Credit: Jane Meredith Adams/EdSource
A mixed class of students, some with special needs, learn music in the Coronado Unified School District.

Special education in California is in “deep trouble,” exacerbated by outmoded concepts and an extreme shortage of fully-prepared teachers, according to Michael Kirst, president of the California State Board of Education.

Kirst said that the state’s special education system – which serves students with physical, cognitive and learning disabilities – is based on an antiquated model and that it needs “another look.”

“Someone needs to sit up and say, ‘We need to update it,'” he said.

Just over 1 in 10 of California’s 6.2 million public school students are in special education programs, at an annual cost of upwards of $12 billion in federal, state and local funds.  The number of special education students — along with the costs — has been rising in recent years.  But the proportion of special education students varies tremendously among counties — from a low of 7.2 percent in Inyo County to a high of 16 percent in Humboldt County, according to 2015 KidsData figures.

The system is rooted “in a set of ideas from the 1970s, based heavily on legal negotiations and legal rights,” Kirst said, referring to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, or IDEA, the principal federal law governing the field that was first approved by Congress in 1975.  He likened IDEA to California’s 1960 Master Plan for Higher Education, which Kirst said also needs a makeover.

Compounding the challenge is the special education teacher shortage, which Kirst said is “the most extreme one we have.” Districts are “scrambling to find people,” he added.

Kirst was speaking at EdSource’s annual symposium in Oakland last week, where he received the organization’s first “Education Champion” award for his contributions to California education over nearly 50 years.

Michael Kirst

Michael Kirst

Kirst was first appointed president of the California State Board of Education in 1977 during Gov. Jerry Brown’s first term in office. When Brown became governor once again in 2010, he appointed Kirst a second time to the State Board of Education, and he has been president of the board throughout Brown’s current tenure.

When he resumed his post on the state board after a 30-year interregnum, Kirst said reform of special education was on his “bucket list” of things to do.

“But that hasn’t happened in a serious way,” he said.  Kirst helped to initiate the Statewide Special Education Task Force that produced a report in 2015 with multiple recommendations for change, including creating a “culture of collaboration and coordination” across numerous state agencies, and giving school districts more control over special education funds.

Kirst said the task force “did a lot of good work,” but he expressed disappointment that not more progress has been made during his tenure.

Echoing Kirst’s remarks, Miriam Freedman, an attorney specializing in special education law and author of Special Education 2.0: Breaking Taboos to Build a New Education Law, said:  “The IDEA law did a fabulous job to bring educational opportunity to all children, but it needs a redo to see if it is serving our children and our schools now.”

She said the law was written principally with children who had cognitive impairments and physical disabilities in mind, but currently large numbers of children in special education have learning disabilities.  A major problem, Freedman said, is that often these children “only get served after they fail.”  “This is a ‘way to fail’ model,” she said. “Children don’t get services until they do poorly in school.”

Kristen Wright, director of the California Department of Education’s Special Education Division, said students with learning difficulties ideally would be identified before they are identified as failing, and as early as preschool, and then taught alongside other students instead of being isolated into special programs.

Carl Cohn, executive director of the California Collaborative for Educational Excellence, commended Kirst, along with Learning Policy Institute president Linda Darling-Hammond, for elevating the discussion on special education to “making  it a moral imperative to do the right thing.”

Cohn, who co-chaired the special education task force, said that special education changes cannot be isolated from reform of the regular education system.  “It is a heavy lift,” he said. “The type of changes that have to take place require major retraining of teachers in regular classrooms,” he said. That’s because large numbers of special education students will likely spend time in those classes, and often teachers there don’t have the training to work with children with special needs.

Kirst described the need for fully prepared special education teachers as “desperate.” California has had a persistent shortage over many years, but according to the Learning Policy Institute, the shortage has skyrocketed over the past two years.  To respond to the demand, “we created shortterm, quick programs that didn’t spend enough time on how to help train special ed teachers,” Kirst said.

He praised the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing, which is chaired by Darling-Hammond, for remedying that and upgrading the standards for a special ed credential. But now “it takes a long time to get the credential, and it is also expensive.”  He said it wasn’t clear that the rewards of the job are sufficient to attract and, importantly, retain teachers to the field.

Matthew Navo, superintendent of Sanger Unified near Fresno, who was a member of the special education task force, agreed that recruiting special ed teachers has become hugely challenging, and is likely to become even more so.

