Requiem for Expertise
By Jill S. Levy
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
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
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.#
Levy is the president of the Council of Supervisors and Administrators
Update, Inc., P.O. Box 20005, New York, NY 10001.
Tel: (212) 481-5519. Fax: (212) 481-3919.Email: email@example.com.
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