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Why Inclusion Is Failing NYC’S
Special Education Students

By on March 23, 2014

Out of the 1.1 million students in NYC’s public school system, 160,000 receive some kind of special education services, and enrollment is on the rise. Because those students need additional services, the cost of educating them is at least double of the cost for regular students. Those who pick up the tab—federal, state and local governments–may as well throw the money down the drain in the case of many special education students in New York City.

As the federal law states, each special education student is entitled to free and appropriate education (FAPE), in the least restrictive environment (LRE). The least restrictive environment is a classroom where all students, regardless of their abilities, learn together, with extra support services. However, what if the extra support services—special education teachers—don’t provide the students with the support they need?

The recent trend in the world of special education is Integrated Co-teaching, which, along the lines of LRE, welcomes students with special needs, up to forty percent of them, into a general education setting. The difference between this classroom and a regular general education one is that there are two teachers: one certified in their content area, and the other one certified in special education.

When integrated into a regular classroom, a process known as mainstreaming, students with disabilities benefit both academically and socially. Or at least they do so in theory.

I was a special education teacher in New York City’s public school system. I co-taught five subjects across five different content areas in two different high schools in Manhattan. Realistically speaking, I was a teacher’s assistant.

I had become a special education teacher to teach literacy skills to those in need. Many special education students in high school read at sixth, or even fourth, grade level. At my initial job interviews with school principals, I stated I would not teach subjects I had no expertise in and no passion for, such as science and math. English and Social Studies were my areas of preference. As a published short story writer and a journalist, I knew I would be especially effective in raising the students’ reading and writing skills.

My first year I co-taught Chemistry, Economics, Living Environment, US History, and Global History. The following year, I accepted a job offer at a different high school because the principal assured me that I would be partnered with English and Social Studies teachers. On the first day of school, the same principal called me into her office and said that due to a scheduling miscommunication, I would be teaching math and science.

Content area teachers make the same money as special education teachers. The salary of a first-year teacher with a master’s degree is $51.000. The government, as well as the taxpayers, would be better of replacing special education teachers like myself with teacher’s assistants who earn nearly half less than teachers. True, teacher’s assistants are not officially certified in special education, but they are trained to do exactly what I did and what many special education teachers do—provide general emotional and academic assistance in the classroom without an expertise in any given content area.

Teachers who don’t feel successful at what they do quit. The high teacher turnover also decreases student performance. Before I quit, I confronted my assistant principal. I told him that my knowledge of math and science was not sufficient to provide my students with the extra support services they were legally entitled to. One has to know the content inside out to modify it, I argued. The AP’s suggestion was this: meet with your co-teachers once a week and have them teach you one of the lessons for the following week. Then teach the lesson to the entire class.

Last year, only thirty percent of NYC’s special education students graduated from high school. Allocating teachers and money more effectively would be a logical effort to increase the rate. There must be a better way to serve special education students than to place them into classes where special education teachers need to be tutored before they can stand in front of the students. Not to mention the general education teachers who should tutor struggling students, not their colleagues. In the city’s effort to mainstream all special education students into regular schools the progress of moving away from segregated classrooms is undeniable. But if special education teachers are not required to obtain an additional certification in one content area, and if, in the interim, the administrators continue to discredit their special education teachers’ previous education and work experience and place them into disciplines they cannot and should not teach, the progress will soon be lost.

 By Ewa Bronowicz