Thursday, March 1, 2018

Brutal Reality Checks - Surviving Special Education

The author taking a needed break from
pedagogy.Image of a petite brown young woman
 in  a Medieval gown, flowers in her hair
and beloved puppy in her lap. Credit
J. Richards/K.Cevik
You are a first-year upper elementary teacher in a self-contained class. In front of you are 12 IEPs. Each was written by a different teacher. Most of the goals are far above the current academic levels of your students and were clearly copied and pasted from grade level state standards. None of them follow the same criteria for measurement, which means you will need to measure each goal a different way. Each of your students has a goal for the four core subjects you teach: math, English, science, and social studies. So in total, you are responsible for 12x4 = 48 separate IEP goals, not counting objectives to achieve each goal. There is very little overlap between your students’ goals, making grouping difficult.
Given a good day with no illnesses, unexpected test prep sessions, early releases, random meetings, assemblies, “writing days”, “reading days”, fire drills, schedule changes, or behavioral interruptions, you have 2 paraprofessionals and a total of about 1.5 hours a day to work on goals.
Your principal pops in to tell you-you'll be getting a new student from out of state. No, they don’t have her paperwork yet. She’ll be here tomorrow. You will need to set up individual academic assessments for her, one on one, using one of your paraprofessionals, so plan to be down staff starting tomorrow.
Your students are back from lunch. You have about 20 minutes of instructional time.
I remember reading and rereading IEPs for students in confusion my first year. A student who was barely functioning on a kindergarten level with 4th and 5th grade level math goals, or science and social studies goals so specific I would need to craft entire lessons around them so that I was able to get some sort of data before progress report time. Parents seemed not to notice. Admin and my otherwise amazing mentor never commented. It was plaguing me, and from what I could tell, only me.
You see, it flew in the face of everything I’d been taught in my master’s program. It even seemed to defy professional development, all those ones that harangued us about writing measurable goals that were tailored to each student. How can you justify a 5th-grade reading goal for a child who could barely read sight words? How are you not setting yourself—and the child—up for perpetual failure?
One of my colleagues—an older teacher who had been with the district for years—clued me in.
“It’s ok if you don’t achieve the goals in a year,” she told me. “Just make sure you’re writing them how they [admin] want and you’re using the standards they’ll be tested on. Some kids may never achieve that goal, but as long as you can show you’re working towards it, you’re fine.”
It didn’t compute. For the rest of my time there, I ignored her reassurances and battled the paperwork. I wrote my own goals as much as our automated, cookie-cutter IEP writing program would allow. I changed criteria so that they were consistent with how I could measure them. Then I arranged my schedule so that I could implement every IEP possible, however possible, in the limited time I had to do anything that resembled actual teaching.
It didn’t go well. It went better than it would have if I had shrugged and chucked the goals in the trash. But I simply couldn’t, as brand new, inexperienced teacher with no point reference on how to teach 48 goals in one hour of one day, implement every IEP goal, every day of every week.
This didn’t even account for outside variables. Sometimes my students would fall asleep in class because they hadn’t slept the night before. Some would have tantrums and hurl death threats, forcing us to evacuate the room, which interrupted instruction. Sometimes they were absent. Sometimes they were sick but had been given fever reducers that worked for part of the morning and kept them in school—physically there, but mentally and emotionally drained.
It’s been years since I first read those IEPs. I’ve grown out of my outrage and I can see my colleague’s perspective. And I like it even less.
You’ve been a teacher for a few years now. You work for a chain charter school with mostly at-risk teens. There are scores of students in each course, and a revolving door of teachers, admin, and students. Keeping up to date is an art, not a science. You’re doing okay.
Schoolwide, you’re responsible for the tracking and implementation of nearly 50 IEPs, each with a novel’s worth of accommodations and varying numbers of goals. With that large a number, and with so many students MIA on any given week, you need to make sure your work is streamlined. You’ve perfected an IEP format that fits all the legal requirements for your state. You tweak it for students as needed, but it has to be fairly standard for the sake of order and sanity. Your goals are easy to justify, track, and measure, and even subject-based ones apply to a variety of courses whenever possible. Sure, you end up writing a lot of similar goals, but not blindly. Most of your students need similar things, and you make sure to document your rationale so there are no complaints.
But things are precarious. Admin isn’t pleased with passing and graduation rates. Emails start to feature graphs comparing percentages across departments, encouraging “friendly competition”. You hear a lot of “encouraging” statements about how the admin is confident the low numbers will change. So far, you’ve sat through 3 different lectures/department meetings on how to write IEP goals.
It’s simple. Admin wants the numbers to move, and have concluded the best way to do that is to witness change, first hand, in the way we log our daily work. It’s no longer enough to write the goals, to take data. Any administrator who spot checks our IEPs needs to be sold on how much of our time and energy it took to write every, single goal. She needs to be convinced that we actually, truly care about getting every student to pass every class.  
Which boils down to more paperwork.
Suggestions range from the silly to the illegal. One admin suggests writing goals for electives for failing students. The number of students being moved to SPED resource classes jumps. Admin waves away objections that there is no such thing as a resource room for art or music. If there’s no course available, case managers are to adapt the class themselves and “meet with the students to get it done”. No comment is made about chronically absent students. The expectation is that SPED staff will begin making up for the shortcomings of all other staff—that in fact, we are obligated to do so.
One admin encourages SPED teachers to provide fully included students with extra special education teacher support outside the general ed classroom in small groups—a violation of their least restrictive environment. One tells teachers to fill up every category in the “present levels” section of the IEP form—including categories in which the student has no disability or need. “So it’s clear that you know the student well, and you’re not just reading from a file”, she says. Yet another provides sample goals that were clearly taken from elementary settings and can’t be implemented in high school.
For the most part, you know enough to ignore these ravings and do the right thing. Federal law trumps school policy, no matter how bitter it may make higher-ups. But it doesn’t stop the sinking feeling you get when you realize no one at these meetings can claim the moral high ground, not even you. The lip service paid to differentiation and individualization is a poor consolation in overcrowded classrooms, poorly funded schools, and horrendously run programs. Nobody here is able to meet the lofty ideals of creating personalized learning for kids with disabilities. You certainly aren’t.
You keep writing IEPs to conform with the laws as best you can—anywhere from 30 to 50 of them.  Sometimes you mess up. When you can, you adjust for specific students—but you know one person cannot write, track, and implement 50 completely individual, completely separate, utterly unique IEP goals. Your workload isn’t going to go down. If anything, as more and more students come in, it’s likely to go up. So you need to watch your back and crank out your work as efficiently as possible without getting sued. That has to take priority if you want to keep being able to write more goals.
Every once in a while, you’ll write a great goal and get through to a student. Something will click. She’ll learn. And for that brief moment, you’ll feel like you wrote the right thing. You’ll feel like a special education teacher. 
Until the next time that happens, all you can do is keep writing. 

Winter Cevik is a small, unusually vocal hen in her mid-thirties. In her spare time, she enjoys laying eggs (usually 500 words or fewer), writing IEPs, and offending neighborhood wildlife.

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