Special Education

CEC Report Tracks ‘Crisis’ Conditions In Special Education

By Joetta L. Sack — October 25, 2000 3 min read
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Special education teachers face tougher conditions now than ever before, leaving many struggling to do their jobs well, an extensive study by one of the field’s leading advocacy groups concludes.

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The study, “Bright Futures for Exceptional Learners: An Action Agenda to Achieve Quality Conditions for Teaching and Learning,” is available from CEC.

At the same time, general education teachers are not getting enough training to work with the students with disabilities who come into their classes through policies promoting such inclusion, according to the report, which was scheduled to be released this week by the Council for Exceptional Children. The Reston, Va.-based CEC is one of the largest groups representing special educators and parents of special education students.

The findings in the Oct. 23 report may not surprise special educators, many of whom have long complained of large caseloads, overwhelming paperwork, and other burdens. The report does, however, offer the CEC’s perspective on the pervasiveness of severe problems in educating students with disabilities.

It points out “a crisis,” because disabled students will not get an adequate education, according to the CEC, which has been studying its members’ working conditions for several years and advocating improvements.

“Perhaps the most telling message from the survey is that the roles for teachers who work with students with exceptionalities are changing, and little is being done systemically to address these changes. This is true for both general and special educators,” writes the report’s author, Mary Ruth Coleman, an associate professor of special education at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Last year, the researchers sent 2,000 surveys to special education and general education teachers, special education administrators, principals, and parents. They received 586 responses, but because of omissions or other problems, deemed only 538 of the responses of use for their purposes. The CEC also compiled anecdotal evidence over several years from teachers attending their annual conferences.

Even as they reported on problems in their profession, however, most of the respondents said they were “satisfied” or “very satisfied” with their work in special education. Only 23 percent of special education teachers and 13 percent of special education administrators reported being “not satisfied.”

But the special education field in recent years has faced significant shortages and high turnover in personnel.

The report also includes teachers’ comments and anecdotes about the challenges they face. While large class sizes and caseloads were cited as a concern, the diversity of disabilities within one classroom was also considered an obstacle. Veteran teachers’ training and experience often are outdated for today’s classrooms, and new teachers also are not getting proper training, according to the study.

One special education teacher wrote: “My frustration is trying to be ‘all things to all people.’ I am supposed to keep perfect paperwork, collaborate with regular education teachers, train and grade peer tutors, keep in constant touch with parents, and still find time to teach my students!”

“If half of what they say is true, this is very alarming,” said Joseph Valenzano Jr., the president and chief executive officer of Exceptional Parent magazine, which reviewed the study.

Time Crunch

The report shows that time spent drafting and managing individualized education plans—the federally mandated plans that guide the day-to-day education of students with disabilities—affects not just special education teachers, but general education teachers and administrators as well. For instance:

  • About two-thirds of special education teachers, administrators, and principals spend between 10 percent and 30 percent of their time on paperwork related to students’ IEPs. Twelve percent of the special education teachers reported spending more than half their time on IEP paperwork.
  • In addition, about 75 percent of all the survey respondents reported spending 10 percent to 30 percent of their time in IEP team meetings.
  • Most of the teachers reported spending less than one hour a week of one-on-one time with individual special education students, and a third of the general education teachers reported never having individual time with the special education students in their classes.

Special education classes also often have inadequate facilities and classroom resources such as books, instructional materials, and equipment, the report says. And, the CEC says that 176 of the special education teachers surveyed estimated that their out-of-pocket expenses averaged $500 a year.

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