Ohio’s Special Education Systems Surmounting Obstacles to Help Students
Like many public school systems, Ohio’s Department of Education (DOE) has been swamped in recent years with a tide of new autism-spectrum diagnoses among school-age children. More than 5,000 children in Ohio have been diagnosed with Asperger’s or autism, raising the state’s level of students in Individual Education Programs (IEP) to a high of 14.8 percent in 2012, which is above the national average of 13 percent. The state ranks 15th in the nation in terms of the percentage of the total student population with special education needs.
The state DOE’s Office for Exceptional Children has borne the brunt of helping local school districts deal with this influx, in terms of funding, developing procedures and best-practice management techniques, and in hiring master’s-educated special educators with the training and experience to help exceptional children succeed.
Increased Funding Goes Toward Hiring Master’s-Educated Teachers
Ohio dipped from receiving a federal rating of “Meets Requirements” in 2011 to a lower “Needs Assistance” rating in 2014, reflecting some of the challenges the state has faced in recent years.
In response, state weighted funding for special education programs was increased from $569 million to $712.5 million. In large part, the money will be used to fund additional positions for master’s-prepared teachers in special education programs, assistive devices for special needs students, and additional specialists such as occupational therapists and speech therapists.
Despite the lowered federal rating, Ohio’s special needs population graduation rates have been steadily increasing over the past decade. This trend is good news for the more than 250,000 children in the Ohio special education system.
This improvement can largely be attributed to an important development in special education, the concept of teaching students with special needs in the least restrictive environment possible. This simply involves placing special needs students – as much as is possible – into the same classes as their general population peers. This practice has been proven to increase academic achievement among special needs students, leading to improved outcomes.
Ohio school districts make this accommodation by using co-teaching classroom environments, where a special education teacher and a general education teacher share responsibilities in a single classroom that combines both general and special needs students. This requires a great deal of expertise on the part of the teachers, making a master’s-degree all but essential.
According to a 2015 report from the Ohio Coalition for the Education of Children with Disabilities (an independent, non-profit group focused on assisting parents of children with disabilities), more than 30,000 special education teaching positions in Ohio are filled at the beginning of each school year. But a shortage of master’s-educated teachers in special education means that many of these positions end up going to teachers that don’t hold degrees in special education.
How Shakespeare is Having an Impact on Ohio’s Special Needs Students
In Columbus, though, special education teachers working together with Ohio State University (OSU) and, improbably, the Royal Shakespeare Company have come up with new ways to reach autistic students and help them improve their social skills and relationship abilities.
Using techniques originally developed in London and known as the Hunter Heartbeat Method, Columbus teachers collaborated with OSU’s Department of Psychology and Department of Theater to put 14 students with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) through a pilot program. The students are run through a game based on the plot of Shakespeare’s play “The Tempest.”
Facilitators focus on improving facial recognition, motor coordination, personal space, and dialogue using the template laid down by Shakespeare. ASD-afflicted children typically have difficulty in all of those categories. At the end of the study, however, all 14 had shown significant improvement, a testament to how higher education for teachers can produce real results for special needs students.