Advocates press state Teacher certification, money targeted

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Having won their lawsuit against the Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE), advocates for the disabled are now pressing the state for extra money to help Chicago carry out its plan of inclusion and for a new way of certifying special education teachers.

The ISBE presented a remediation plan in April, but the plan was rejected by the plaintiffs in the class action lawsuit and by attorneys for the Chicago Public Schools (CPS). At press time, a revised plan was due May 28. ISBE officials declined to comment on the proceedings.

“Our main concern is that ISBE keeps saying it wants to augment our settlement, but throughout its proposal it doesn’t,” says CPS attorney Kathleen Gibbons. “In much of our response, we are saying that if this is what the ISBE is proposing, we can’t meet the settlement agreement.”

Gibbons says CPS is particularly concerned that the ISBE has not offered “resources and technical assistance.”

The plaintiffs want supplemental funding to assist schools in developing inclusion classrooms, and they want the state to pay for informational meetings with parents, an information package for teachers, administrators and parents, and a web site that would provide in-depth information on the least restrictive environment mandate and its implementation.

In its April plan, the ISBE promised to design and implement a new certification system for special and general education by the end of the year, saying the changes would “address the problems” that arise from having nine separate categories of special education certification. .

Special education experts in Illinois and other states blame categorical certification for chronic shortages of well-trained special education teachers; they contend the system keeps in place narrow training programs at teacher colleges and discourages prospective teachers from going into the field. They also contend that categorical certification does not adequately prepare regular or special education teachers for the integration of children with disabilities into regular classrooms.

A former Illinois special education teacher, Gibbons says she was trained and certified “in a system that is so categorical, I only know what to do with certain categories of kids. I had no classes on what you do for children in a regular classroom, and teachers certified in general education do not receive a class on children in special education. Now they’re being asked to have these kids in their classrooms most of the day.”

“As the field moves in the direction of educating children with disabilities in the general classroom, [school districts] want people who can go into a general classroom and provide the special education services there,” agrees Mary Bay, associate dean for clinical experiences and student affairs and assistant professor of special education at the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC).

Special education advocacy groups are leaning toward a certification system that would group special education teachers into four categories: mild disabilities, severe disabilities and a group each for vision- and hearing-impairment.

At UIC, faculty and administration have been working for the last year on a new model for the training of special education teachers, Bay says. “We’ve created a set of principles that guide our program, values we think our students should have, experiences they should have and topics they should study,” she explains. “Then we shaped the courses and talked about assessing their performance.”

One new UIC course is devoted to teaching students how to work collaboratively with child care professionals. Another new course delves into connecting the legal, historical and social aspects of special education to advocacy, so that graduates trained to be advocates for disabled children understand how the disability movement has driven reforms in special education.

Bay and her colleagues have also proposed that some of the newly designed special education courses be open to students in the elementary, early childhood and secondary school track.

At the same time, another committee is redesigning UIC’s elementary teacher training program. Although that committee’s work has not yet been shaped into new courses, two special education experts are part of the process, which Bay believes will also result in more cross-training for special education majors.

Earlier this year, Sue Gamm, chief of specialized services for the Chicago public schools, formed a task force of representatives from nine teaching institutions to discuss what training teachers will need to be effective in Chicago schools that are moving toward integrated classrooms.

The task force includes the UIC, the City Colleges of Chicago, and Loyola, DePaul, Chicago State, Illinois State, Northern Illinois, Western Illinois, and Governor’s State universities.