There are so many complaints about how special education costs are depleting our tax dollars and diverting money that might be used elsewhere to support children’s learning. But in the view from the trenches, the expense of special education is not the culprit, inefficient spending is.
As an advocate, I attend IEP (Individualized Education Program) meetings frequently. These meetings are held on an annual basis (or more often, if needed) to review the special education program for a student and to ensure the student’s unique educational needs are being met. Since the presence and input of multiple school personnel (teachers, administrator, and often the school psychologist, nurse, and any other specialists who are providing services for the student) are needed at these meetings, using the time efficiently is of the utmost importance.
When teachers are in the IEP meetings, their classes still need to be taught. Substitute teachers are hired (at additional cost) to cover their classes. Inefficiently run meetings mean teachers are away from their classrooms for longer than necessary.
School psychologists play an important role in the IEP process. They assess the students’ needs and are in a position to provide vital information to the IEP team. A high-quality assessment can provide detailed and specific information about how a child learns, providing the IEP team with essential information that will help to fine-tune the IEP document and ensure it is meeting the needs of a specific student. The more thorough the assessments, the more likely the IEP team can create an appropriate and effective IEP that will truly address the students’ needs. Ensuring school psychologists’ time is devoted to activities that will make the most significant difference for students, is crucial.
The same is true for other specialists (speech and language, occupational, or physical therapists; adaptive physical education teachers, and the many other professionals that serve students). The more time spent in inefficient ventures, the less time they have to provide important services to students.
I want to clarify: I am, in no way, suggesting that spending time at IEP meetings is a waste of time. On the contrary, these meetings can be a wonderfully collaborative and efficient way to bring families and professionals together to create a learning environment that will support a highly successful generation of young people who have the skills, knowledge, and experience, to contribute to the workforce and become productive members of society. This is what IEP meetings are designed for, and, if run efficiently, are likely to regenerate every dollar spent by creating successful young men and women who give back to society and their communities in a multitude of ways.
So what is contributing to the inefficiency of these meetings? Here are my observations:
1) Teachers, school administrators, and other members of the IEP team are rarely taught the special education laws by which they must abide. Most districts I’ve encountered school their personnel on district policies (which, in writing, are typically aligned with the laws, but which, in reality, are not enacted as such), but not the actual laws they are bound to uphold. This can result in school professionals arguing against the very thing they are obligated to provide, and causes delays in obtaining the services or placement that will best meet the students’ needs. Additional time and meetings (which are associated with extra costs) are often the result. It’s not fair to the school professionals (who are in this field because they want to help children) to keep them in the dark and not provide them with an understanding of the laws they are required to implement.
2) Ineffective district policies requiring school professionals to “jump through hoops” and follow protocols that prolong the IEP process and make it extremely tedious. These policies can effectively remove the school professionals’ power to make decisions, require additional time and resources that are not legally required to make such decisions, and emasculate the very people who work with the students on a daily basis. Decisions are delayed and made by personnel who have no real understanding of the student and are therefore more likely to be ineffective and cause disagreements (which, in turn, take more time and money to resolve).
3) People get stuck in the mantra “this is how we do it”. The mindset of “This is how we’ve always done it, therefore this is the only way we will do it”, is a very dangerous way of operating. Being unwilling to open to new ideas and truly listen to suggestions and recommendations from other perspectives, precludes collaboration. IEPs, by design, are purposefully structured to be collaborative meetings. If we’re not able to get past the past (i.e. “this is how we’ve always done it”) and actually focus on the future (i.e. “what does this student need to be successful?”), there will be constant and persistent battles that fixate on status quo, rather than on the individual needs of the child.
The positive side is that all three of these issues are easy to solve.
1) Train school professionals in education and special education laws.
2) Ensure district policies are aligned with special education laws – in print and in practice.
3) Be open to new ideas and to seeing things from new perspectives. (Isn’t this what we want to teach our children?)
By making these three simple changes, we can decrease the length of IEP meetings (ensuring teachers and other school professionals are not away from their students more than necessary; thereby reducing the cost associated with substitute teachers who cover their classes during these times), facilitate more agreements (which reduces costs associated with additional meetings, as well as the costs of attorneys when disagreements are fought in court), and encourage a collaborative, thoughtful environment geared toward supporting students (isn’t this the goal of education?).
All of this, accomplished in an efficient manner, ensures special education funds are being spent on funding special education services that make a significant and important impact on the future of our children and our society.