NPR reported this past weekend that 40 out of 50 states are having trouble finding special education teachers teachers and the primary reason is “the paperwork, the meetings, the accountability.” Donald Drescher, a professor from Kansas State, surveyed the days of special ed teachers and found that they spend only 27% of their time on student instruction and the rest on oversight of Individual Education Plans (I.E.P.'s), meetings, co-teaching, and data management. Prof. Drescher says, "If we wonder why teachers are frustrated, this data sheds some light on it."
This much-circulated article/podcast skirts a larger question: have we lost the proper balance between classroom instruction and accountability, both within and without the world of special education? Has paperwork and data run amok? Do federal and state education laws unduly burden schools with compliance requirements, teachers with test preparation, and students with test anxiety?
That’s the argument from many who disparage annual standardized testing, the new federal accountability law called ESSA, and teacher evaluations linked to student outcomes. For example, the Badass Teachers Association Reagan-esquely just says “no!” to “assessments, tests, and evaluations imposed by those who have contempt for real teaching and learning.” Yesterday Vicki Abeles of “Race to Nowhere” fame, fave film of privileged white suburbanite opt-outers, wrote in the New York Times that “expectations surrounding education have spun out of control” and cited the (preposterous) claim that 80% of kids in a California suburb showed signs of “moderate to severe anxiety.” (For a reality-check, see this study from the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry.)
As the mom of a son with multiple disabilities, I get the burdens inherent in piles of paperwork. Jonah’s I.E.P. for this year runs forty pages, and that’s fairly short; some years we've practically needed a handcart to haul it around. Endless lists of services, goals, objectives, and evaluative material. Endless meetings with the therapists and teachers who comprise his Child Study Team. Endless oversight.
But the truth is that my husband and I place great value on this cumbersome system. Without the apparatus of our data-driven I.E.P., we’d never know if Jonah (a notoriously unreliable reporter) is getting his contractually-mandated services. We wouldn’t be able to quantify his progress and lobby for appropriate modifications. His teachers wouldn’t know what accommodations he requires and his therapists wouldn’t know what his goals were. The school district, which pays for all of this, wouldn’t know if some of his outsourced programming was compliant with his I.E.P. The state wouldn’t know how well our district was integrating Jonah and other students with his classification into legally-mandated less restrictive environments.
To educate a child like Jonah, you need data, rubrics, metrics, and progress reports. Without them, we’d have no way of evaluating the quality of Jonah’s educational program.
And, as is so often the case, the exaggerated world of special education serves as a heightened proxy for the world of general education, especially for children at risk. Without collection of disaggregated data through annual testing, the spotlight on achievement gaps between socio-economic groups would be effaced. Without performance reports, families would lose the ability to differentiate school and district quality. Without fiscal accountability metrics, taxpayers and state officials wouldn’t be able to track allocations.
An unaccountable system of public education might work just fine for “Race to Nowhere” fans. Their well-heeled kids are in no danger of being rendered invisible. But it’s unacceptable for disadvantaged children, both those with clinical disabilities and those with challenges engendered by poverty.
The answer to the shortage of special education teachers described in the NPR report is not to disable the systematic collection of data or boycott tests because your kid is too stressed out by self-financed enrichment activities. Instead, we’d all be better off acknowledging a few simple facts.
First, we need data to properly serve all public schoolchildren. It’s the herd immunity thing: you may not think your kid needs vaccinations, but you compromise the ability of the system to protect everyone else by opting-out. And is that really the lesson you want to teach your kids?
Second, (dare I say it) there’s a supply-and-demand issue with some teaching positions. If a district has an opening for a first-grade teacher, all they do is wave the posting at a window and -- presto! -- the line of applicants is out the door. But if a district has an opening for a special ed or chemistry teacher, they get down on their knees and start begging. Why do we ignore market forces when hiring for certain specialists? Teachers aren’t widgets, no matter what NEA and AFT say. Let’s pay more for hard-to-fill positions. It won’t solve the whole problem, but it will help.
Third (can’t help myself: as Paul Fussell had it, three is “portentous, folkloristic, and even magical, being the number of bears, wishes, and wise men”), let’s not forget that course corrections are often necessary to achieve proper balance, and these corrections are well underway. There’s new federal laxity in ESSA, love it or hate it, heightened attention to testing times and stress, local rebranding of Common Core.
But the needs of students who require additional support and data, shouldn’t be subsumed by the privilege of those who can indulge in multiple viewings of “Race to Nowhere.”