Tennessee Takes on Autism and Other Disabilities with Master’s-Educated Teachers
Tennessee’s 137 school districts have a big job when it comes to taking care of an expanding special needs student population. More than 12 percent of the state’s almost 1 million K-12 student population are in Individual Education Programs (IEPs), a common designation for students with special learning requirements.
As of 2016, per pupil spending on IEP students was just over $9,000 each (over and above the general per student cost of $8,600), a number that covers the cost of supplies, facilities, accommodative technologies and, most importantly, the master’s-trained educators who teach them.
Accountability and Public Involvement Characterize the Tennessee Approach to Special Education
The Tennessee state Department of Education’s Division of Special Education is committed to working with the public to inform its approach to special education in the public schools. The same program is designed to push for accountability among teachers and school districts, assuring the state taxpayers that their money is being spent appropriately on students with disabilities.
So far, the approach has been working—90 percent of parents report that the schools have reached out to involve them productively in their student’s education plan. And the state has a 94 percent success rate in identifying and bringing disabled children into IEPs to meet their special needs.
Autism Hits Hard in Tennessee; Master’s-trained Teachers Hit Back
The state, like most other states, has been hard-pressed when it comes to dealing with an influx of students diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) over the past two decades. For every 264 students in the system, 1 will have an ASD diagnosis, ranging from mild Asperger’s Syndrome to devastating childhood disintegrative disorder. An equally broad spectrum of approaches is required to successfully teach those students.
The state proactively commissioned a special report on the autism epidemic in 2010 through its Offices of Research and Education Accountability, devoting one entire section to the educational aspects of serving students with ASD.
Like other disabilities, the management of ASD is regulated under the 2004 federal IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act) legislation. IDEA controls both funding and benchmark reporting for all disabled individuals in IEPs. The state identified difficulties getting diagnoses for those students and called for more highly trained, master’s-degree educated teachers to help in the classroom.
The report also recommended an approach known as least restrictive environment, which is the practice of keeping special needs students in the same classrooms as their general education peers. Outcomes have generally been better for disabled students who have not be sequestered in separate special education classrooms.
Instead, co-teachers, consisting of one regular subject matter expert and a master’s-trained special education teacher, lead integrated classrooms. The general education teacher presents the class materials as normal, while the special education teacher provides whatever additional accommodation is required for the disabled students in the class.
The report notes that this inclusive approach is particularly successful with ASD students. But it also warns that the methods that work best for autistic students are complex and difficult for teachers to implement. Master’s-trained teachers are vital for such programs to succeed.