Saturday, January 2, 2016

Pressure Grows to deal with special education caseloads

Across the State of Minnesota, teachers and their representatives are asking school districts to address challenges in special education by making contractual concessions in how special education is managed --   by hiring more special education teachers to reduce caseloads,  or perhaps by providing extra compensation for additional administrative and paper work.   For Education Minnesota's take on this issue, see "Minnesota's New Special Education Caseload/Workload Rule." Several trends are contributing to these requests.   For over a decade, teachers and others have been complaining about the increasing administrative burdens which impose demands on their time beyond direct instruction.   Adding to this concern, in the last decade, there has been an increase in the number of special education students at the very time that school districts are struggling to find resources to meet the needs of of other students with educational challenges.  

The 2013 Legislative Auditor's Report on Special Education contained a call for major reforms, but the report was largely sidetracked.  The report warned:
Minnesota special education requirements mandate duties for teachers and school administrators that are not required by federal law.  Minnesota statutes and rules add several requirements to the federally mandated procedural safeguards..... [these] safeguards are intended to protect the rights of students with disabilities and their parents, and result in unspecified costs to LEAs in terms of staff time and effort to comply with requirements.Minnesota statutes require IEP teams to meet under more circumstances than federal law requires, which adds to special education teachers’ and administrators’ workloads.
As a recent report on caseload explained:
According to the 2013 Office of the Legislative Auditor (OLA) report, the number of students receiving special education has increased steadily since the 1999-2000 school year, while the number of K-12 public school students statewide has decreased. The proportion of all K–12 students receiving special education increased from 11.9 percent in the 1999-2000 school year to 13.6 percent in 2010-2011. The 13.6 percent has remained stable for three years.  As the demand for special education services continues to grow and the ability of schools to meet the resource needs becomes more difficult,  See RECOMMENDATIONS FOR SPECIAL EDUCATION CASE LOAD AND RULE ALIGNMENT Report of the Special Education Case Load Task Force Submitted to the Minnesota Legislature February 15, 2014, Page 5.

These concerns are not new.  In 2002, during special education law (IDEA) reauthorization,  the Congress asked the Congressional Legislative Reference Service to conduct a study on the magnitude of administrative and paperwork burdens.  The LRS reported a  federal survey to Congress that found that the median number of hours per week spent on special education paperwork is 4.7 hours. (That means that 50% of those responding said they spend more than 4.7 hours per week on paperwork; 50% said they spent less.)

 The median for general education teachers was only  1.6 hours per week.

The LRS study further told Congress that the Council for Exceptional Children (CEC), reported that special education teachers surveyed reported that their concerns about paperwork ranked third, after their concerns about their caseload and about time required for planning. About one-third of special education  teachers who responded to the survey said they spent between 10% and 20% of their time on paperwork related to identifying students for special education and on IEPs.  Another 30% of special education teachers said they spent up to 30% of their time on such paperwork. In addition, teachers reported spending substantial additional time on meetings related to IEPs: nearly 60% said they spend 10% to 20% of their time on such meetings, and another 25% said they spend up to 30% of their time on these meetings.

There is a consensus in Minnesota that our administrative burdens here are worse than those experienced in many other states. As Minnesota complaints grew,  Governor Dayton appointed a task force to examine teacher special education caseloads. 

The Strib reported on the task force as follows:

A newly appointed state task force is tackling a problem that has plagued Minnesota's special education teachers for years - too many students, too much paperwork, and inconsistent state rules and laws. Paperwork is frequently cited by special education teachers who have left the profession. And that's a significant number of teachers.. More than 800 of the state's 8,900 licensed special education teachers quit during the most recent school year the state tracked. Meanwhile, it granted just 417 new licenses for special ed teachers, the fewest in at least five years. The Minnesota Department of Education has introduced several initiatives aimed at reducing special education paperwork. Officials admit, however, that most of those efforts haven't trickled down to the average classroom teacher. Some teachers say paperwork forces them to work 70-hour weeks.

As is typical with State task forces, the Governor did not grant the task force a charge that might result in courageous deep and abiding changes.   You can find a record of the Task Force Proceedings by clicking here, but one finds nothing to cheer about in the report.    Although the report (referred to later in this post) recognized the problem, its fair to say like most other task forces, it failed to propose courageous changes.  Special education funding remains inadequate to address the concerns raised by teachers.  It appears that no major courageous reforms in paperwork or administration of special education have been made.   Once again, a Minnesota Department of Education task force has chosen to evade the core problems and shifted the crisis back to public school districts.  The result is that teachers and their representatives are now knocking on the doors of school districts to shift more resources into special education to address this problem, without compensating revenues from the state.

How big is this problem, and what is its solution?

