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J.C. Bowman: Special teachers

J.C. Bowman • Updated Apr 24, 2018 at 12:00 PM

 It is becoming tough to keep special education teachers in the field beyond two or three years. We already have a shortage, and it is likely to get worse in the future. 

Teaching is demanding enough, but special education teachers must cope with even more challenges. Professional learning is rarely aligned to special education teachers’ needs. Special education teachers face more parental interaction, longer hours, potential lawsuits, additional paperwork, while their students need more attention. The slogan “work more, same pay” is not exactly a great selling point in teacher recruitment.

The federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, or IDEA, requires every student have what’s known as an individualized education program. The IEP involves hours and hours of filling out forms and writing reports documenting each student’s progress. Recently, the Tennessee Board of Education, in the name of greater transparency, has proposed a rule that may actually create more problems for special education teachers.

The proposed rule says the LEA must notify the parents of a child with a disability at least 10 days before an IEP meeting to ensure that a parent will have an opportunity to attend. A meeting conducted pursuant to state law may be conducted on at least 24 hours’ notice to the parents. If the LEA prepares a draft IEP prior to the IEP meeting, a copy shall be provided to the parents of the child at least 24 hours prior to the scheduled meeting time. The copy of the draft IEP shall become the property of the parents. If the LEA prepares a draft IEP prior to the IEP team meeting, the LEA shall make it clear to the parents at the outset of the meeting that the services proposed by the LEA are preliminary recommendations for review and discussion with the parents. It is not permissible for the LEA to have the final IEP completed before an IEP team meeting begins.

Many, but not all, districts provide parents with a draft prior to the IEP meeting, if requested and with a reasonable timeline. However, it would not be appropriate or reasonable to mandate that districts provide a draft prior to all IEP meetings. 

A few of the concerns, suggestions and questions put forth by our members showed the proposed rule:

• may discourage LEAs from creating drafts, which would lead to longer, less structured IEP meetings and may increase the likelihood of procedural errors.

• may result in LEAs having to hold separate IEP meetings, which could delay initial services up to 30 days after initial eligibility, in order to give time to have a draft ready.

• currently, there are no means of documenting LEA’s compliance as drafts are removed from EasyIEP system after 30 days or when final IEP is created

• places an undue paperwork burden on already paperwork-heavy sped teachers.

• may send information that is confusing to parents without having immediate access to professionals who can help interpret or give meaning to info in IEP.

• may result in fewer parents attending IEP meetings as perception would be that IEP is already completed and their attendance is not necessary.

• may lead to meetings starting with an adversarial tone.

• not all IEP team members are staffed at the same school, making it impossible for them to convene with the other IEP team members to collaborate on the draft 24 hours prior to the meeting.

Looking at the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act and new regulations, an LEA should provide the parents with a copy of its draft proposals, if the LEA has developed them, prior to the IEP team meeting. Parents deserve an opportunity to review any recommendations prior to the IEP team meeting to be better able to engage in a full discussion of the proposals for their child. It is already not permissible for an LEA to have a final IEP completed before an IEP meeting. Parents should be able to request a copy of any draft documents prior to an IEP team meeting. However, it is critical to be reminded that not all IEP team members are staffed at the same school, and it may be impossible for them to convene with the other IEP team members to collaborate on the draft 24 hours prior to the meeting. This creates twice the work for teachers.

Which brings us back full circle. We subscribe to the philosophy of “all means all” in public education, which means we educate each and every one of our students to the highest level possible. If we continue to overwhelm special education teachers when we already have a special education teacher shortage by adding to their workload, recruitment and retention challenges will only escalate. 

Then, students with disabilities will never attain their full academic potential especially if teachers with no special education background are placed in their classroom. The proposed IEP policy, as currently being suggested needs work. This may well be a legislative item in 2019.

J.C. Bowman is executive director of Professional Educators of Tennessee, a non-partisan teacher association headquartered in Nashville.

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