What Everyone Should Know About ESE

Sentenced to Strangulation Until Dead

Over the past four decades,”Exceptional Student Education” (ESE) has been steadily strangled by increasingly ridiculous and unreasonable rules, regulations, accountability schemes, and documentation requirements. If major streamlining efforts aren’t implemented in the short term, and more realistic solutions enacted for the long term, then educating exceptional students will have been made all but impossible by the very machinations that are supposed to ensure educational opportunity. ESE is fast becoming an abject exercise in state-forced failure.

A Brief History of Exceptional Student Education, or

The Road to Hell Was Paved With Good Intentions

If you want to understand how ESE got so amazingly convoluted and fantastically stupid in many cases, then you first have to have a little background knowledge with respect to the origins of the madness. Therefore, a short chronology of relevant public education law is in order. So here we go:

Contemporary policies and practices relating to public education in general have their genesis in the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 (ESEA). Since that first, a dozen or so additional federal laws governing the delivery of educational services have been passed. Most have been extensions of the previous law, along with revisions and additions and name changes.

The laws which specifically mandate educational practices with respect to students with learning and/or physical disabilities have their beginnings in the Education for All Handicapped Children Act of 1975. The legislation incorporated six major components  that have been the foundation of education across the United States since. Those six components were later renamed pillars: 

  • Individualized Education Program (IEP) (Also known as the Individualized Education Plan.)
  • Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) 
  • Least Restrictive Environment (LRE)
  • Appropriate Evaluation
  • Parent Participation
  • Procedural Safeguards

President Gerald Ford signed the bill, but issued a statement on December 2, 1975 outlining his numerous reservations about the bill:

I have approved S. 6, the Education for All Handicapped Children Act of 1975.

Unfortunately, this bill promises more than the Federal Government can deliver, and its good intentions could be thwarted by the many unwise provisions it contains. Everyone can agree with the objective stated in the title of this bill — educating all handicapped children in our Nation. The key question is whether the bill will really accomplish that objective.

Even the strongest supporters of this measure know as well as I that they are falsely raising the expectations of the groups affected by claiming authorization levels which are excessive and unrealistic.

Despite my strong support for full educational opportunities for our handicapped children, the funding levels proposed in this bill will simply not be possible if Federal expenditures are to be brought under control and a balanced budget achieved over the next few years.

There are other features in the bill which I believe to be objectionable and which should be changed. It contains a vast array of detailed, complex, and costly administrative requirements which would unnecessarily assert Federal control over traditional State and local government functions. It establishes complex requirements under which tax dollars would be used to support administrative paperwork and not educational programs. Unfortunately, these requirements will remain in effect even though the Congress appropriates far less than the amounts contemplated in S. 6.

Fortunately, since the provisions of this bill will not become fully effective until fiscal year 1978, there is time to revise the legislation and come up with a program that is effective and realistic. I will work with the Congress to use this time to design a program which will recognize the proper Federal role in helping States and localities fulfill their responsibilities in educating handicapped children. The Administration will send amendments to the Congress that will accomplish this purpose.

Ford’s comments were right on point, but were never heeded.

That law was updated several times until 1990, when it was broadened and renamed the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) of 1990. 

Education bills have a history of being very popular with politicians on both sides of the aisle, and present an opportunity to show bipartisanship while gaining a healthy amount of political capital. IDEA ’90 was passed amid great fanfare. Virtually every politician who could get close to its passage and claim some credit for political purposes had his or her face in front of a camera. The bill passed 98-1 in the Senate, and 420-3 in the House.

Now, that’s a popular bill. Virtually all education bills have enjoyed comparable levels of popularity.

IDEA was updated again seven years later, with the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act Amendments of 1997 (IDEA ’97)It expanded the definition of disabled children to include developmentally delayed children between three and nine years of age, and required parents to attempt to resolve disputes with schools and Local Educational Agencies  (LEAs) through mediation. It also authorized grants for technology, disabled infants and toddlers, parent training, and professional development.

With the passage of the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) in 2002, the federal footprint in public education grew by a giant leap. George W. Bush was all in on NCLB and had a big ceremony for the Bill Signing at a high school in Ohio.

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act of 2004 was intended to align IDEA with NCLB. It also defined a highly qualified ESE teacher, and made private schools eligible for IDEA funds.

Thirteen years of blinding regulations and testing requirements administered under NCLB brought waves of criticism and backlash. G.W. Bush never relented.

In 2015 Congress and Barack Obama got together and came up with the Every Student Succeeds Act of 2015 (ESSA). ESSA rolled back much of the federal government’s direct involvement in overseeing public education, but passed down compliance requirements to the states, which already had rigorous education requirements in place anyway because of NCLB. ESSA allows states more latitude on testing, teacher quality, and school performance. Like Bush, Obama held a Bill Signing ceremony, though more sedate, for the ESSA.

Where We Are Now

While ESSA provided relief to the states, it didn’t provide it to ESE teachers.  Benefit to teachers by ESSA has been negligible. Documentation/paperwork requirements were left virtually unchanged, and may have grown still more anyway, as they seem to do naturally from year to year.