Classrooms are increasingly staffed with teachers who are interns or who have provisional permits, he said. “We are begging teachers to go into the (special ed) classroom,” he said.  In fact, according to the Learning Policy Institute, “new, under-prepared special education teachers outnumber those who are fully prepared 2:1,” a higher ratio than any other major teaching field.

Some teachers leave the field because of the bureaucratic burdens on teachers to meet the requirements of special education laws.  “You get into it to work with kids with special needs and make a difference in their lives, but now 60 percent of your time is managing their paperwork,” Navo said.

The shortage is “killing us in rural school districts with under 2,500 kids that require some effort to commute to and are not able to keep up with salary increases in larger districts,” Navo said.  But he said the shortage will be felt across the state. “In the next two years, it’s not going to matter where you are.”

Vicki Barber, the co-executive director of the Statewide Special Education Task Force, said she was encouraged by the fact that education leaders have endorsed the task force’s recommendations, outlined in its report titled  One System:  Reforming Education to Serve All Students. But she acknowledged the difficulties of reforming a complex system, especially at the school level. “You don’t move an entire program  just because a report has been written, even with the best ideas,” she said.

Having issued its report, the task force has been disbanded.  The action on a state level has moved to the Advisory Commission on Special Education, appointed by legislative leaders, Gov. Brown and the State Board of Education. Gina Plate, the commission’s chair, applauded Kirst for “shining a light on special education and moving us toward conversations that might not otherwise have happened.”

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  1. lenne 2 days ago2 days ago

    Thank you for the post, please help save us SpEd teachers!

  2. Don 6 days ago6 days ago

    In this article the reporters repeatedly refer to outmoded concepts and laws. What specifically is outmoded besides more students identified as learning disabled compared to time when the laws were written? I'd like some specifics because it is a good subject for an article. As a parent of a SPED student I can testify to the fact that the current system is cumbersome and legalistic as some have alluded to in the article. … Read More

    In this article the reporters repeatedly refer to outmoded concepts and laws. What specifically is outmoded besides more students identified as learning disabled compared to time when the laws were written? I’d like some specifics because it is a good subject for an article. As a parent of a SPED student I can testify to the fact that the current system is cumbersome and legalistic as some have alluded to in the article. Perhaps the reporters can provide more info in a follow up article.

  3. Anes 1 week ago1 week ago

    Many special education teachers are ready to work after their training, but too many tests like RICA that does not make sense in special education (IEP) for student. Too many tests (like RICA,the Reading Instruction Competence Assessment ) prevent these teachers from getting credential. CBEST and CSET should be enough.

  4. Amanda Drake 1 week ago1 week ago

    Universal Designs for Learning in the General Education Classroom is the only real remedy, but that would change the way we train ALL TEACHERS, not just Special Education Teachers. Currently it seems as if this mindset is a paradigm shift, most are not ready for. Many, sadly (out of fear) like their “us & them” separation of general and special education. The truth is, there needs to be no separation… Just my 2¢…

  5. Barry Stern 1 week ago1 week ago

    The educational system has failed our 17 yr. old daughter with autism for the reasons outlined in this article, particularly the lack of sufficiently trained instructors and the incredibly bureaucratic nature of the school enterprise. We are scrambling financially to become able to care for her as she becomes an adult. Special ed needs a serious makeover. My recent op-ed calls for breaking off the diagnostic, prescription (IEP) and fund allocation functions from the … Read More

    The educational system has failed our 17 yr. old daughter with autism for the reasons outlined in this article, particularly the lack of sufficiently trained instructors and the incredibly bureaucratic nature of the school enterprise. We are scrambling financially to become able to care for her as she becomes an adult. Special ed needs a serious makeover. My recent op-ed calls for breaking off the diagnostic, prescription (IEP) and fund allocation functions from the filling the prescription function. Schools currently do it all, and they cheat like hell to keep costs down, or they misuse the funds. http://www.educationviews.org/increase-federal-special-education-funding-parental-choice/.

