During my interviews with two teachers and one school counselor, I found several commonalities and unexpected facets of the special education referral process. The referral process is, to my inexperienced eyes, a relatively straightforward process and one of the strengths of the American education system. At my private school in Seoul, South Korea, we have minimal resources and support to address special education needs, and we do not accept students with severe disabilities. Let’s start with the referral process steps:
- Identification. The teacher is obviously the greatest asset in identifying students, when necessary. In addition, each state is required by IDEA to operate “Child Find,” which is a set of evaluations that may be activated by school personnel, Child Find personnel, or parents/guardians. Parental consent is required to begin the evaluations. Both of the teachers I interviewed observe students’ learning habits, unit progression, and work in whole group, small group or one-on-one instruction to determine special education needs. Mr. Dunder, who works in Chicago Public Schools, uses the process called multi-tiered support system (MTSS). This process involves the teacher meeting with tier 1 and 2 students for 20 minutes 2-3 times a week, and culminates with the school psychologist being consulted if the student is still struggling. The teacher watches for signs of students struggling, such as a lack of participation, and 80% of tier 1 cases are found through basic application of the school rules and tests. Alternative methods of identification may include RTI (response to intervention), which also uses the tier system and culminates in recommending the student for special education services to a team that creates the individualized learning plan (ILP).
- Evaluation. At this stage, according to the school counselor I interviewed (she works at an international British school in Seoul), a team meets to create the ILP. For Ms. Burns, the team consists of her (school counselor), a learning support specialist, the teacher, and a child psychologist. Once a plan of action is created (depending on the individual situation), the recommendation is presented to the parents. The child study team then implements the plan, with the school counselor, teacher, and parents as main points of contact. In my opinion, this is an excellent system for referring, evaluating, and implementing the ILP. In addition, Ms. Burns’ school directive is to accept students on the basis of integration into “normal” classrooms, which in my view should be the mission of all schools that aren’t specifically geared toward special education.
- Eligibility. Parents have the right to dispute their child’s evaluation results. If they do, the parents may request an Independent Educational Evaluation (IEE), and may also request the school system pays for it.
- IEP Implementation. Ms. Burns recommends a close level of parent involvement, because educational support at home gives the highest chance of IEP success. Most often, IEPs allow for extra time (outside of class time), modified assignments, preferential seating, modified tests, or individual standardized testing.
- Followup. The team that created the IEP keeps tabs on the student and modifies the plan as necessary. Progress is reported to the parents and reevaluation occurs at least every three years, but reevaluation of the actual IEP occurs at least once a year. Parents must be present at IEP meetings, and disputes can involve independent evaluation, mediation, and/or a due process hearing.
This is the referral process in a nutshell. I don’t have any personal experience with it, but from what I’ve heard and read the process is weakest in the identification stage. Many teachers are already overburdened, whether with large class sizes or something else, and putting the onus of identification on them may, in many cases, be asking too much. More resources should be allocated to TAs, learning support specialists, etc. whenever possible. Extra personnel can help the teacher watch for signs of struggling students. I believe that struggling students often try to avoid their work. They could be the class clown, with behavior issues, or have an impediment like dyslexia. Also, students who work very hard with minimal progress may have special needs.
In addition, more effort should be made to involve the parents fully in the IEP and the role of technology in today’s classrooms. Specifically, technology has driven kids’ attention spans down. Being constantly connected means kids are always typing, not writing. More research should be done on the effect on their fine motor skills, such as actually writing with pens/pencils. Time management and social relationships are also effected by our digital age. Behavior issues can arise from online arguments or power struggles. In short, all of these can be misunderstood or misdiagnosed as genuine special education needs. The American system in particular needs to pay attention to over diagnosing certain disabilities, such as ADHD. More research and collaboration with parents is needed on these issues.