Silence is Not Golden
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It is my opinion that abuses and inadequacies exist in many special education programs across the nation. Ultimately children are the victims. Disclosure of these abuses to parents is the best means for their correction, for there is one thing that a school district fears above all- a costly law suit- a law suit that dissolves any perceived savings from putting forth an inferior program that does not address the needs of children. All to often school districts view parents of learning disabled children as un-empowered, weak and unaware of their rights. It is time to end the silence.

All children with disabilities are to be educated to the "maximum extent" with children who do not have disabilities. -Federal Law I.D.E.A. Sec. 612.5 (A)

"The ultimate tragedy is not the oppression and cruelty by the bad people but the silence over that by the good people"  - Martin Luther King

"Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that his deeds will be exposed. But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what he has done has been done through God." -The Gospel of John, Chapter 3, verses 20 & 21.

In my second year of teaching in 1997, I was asked to be the Resource Specialist Teacher for a 600 student elementary school in one of California's wealthiest school districts. The Resource Specialist Program (RSP) is part of the Special Education program offered by a school. It is designed to provide targeted, specially designed instruction, in accordance with an Individualized Education Plan, to meet the needs of children that have learning disabilities. The RSP teacher, working in cooperation with the parents, regular classroom teacher, school psychologist, counselor, principal and others, helps foster a supportive environment that is supposed to meet the needs of the whole child and help him or her deal not only with academic issues, but also issues of self-esteem, social interaction and behavior that bear upon the ability to learn and be successful in school.

While inexperienced at the position, it was felt my experience in business, overall intellectual abilities and educational background, would enable me to be a successful RSP teacher. And, I was successful in my position. In the words of my Principal:

"With no prior training in the Special Education field, Lowell was able to successfully operate a demanding, yet effective RSP program that grew to over 36 students, two instructional assistants and required assessment of over one hundred students."

While the Principal may have found the program effective, each 14+ hour work day was a personal struggle to deliver creative, properly tailored instruction to my students and achieve measurable results in their academic growth. 

Why was this the case? So much more could have been accomplished than was.

First let me tell you what was not causing the problem:

  1. My students were bright, hard working and for the most part well behaved and ready to learn.
  2. The regular classroom teachers, were mostly caring and competent.
  3. The Principal was personally encouraging and concerned about students.
  4. My instructional aides were competent and caring.
  5. I had suitable textbooks and other teaching materials. The school had superb computer resources.

The RSP teacher has a very special obligation to his or her students and their parents. Every minute that a child is removed (pulled out) from their regular classroom for small group instruction potentially takes away from that child's ability to compete successfully in that classroom. It is therefore critical that if a child is pulled out from his classroom for special instruction, that instruction be of the highest quality and provide the means for the child to be more successful in the regular classroom. If this is not the case, then a child's academic progress may actually be hampered by participation in the RSP program. In fact, simple removal from the regular classroom, even for one hour per day, can adversely effect the child's self-esteem and result in ridicule by peers and even adults. For example, despite the best efforts of staff, non-RSP students often joked that RSP meant Real Stupid People! Children, like adults, can be cruel and ignorant- all at the same time. 

So given the above, why do I feel that there were significant barriers that prevented my aides and I from delivering the most effective instruction?
  1. A caseload (number of students), that throughout the school year was well above the legal caseload limit in California of twenty-eight students per RSP teacher. My caseload generally hovered around thirty-six. Note: Twenty-eight is the legal limit, not the desired or ideal number of students per RSP teacher. Further, all of my students were seen for a minimum of one hour per day, some for as many as two hours per day. 
  2. For most of the year, to address the needs of thirty-six  students, I was given only one instructional assistant who worked four hours per day.
  3. I taught in an extremely noisy and distracting room environment that at times required students and staff to literally shout to be heard. This environment was not created by any group of RSP students, but rather by noise from the adjacent school library and four surrounding classrooms. 
  4. An internal school policy resulted in an excessive number of students being academically screened and tested by the RSP teacher (over one-sixth of the student population!), in lieu of regular classroom instructional modifications. Parents were not invited to the screening meetings where the decision to formally test was made. 
  5. A teaching schedule so demanding, that it was impossible for me to even take a ten minute "lunch" break, without compromising the instructional needs of my students. Despite my best efforts, there were, on occasion, 20+ students and multiple grade levels within the RSP room during a given time period. And of course, as in the regular classroom, within the grade levels there was significant variation in abilities and academic need.
  6. Even though I was new to the RSP position, I was given only one two day Special Education related instructional course during the school year. I requested training in Project Read and other VAKT (Visual, Auditory, Kinesthetic and Tactile) programs, but my requests, not surprisingly, were ignored- as were my written pleas for additional instructional aides, etc.