The 2013 Office of Legislative Auditor Report, contains an example:
“According to one teacher, IEPs were typically four pages long when she started teaching 22 years ago. Now, she said, they are four or five times that length and so cumbersome they can be difficult for parents to understand. A special education director said evaluations used to be 3 or 4 pages but now are 11. Several educators noted the evaluation reports are redundant, and information found in different parts of the report is duplicative. For instance, one teacher said the student’s performance information is repeated three times: after the description of specific tests, at the bottom of each page, and at the end of the report in a comprehensive summary.”
Special education teachers and school administrators are required to complete paperwork that is not required of general education teachers. Paperwork significantly adds to special education teachers’ and administrators’ workloads and can have cost implications when districts hire staff to assist with it. As described in Chapter 1, federal law requires a number of processes and services that must be documented for students receiving special education. In addition, we found: Minnesota requires additional information in federally mandated documents as well as reports not mandated at the federal law.  
A report on  National Public Radio Saturday morning described one teacher's view of the burden:  
"I don't know how to describe it," she says. "It's just so much work."  She's not talking about teaching or lesson planning or even working with disruptive students. She really likes those parts of the job. "It's all the other compliance and laws and paperwork."  All of that stuff can be summed up with three letters: IEP. That stands for Individualized Education Program. Each student in special education has one. It's required by law. And each IEP requires hours and hours of upkeep. Forms need to be updated, data has to be tracked and there are additional meetings with parents and other staff. Multiply that by the 43 students Stephanie has, and there goes all of her free time. "I stay at work hours typically every day," Stephanie said. What she doesn't finish, she takes home.
In 2008, a pro-labor organization, Minnesota 2020 posted an article :  Leave a Light On For Special Ed Teachers  giving voice to the continuing problem:
Before a student is approved for special education services, a teacher conducts an assessment which is coordinated between the teacher, the student's other teachers and the parents (separate forms for each). If the assessment (many forms) leads to services, then the teacher compiles a comprehensive report which includes all teacher and school documentation (many forms). Then the teacher begins for Individual Education Program. This requires another meeting between parents and teachers (separate forms for each) in which the group decides on goals and objectives (many forms). If the student has multiple diagnoses, each needs to be addressed in the IEP (many more forms). [One teacher] said the IEP can be as long as 30 pages. She said another Rochester teacher has one student with 128 goals, each with several objectives. …. [The teacher] said she is currently working on six IEPs, three reevaluations and beginning to plan for another reevaluation. "It's terrible," she said,."
The 2020 article continued:  "Mary Ruprecht, Director of Special Education for the Rum River Special Education Cooperative, said the Minnesota Department of Education (MDE) has increased the already large number of forms. Although the forms aren't required, teachers must use them to document their actions. This makes them essentially required, she said. Verna said the paperwork blizzard comes from being in a litigious society.  There's not much that can be done," she said. "District officials want to cover themselves if they are sued by parents. That means having a paper trail. ...It's sad. The focus has gotten away from the needs of the child."

In an October 2004 Special education teachers are drowning in paper.  Here’s how you can help them, the National Association of Princpals' journal  wrote:
The burden of required paperwork is one of the main causes for dissatisfaction of special education teachers, according to a recent study. [There are]  four ways principals can help reduce that burden: 
  • provide special education teachers more time for paperwork; 
  • limit their caseloads; 
  • provide more support and resources for the IEP process; 
  • and require only essential paperwork.
Unlike other professions, education fails to provide appropriate lower-cost administrative and clerical support for teachers.  The article continues:
Principals should do all they can to eliminate non-essential paperwork One way to do this would be to shift some of the paperwork responsibility to others. At present, only 50 percent of special education teachers receive any assistance on paperwork from a paraprofessional, instructional assistant, parent, volunteer, or secretary.
In the face of increasing special education caseloads, Minnesota's education establishment could  respond in several ways.
  •  Provide increased special education funding so that districts can hire More Special Education Teachers to Reduce Caseloads and to Attack Paperwork.    There is currently a significant teacher shortage in special education, caused by reasons that are partly outside the scope of this post.   Reducing teacher caseload has a significant cost attached to it, because it means hiring significantly more teachers and frankly, the State has shown very little interest in increasing revenues for special education to the level that would support these caseload reductions.  Minnesota's has failed persistently to pay the cost of state mandates in special education and has instead pursued the strategy of forcing local school districts to cover their special education deficits either by transferring funds from regulat education, or by hoping that local school disstricts will make up the difference in cost with  operating referendum revenue.   
  • Provide Clerical Support for Teachers to Reduce their Paperwork Load The state could create incentives for school districts to utilize clerical and paraprofessional trained help, hiring and training persons without teachers' licenses to perform the paperwork.  Every other profession, besides teaching, recognizes that efficiency requires that work that can be delegated to support personnel should be delegated.  A completely new and more efficient paradigm should be implemented that uses technology, templates, automated forms, transcription, secretarial support, and other devices utilized by any modern organization that engages in repetitive document production.   
  •  Reduce the Number of IEP meetings and the number of Required Attendees 
  •  Make Transformative Changes in Bureacratic Requirements.   It could implement transformative changes in the adminstrative requirements for special education.    But Minnesota's education bureaucracy seems to lack the will and imagination to make transformative change.    


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