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Special Educators Fault Workload

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Special educators gathered here this month cited "overwhelming paperwork" as the No. 1 obstacle to providing good educational services to their students.

Seventy-nine percent of the about 1,000 respondents to a Council for Exceptional Children survey called paperwork, particularly related to disabled students' individualized education programs, burdensome and said it took up numerous hours a week.

Results of the survey were released during the CEC's annual conference here from April 15-18, which was attended by about 5,500 people. Survey participants filed their responses before and during the conference.

Large caseloads and class sizes were cited as obstacles by 61 percent of attendees, who said they could not be expected to manage the caseloads for 25 to 50 IEPs a year on top of their other duties, which include collaborating with regular education teachers. Other problems, cited by 58 percent of the special educators, were "conflicting expectations of the job"--from parents, administrators, and general education teachers--and a lack of opportunity to collaborate and solve problems with general education teachers. Forty-four percent also reported insufficient support from administrators.

Such obstacles are causing special educators to quit the field, leading to a shortage in qualified personnel, the CEC says.

Dissatisfaction with bureaucracy and paperwork was evident at a session featuring Thomas Hehir, the director of the U.S. Department of Education's office of special education programs. Mr. Hehir, whose speeches on disability rights are usually applauded by CEC members, drew skeptical jeers when he told an audience that the Education Department had worked to reduce paperwork in the recently amended Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

But new requirements that mandate assessments of students with disabilities and the linking of their curricula to the general classroom coursework are needed, Mr. Hehir argued. "It's critically important that we look at accommodations and support in the regular classroom," he said.

Although the CEC's annual conference was more than 1,500 miles away from Washington, its attendees kept a close watch on congressional issues.

Special educators who gathered here were keenly interested in new draft IDEA regulations, particularly the proposed July 1 deadline for rewriting all IEPs to conform with the new amendments.

Mr. Hehir told some special educators here that the Education Department would consider their concerns before making its regulations final next month. "It is likely our final rules will be different than the proposed rules in many places," he said.

More than 1,000 conference-goers also stopped by a CEC-sponsored booth to write postcards to Congress protesting an amendment co-sponsored by Sens. Slade Gorton, R-Wash., and Judd Gregg, R-N.H., that was to be voted on in the Senate last week as part of a bill on tax-free education savings accounts. The amendment, which was later withdrawn, would have allowed states and districts to set their own discipline policies for special education students, effectively ending a federal requirement that districts provide an education for any disabled student who has been expelled .

With research on intelligence pointing to early-childhood experiences as a critical factor in determining intelligence, teachers need to know how to look for talents in disabled students and students from different cultural and economic backgrounds, according to one researcher here.

Students' strengths should be identified in early grades to ensure that they receive appropriate services and that their talents are nurtured, said Mary Ruth B. Coleman, the co-director of statewide technical assistance and gifted education at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

"It's our job and our duty as teachers to look at our kids and what they do, and recognize when they have a need," she said.

Giftedness can exist with disabilities or cultural and language barriers, Ms. Coleman added. She suggested that teachers look for extraordinary skills in communication, motivation, sense of humor, inquiries and insights, intensity of interest in one subject or many, problem-solving, memory and reasoning skills, as well as imagination and creativity.


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