  6. Saea 1 week ago1 week ago

    I don't mind the paperwork or the time or the kids or their parents or... what I DO mind are administrators who know NOTHING about Special Education or the law, or who are hellbent on "putting parents in their place," as one admin has said, then coming to my IEP meetings antagonistic and confrontational, only to undermine & blame ME for those parents exercising their rights to advocate for their kids. I'm … Read More

    I don’t mind the paperwork or the time or the kids or their parents or… what I DO mind are administrators who know NOTHING about Special Education or the law, or who are hellbent on “putting parents in their place,” as one admin has said, then coming to my IEP meetings antagonistic and confrontational, only to undermine & blame ME for those parents exercising their rights to advocate for their kids. I’m they’re for “my kids” and their families who are often confused, worried, or unknowledgeable about their rights. Administrators make my job nearly impossible to do 🙁

  7. Raoul 1 week ago1 week ago

    What is there that a general ed teacher needs to know for a given grade level that a special ed teacher does not need to know? Logic and prior practice in CA suggest that a special ed teacher should get fully trained and certified as a general ed teacher, and receive additional specialist training and certification also. Much like a specialist physician getting trained first in the essentials of general medicine and … Read More

    What is there that a general ed teacher needs to know for a given grade level that a special ed teacher does not need to know? Logic and prior practice in CA suggest that a special ed teacher should get fully trained and certified as a general ed teacher, and receive additional specialist training and certification also. Much like a specialist physician getting trained first in the essentials of general medicine and then receiving more years of specialty training.

    The problem is that current practices and union negotiated contracts will not permit such extensively trained and specialized teachers to be paid significantly more than teachers possessed of minimal general credentials. So who would pay and sacrifice for the additional training when the pay is no more? We could quickly create a shortage of qualified neurosurgeons, who must complete a seven year residency, if we had rules allowing them to be paid no more than general practice doctors who need only a three year training program. We could then wring our hands and talk up ideas on how to interest more doctors in neurosurgery, always avoiding the obvious subject of paying them more.

    Replies

    • Amy 7 days ago7 days ago

      It used to be that way (had to get a gen ed credential before you could get a special ed credential) That changed around 1998-99. But society needs to change and genera ed teachers perspective needs to change as well. Gen Ed and Special Ed teachers need to work together. There need to be better laws around a Special Ed teachers "extra" responsibilities because they are much more than the Gen Ed … Read More

      It used to be that way (had to get a gen ed credential before you could get a special ed credential) That changed around 1998-99. But society needs to change and genera ed teachers perspective needs to change as well. Gen Ed and Special Ed teachers need to work together. There need to be better laws around a Special Ed teachers “extra” responsibilities because they are much more than the Gen Ed teacher. With IEPs that go from 5pm-7pm at night. All the modifications needed for curriculum. And don’t forget teaching it self. Oh — and data collection on all the goals…..and the list goes on and on!

  8. Mchael Gerber 1 week ago1 week ago

    Prof. Kirst, Stanford policy academic and current California school board president, is a potent “influencer,” an insider despite his academic credentials, who thinks special education policy needs a remake. What gets mentioned, at least by the author of this article, is cost and numbers of children, special education teacher shortages, and some notion that the foundational ideas of IDEA are old-fashioned, “antiquated,” a residue of the 1970s. I agree that special education is expensive, … Read More

    Prof. Kirst, Stanford policy academic and current California school board president, is a potent “influencer,” an insider despite his academic credentials, who thinks special education policy needs a remake. What gets mentioned, at least by the author of this article, is cost and numbers of children, special education teacher shortages, and some notion that the foundational ideas of IDEA are old-fashioned, “antiquated,” a residue of the 1970s.

    I agree that special education is expensive, if you are comparing the price of apples versus the price of oranges. In the absence of human-replacing teaching machines, I can’t see how special education — which centers on necessary resources — could not be more expensive than general education. Of course, one could easily argue that too few resources are expended in general education.

    I’ll also agree that a lot of kids get special education, although California serves proportionally fewer than some much smaller states. But how do we understand how to interpret numbers without more information about need? The answer isn’t straightforward.

    Teacher shortages? I’m not sure what the argument is here? We don’t sufficiently support training or pay competitive salaries and so, what? We should remake special education so services match the inadequate available pool of teachers? Really?

    As for old-fashioned ideas, well yes, I agree the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment is old. “Antiquated”?

