Opinion
Special Education Opinion

The Special Education Conundrum

By Bruce Marlowe — April 18, 2001 5 min read
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Unfortuantely, in the last 10 years, inclusion has become an increasingly difficult ideology to sell to my students, and to myself.

My home state of Vermont has been committed to “full inclusion” since long before it became a national issue. As a teacher-educator in a state where virtually all students with disabilities are placed in regular education classrooms, I have a mandate to prepare prospective teachers for classes in which there will be a wide range of student abilities. And while mainstreaming is often a hot topic of debate with my students, the primary emphasis in my classes has always been on how to plan, manage, deliver, and evaluate instruction effectively in diverse classroom settings—as this is what new teachers must do when they graduate, regardless of their politics.

My own view has always been that, given the right supports, inclusion is a powerful educational philosophy for both academic and social reasons. Unfortunately, in the last 10 years, we have seen a gradual erosion of these “supports,” and inclusion has become an increasingly difficult ideology to sell to my students, and to myself.

Perhaps the greatest threat to inclusion is the reluctance of competent special educators to work as special educators, particularly when they can secure regular education teaching positions. Like almost every state in the nation, Vermont is now facing an urgent special education crisis.

Perhaps the greatest threat to inclusion is the reluctance of competent special educators to work as special educators.

While there are numerous openings for special educators, few want these jobs because of the enormous disincentives. These include: a staggering amount of paperwork, overwhelming caseloads, endless meetings, escalating discipline problems (with little support from agencies outside the school), and increasingly adversarial, uncivil, and litigious parents. In addition, many feel that the job requires almost daily compromising of one’s integrity, as special educators often must choose between protecting the fiduciary interests of the school (on which their jobs depend), and the educational needs and civil rights of the students on the caseloads.

More fundamental issues, however, are also at stake. Imagine, for example, being rushed into the emergency room on a gurney. Your heart is beating irregularly, you are flushed; sharp pains shoot through your chest and left arm. Soon, a cardiologist arrives on the scene. She looks down at you plaintively, turns to the nurse and says: “This is serious; I’d say a heart attack. You know Edith, who volunteers upstairs in the flower shop? We better have her come down right away and take a look—I’ve got some Medicaid forms to complete.”

Sounds crazy? As Richard Lavoie aptly observes, this parable depicts special education as it is practiced today. All too often, the most highly trained special educators wallow in a sea of paperwork while well-meaning, but undertrained (and underpaid) paraprofessionals, volunteer grandmothers, and special education aides provide direct service to the nation’s neediest students.

Such direct “service” invariably occurs in regular classrooms, often more closely resembling babysitting than quality educational programming. Virtually no one benefits. Many students with disabilities get an education that is anything but special. Special educators are frustrated and are leaving the field in huge numbers. Paraprofessionals turn over even more quickly; despite their hard work and dedication—many work for the minimum wage—they often lack the skills they need to work with our most challenging students.


What should we do instead? First, let’s begin by being honest. Simply licensing more special educators will not solve these problems. Instead, we need to make the kind of sweeping changes that keep talented individuals in the field. This means radically overhauling special education, so that professionals can actually spend most of their time working with students. Second, let’s acknowledge that the system does not need paraprofessionals.

It is time to challenge shortsighted “cost containment” procedures masquerading as philosophical arguments for inclusion.

We need paralegals who can take care of the enormous volume of state and federally mandated paperwork, so that special educators can do what they are uniquely trained to do: teach our neediest students, and provide expert consultation to help mainstream teachers provide students with disabilities an appropriate education in the context of the regular classroom. Many people enjoy and are skilled at clerical tasks. Shouldn’t we be training them (perhaps in one-year undergraduate programs?) to handle the distinct administrative demands that are part and parcel of modern special education?

Third, and most important, it is time to challenge shortsighted “cost containment” procedures masquerading as philosophical arguments for inclusion. Adoption of these policies comes at a steep price at the expense of our children. In Vermont, and in many other states around the nation, recent legislative mandates encourage schools to curb special education costs by making fewer students eligible for services. Many students with emotional disturbances, for example, may soon find themselves ineligible for special education under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act because the therapeutic services they require do not constitute “specialized instruction.”

For students who are too depressed, anxious, or aggressive to learn, what could possibly be of greater value than specialized instruction in prosocial behaviors like empathy, goal-setting, and anger management? Will counseling no longer be permitted in school under the auspices of IDEA because it is not considered “instruction”? It is ironic that here in Vermont, and elsewhere around the country, we lack enough beds for students who cannot function in the mainstream, yet state education departments continue to propose eliminating the very services that help prevent the need for such residential support.

I still believe inclusion is a powerful educational philosophy. But in practice, we have a long way to go. And I fear that unless we make changes—dramatic changes—we will find ourselves where we were before the IDEA, as segregated, institution-like care will begin to look more appealing than what often passes as special education today.


Bruce Marlowe is a professor of special education at Johnson State College in Johnson, Vt.

A version of this article appeared in the April 18, 2001 edition of Education Week as The Special Education Conundrum

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