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New York City
June 2002

Requiem for Expertise

By Jill S. Levy

Several Saturdays ago I received an unsettling phone call from a dear friend, a respected principal. “My grandchild has been diagnosed with an unusual and serious developmental disability. I need your help,” he said.

We discussed the boy's prognosis, his treatment and, most importantly, his educational and clinical needs. Although my friend knows I am both an advocate for special-needs people and a supervisor of special education, he did not know that my master's thesis was in language and communications disorders, the world in which he and his family were unfortunately entering.

The call was upsetting. For one thing my friend was in pain. For another, I realized once more I felt called upon to speak out on the issue of special education.

All is not well in the state of special education. As our special ed experts are retiring, the school system is not replacing them. As their positions are eliminated, their work is taken up by assistant principals and principals with little or no experience in the field. It must be overwhelming for these supervisors who already have a full plate in our overburdened schools.

The telephone call brought to mind how little respect is shown to special education experts. The very trends that experts helped to pioneer, including mainstreaming and inclusion, are being undermined by decision-makers, the generalists. More and more, otherwise capable assistant principals and principals no longer have special education experts to whom to turn.

These otherwise talented generalists are overextended when it comes to supervising special education programs. Akin to a general practitioner performing brain surgery, it wouldn't happen in an operating room and it shouldn't happen in our schools.

In my 30 years in special education, I, and scores of special education teachers and supervisors created innovative programs for ignored and under-served children. We answered the call to duty when the school system, responding to court decisions and revamped special education laws, needed specialists. Some of the best and brightest served, people with whom I have been proud to work.

And to become experts we went through a grueling training process. Before sitting for the NYC licensing examination as special education teachers or clinicians, we had to have a master's degree. We were licensed as supervisors in our respective areas only after working as teachers of special education and upon completion of an arduous exam that tested our knowledge, our human-relations skills and our problem-solving abilities.

We were advocates for our clients “special-needs children” and we were proud of our profession. We developed programs, trained and supported teachers, educated and supported overwhelmed parents, and worked with principals and district staff to craft educational interventions at the district level.

But the special needs environment in the NYC public schools was evolving in an ugly way. The system shifted its attention from educational expertise to compliance with regulations. It developed an across-the-board approach to children with unique problems rather than custom-tailoring programs child-by-child.

It is painful for me to watch the inept handling of some of these children when I know what a team of instructional and clinical supervisors could accomplish if only their expertise was tapped into to improve and enhance classroom instruction for the special-needs child as well as the rest of the class. Indeed, some districts see my fellow special education professionals as superfluous.

It doesn't have to be this way. Inclusion works best when we include the experts. We have some very good examples right in our own backyard. Why does The Children's School in District 15, an inclusion institution, work so well? Ask its principal, Lorraine Boylan, a special education professional.

Why do District 75's inclusion initiatives work? Look to the experts who support and train everyone in their classrooms and provide the supervisory oversight to protect the integrity of instruction.

So my friend, I am pained that we must have more of these conversations about your grandchild. There is much you need to learn. I assure you, however, that the educational and instructional expertise he needs is available.

And because of your new experiences, I am also sure you will have a newfound regard for the special education experts in your midst. And I also know that in the future you will probably be a little less comfortable supervising special education teachers now that you know how much you don't know.#

Jill Levy is the president of the Council of Supervisors and Administrators (CSA).

Education Update, Inc., P.O. Box 20005, New York, NY 10001.
Tel: (212) 481-5519. Fax: (212) 481-3919.Email: ednews1@aol.com.
All material is copyrighted and may not be printed without express consent of the publisher. © 2002.