Leave a light on for Special Ed teachers


When does doing your job mean not doing your job?

Ask Michelle Verna. The Rochester Kellogg Middle School special education teacher has to spend at least five hours each week filling out the copious amount of paperwork her job requires.

Paperwork — all required by federal and state law — is clogging up special education. Teachers are spending vast amounts of time filling out forms and not teaching special education students

The amount of special education paperwork “is way too much,” Verna said. “I have to come in almost every weekend. Some weeks, I have to plan for 15 extra hours just to do paperwork. And it’s all uncompensated.”

Add to that the required observations, parent meetings, phone calls and teacher coordination, and Verna’s prep time is eaten up. At times, she needs to leave her students with paraprofessionals to do her paperwork.

Special education experts decry the effect paperwork has on teachers. “It’s burdensome,” said Scott Hare, Director of Social Services in Belle Plaine. “The amount of paperwork gets teachers down. They just want to work with the kids.”

The drudgery is one of the reasons some new teachers don’t go into special education, said Nan Records, Director of Special Education Services for the Sherburne and Northern Wright Special Education District.

“Paperwork has something to do with it (the dearth of new special education teachers,)” she said. “Each year, St. Cloud State holds a job fair for new teachers. Three of us could fill a day screening special education candidates. In the last four years, we haven’t even attended the job fair because there are not enough special ed graduates,” Records said.

Cory McIntyre, the Director of Student Support Services in Rochester, agreed that the number of special education teachers is thinning and paperwork is part of the problem.

“Between 2004-05 and 2007-08, we had 218 special education openings. We had 382 applicants, of which 218 were appropriately licensed. That’s telling. We’re not getting even a 2-1 applicant to jobs ratio. To give you perspective, this year alone Rochester had 70 general education positions open. We had 857 applicants, of which 665 had the right license.”

McIntyre said that if a current teacher is a good fit for a special education classroom, he will request a waiver that gives the teacher three years to get a special education license. “If they can manage a classroom, then we can teach them the paperwork,” he said.

The paperwork is required by federal and state law. Creating an Individual Education Program is a time consuming and paper-driven process. Implementing the IEP and conducting observations are also paper-driven. Documenting the student’s progress, achievements and problems are paper-driven as well, including noting every e-mail sent and phone call made.

“You have to have a paper trail for everything you do,” Verna said.

Before a student is approved for special education services, a teacher conducts an assessment which is coordinated between the teacher, the student’s other teachers and the parents (separate forms for each). If the assessment (many forms) leads to services, then the teacher compiles a comprehensive report which includes all teacher and school documentation (many forms). Then the teacher begins for Individual Education Program. This requires another meeting between parents and teachers (separate forms for each) in which the group decides on goals and objectives (many forms). If the student has multiple diagnoses, each needs to be addressed in the IEP (many more forms). Verna said the IEP can be as long as 30 pages. She said another Rochester teacher has one student with 128 goals, each with several objectives.

Every disciplinary action is documented, whether the action was verbal or physical (more forms). Maintaining the goals and objectives of the IEP is carefully documented (many forms). Formal observations are documented (several forms). Every discussion with teachers, experts or parents is documented (many forms). Every phone conversation or e-mail is documented (many forms). Students are reevaluated every three years (lots of forms).

Verna said she is currently working on six IEPs, three reevaluations and beginning to plan for another reevaluation. “It’s terrible,” she said.

Case loads vary. Teachers working with speech students may have as many as 20 students, while a teacher working with severely disabled students may have a case load of six.

Mary Ruprecht, Director of Special Education for the Rum River Special Education Cooperative, said the Minnesota Department of Education (MDE) has increased the already large number of forms. Although the forms aren’t required, teachers must use them to document their actions. This makes them essentially required, she said.

Verna said the paperwork blizzard comes from being in a litigious society. “There’s not much that can be done,” she said. “District officials want to cover themselves if they are sued by parents. That means having a paper trail. …It’s sad. The focus has gotten away from the needs of the child.”

Records agrees: “Tell me how this paperwork creates better outcomes for the student. The staff is overwhelmed and spending less time with students and more time on paperwork.”

The special education directors are quick to say they don’t mind accountability and approve of any paperwork that helps the students.

They say MDE is adding paperwork and rules to an already full plate. They say the situation has to change before it gets better. They say the paperwork takes teachers away from being teachers.

MDE needs to take the lead on this issue and create an atmosphere in which teachers can do their jobs.