Iowa's special education proposals draw criticism, praise

Some concerned changes will have effect students' preparation for college, life

Special education teacher Holly Reeder helps a student prepare for an upcoming math test at Hiawatha Elementary in Hiawa
Special education teacher Holly Reeder helps a student prepare for an upcoming math test at Hiawatha Elementary in Hiawatha. (Cliff Jette/The Gazette-KCRG TV9)

On occasion, “great” teachers apply for special education positions in the Cedar Rapids Community School District and get passed over because their licenses don’t match the district’s specific needs.

But if the Iowa Board of Educational Examiners changes requirements around special education teaching endorsements in Iowa, that might happen less, said Sheila Lehman, executive director of special services for the Cedar Rapids school district.

“As a district, we then would have some of the reigns loosened on who we can hire, as far as the license goes,” said Lehman. “And I think that’s marvelous.”

Some academics in Iowa feel changing the state’s special education endorsement structure could, among other things, address concerns of shortages in the profession. But others have expressed concern about what changes might mean for students, parents and teachers.

“This is high stakes,” said Patricia Carlson, association professor of education at Iowa State University. “This is as high stakes as we can get. We are messing with the lives of young children who have disabilities.”

Iowa currently has special education endorsement categories for teachers-to-be that are specific to grade level and disability severity and type. The Iowa Board of Educational Examiners is considering two options that would consolidate those categories.

Instead of endorsements broken down by grade level for mild to moderate disabilities, behavior or learning disabilities, mental disabilities and physical disabilities, the first option would consolidate endorsements into categories for kindergarten through eighth-grade students with mild to moderate disabilities, fifth- to 12th-grade students with mild to moderate disabilities and kindergarten to 12th-grade students with moderate to severe disabilities.

That option would include opportunities for teachers to receive specialized training for specific disabilities – like autism. But a specialization would not be required for an endorsement or assignment within a school district.

The second option would consolidate the current endorsements into one “giant” kindergarten through 12th-grade special education endorsement that allows instruction for all students with all types of disabilities. That option also would allow for specialization by disability category.

‘It makes us really nervous’

Carlson said she thinks maintaining separate classification for special education instruction is necessary to ensure teachers are adequately prepared to address specific student needs. Students with mild learning disabilities, for example, have starkly different needs than those with severe behavior disorders.

One student with more significant disabilities might be focused on learning to live independently, cook, clean, maintain a job or use a checking account.

“And we have kids with mild to moderate disabilities where there is no reason they can’t go to college,” Carlson said. “How can a teacher help a kid go to college and also help a kid learn to just survive on his own? There is a huge difference.”

Mixing the students more often also might pose challenges – as one person’s behavior might interfere with another student’s ability to learn new skills.

“I’m not sure I want a student with an intellectual disability in with a child with anger issues,” she said. “There are safety issues.”

And what if a teacher only feels comfortable working with specific types of disabilities? As a special education teacher herself, Carlson said, she only felt comfortable working with students with learning or behavioral disabilities – not cognitive or intellectual issues.

If the state moves to a broader endorsement system, teachers could end up working with children they don’t feel comfortable instructing, Carlson said.

“There is a chance I will work with children I don’t want to work with,” she said.

From an instructional standpoint, Carlson said, she and several ISU colleagues don’t believe they can properly prepare students in just two to three years for all types of disabilities and ages.

“It makes us really nervous,” she said. “We just don’t think it’s going to happen.”

Carlson and three other ISU faculty members have sent a letter to the Board of Educational Examiners outlining their concerns. Carl Smith, an ISU education professor focused in special education, said he thinks Iowa’s special education teachers – under a revised endorsement structure – will struggle to meet expectations of most educational reform efforts, including the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

“In my opinion, it sets up teachers for failure,” Smith said. “And, more importantly, it has serious implications regarding the services for children and their families.”

Smith said the proposed changes are a “significant departure from how we talk about teacher preparation in Iowa.” And, after spending 40 working in special education, Smith said this change could drive him from the field.

“I’m not one who is going around crying the sky is falling,” he said. “But, quite frankly, I would consider whether I would continue to participate in the preparation of teachers, knowing the range of situations they would have to go into. That’s how strongly I feel about it.”

Something needs to change

The Iowa Board of Educational Examiners decided to review the issue of special education endorsements last year based on feedback from stakeholders who felt it might be time for a change.

“We try to keep our rules in line with what is going on out in the field and take a look at issues like shortages,” said Duane Magee, executive director for the board.

Endorsement reviews – like the one underway for special education – are common and involved work groups convened to come up with recommendations, Magee said. The group charged with reviewing the state’s special education endorsements came back with two options last summer that board members now are weighing.

Magee said the board plans to have a larger discussion on the topic in June, looking both at the proposed options and the driving factors – like a well-publicized special education teacher shortage nationally and in some parts of Iowa.

“If a teacher could come in and work in a special education classroom and work with all the students, that would provide a certain level of flexibility to administrators locally,” Magee said.

Lehman, with the Cedar Rapids school district, said that type of flexibility would be welcome in the schools she oversees. Right now, she said, administrators looking to fill a job working with a specific type of student have to consider only applicants with the right type of endorsement.

“Instead of putting teachers in categories … I could look at the whole pool,” Lehman said. “But I think the districts that would really appreciate this greatly are the rural districts with fewer special education teachers.”

According to the Board of Educational Examiners, both endorsement options also attempt to address the non-categorical delivery model of special education that is becoming the norm in Iowa. Lehman said, more and more, students with disabilities are being taught in a general education setting as well as a separate classroom environment.

“Our system of how we teach kids is not categorically based,” she said. “And yet we have our licensures at odds with how we structure our program. To get those in alignment would be a positive thing.”

Lehman said she thinks the proposed options address concerns about specific training by offering areas of specialization within each endorsement.

“I think it’s the best of both worlds,” she said. “It opens us up to having a larger applicant pool, but you also can hone in on your area of specialization.”

John Hosp, professor of education for the University of Iowa and co-director of the Center for Disability Research and Education, said he agrees that Iowa needs to better match special education teacher licenses with programming in the schools.

“And that’s my biggest concern,” he said, “making sure we can provide teachers the training and certification that will be most useful for schools.”

Hosp said he thinks the two proposals before the board are good options, conceding that finding a common ground is not easy. Chris Curran, associate professor of special education for the University of Northern Iowa, said there is no simple way to meet everyone’s needs.

But something needs to change.

“I think it’s time,” Curran said. “Both nationally and in the State of Iowa, special educators have different roles than they did five years ago.” 

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