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A Look at Special Education

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In Montgomery County, students receive a top-notch education, one of the best in the country. Ranked highly in graduation rates and AP test performances, the county has won numerous awards for its educational system, and its Superintendent of Schools—Dr. Joshua Starr—is a well-known national figure. However, most students and teachers know little about their education counterpart: special education.

Schools are legally, according to the IDEA, required to provide accommodations for students with learning disabilities. For most students, this means that although they remain with students of their age in schools for socialization purposes, they are given assistance to better access the general education program. In the past, special education has been self-contained: students with learning disabilities were put in a small setting, with special education teachers who could move at a flexible pace, and adjust the curriculum as needed for their students.

Now, the pace and material are less flexible due to the goal of student inclusion into the school environment, which fosters social connectedness. According to Mr. Keith Scott, a special education teacher at Montgomery Blair HS, “most kids who feel socially connected do better with academics.”

Many special education students have had difficulty with school work due to learning disabilities, this in turn, results in lower esteem and self-isolationism, which make it more difficult to bridge friendship and interact socially.

So what exactly does making accommodations for students in special education involve? For Mr. Scott, who has worked in special education for twenty years, it involves whatever the student needs to be successful: adjusting the curriculum for content, planning specialized lessons, creating visual organizers, changing assignments and tests to have shorter questions and answers, writing down a student’s answers for them, helping students control their behavior, and more. He also spends a lot of time organizing testing accommodations, which often involve setting a student up in a quiet area with a teacher or computer and a customized test. The key to providing quality special education, according to Mr. Scott, is to have a good team of teachers working together to help the students. Classes that culminate in HSAs ― courses students need to pass― are often co-taught by general and special education teachers. For elective classes, para-educators provide assistance to students as necessary.

The primary challenge for special education teachers, according to Mr. Scott, is earning the respect they deserve. Often, he says, special education teachers are not seen as teachers because they’re “not at the front of the room.” However, he says, they need to be respected as co-teachers, and ideally, “both teachers [would] really participate” in teaching the class. Mr. Scott describes general and special education teachers as “two captains on one ship,” and emphasizes the importance of the teachers working together and understanding each other. “A lot of general ed teachers really don’t know what special ed. teachers do,” he says.

Another major responsibility special ed. teachers have is case management. Each teacher is responsible for keeping track of about 20 kids, and helping them to meet goals. Each student has a customized IEP, or Individual Education Plan, which is a plan for their success in school, and has regular IEP meetings, where they meet with their general and special ed teachers, along with their parents, psychologist, speech therapist (if needed), and others, in what Mr. Scott calls an “education team meeting,” to work on overcoming challenges and meeting goals.

How exactly are students who need special education identified? Through a very long process of testing, according to Mr. Scott, who emphasizes that “there’s a difference between low achievement and special ed.” Students undergo a lot of cognitive and psychological testing that aims to determine the level of discrepancy between their cognitive abilities and school testing results, which would indicate that they are not performing well in school as a result of a learning disability. Mr. Scott also emphasizes that special ed. students do not have subpar intelligence: in fact, many kids are in magnet or gifted and talented programs. “For a lot of kids, you wouldn’t know they’re in special ed.,” he says. Testing helps identify special ed. students so they can succeed in spite of a learning disability, which may have made it difficult for them to learn and test well in school prior to being identified. Ideally, testing occurs at a young age―the primary challenge is students who aren’t identified until high school. In those cases, general ed. teachers often request testing be done, and special ed. teachers have to collect school records and interviews in order to correctly diagnose a student. The majority of students in special ed. have a learning disability, ADHD, organizational issues, or speech problems. Others have language and comprehension difficulty, or a health problem.

Special education has been improving significantly over time, but still has a ways to go. Mr. Scott believes that one of the most important changes that need to be made is having “education catch up with technology.” With recent technological advances, much of what special ed. teachers and para-educators do could be replaced by computers. For example, a computer could easily read a lesson to a student and record their answers for a test, instead of needing a teacher to do it. This would make the systems and testing more efficient, consistent, and standardized. Mr. Scott believes this may help bridge the achievement gap.

Technology could also be used for documentation and record-keeping purposes: at the moment, Mr. Scott says, special ed teachers are constantly doing paperwork that is never used or looked at, and which should be stored on a computer, not in gigantic paper files. Finally, Mr. Scott suggests that the Board of Education should increase funding for special education so more special ed. teachers can be hired, in order to keep the ratio of special ed. students to teachers desirable.

Article by Zoe Johnson, SAC press correspondent, sophomore at Blair High School

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