  9. BRITT FERGUSON 1 week ago1 week ago

    It was with great disappointment and sadness that I read your article. I’d like to comment on some issues you raise, please. I agree, it is likely that special education teachers are not fully prepared. Many work on “intern” credentials, meaning they are teaching having perhaps just started and definitely NOT having completed their teacher preparation. A number of years ago California changed credential requirements so that it is no longer required that … Read More

    It was with great disappointment and sadness that I read your article. I’d like to comment on some issues you raise, please.
    I agree, it is likely that special education teachers are not fully prepared. Many work on “intern” credentials, meaning they are teaching having perhaps just started and definitely NOT having completed their teacher preparation. A number of years ago California changed credential requirements so that it is no longer required that a special education teacher have a basic, general education credential (multiple or single subject). In short, they don’t have the gened basics of teaching. Given these two facts is it surprising that we are in “deep trouble”?
    If we look back out our history, IDEA was actually the re-authorized version of PL94-142 the Education for All Handicapped Children Act. Yes, the provision of education for individuals with disabilities was vastly improved because of the civil rights movement and ensuing legislation. However, the foundational principles remain a sound basis for the provision of services to children and youth with special needs – the principles of a free, appropriate public education, an individualized education plan, and an education delivered in the least restrictive environment.
    Perhaps it would be worthwhile to examine the reasons there are too few teachers in special education rather than try to solve a problem without understanding it. Ill prepared, too much paper work, insufficient support?
    The California Master Plan and PL94-142 were new when I started in education as a new special education teacher. At all times, all children with disabilities, including sensory and physical disabilities, cognitive impairments, and a rage of challenges we called “learning disabilities” were provided for. Yes, how and the quality to which they were provided for varied from district to district, as it does today.
    But, from the outset, it was always intended that the general education teacher modify and adapt in order for each child to succeed in their classroom, and only when such modifications and adaptations were not sufficient was special education to be considered. The old discrepancy formula was intended to identify students who were not able to achieve according to their potential but it relied heavily on intelligence testing. Response to Intervention and Multi-Tiered Systems of Support are now used to alleviate the need for intelligence testing and minimize the need for the child to fail before support can be provided.
    But herein lies the conundrum. How do we know that a child has a learning difficulty, especially as early as preschool, unless the child is trying but not succeeding at something (in other words “failing”)?
    This, indeed, is a commendable statement: “it is a moral imperative to do the right thing.” Regrettably “the right thing” can be a matter of opinion, albeit professional opinion, and definitions of “the right thing” vary among the professionals.
    As part of a continuum for the provision of services to students with special needs, the collaboration model where special and general education teachers work together in the classroom, such as by co-teaching, is so important. This model would is akin to practices in the field of medicine wherein the general practitioner and specialist doctors consult and work in unison for the benefit of their patient, an essential model because the generalist cannot be expected to have the advanced training and skills of every specialist in the field of medicine…or in education.
    You write, “To respond to the demand, “we created short–term, quick programs that didn’t spend enough time on how to help train special ed teachers,” Kirst said.” This is by far the most true statement in this article. What immediately comes to mind is the old saying, “Buy cheap, buy twice”.
    The adoption of the current TPEs is another issue. I wonder, is the state trying to compensate for teachers ill-prepared under the current practices? Compensate by micro-managing teacher preparation and requiring a lengthy (45 elements) laundry list of expectations which teacher preparation institutions are required to meet for the privilege of offering a CTC approved credential program? Perhaps relinquishing some control and allowing greater say to those who actually prepare teachers (universities and colleges) would result in better prepared teachers…something to think about.
    Let’s not focus on the length of time to acquire the credential or the expense of the education. If we are concerned about attrition, rather, let’s look at the context in which the new teacher is expected to perform. Does this environment support the Education Specialist in doing what he or she knows to be ethical and appropriate practices? Does administration provide sufficient time for general and special education teachers to co-plan and co-teach? Is there meaningful staff development for general education teachers each year, with support and follow-up? Does the school or, better yet, district adopt meaningful interventions and provide sustained, long-term support for faculty to master the requisite skills and apply them with students, or do we try to revise and reform every 2-5 years, throw out what we’ve been doing and start over? How do teacher feel about that?
    And where are the students in all of this? Taught by ill-prepared special education teachers? Sitting in a general education classes where many teachers do not know how to provide for their needs, don’t know where to go for help, and even if they do know where to go for help they may be not skilled at collaborating with the specialist? Are our students waiting for a political system to make political decisions while school continues to fail? In the same way that we want to give districts more control over funds, let’s give those who prepare teachers, the universities and colleges, more control over what to teach and how to prepare teachers. Trying to just cover (not master) 45 elements in the time frame expected of a credential program is not a solution.

  10. Sayitok 1 week ago1 week ago

    And what about the significant acrimony? Lawers, advocates, lawsuits… why would anyone want to face the meanness that can occur?

