducated, inexperienced, and dispassionate special educators.
The impact of poor quality special education teachers has become devastatingly obvious. A recent report found that due to poor assistance, nearly half of all students in special education lack reading skills comparable to their peers. Even with the proper attention, the lag prevents most students with disabilities from ever achieving equivalent skill. Most likely, other basic skills like arithmetic suffer as well. Worst of all, many parents fail to notice their disabled children’s academic delays due to inflated grades and test scores which many teachers use to boost morale.
Unfortunately, the dearth of capable special educators will only become worse as the numbers of students requiring particular academic attention increase. In fact, children diagnosed with disabilities have been on a dramatic rise since the mid-1990s, when the disabled population jumped from 4.3 million to 5.5 million. Today, roughly 12 per cent of grades K-12 are comprised of students with special needs. Experts expect these numbers to swell an additional 35 per cent in the next decade, putting a worse strain on the already struggling special education system.
How Can I Help Improve Special Ed?
By most accounts, the national shortage of qualified special educators is more than 45,000, but admitting mid-career switchers and recent college grads into schools with emergency credentials will not solve special education’s problems. Instead, teachers in this field need precise academic backgrounds, preferably a bachelor degree in education and a master’s in special education at least. Current teachers in average classrooms are even more suitable to the job, as their real-world experience will aid them during the conversion to special education.
Yet, while filling the school system’s gap with appropriate educators may avert the damage done to students, it does little to lessen the extreme exertion of the educators. Because of the increase in children born with disabilities, legislators must provide additional legal protections for students with special needs to ensure they receive equivalent educations. Additionally, increased administrative support from the school system should make special education teachers feel more valued, giving them more motivation to continue in their labor.
It is undeniable that being a special educator is difficult work, but ultimately it does outstanding good for students, schools, and entire communities. College grads with a desire to help others could certainly go into special education and help those who need it most.