Talented Master’s-Educated Teachers Are Keeping Oregon’s Special Education Programs On Track
Of the just over half a million students enrolled in Oregon public schools, more than 14 percent are engaged in an Individual Education Program (IEP), the common designation for special education students. That’s above the national average of around 13 percent.
Like many regions of the country, Oregon has been hard hit by a skyrocketing number of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) diagnoses among its children. According to the Autism Research and Resources of Oregon (ARRO) website, more than 9,000 Oregon students with ASD were enrolled in the school system in 2014. That number was up from less than 2000 in 1995, and represents 1 in every 9 children in Oregon.
Many of these diagnoses came right at the peak of the Great Recession, exacerbating funding difficulties for special education programs. In 2011, the federal Department of Education (DOE) stepped in to order the state to bolster special education funding or risk losing $15 million in funding from the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) fund.
Math and Reading Skills Improving Among Oregon’s Special Ed Students
Unfortunately, Oregon has been on the DOE’s “Needs Assistance” roster for more than two years now despite the funding assistance. Only through the dedication and persistence of master’s-education special education teachers has the state kept the 197 school districts on track to meet and exceed target rates for math and reading skills among special needs students.
Much of this improvement can be ascribed to the “least restrictive environment principle” that most school districts in the state follow. The principle dictates that special education students should, as much as possible, be taught in the same classrooms and with the same curriculums as their general education peers. Typically, this is achieved by placing a co-teacher with a master’s degree in special education in a general education classroom and presenting the same study material to both student groups at once.
The special educator can focus on providing extra assistance and using teaching techniques focused on the needs of the IEP students in the class while still allowing the other teacher and students to proceed at a normal pace. This approach has been shown to contribute to the socialization of IEP participants better than separate classrooms, while at the same time improving learning outcomes.
Master’s-Prepared Special Educators Make a Difference for Portland Students
If special needs students in Oregon need inspiration, they don’t need to look any further than 2014 Teacher of the Year Brett Bigham.
Bigham followed an odd path to a teaching career. His own academic performance as a student wasn’t stellar. He became a teacher more or less on a lark, needing a job while in California taking care of a sick friend there. A year later, he had moved to Portland and continued to teach, completing his graduate work and earning a master’s degree four years later. Then, a student attacked him in the classroom, causing injuries that put him out of a job.
But Bigham couldn’t stay out of the classroom. His drive and motivation brought him back to the Portland schools six years later. The life skills training program he developed there is credited with helping older students with disabilities transition into life after high school. Bigham developed a reputation for fighting hard to get his students the accommodations they needed, drawing the attention of the Oregon Department of Education. This helped Bigham get the recognition necessary to become nominated for the esteemed Teacher of the Year Award.
Bigham’s challenging path to his own career in special education and his drive and empathy provide an example for students with their own significant life challenges. His is the sort of story that demonstrates the success that special education master’s degree graduates can have in the classroom and in the lives of the students they work with.