  11. Wayne sailor 1 week ago1 week ago

    Good article. We can help. Check out the CASUMS partnership work with the SWIFT Education Center and the Butte County Office of Education operated by the Orange County Department of Education.

  12. Ann 1 week ago1 week ago

    I am concerned that Mike and/or Edsource -both seem unlikely-seem unaware of the $30 million and 3-year Scaling up Multitiered systems of Support (SUMS) CA Dept Ed funded project based in Orange and Butte counties and working statewide - it received not even a mention in this article. It's been underway a year plus, addresses the old issue of 'waiting for kids to fail' and operationalizes both evidence-based practices and many of … Read More

    I am concerned that Mike and/or Edsource -both seem unlikely-seem unaware of the $30 million and 3-year Scaling up Multitiered systems of Support (SUMS) CA Dept Ed funded project based in Orange and Butte counties and working statewide – it received not even a mention in this article. It’s been underway a year plus, addresses the old issue of ‘waiting for kids to fail’ and operationalizes both evidence-based practices and many of the recommendations of the SPED state task force, for which I was the Ed Prep CoChair. CTC has already moved ahead with the new credentialing with new standards in MTSS for gen ed and CDE has funded SUMS, in collaboration with the SWIFT project. Progress is occurring. One thing we need is more on the teacher prep support end- Our decimated faculties at CSUs, from which I just retired, have not come near to being able to gear up with new positions- At CSUEB, they are still 2 tenure track faculty where we were 5 in sped in 2009-, and prospective teachers lack vehicles for support such as the CSUaple loan forgiveness program that the state also deleted in the recession. These areas need attention. Thank you for the article.

  13. Jonathan Raymond 1 week ago1 week ago

    I’ll never forget my first school year day as superintendent in Sacramento. After arriving at a school via bus and greeting parents and staff and children as I walked across the court yard, one parent grabbed my arm and encouraged me to go visit a certain classroom before I left. It was a special day class for children with autism. As I was leaving the classroom, I asked the teacher “do these children ever get … Read More

    I’ll never forget my first school year day as superintendent in Sacramento. After arriving at a school via bus and greeting parents and staff and children as I walked across the court yard, one parent grabbed my arm and encouraged me to go visit a certain classroom before I left. It was a special day class for children with autism. As I was leaving the classroom, I asked the teacher “do these children ever get out and mix with other students in the school?” “Oh no,” she replied. “My students couldn’t handle that.” Really, I thought. My own children’s experiences in school taught me differently, and as I visited each school in my first 90 days I always asked to go see the special day classes. With few exception what I saw were children isolated in a classroom with an over representation of boys and young men of color.
    And so we began a systemic effort to change this practice in Sacramento and move toward an inclusive practice model centered around special education teachers and regular education teachers co-teaching in the same classroom. How powerful when these teaches plan together and train together. When done well it’s difficult to dinstinguish between the two. At the heart of this work, like so much in education, are the belief systems of the adults doing this work. Do they believe children can learn and excel at the highest levels? Or, like that teacher I met on that first school day. A visit to California Middle School in Sacramento shows how such an approach is good for all children.

    Kudos to Professor Kirst! He is correct in saying the special education teaching and learning in California is in “deep trouble.” At this point it’s not about “shining a light.” We know what’s broken and we have models within and outside of California on what this teaching and learning could be. It’s now about leadership, priorities, and courage to take action and do what is right for children. How we respond will tell lots about how we value public education.

  14. Paula 1 week ago1 week ago

    There is a demand for qualified teachers, yet even special ed. teachers must follow a state mandated guideline for all students instead of an individual educational plan to address the unique needs of students. Why have highly qualified teachers if the purpose is to impose a general plan on students instead of an individual plan?

  15. CarolineSF 1 week ago1 week ago

    I know from real life that teachers are very often thwarted by their administrators in attempting to refer students for assessments, because of fears of the cost. No teacher is safe complaining when this happens. And students are very often not receiving the full services specified in their IEPs for the same reason. It's also common for parents/guardians to refuse to allow their children to be assessed, even as other parents/guardians are desperately trying … Read More

    I know from real life that teachers are very often thwarted by their administrators in attempting to refer students for assessments, because of fears of the cost. No teacher is safe complaining when this happens. And students are very often not receiving the full services specified in their IEPs for the same reason.

    It’s also common for parents/guardians to refuse to allow their children to be assessed, even as other parents/guardians are desperately trying to get their children approved for special-education services.