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Five Trending Issues in Special Education

Wednesday, May 4, 2016 -- Winnie O'Leary

Think about the constantly evolving state of special education, and try to name only the five key issues. Tough to do, right? The changing landscape of special education and the impacts these changes may have on current and future practices is a topic that consistently makes the news. Issues such as school reform, inclusion, standards assessment, disability classification, and many others can all be viewed from multiple perspectives. Strong opinions and research are there to support or question all of these differing viewpoints.

Special education is a charged, subjective topic—just as any complex and personal issue is. As such, pinpointing a list of “Top Five” issues in the field isn’t realistic. There needs to be ongoing conversation about special education between a broad range of experts, educators, parents, and students. So, with the hope of inspiring some of this important conversation, here is our list of five trending issues in special education that have been top of mind for us:

1. Early Intervention and Prevention

Traditionally, early intervention has referred to steps taken when children are in the birth to five-year-old ago range. However, there is increasing focus on providing early intervention to students as symptoms of any kind of disability begins to manifest. So, when we speak of early intervention and prevention here, we could be talking about early childhood intervention, but we also need to consider interventions for older students. Think about early intervention and prevention as targeting symptoms at the onset of the abnormal behavior, no matter what age the student is. Recognizing concerning academic and social behaviors early and then quickly providing supports and tools to address them can lessen or even negate the need for more involved interventions later.  

2. Technology

We have all seen how technology permeates our society and how, with increasing frequency, it is being integrated into the classroom. Used correctly, technology can support students in overcoming a variety of challenges and limitations. Innovative educators, as well as developers, are attempting to create and use technology to level the playing field and provide opportunities to students that they might not have had before.

Technology has the potential to provide a bridge for special education students and instructors, allowing educators to customize materials for unique needs and drive personalized instruction. Already, it has transformed special education instruction by enhancing individual learning opportunities and enabling greater flexibility and personalization. However, to be comfortable using different technologies to their fullest potential, teachers need more comprehensive and ongoing professional development opportunities. 

By using existing technology in new and alternative ways, special education teachers can help offer students more ways to be successful. Creative approaches to instruction and differentiation for individual learning styles are especially important in order to achieve success.

3. Transition Planning

Revisions to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) have added mandates related to transitions from early intervention programs to preschool programs and from school to work for students in special education programs. One mandate requires transition-planning conferences for infants and toddlers in early intervention programs transitioning to preschool programs. Another mandate calls for a statement of needed services for the transition from high school to higher education or employment in every student’s Individualized Education Program (IEP). Congress’ recent passage of the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA) has furthered this focus on the transition out of high school. It directs state vocational rehabilitation agencies to work collaboratively with schools to provide transition services to all students with disabilities. Other forms of transition planning, such as addressing the move from middle school to high school or from a self-contained or restrictive environment to a less restrictive environment, are also becoming common.

4. Teacher Licensure

There is a shortage of teachers across the country, and in some states, it’s becoming a critical shortage. Teachers of special education are in especially short supply. Reasons for this shortage are varied, but they include lower enrollments in teacher training programs specific to special education and an alarmingly high exit rate for special education teachers.

Because of the significant and growing need for teachers, alternative licensure programs have evolved. Especially for individuals starting a second career in teaching, greatly intensified and accelerated summer programs are replacing traditional four-year licensure programs. While these programs can help place more teachers in the classroom, some professionals question their quality and the preparedness of these newly licensed teachers who they certify.

Some districts have also started to fill special education positions with teachers having either no prior education experience or having only general education experience. Provisional or conditional licensure is then provided to these newly hired teachers. However, due to the unique challenges of special education and the need for specialized training in the field, teacher retention and burnout is a common problem with this approach.

Debate also exists over the issue of categorical or non-categorical licensure for special education teachers. Supporters of categorical licensure argue that each disability category is significantly different from others, so instructors should be highly specialized in the area they teach. On the other hand, supporters of non-categorical licensure argue that teachers should be prepared to teach all children and have the expertise to address differing abilities and disabilities as needed.

Compounding both the issues of special education teacher shortage and licensure, there are grumblings in the higher education world to do away with a degree in special education and instead fold it into general education programs. Supporters of this initiative use an extension of the non-categorical licensure argument that all teachers should be prepared to meet widely varying student needs.  

5. Placement

The debate about where a student with disabilities is best served is one of the most volatile issues in special education. The controversy stems from whether full inclusion in general education classrooms or placement in a continuum of alternative settings offers a more effective learning environment. This is a particularly difficult and subjective issue with compelling arguments on both sides.

In the full-inclusion model, all students—regardless of an identified disability, health needs, academic ability, unique service needs, and potentially, the preference of a parent or student—are educated full-time in a general education classroom in their neighborhood school. Typically, general education and special education teachers work together in the same classroom, and in some cases, specialists like occupational or speech therapists work within the classroom environment as well. Proponents of this model believe that pulling a child out of the classroom is unequal and deprives all students of valuable learning opportunities. They focus on the value of social interaction and argue that the benefits of a full-inclusion classroom extend to both general and special education students.

On the other side of the debate, proponents of a continuum of alternative placements call for more emphasis to be placed on differentiation on a child-by-child basis. This is the model officially mandated by IDEA, with six generally recognized placements:

  • full-time in a general education classroom
  • part-time in a special education resource room
  • full-time in a special education self-contained classroom
  • in a separate special education school
  • at a residential facility
  • homebound or in a hospital 

Inside one of these six placements is the least restrictive environment for a special education student, where he or she will be best able to achieve academic gains and success. This continuum agrees that full-time placement in general education is appropriate and beneficial for many students but not all. Instead, each child should be evaluated and placed individually. Proponents believe that it is unconscionable and illegal to view placement as a universal issue and place every child in the exact same environment without investigating his or her unique needs.

We hope this overview can help start a conversation in your school about these five issues, as well as the many other important issues facing special education instructors today. We’d love to hear what your top five challenges are. Tell us in the comments section below!

At Edmentum, we understand how hard educators work to meet the widely varying needs of all of their students. Looking for new online tools to help support your special education teachers and students? Check out our Special Education Technology Evaluation Guide, or learn more about Edmentum’s Special Education Solutions for Educators!