Special Education in New York City
Thirty-five years ago, many children,
including my own, did not have the right to attend public
schools. They were children with “problems”—disabilities
that prevented them from learning or attending school as
easily as other children. They were placed in private day
schools, residential schools or in institutions, removed
from their communities, their neighbors and often their families.
Parents and children’s advocates
fought for years to provide children with the appropriate
educational programs in the least restrictive environments.
I was among those who won many battles including the ones
for smaller class size, the implementation of individualized
plans, and evaluation by a committee of experts in specialized
Special Education in New York City
has evolved since then. We’ve seen increased class size, an entire district just
for Special Ed students and now the growing use of immersion
programs. Through it all, only one thing remains constant:
the only way to navigate the complicated and unique world of
Special Ed is to consistently evaluate each student’s
With this in mind, let me turn to
the Department of Education’s
reorganization plan and pose the crucial question: Is this
plan good for children? The reorganization for special education
is a corporate model of management that emphasizes a top-down
structure for the school, but provides little in terms of daily,
ongoing, internal supports. There is little opportunity for
listening to those working with the children and responding
to their needs.
Principals are now expected to shoulder the responsibility
for Special Education, while their entire support staff is
being taken away. In my experience, principals, although well
meaning, lack the know-how, formal training and experience
to address the needs of children with special learning problems,
physical handicaps and behavioral issues. In fact, under the
current plan they are required to have only a paltry six credits
of Special Education coursework.
In some staffing areas, the number of Special Ed employees
citywide will drop from 166 to 90, doubling many caseloads.
And unlike our high schools which must have Assistant Principals
with Special Education expertise, our elementary and middle
schools will be on their own.
But, the biggest problem concerns the 332 licensed Supervisors
of Special Education (SSE) who all work in schools and report
to the Principal. Their responsibilities include: observing
and evaluating teachers, providing staff development for special
and general education personnel, interpreting and complying
with individualized education plans (IEPs) for special and
general education, programming self-contained, mainstreamed
and inclusion students, evaluating the quality and effectiveness
of specialized equipment and techniques, interacting with parents
of students with special needs to answer and resolve issues
regarding instruction, working with parents whose children
are not yet placed in a school or program and, ensuring that
all services comply with city, state and federal regulations.
All of these positions are being eliminated and replaced with
200 Instructional Support Specialists (ISP). While the ISPs
will work with teachers, they leave much of the above responsibilities,
including compliance and instruction, to principals and assistant
Why are we willing to turn over the education of our educationally
and emotionally fragile youngsters to people who have little
or no expertise? Why are we willing to let them fall through,
not cracks, but major fissures in the system?
“Special Education is failing our children,” goes
the chorus. “Special Education is draining resources
from general education.”
I have known literally hundreds
of families who came to the city’s Special Education program in despair for their
children’s lives only to come away years later aglow
with praise for the special education experts who “saved” them.
Talk to some of those parents. Then
talk to me about our failure to “cure” special
education. Perhaps the powers that be are focusing too closely
on the wrong indicators of success.#
Jill Levy has served as president
of the Association for Neurologically Impaired Brain Injured
Children and on President Clinton’s
Committee for People with Disabilities. Ms. Levy has a Master’s
degree in special education and has taught graduate courses
on the subject. She is president of the Council of School Supervisors & Administrators.