Special education and the role of teacher-preparation programs
In late 2016, a seven-part investigative series by the Houston Chronicle revealed that the Texas Education Agency’s (TEA) monitoring system for the state’s special education population had effectively resulted in a “cap” on the number of students receiving special education services. In response to the state’s system, districts have systematically discouraged student evaluations and deliberately decreased the provision of special education services. By 2015, the state’s special education population had dropped to 8.5 percent — the lowest in the country — and thousands of the state’s students have likely been denied services they were entitled to under federal law.
As a former special education teacher who now works for an organization dedicated to transforming the field of teacher preparation, I had a personal interest in this issue. So when TEA held a listening session in December 2016 to give Texas residents the opportunity to comment on the state’s special education system, I decided to attend. At the two-hour mark – all the time allotted for the event – 33 people had spoken and dozens more were still waiting their turns.
The panel sat quietly as, one by one, parents, teachers, and advocates described their experiences with districts, schools, and TEA itself, outlining a variety of inappropriate services and inadequate responses, including the denial or delay of student evaluation for special education services. As residents, some quite emotional, took their turns sharing experiences, I found myself thinking of programs that prepare Texas educators and our mission here at Deans for Impact.
The role of TEA and district personnel in this breakdown of equity is undeniable. But teacher-preparation programs now have an extraordinary opportunity to make a positive difference in the communities they serve. The impact of a strong special education teacher can be incredible, and teacher-preparation programs have the opportunity — and the responsibility — to empower these teachers with a knowledge of special education policy, student advocacy, and teaching skills.
By law, states, through local school districts, must identify, locate, and evaluate every child who may have a disability requiring special education services. Every child. Teachers, faculty, and administrators all have a role to play in ensuring that process works as designed (and as required) in federal law. But teachers are, in some respects, the front line in ensuring students get the services they need and deserve. A master special education teacher, for example, should be able and willing to recognize and advocate for students in need of intervention. A general education teacher should be able to do the same for all students, especially with a special education professional by his/her side.
There are thousands of efficient, caring master teachers in Texas, and I have seen firsthand that the strength of a school’s teachers can become the foundation of its success. However, with as many as 250,000 students in Texas potentially being denied special education services, there is more work to do to ensure that all teachers have the skills, the knowledge and the confidence they need to advocate on behalf of their students — and teacher-preparation programs have a critical role to play in that effort.
Deans for Impact, through policy work and programmatic efforts like Impact Academy, wants to empower deans of teacher-preparation programs to better support teacher-candidates before and during their entrance into the classroom so that all children receive the services they need and deserve. The Chronicle’s revelations brought to light the breakdown of a system designed to serve our most vulnerable children, and we must now work together to eliminate this inequity.