So now, four decades of expanding federal reach into education policy, combined with court orders resulting from litigation between parents and school districts (that’s another subject altogether), have resulted in an absolute morass of regulatory entanglements and requirements. The accountability rage, largely a product of NCLB, has abated a tad, but it remains with us in a form easily intensified should political winds blow in that direction.

Documentation and paperwork requirements for ESE teachers, which have grown for decades as the inevitable result of layer after layer of federal and state requirements regarding all facets of disabled students’ education, continue to climb.

The inefficiency and redundancy, combined with what in many cases can only be described as pure stupidity, have finally reached the point of impossibility. ESE teachers just can’t keep up.

An Accountability and Compliance Disaster

Because actual school teachers have had very little opportunity to participate in the discussions that result in policymaking, they are, more often than not, merely the tool at the end of the line, left with all the heavy lifting, and nearly all the responsibility, with very little say about anything. In two decades since the passage of IDEA in 1990, ESE teachers have been forced to navigate an an increasingly complicated and tedious monstrosity of rules and requirements, as well as penalties and sanctions, in order to stay “in compliance” with a colossal labyrinth of bureaucratic folly. The job of today’s ESE teacher is an exercise in desperate futility.

There have to be better ways of doing things. 

A Mountain Range of Paperwork

Document; Document; Document

The single most prolific, though by no means most severe (we’ll get back to that) problem in ESE is an absolutely debilitating amount of paperwork for teachers to keep completed and filed.

The concept of the Individualized Education Plan, or IEP, is a good one. It is imperative that all students with disabilities have equal access to public education along with a plan to help guide them during their education and transition to their post-high school years.

The problem with IEPs is that they often generate huge amounts of paperwork and documentation for teachers, to the point of being a huge distraction from teaching.

Low-Prevalence Disabilities Spawn High Prevalence Horseshit

Low Prevalence Disabilities, also known as Low-Incidence Disabilities, are generally those disabilities that prevent students from participating in the general education curriculum. Instead they are enrolled in courses within self-contained classrooms, and are taught a modified curriculum. A majority of these students need increased adult supervision at all times, as only a small minority of such students can function independently.

In the case of low-prevalence disabilities, the IEP becomes the driver of a huge paperwork mill for which there is little to zero support for the teacher. Students with low-prevalence disabilities are grouped together in “self-contained” classrooms. Every student in the classroom has a low-prevalence disability, or multiple disabilities, and a corresponding IEP.

The architects of exceptional student education completely ignored the Law of Unintended Consequences by overlooking the simple fact that teachers are only actually one person each, and are far more than busy with teaching and assessing learning, and simply do not have the time to plan and manage the entire educational career of every student who walks through the door.

Here’s where politicians, judges and parents really screwed ESE teachers. You see, each and every ESE teacher is also automatically anointed the caseload manager of the students who they primarily serve. That makes perfect sense to people who want to make rules but don’t want to allocate the money necessary to properly implement the rules they create. It doesn’t make any sense to anyone who actually thinks about the likelihood of teachers being able to comply with all requirements and still teach effectively.

So in addition to everything a teacher did before all this noble legislation came down the pike, ESE teachers get a second job. Yes, that’s right. For the low, low starting salary of around $36K per year, you too can have two jobs in one.

Your first job consists of planning for and delivering instruction, grading student work, assessing student performance, and submitting grades, along with all the other tasks that naturally come with teaching.

Your second job is to plan and manage the education of every kid on your caseload, and to document that you are planning and managing, and are in compliance with the letter of the law.

As one might imagine, most teachers’ workday is primarily devoted to teaching.  Teachers have one period per day for “planning,” except in unique circumstances, such as the teacher having dual roles or officially added responsibilities, thus having two “planning” periods.  There is some time before classes begin in the morning, and there is some time in the afternoon, after the students have left. All but about five minutes of the morning, before classes begin, is spent meeting students at the bus loop.

Unless an ESE teacher is willing to work into the late night, every night, in order to keep up with documentation and compliance, then one facet of the job or another is going to suffer. There just isn’t enough time.

It has long been widely acknowledged that ESE is overladen with redundant paperwork. Still it grows. In the most severe cases, teachers are so burdened by documentation requirements that their ability to actually do what they are documenting is impeded. As downright nonsensical as that sounds, it is true. Those same teachers are often teaching in classrooms that are understaffed with respect to instructional assistants, so they are often doing something they would probably have an assistant do, instead of what they could be doing to satisfy the compliance monster.

The wizards who came up with all this paperwork have zero grounding in the realities of low prevalence classrooms. They have no compunction about passing down more and more documentation requirements.

In order to help the average person grasp just how much paperwork is required of an ESE classroom teacher during just one year of high school for one student with a low prevalence disability, the next post will be a walk through of sorts. Hopefully the exercise will illustrate the sheer lunacy of the current expectations imposed.

Other posts in the series will uncover the numerous unintended consequences of current ESE policy, and how they affect everyone involved.



One comment

  • PW- we need to get back on the stick and revitalize the blog. With the lack of raises coming, we need the comments flowing.



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