As a teacher who has worked in several special education settings since 2004, two major issues stand out. The most pressing matters I have encountered include contention over the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) in regard to how it affects students with disabilities, as well as the cumbersome referral process.
As part of testing required by the No Child Left Behind Act, an anonymous local school district (not mine) mandated a former colleague to administer a modified version of the High School Proficiency Exam (HSPE) to an eighteen-year-old student, "Lucia" with developmental delays. According to my teacher friend, the district required her to rewrite grade-level test and content area questions to assess Lucia. My colleague did not administer the test with glee, as Lucia performs academically on a first/second grade level and has severe speech delays. How is it possible to test a student on twelfth grade level content when she performs academically on a primary grade level? Is that an accurate measure of data?
Instead of spending hours creating the test, assessing Lucia, and conjuring voodoo data, would not time, efforts, and educational dollars be better spent on teaching the student important and meaningful life skills, and assessing her on information that is important and pertinent for Lucia as an individual?
The referral process for students to be evaluated for special education services is daunting to navigate. Parents and guardians have told me horror stories of advocating for their children. They have recounted woeful tales where their efforts were met with hostility and incompetence on the part of the schools. For example, last year I tutored a middle school student with dyslexia in language arts and executive functioning. Previously the girl, "Lulu," had attended a nonpublic school for students with learning disabilities. This was her first year in public school. Lulu's grandmother, a feisty retired attorney, contacted various parties at the school in vain attempts to facilitate special services for Lulu. Finally, she researched special education law, whipped up the requisite written documents, and the school stopped dragging their feet. On one of the documents for the initial child study meeting, the teacher indicated that Lulu's dyslexia was due to vision problems! Earlier this school year, I heard Lulu was skipping class on a regular basis.
I personally witnessed resistance to referring students for evaluation when I taught third grade in California. Teachers were overtly discouraged from initiating referrals of students, and the principal limited us to referring two students per month. In a child study meeting, the principal poo-pooed a student's difficulty with decoding one-syllable words as an "ELL processing issue." If it were an ELL issue, he would have been able to decode just fine in Spanish, his native language. During the meeting, she encouraged several teachers to watch student's behavior and learning and then take action if the children continued to struggle.
Since it is common knowledge that early intervention is vital, then why wait? So many students drop out and languish in our school systems because of this wishy-washy wait-and-see attitude. If the aforementioned public school districts were hospitals, students would be bleeding to death in epidemic numbers. If your school were a hospital, what would it look like? Would the patients be dead?