When Randy Briggs graduated from Pennsylvania State University with a degree in special education in 1976, the Education for All Handicapped Children Act was still new, having been passed just the year before.
Today, Ms. Briggs, 45, is a special educator with more than 20 years in the field. Since beginning her career in 1978 in Erie, Pa., where she taught students who were classified as mentally retarded, she has seen the myriad changes inspired by the landmark federal special education law, later renamed the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.
Progress and Problems
For most of her career, Ms. Briggs has worked in the 128,000-student Montgomery County, Md., public schools, just outside Washington. After starting out at the high school level, she has spent the past 13 years in elementary education in the district, and the past nine at Wood Acres Elementary School as a special education resource teacher. She now works with a variety of special education students, not just those with mental disabilities. Thanks to the IDEA, which calls for special education students to be taught in the “least restrictive environment,” general education teachers have made significant changes in the way they include students with disabilities in their classrooms.
“There is definitely a connection between the IDEA and the accommodations teachers are making,” Ms. Briggs said.
For instance, Ms. Briggs is now aware of teachers who allow special education students to take untimed tests or who read test questions aloud to certain students. A teacher, she said, might read a math word problem to a student to give the youngster a chance to solve the mathematics portion of the problem without being penalized for not being able to read the question.
Teachers are also letting special education students use technology, such as portable computer keyboards, in the classroom, she said. And, the increased use of technology over just the past five years has also revolutionized the way Ms. Briggs does her job. Having her own computer, she said, has helped tremendously with the piles of paperwork that once seemed overwhelming while also easing communications with her support system. “Everyone who can help me is an e-mail away,” she said.
The process of determining the best “individualized education program,” or IEP, for each special education student—as ordered by the IDEAhas become much more complicated over the years, with many parents seeking out private evaluations of their children’s needs, Ms. Briggs said. “It’s kind of like detective work sometimes,” she said.
IEP meetings—during which the blueprint for a special education student’s services and classes is decided—are sometimes crowded with parents, teachers, administrators, and outside advocates the parents bring along. The amount of differing input can become intimidating. “The tendency is to feel threatened, and the challenge is to see it as an opportunity,” Ms. Briggs said.
Though parents in some cases sued to get more, or different, special education services for their children, Ms. Briggs said that the outcome of each of her IEP meetings has been positive for both sides.
She has never had to go to court over an IEP, which she attributes to both the team she works with and the leadership of her principal. “I know I am lucky,” she said.
A version of this article appeared in the December 06, 2000 edition of Education Week as Teacher’s Career Spans Changes Spurred by 1975 Law