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On the Hill

NCLB: A Not-So-Bright IDEA for Future Teachers, Their Students

Mary Anne Hess

Find out what the federal special education law means.

After almost two years as an elementary school resource teacher, Ashley Barton Workman knows no other profession can match the satisfaction she gets from working in special education. “I love seeing the pure joy on my students’ faces when they experience even small successes,” says Workman, a former Student member.

But, she is more than a little distressed that the reauthorized Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) has confused educators so much they can’t figure out whether they meet the “highly qualified” standard necessary to keep their positions.

“I don’t think I should have to be worried about this so soon after graduation,” says Workman, who earned her special education degree in 2004 from Illinois State University.

Kim Anderson, NEA’s government relations expert on IDEA, understands the dilemma. “This is all very confusing for new and prospective teachers, especially those in special ed,” she says.

When educators serve strictly as consultants to core teachers, special education certification should suffice. However, special education teachers often don’t know their placements from year to year or even month to month, explains Anderson. “They are expected to be the most fluid teachers,” she says. “At any given time, depending on their specific placement, they could suddenly lose their ‘highly qualified’ status. It’s not a pretty picture.”

Across the United States there are about 100 different ways states can certify special educators, says Anderson. NEA argues that those state certifications should satisfy the federal “highly qualified” standards.

The reauthorized IDEA isn’t that flexible, but it does allow special educators some wiggle room. At the elementary level, resource teachers like Workman should be OK if they’ve passed the same skills tests that certify colleagues in general education. At the secondary level, IDEA lets states create their own High, Objective, Uniform State Standard of Evaluation (HOUSSE) for those new to special education, allowing them to become “highly qualified” in several subjects without earning multiple degrees or taking multiple PRAXIS exams.

NEA also wants states to give HOUSSE points to new teachers for participating in mentoring or induction programs.

The reauthorized IDEA also changes how teachers participate in the development of student Individualized Education Programs (IEPs), another worrisome aspect, says Patti Ralabate, NEA’s special education policy analyst. “Administrators and parents can decide to excuse someone from an IEP meeting, even the general education teacher. Teachers will have to make it clear that they want to be there to make sure the IEP fits the child’s needs.”

Ralabate also cautions teachers about new directives in IDEA designed to reduce the number of special education referrals. For a child who’s struggling, teachers need to document extensively all interventions, even something as simple as assigning special homework. If you’ve worked with a student for six months without success but failed to document your efforts, you’ll be told to try again before making a referral, she warns. It’s all a response to concerns that, in some school districts, children of color dominate the special education rolls.

Of course, the new regulations could add even more paperwork to an educator’s job, a problem that Workman deals with daily. “It’s constant,” she says, “updating IEP goals, doing progress reports. I can’t tell you how many hours at night or on weekends I’ve spent doing paperwork.”

Ironically, while the reauthorized IDEA requires more documentation in some cases, it may also offer a little relief. A pilot program has allowed 15 states to waive certain forms. However, “there’s a danger that the only paperwork that will be reduced is the states’,” says Ralabate. “That’s not the intent of the law.”

Here's more information

Techno Tools

Want to stay organized and cut down on paperwork once you’re teaching in the classroom? Then check out the NEA Teacher ToolKit  designed by NEA members.

The toolkit is a suite of Web-based tools to help you assemble class rosters, track attendance, report discipline problems, and document academic interventions and their results. You also can search for state curriculum standards and lesson plans. And don’t miss the IEP module, which guides educators through the process of developing Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) for special needs students. And the best part? It’s free! (You can access even more neat stuff, though, like online grade books and personalized assessments, for an annual fee of $71.95.)

Thriving as a Special Education Teacher

Colleges are graduating enough special education teachers to meet the high demand, says Patti Ralabate, NEA special education policy analyst. “The problem is these teachers don’t stay. They aren’t coming in with their eyes open. They’re not prepared for the stress, the paperwork, the large caseloads. It’s a great job, but tough. Within the first five years we lose 50 percent.”

What’s the solution?

Lots of mentoring and improved working conditions are critical, but more realistic preparation is probably first on the list, she says.

Laura Lee, a 2005 graduate of the University of Indianapolis, agrees. Lee spent her student teaching placement in a resource room in a very urban setting, which prepared her well for her current position working with special education students in New York. As a student teacher, “I attended IEP case conferences and had to keep up with the constant flow of paperwork,” she says. “It taught me how to organize myself.”

A solid understanding of classroom management techniques for handling diverse learners also is critical, says Ralabate. She recommends dividing the room into spaces for specific purposes; eliminating distractions such as unused equipment; setting aside “quiet” areas; establishing positive, concrete rules; and correcting minor infractions in a matter-of-fact way, then quickly refocusing on the learning activity.

“Discipline is the hardest part,” says Lee. “I try not to send students to the office because they’ll be missing the academic help they need. The better I get to know the kids, the more they respect me. I call the parents both for problems and when good things happen. I ask them for strategies because they know their children best. By asking for help you show the parents that you’re all part of a team. If students know their parents are behind you, they’re more likely to behave.”

For more tips, check out Patti Ralabate’s book Meeting the Challenge: Special Education Tools that Work for All Kids, available for $15.95 from the NEA Professional Library or call 800-229-4200.

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