Court may order special ed certification changes

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A controversial new plan for certifying special education teachers is on the table under the Corey H. lawsuit settlement. The plan is vigorously opposed by many activists for disabled students because it would eliminate certification in four specific areas— emotional/behavior disorder, learning disabilities, educable mentally handicapped and trainable mentally handicapped. Instead, teachers who work with children who have these disabilities would be certified to work either with mildly to moderately disabled students (learning behavior specialist 1) or with more severely disabled children (learning behavior specialist 2). In effect, they would need to acquire expertise in more than one area.

Disability-specific certification would be maintained for teachers of the visual- and hearing-impaired, for speech and language therapists and for early-childhood specialists.

U.S. District Judge Robert Gettleman, who called the current categorical system “antiquated” and ordered the state to overhaul it, is expected to approve the plan by the end of June. Proponents say the new system will ensure that teachers are trained to work with a variety of disabilities and will help ease teacher shortages because schools won’t have to hire a number of narrowly-trained staff.

“This means we won’t be in quicksand forever, in terms of better serving students,” says Sue Gamm, director of specialized services for CPS. “That’s why we look at Corey H. as a huge staff development program.”

The new system won’t go into effect until 2003, when universities are expected to have updated undergraduate training programs in place; the first crop of teachers certified under the system would graduate in 2007. Current special education teachers will be “grandfathered” in.

Kathleen Gibbons, a CPS attorney and a former special education teacher, says teachers need broader training because children rarely fit neatly into the disability categories. “The kid may wear the autism label and may be a genius and also have [a] behavioral disorder,” she says. “Children cross the categories so much that teachers need to as well.”

Gibbons also notes that several specific disabilities, such as autism, have no certification category anyway. Under the new system, universities will be asked to develop more comprehensive training programs to cover those as well.

The Chicago Teachers Union initially supported a bill introduced in the state Legislature that would have kept the current specialty categories intact. The union, however, now concedes that the new system is likely a done deal and will work to implement it, says Gallagher.

Opponents of the plan contend that both teachers and students will lose out. They include the Illinois Education Association, the Learning Disabilities Association, the Illinois Council for Exceptional Children and the Illinois Special Education Coalition.

“We look at these [specialties] as akin to medical specialties,” says Beverly Johns, chair of the Special Education Coalition. “If I have a heart problem, I go to a doctor who’s a heart specialist. If I’m a child with a specific learning disability, I deserve a teacher trained to work with that disability.”

“We believe it takes all four years of college to learn one of these areas and do it well,” says Johns, who taught students with emotional and behavioral disorders. “To do all of them in four years—there’s no way.”

Johns acknowledges that the initiative initially may help with teacher recruitment and ease shortages but contends that, in the long run, it will make it harder to keep teachers in special education. “When a brand-new person gets out of school and finds out they have to be all things to all children and they have no in-depth knowledge, they won’t stay in the field,” she says.

Opponents are still counting on legislators to enact a law that would either retain the specialties or, as a compromise, create a two-tiered system in which teachers could choose to train for one of the two new more general categories or an existing specialty, such as learning disabilities. Forty-seven states have two-tiered systems, Johns says.

Earlier this spring, legislators passed a joint resolution that directed the Illinois State Board of Education not to implement the new plan until 2001; it also asked the board to hold hearings in December 2000. “Anything that is done should have data to support it,” says Johns. “The issue is complicated. You’re talking about the lives of children, and it’s not something to be taken lightly.”

But in an April 28 federal court hearing, Gettleman made it clear that he, not legislators, would decide the matter. He commented after receiving a letter from lawmakers, asking him to delay any order because of the then-pending legislation to keep categorical certification.

In any case, teachers already can be forced to work with students who have disabilities they weren’t trained to handle. Under the Illinois School Code, teachers can be assigned students from one category in which they are not certified, in addition to their own specialty students. Also, children with disabilities that do not have a corresponding certification can be assigned to any special education teacher, regardless of training.

Under a separate, unrelated plan, all Illinois teachers will have to engage in continuing education to get their certificates renewed. Ava Harston, a CTU field representative who works on inclusion issues, notes that they can take more special education training. The CTU’s Quest Center is planning more continuing education and staff development on special education.

“What we’re trying to do,” says Harston, “is prepare teachers for the change.”