Special Education

Disabled by Paperwork?

By Lisa Goldstein — May 28, 2003 7 min read
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After her students have all gone home, teacher Sandra Feinberg often finds her work is far from over. Most days, though, she doesn’t spend that quiet time in her empty classroom planning lessons or grading papers.

Ms. Feinberg, who teaches 5th and 6th graders with emotional disabilities at Oak View Elementary School here, faces stacks of paperwork required by law to document her students’ needs and the services provided to meet them.

“The other night, I could not buckle my bag from all of the paperwork,” she said recently. “My 6th grade daughter who attends this school and has to wait around for me after school to finish is always saying, ‘When are we leaving?’ ”

Usually, the answer is not until an hour or two of such work is done. Start with the individualized education plans, or IEPs, the federally mandated educational road maps for students with special needs. Then there are those end-of-the-year, closeout forms on which Ms. Feinberg has to verify her students’ basic information for the school database. And don’t forget the transitional forms for pupils moving on to middle school. And on and on.

“I could be doing so much more,” Ms. Feinberg said, meaning so much more teaching. “Paperwork holds us back from reading research, learning the latest teaching techniques, and planning classroom activities.”

Complaints about the amount of paperwork required for identifying, diagnosing,and then serving the nation’s 6.5 million students with disabilities have found their way to the ears of those in a position to change those federal requirements. As Congress goes about overhauling the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act this year, many special educators and school advocacy groups are asking for relief from burdens like those borne by Ms. Feinberg.

National Debate

Some educators and other experts argue that the growing demands for documentation show that special education is plagued by a culture of procedural compliance, when the prevailing ethic instead should be a focus on individual children’s needs. The paperwork, they say, has even driven special education teachers out of the field at a time when their services are in great demand.

Still, ever since the law guaranteeing children with disabilities the right to a free, appropriate public education was enacted in 1975, such paperwork has been perhaps the most tangible representation of the shift in public schools’ treatment of such children.

In today’s special education climate, where distrust and fear of litigation often color the interaction between parents and educators, some parents cling to those piles of paper as their only evidence that their children’s needs are recognized and their educational rights respected. That tendency is especially true if disabilities prevent the children from articulating to their parents what they think about their own educations.

Many states and districts have even gone beyond federal requirements in documenting educational services to students being aided under the IDEA. Some observers say, however, that officials travel that extra mile not to protect children, but rather to protect schools from lawsuits. If every exchange with parents and every educational incident is written down, the thinking goes, that documentation arms districts against accusations they are not doing their jobs to educate students with disabilities.

But while armor protects, it also makes movement cumbersome. Congress is considering mandating a more lithe, if legally more vulnerable, special education system.

In the version of the IDEA overhaul the House passed April 30, lawmakers included a measure that would let educators draw up students’ IEPs every three years, rather than annually. The Senate version of the proposed new IDEA had not yet been introduced as of press time last week.

But even though parents would have to consent to the longer interval—and a meeting to discuss or change an IEP could still be called at any time by parents or educators—the idea has come under fire from the National PTA and some parents. Perhaps such opposition occurs, some observers say, because the IEP is the most indelible symbol of the law.

One mother, Roberta Buckberg, of Olney, Md., said she believes the IEP process is already difficult for parents who are not strong advocates for their children, because they do not feel empowered, lack financial resources for legal help, or do not speak English as their first language.

“What will happen to these children if the IDEA is relaxed?” Ms. Buckberg wrote in an e-mail interview. Her son, who has a developmental delay, will enter kindergarten in the fall.

“The IEP is not simply paperwork,” Ms. Buckberg wrote, “it is a blueprint for how to address the needs of a child.”

Maribeth Oakes, the director of legislation for the National PTA, said only an infusion of federal dollars would help schools reduce such paperwork. The money would help schools hire clerical assistance for teachers, and more teachers to reduce caseloads, she said.

While attention has focused on the IEPs, the House version of the revised law would do nothing to curb the day-to-day accounting that many teachers must perform. Addressing the IEP procedure is only part of what needs to be done, some educators say. For that reason, a number of education groups don’t believe the House bill went far enough to help reduce paperwork.

Lynda Van Kuren, a spokeswoman for the Council for Exceptional Children, an Arlington Va.-based group that represents special educators and was among the first to propose the idea of a three-year IEP, said the federal government should standardize forms for special education. That way, she said, states and local education agencies wouldn’t create their own versions, documents that vary from state to state, or even district to district, in their length and complexity.

In addition, she said, schools need improved technology, and training for teachers in the use of that technology, to help them fill out forms more efficiently.

Hours and Hours

So how much of a teacher’s time is taken up by paperwork?

Ms. Van Kuren said special education teachers spend half a day to 1½ days a week completing forms, according to her group’s most recent survey of its members.

A national study found that the average special education teacher spent about five hours a week completing forms and doing other administrative paperwork. In fact, special educators spend more time on paperwork than on grading papers, communicating with parents, sharing expertise with colleagues, supervising paraprofessionals, and attending IEP meetings combined, according to the U.S. Department of Education’s Study of Personnel Needs in Special Education in 2000.

Students suffer the consequences of extensive teacher time spent communing with paper, advocates for special educators say. For example, the paperwork burden may mean that less qualified instructors are left to work with students while teachers complete forms during part of the school day, Ms. Van Kuren said.

New special education teachers often are ill-prepared for, or are caught completely off guard by, the amount of documentation their chosen field entails. Teachers—new and experienced—can become disillusioned.

“The paperwork goes against their idealism and what they wanted to do when they became a special education teacher,” Ms. Van Kuren said. “When they realize this, they say, ‘This is not what I want to do. This is not best meeting the needs of the students,’ or ‘what I am even being paid to do.’ ”

Paperwork takes a financial toll as well.

The principal of Ms. Feinberg’s Virginia school crunched the numbers to figure out the dollars that go into paperwork in his suburban district near Washington. Gregory J. Lock looked at the cost just to identify students who need special education and craft their first IEPs.

Putting just one student through that process, he said in an interview, consumes about 83½ hours, or just over two weeks. The average annual salary of educators involved in identifying a student for special education and creating their first IEPs in the 166,600-student Fairfax County school system is about $60,000, he said. Two weeks-plus at that average salary brings the per-student cost to $3,911.

So the grand total for identifying the 22,000 students in special education in the district, he calculated, is more than $86 million.

That is the cost before educational services have even started, Mr. Lock pointed out. He said changing the IEP process from an annual to a three-year schedule would have a big impact. “It would help for teachers not to have to sit down, reviewing and rewriting unnecessarily,” he said.

“But some of the reaction has been negative,” Mr. Lock acknowledged. “Parents feel schools could not be held as accountable.”

Mr. Lock keeps a copy of all of the forms necessary for putting one student through the IEP process on his desk. The folder is three inches thick. When he went to testify on Capitol Hill last May, he took the folder along to dramatize for House lawmakers the paperwork burden.

But when he tried to have the committee clerks make a copy of the folder for each member of the panel, they refused.

Why? The principal recalled with a laugh: “They told me it was too much paper.”


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