Changes to special education in Iowa could hurt students and teachers

AMES, Iowa – Iowa State University School of Education faculty members are concerned that proposed changes for special education teaching endorsements in Iowa could have negative consequences. The Board of Educational Examiners wants to consolidate certain requirements to help address a shortage of special education teachers in the state.   

The changes would affect teachers certified to work with students who have a range of mental, physical or learning disabilities or behavior issues. Iowa currently has four endorsements specific to the severity and type of disability, but the board is considering two options that would combine those endorsements into one or two.

Patricia Carlson, an associate professor of education, said maintaining the separate classification is necessary to guarantee teachers are adequately prepared and can effectively address student needs. A student with a mild learning disability has different needs than a student with a severe intellectual disability or behavioral disorder, which could create a challenging classroom dynamic, she said.

“It appears to me that we’re allowing administrators, who are having problems finding qualified teachers, to dictate what is best for kids by making it easier to find teachers,” Carlson said. “But we’re totally ignoring what’s going to happen in these classrooms.”

Carlson, and three other faculty members who train special education teachers at Iowa State, sent a letter to the board outlining their concerns about the quality and level of preparation required with the proposed changes. Carl Smith, a professor of education, says special education teachers will struggle to meet the expectation for “highly qualified” teachers as specified by the No Child Left Behind Act and most educational reform efforts.    

“In my opinion, it sets up teachers for failure, and more importantly it has serious implications regarding the services for children and their families,” Smith said.

“In one classroom, you could have a child with severe, profound disabilities needing a feeding tube, another child with severe behavior disorders and a child with severe mental health issues. Our professional opinion is that there really is a significant ethical question regarding whether a program can adequately prepare a teacher for that range of needs of students,” he added.

Wrong solution for teacher shortage

The Iowa Department of Education annually identifies teacher shortage areas. The list includes the four endorsements (Instructional Strategist I Mild/Moderate; Instructional Strategist II Behavior Disorder/Learning Disabilities; Instructional Strategist II Mental Disabilities; and Instructional Strategist II Physical Disabilities) that the board is looking at consolidating.   

Carlson expects the shortage to only get worse, especially if the board lumps all four endorsements into one. She understands that school administrators want more flexibility when it comes to hiring special education teachers, but says teachers would be overwhelmed by the new expectations they will face in the classroom.    

“The changes could be fine for a while, but I keep thinking about the worst case scenario. Administrators keep looking at this as an issue of dollars and cents, but they have to think about the impact on the child,” Carlson said.

Even with the current endorsements, there are challenges in meeting the needs of students with disabilities, and the proposed changes would only add to the complexity of what teachers are dealing with in the classroom, Smith said. He agrees that the teacher shortage is a legitimate concern, but says this is a misguided avenue for meeting that need.  

“The whole idea of having a highly qualified teacher, which is at the core of most educational reform efforts, is the suggestion that we have a highly qualified teacher and moving in this direction is the exact opposite of that idea,” Smith said. “It’s setting up a situation, in our opinion, of having less qualified teachers.”