Besides adversely effecting instructional effectiveness, a partial result of items (1)-(6) included:

bullet The long and sometimes stressful hours compromised my health and general well being. 
bullet Because at times my job resulted in the "physical impossibility" of completing certain tasks, I had to make difficult choices on whether to test new students or deliver quality and timely instruction on a given day. I often choose the later and because my paperwork was not always timely (though it was quite thorough), I was ridiculed and professionally attacked by the school psychologist, often in front of staff and parents. In my opinion, her verbally abusive behaviors were also caused by deep-seated insecurity stemming from her own substandard job performance. She exhibited behaviors such as: (1) Blaming/shifting responsibility for behavior; (2) Lying /fragmentation (appearing one way, but actually acting another way behind closed doors); (3) Assuming knowledge of what others were thinking; (4) Acting as if "above the rules" (including flouting state regulations regarding special education); (5) Promoting disharmony with others; (6) Vagueness and making frequent excuses for tardiness; (7) Power plays, including refusing to talk, walking out of a room while the other person is speaking, etc; and (8) Self-glorifying behavior/exhibiting a false sense of superiority.
bullet Because of my caseload size, the school district decided to give me another instructional aide in early April. The offer was conditional on my signing a waiver, indicating that I could effectively handle a caseload of thirty-two with the additional aide. The day I signed the waiver my caseload exceeded thirty-two and the District Pupil Services staff knew it! Many District teachers, in similar situations, refused to sign the waiver out of "principle." After much reflection, I signed the waiver so that my students could receive the help they needed. I was fortunate to have hired a wonderful, bright and creative instructional aide, which greatly helped me in the remaining three months of the school year. I had her work intensely, often one on one, with those students having the greatest needs.

What happened to me is only a microcosm of what goes on throughout the country in RSP Special Education Programs. In addition to poor teaching conditions and excessive caseloads, pressures are put on programs that result in inferior instruction, incorrect student placements, lack of teacher accountability for student progress, etc. 

Parents must take an active role, not only during the IEP meeting were a child's instructional program is discussed, but also in the day to day workings of the school's programs. Parents should have a legal right to know, for example, if their child's RSP program is over the legal caseload limit, or if conditions for learning are not optimal. We need to insure that parents are informed. Parents need to understand that Special Education services, even under the best possible conditions, are not a magic bullet. Pullout programs need to be very carefully evaluated for effectiveness. Teachers should never be put in a position of jeopardizing their own health for the well being of their students. An excellent information resource for parents, students and professionals that deal with Special Education issues is the LD Online web site.

Many parents gave me glowing letters of recommendation for my work with their children. Those that volunteered in my classroom, and observed what I was doing, were particularly appreciative. In some cases, children made astounding progress working with me, though I certainly can not claim all the credit for this. My regret is how many more could have made such progress under better conditions. I tried to impart to my children a belief in themselves, specific learning strategies, and an understanding of their multiple intelligences. This was not always easy, since years of conditioning by peers, teachers and even parents have often made these children feel marginalized and plain "not smart." I used all of my creative energies to insure that they realized how bright and capable they truly were. Yet how fragile is the realization and how easily broken. 

: I left the school, I referred to above, after the experiences I had that year. For the following school year the school added two more staff members to the RSP program. One, an experienced and credentialed RSP teacher, left the position shortly after starting, complaining about "too much paperwork." Some felt that one of the reasons the School District maintained adequate staffing for the subsequent school year is that they would be undergoing a Coordinated State Compliance Review (CCR) and didn't want any "trouble." After repeated parent complaints they also moved the RSP Program to a larger and much quieter area. 

Update: This essay was forwarded by the California Assistant Superintendent and Director of the School and District Accountability Division to the Manager of the CCR Process on 4/11/00. She has not replied.

Update: 8/2008: "The California State Budget - or I should say lack thereof - has rendered even more serious damage to the SPED system by increasing class sizes yet even more and laying off teachers. Parents of SPED kids should be lobbying and protesting in Sacramento and D.C. EVERY HOUR OF EVERY DAY!" Forget the abuse of teachers! The kids are the ones suffering the most from ""the system,"" particularly since No Child Left Behind - RSP Special Education Teacher, California Public Schools.


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