Opinion

Two key predictions around special education for 2022

Vector isometric scene with large books, glasses, letter a and people reading
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Experts at Understood, a prominent organization in the neurodiversity community whose mission is to help those who learn and think differently discover their potential, have made two key predictions around Special Education in America for 2022. Not surprisingly, these predictions speak directly to the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on public schools, their teachers and students and on student outcomes.

Prediction #1: A record-breaking number of special education evaluations will be completed for students without disabilities or learning and thinking differences.

A study by McKinsey & Company in December 2020 compared Fall 2019 and Fall 2020 testing data. It found that students learned only 67 percent of the math and 87 percent of the reading that they typically would have learned, translating to a three-month loss in learning in math and one and a half months in reading. These losses have only extended and deepened over 2021, particularly for students of color.

Considering that an academic “catch up” period is not a realistic expectation under the circumstances, most schools and students are simply trying to maintain current learning levels. As such, there may very well be a huge push for special education evaluations for students who do not have a disability or learning/thinking difference but who are behind academically because of interrupted learning: students whose grades are not what they had been, whose test scores fell short, or who have been exhibiting challenging behaviors. Though it may seem that these kinds of challenges are indicative of a learning and thinking difference, they may instead reflect the impacts of the pandemic on general education students.

Consequently, additional problems will arise for those with disabilities or learning and thinking differences. As it is, a significant shortage of special education teachers already exists, as well as a backlog for evaluations and compensatory services needed for students who have had to cope without them since the pandemic hit. New York City, home to the largest public school system in the United States, is dealing with a special education backlog that was up 30 percent in November 2021 over November 2020. If schools use their already-stretched-thin special education resources for students without disabilities, 2022 will see a special education shortage of sizable proportions, adversely affecting students with learning and thinking differences.

Every family is entitled to request an evaluation for their child. Nonetheless, if a crisis involving special education resource exhaustion is to be averted, it will make good sense for schools to remind parents that inadequate instruction is a disqualifying consideration for special education eligibility under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Rather, parents can request supports based on response to intervention (RTI) and multitiered systems of supports (MTSS) in general education. Schools should create or expand such programs to meet the anticipated increase in demand. While RTI/MTSS approaches to supporting students and working on challenges should never be used to circumvent a family’s right to request an evaluation, these approaches could provide families and schools with valuable information as they assess the impact of pandemic-related disruptions on learning.

Lastly, families should ask schools to review pre-pandemic records and work samples to look for patterns in performance. Such an analysis could shed light on whether current challenges may have existed or may have begun to emerge prior to the pandemic. These patterns would suggest whether an evaluation is warranted.

Prediction #2: If schools don’t prioritize teachers’ mental health, the achievement gap will widen dramatically for students with learning and thinking differences.

Nearly half of public school teachers who quit their jobs after February 2020 did so because of pandemic-related challenges, including working longer hours and navigating the remote environment. Special education teachers have been leaving the field at almost double the rate of general education teachers, often due to stress, low pay, and risks to their own physical health. According to research by Understood and the National Center for Learning Disabilities, 58 percent of current teachers report burnout. The percentage is even higher for teachers who work with students with learning and thinking differences. 

Teachers’ mental well-being directly affects students’ academic, mental and social well-being. This is particularly true of special education students. If schools and communities don’t prioritize teachers’ mental health, 2022 will, in all likelihood, bring about a second wave of teacher resignations. Students with Individualized Education Programs (IEP’s), 504 Plans and special needs will be hurt the most.

More co-teaching opportunities may be one way to address teacher burnout and mental health issues. They would allow teachers to learn from, lean on and share responsibility with each other. States and school administrators could consider alternate pathways to certification, particularly in districts facing teacher shortages, enabling them to hire more teachers than they otherwise would, which in turn would enable more co-teaching. For example, new types of streamlined training programs and support systems could be introduced for paraprofessionals and others who already possess relevant skill sets and experience. In reducing the existing financial, educational and time commitments which the standard teacher certification process entails, such programs may succeed at recruiting increasing numbers of people who are interested in teaching but feel as though the current requirements are problematic.    

I can understand why at least some would be leery of approaches to teacher certification which deviate from the long-standing college-to-classroom paradigm. Nonetheless, the mental health, burnout and resignation rates of our teachers matter a great deal and carry serious consequences, particularly for special education programs, and arguably warrant creative solutions. Given the unique challenges the pandemic has imposed upon schools and all that is at stake for teachers and students in the event that these challenges are not alleviated soon, 2022 may see the implementation of the mitigating strategies Understood has proposed, or similar measures. As such, now would be a good time for those in decision-making positions in education to think “outside the box” when charting an optimistic and empathetic way forward for our schools.

Sam Farmer wears many hats, among these father, husband, musician, computer consultant, and autism spectrum community contributor. Diagnosed later in life with Asperger’s Syndrome, he writes blogs and articles, records coaching videos, and presents at conferences, sharing stories, ideas, and insights as to how one can achieve greater happiness and success in life despite facing challenges and adversity that often interfere in these pursuits. To learn more, visit samfarmerauthor.com.

“A Long Walk Down a Winding Road: Small Steps, Challenges, & Triumphs Through an Autistic Lens” is available on Amazon and can be purchased at all major booksellers.