When it comes to special education students, many Schenectady teachers don’t expect much.
Some teachers “wash their hands” of the students. Others let aides teach them. And some just don’t believe the students with mild disabilities will succeed, according to an independent report.
The District Management Council, a Boston-based consulting firm, documented a series of problems with the district’s special education program. The biggest issue: some teachers don’t think it can get better.
Schenectady special education report
Some teachers told the council that it’s “unrealistic” to expect children with mild to moderate disabilities to master reading and math.
Instead, some teachers said, the district should send more disabled students into separate classrooms, so that the non-disabled students can learn faster.
But the students who are taken out of regular classrooms don’t seem to learn much. Only about 5 percent of them test at grade level for reading, and one teacher told the council that even students with mild disabilities won’t pass the high school Regents exams.
“It’s way too hard,” the teacher said, according to the report.
Council researchers found other signs of serious problems as well.
Teachers told them that grade inflation was “common” for special education students.
Some teachers and principals also said that a “key role” for special education teachers was to modify tests and homework — not to find special ways to teach so the children could learn.
The report warned that modifying tests was likely not helping the students. Such actions are likely “watering down the material, rather than scaffolding up to grade level material,” it said.
But the problem isn’t the quality of the teachers, the report said. It’s the lack of properly trained instructors. Aides, who are not teachers, are providing far too much of the instruction, the report said.
The district also doesn’t have enough specialized reading instructors to help the students, who are almost all poor readers. That means their special education teachers must find a way to diagnose and treat every reading problem.
But the special education teachers don’t have “extensive training in teaching reading,” according to the report.
And many special education classrooms have just one general teacher, who is expected to provide expert teaching in all four basic subjects. Regular students in middle school are taught by teachers who specialize in math or English, for example, while many special education students don’t get a specialist.
They don’t even get expert help when they go to a “mainstreamed” classroom — one with students who do not have learning disabilities.
In classrooms where a special education teacher works with a general education teacher, the regular teachers tend to “wash their hands” of the special education students and leave them to the special education teacher, according to the report.
The report said expert teachers are best able to provide the explanations that would help a special education student understand a concept. Yet the students are left to the special education teacher, who is likely not an expert in that subject.
Making matters worse, the report said that special education teachers don’t know how to improve the system.
They’re not even sure who their bosses are, the report said, because there are so many administrators in charge. They also don’t know who is responsible for reading intervention and support or who to go to when they have problems.
They feel “leaderless,” the report said.
Teachers are so frustrated that many of them told the council, “We don’t have a way things get done here.” So they often take their problems to whomever they think can “get the job done” rather than the assigned administrator, the report said.
This has led to inconsistent policies, “at times making decisions in conflict with central office direction or prior decisions,” according to the report.
When district officials tried to make small changes, staffers said they didn’t “faithfully and effectively” implement the new policies.
That indicates that changing the system will not be easy.
“Unfortunately, many of the issues that suggest significant change is needed, also suggest that change will be more difficult in the district than in many other districts of similar size,” the report said.
But schools Superintendent Laurence Spring is going to try.
In the proposed 2013-2014 budget, he has proposed eliminating many of the aides who were used to provide instruction. He wants to use their salaries to add reading specialists instead.
He has also set aside money for extensive training for teachers — not only special education teachers, but regular teachers. He wants them to know how to reach children who are struggling, so that they don’t have to be placed in special education classrooms.
“The kids aren’t learning. So something needs to change,” Spring said. “If you’re teaching the way you’ve always taught things, but there are four kids in your classroom who don’t learn that way ... let’s change our instruction.”
He downplayed the report’s findings about teachers who don’t think it’s possible for special education students to succeed. “I don’t think that folks here have yet been presented with an alternative model,” he said.
Spring plans to attack some of the disorganization by announcing next year’s teacher assignments early. Many teachers should know this spring, before school ends.
That way teachers can spend the summer reading the IEPs — special learning plans written for each student — and getting whatever training they need to teach those students.
“What do you need to be able to do that?” Spring said he will ask the teachers. “What specialized training will you need?”
He’s already planning a program to improve the way teachers work together in classrooms with special education and regular education students.
He wants each new team to take a three-day course on how to teach together, while pairs that have worked together for years could opt to take a one-day refresher course.
Many other training sessions will be developed as teachers analyze their class lists for next year.
Spring said teachers will eventually come to believe that special education students can succeed.
“When you’re making these shifts, you’ve got to give them a chance to learn to do it,” he said.