The Endrew F. vs Douglas County Ruling. What now?

Hello readers! Like so many things in my life right now, my blog has been put on the back burner at the moment because I’ve been so busy with National Boards! But ever since the ruling this week by the Supreme Court, I have been constantly thinking about the impact this is going to make for students with disabilities and special education across the country. There are several things that worry me about this ruling as a teacher and I wanted to take some time to process through what I have been thinking.  Maybe the blog isn’t the best place – but I find opening yourself up to feedback IS the most effective way to grow and change!

So here we go! (In Good, Bad, Ugly format…because, why not.)

The GOOD:

All children deserve the best education we can provide them.  The previous ruling by the 10th Circuit that an education that is “merely more than de minimis” was rightfully overruled by the Supreme Court.  This ruling will certainly help students and their parents take on school districts who continually ignore their needs and write identical IEP’s year after year after year.  As a professional, I have seen these goals and I can’t imagine the frustration parents feel.

I hope, above hope, that I have never made parents feel this way.

I have already been thinking about how I will change my practices to reflect this decision.  There are always so many ways we can improve as teachers and I for one have a running list.  This case opened my eyes to several issues in my own practices that I would like to improve.  I want my students and their parents to feel empowered and part of the team – not just feel like occasional participants.  I can change how I do business so to speak.  One way I think I will do this directly comes from the Endrew F. ruling.  Since I typically work with my students for three years, I want to create a way for parents to easily track their goals on a yearly basis so that their student’s progress (or lack thereof) is more evident.  I also want to write goals that are more powerful.  Two years ago I attended the LRP conference in Denver.  At one of the pre-sessions, I learned about writing goals that are linked to cognitive tasks and student need in a much more logical and impactful way.  For two years I’ve been bouncing this idea around in my head – trying to figure out exactly how to implement a new system of goal writing.  Now is the time for me to make it happen.

The BAD:

Congress has NEVER fully funded IDEA.   Will this ruling mean that this funding finally makes its way to schools?  When I looked up the school that Endrew F. attended (Firefly Autism ), and saw that their staff was comprised of multiple therapists, ABA therapy, in home services, Saturday social groups and multiple individuals highly trained to help students with Autism. I’d love to go see what a day in their program looks like, and I’d love to have this specific skill set and the level of passion that they obviously do for this particular high needs area.

How can a public school compete with this?

There are several issues here.

The first: the generalist endorsement.  Because of the nationwide shortage of special education teachers (hello, high burnout rate!), the generalist endorsement seems to have become popular as a way to make the special education certification process more accessible for teachers looking at becoming special educators.  Prior to the advent of the generalist endorsement, at least in the states I am most familiar with, you could be certified in several different areas (Mild-Moderate, Severe and Profound, etc.) and specialize in those areas. While the generalist endorsement has served its purpose well, particularly in hard to staff schools and rural communities, it has also left a significant gap of teachers with specific experience and skill sets to successfully help students with low incidence disabilities and significant behavior problems.  I have seen many states adding specific area endorsements back into the mix – and hopefully this will eventually be reflected in teacher prep programs.

The second: ugh, I can’t believe I’m going to say this, the pay.  Money generally isn’t the reason most people become teachers.  It’s not why I teach.  But let’s look at our extreme absence of clinical professionals working in schools.  Honestly, I can’t blame them.  If I had gone through an insane practicum and hours and hours of work to get BCBA certified, I certainly wouldn’t be excited about school pay when I could make double in a clinical setting.  I think it will continue to be incredibly difficult for schools to attract the specialized personnel that these low incidence disabilities and extreme behaviors warrant as long as schools continue with the current status quo and models of providing services.

After talking to several colleagues around the country, we all concur that there is a significant uptick in extreme behaviors at very young ages.  Given that most classroom teachers and scarily most special education teachers have NEVER had any formal coursework specifically on behavior and behavior management, this poses a significant problem.  And even if these teachers have had some coursework, many of the students we have been seeing in our schools are at the point of requiring intensive and therapeutic levels of intervention.

The UGLY:

As a teacher who previously taught in urban, inner city schools, I worry about what this ruling will mean to special education teachers who have caseloads of more than 30 students.  How can we possibly expect a teacher to individualize instruction for 30 students with disabilities effectively?  Our model is broken, limping along and not thriving or successful.  (Obviously there are great programs all over the country – I am speaking of the system as a whole here).

Each time a student fails to grow in percentile, believe me, I take it to heart.  I go back and look at what I did, what more I could do and think about what I will do next. I am constantly pushing myself as a professional so that I can be the BEST teacher for my students.  I have a masters and completed all of the course work for a second masters as a Reading Specialist.  As a generalist, I wonder what more I can do.  I independently seek out more training, professional development and help from my professional learning network.  But I’m not an Autism specialist.  I’m not a specialist in low-incidence disabilities.  Should I be considered an ineffective teacher because I am not those things?  Should I be required to pay out of pocket to get the required degrees to become those things?   Who am I supposed to turn to for help when I’m unsure of what to do to best help a student?

It seems that there are many significant gaps in our system of supporting students with disabilities.  As a taxpayer, I know there has to be a better solution than private schools that cost $70,000 a year.  Do I know what that solution is? Not yet.  But I’m thinking about what would make the most sense.  I think we can start by acknowledging that school districts need more special education teachers that have been through excellent teacher preparation programs.  They also need the ability (and desire!) to hire and/or contract specialists that can support their special education teams.  And lastly, this might not be the most popular point of this blog, we need to recognize that there is a continuum of services and that inclusion is not always the best placement for every student every minute of their day.  Don’t get me wrong inclusion is and should be our ultimate goal with all students.  But there will always be that one kiddo who doesn’t find success in the classroom and I think we do that student a disservice if we ignore their needs in favor of saying inclusion is best no matter what.

So what is the answer?

Is there an easy answer? No.  Special education, like our education system in general, is in need of an evolution.  I hope that this ruling helps get the conversation started.  I suppose some of the impending lawsuits will help us find some guidance in what more than ‘de minimis’ actually looks like in the eyes of the law. I hope that the states answer back by asking Congress to fully fund IDEA.

Forget thinking outside of the box, we might have to explode the box to change how we serve our most needy students.

Until then, I will keep growing professionally, reading everything I can get my hands on and doing whatever I can to make sure my students get the best education I can give them.

What do you think should happen with special education in the wake of this ruling?  What would be your perfect service model?  Is it time for more specialists on staff at schools full time?

I’d love to hear your thoughts!

Rachel

 

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