Advocating for Special Education Programs, Teachers, and Students with Dr. Jane West [Podcast]

Introduction

In the last decade, there’s been a 17% decrease in special education programs. I discussed this unsettling statistic—and other pressing issues facing special education—with our guest, Dr. Jane West

Dr. West offers a unique perspective on special education. She’s led policy work for national organizations like AACTE and the Higher Education Consortium for Special Education.  

As the current pandemic exposes and multiplies the challenges for special education and teacher prep programs, I know you’ll find Jane’s insights timely. So let’s jump right into my interview with Dr. West.

Introducing Dr. Jane West

Dr. West, welcome to the Teacher Education Podcast. How are you? Now, I noticed a theme in your professional career has been advocating for particularly vulnerable students. You have a doctorate in special education. You’ve worked as a special education teacher to administrator, and you’ve advocated and worked for on disability policy. What experience has led you to focus on working in helping students with disabilities? (01:17)

Dr. Jane West: Boy, what a great question. I ask myself that a lot. I think it’s, I think it comes from this just, innate sense of injustice, of experiencing low expectations. (01:32)

There’s nothing that pushes my buttons more than people being told, “Oh, you can’t do that.” That’s like, that’s too hard for you. And perhaps it goes back to my own personal experience, growing up as a woman in the South, and being told that I could never go to a good university because people from the South don’t have good vocabularies. (01:49)

So it’s that moment where your whole being just rebels, and like, “Wait a minute, don’t tell me I can’t do that”. And as I increasingly got involved in education, I just increasingly had experiences like that, where students were just being told, “Nah, you can’t do that.” So that really motivates my work in relation to equity. (02:10)

In the last decade, there’s been a 17% decrease in special education programs. Click To Tweet

Special Education Teacher Shortages

Speaking of special education, an alarming issue for special education is that it has some of the worst teacher shortages. I was looking through one of your keynotes, and you have the statistics that 17 per there’s a 17% decrease in special education teachers in the last decade. What do you think that teacher preparation programs can do to better address this shortage? (02:37)

Dr. Jane West: There’s a lot of work underway right now to try to figure that out. One of the reasons that there is a shortage is that it’s sort of a perfect storm, in the sense that states experienced the shortage, so many of them have lowered their qualification standards, and are allowing people with little to no training at all to become certified special educators. And then they leave. (03:01)

So you have this churn because you don’t have people who are fully prepared and ready for the job. So that is something we’re trying to work with and intervene. But it’s hard. It’s hard, because, as a state, you’re responsible for having a person in front of the class. (03:28)

But there’s a lot of new recruitment initiatives underway. I’m involved in a project that just interviewed all of their candidates, and asked them why they came into special ed, and when they thought about it. And many reported that it was high school where they really made the decision. (03:49)

So there’s a lot of effort into thinking about, we need to really start recruiting in high school. So that sort of thing is underway. Also, we have a real challenge, like all of education, in a lack of diversity in our profession. So that also leads to some new recruiting strategies. Are we working with community-based organizations, and in some areas with churches, to just let them know about this program, and what’s available, and that sort of thing? (04:08)

So it’s a challenge, there are many factors. It’s complex, but I think for the point of view of teacher prep programs, new recruitment strategies, and also, sometimes modifying the programs, so they work better for people. (04:39)

A lot of people going into higher ed now are not your basic 18- to 21-year-olds, who don’t have other responsibilities, particularly in the minority community. They may be older, have children, have work, have responsibilities. So you can’t create a four-year full-time program for people like that. (04:56)

Also, clinical practice, there’s been a lot of push to extend the clinical practice to a year, which has got a lot of benefits. But for somebody who has to work for it part-time, it’s not a great fit. So there’s a lot of thinking going on how to reconfigure some programs, to attract more students. (05:15)

Then on the other side, we want to keep them in the classroom. So there’s a lot of mentoring initiatives and support that needs to go on. Where this will all lead with the coronavirus disrupting everything is hard to know at this point. (05:37)

There's a lot of thinking going on how to reconfigure special education programs to attract more students. —Dr. Jane West Click To Tweet

Helping Students With Disabilities During the Pandemic

Actually, that leads perfectly into my next question, because the current creates particularly difficult challenges for special educators and students with disabilities. In your opinion, what should policymakers and teacher educators focus on to help students with disabilities during the pandemic? (05:53)

Dr. Jane West: Well, first and foremost, recommit yourself to making sure they are served. There are some troubling stories. In Fairfax County, Virginia, I was reading one, Pennsylvania, I was reading one, where it seems like school districts are just throwing up their hands, saying, “This is too hard. And it is hard.” I’m not saying it’s not hard. (06:10)

There’s a lot that we’re not sure about how to, what to do. For example, students with autism and significant attention challenges can’t sit at the computer for four hours and engage. They need a different sort of structure. (06:33)

I think it’s a great opportunity for some of our teacher candidates to be utilized, as an emergency workforce, to provide some one-on-one phone calls, tutoring online, coaching parents. So that’s something I’ve really advocated for, is to look to the pool of candidates in higher ed who are off for the summer, or perhaps their clinical placements have been terminated, because of the pandemic, and utilize this as an emergency workforce, to work under the supervision of the teacher, to help have more hands-on deck with knowledge and experience. (06:49)

Where this is going to go is hard to know at this point. But I think there are challenges, but they’re also opportunities. There are perhaps, I think, things we’re going to discover, that we didn’t know before. Some of the online sign language capacities and online speech-language opportunities are going to further develop, so, and teletherapy. There’s more development. (07:29)

It’s certainly not, nothing’s a substitute for being in person, but hopefully, we’ll come out of this with some new skills and some new strengths. But the worst thing we can do is walk away and just say, “This is too hard.” (08:01)

The worst thing we can do right now is walk away and just say that this is too hard. —Dr. Jane West Click To Tweet

I love the idea of having teacher candidates pull together and help where they can. I’ve read articles about nursing students doing similar things with the pandemic. So why not do that with our candidates? (08:16)

Dr. Jane West: Right. We have proposed that to the National Governors Association. We actually put a proposal forward to Congress, and we’re going to keep working at it with our members. There would be opportunities in states for some of the funding under the CARES Act, that goes to the Governor, to support this sort of thing. (08:28)

So, students at one of the universities I work with, they’re all trained in counseling parents. Take that body of students, and again, let then work under a teacher, but utilize that skill set over the summer. So it’s, really, you’re right. Other disciplines have done this, and we need to do this too. I think it could make a huge difference. (08:48)

I’m a little concerned about what’s going to happen in the fall. A lot of folks go into their clinical placements in the fall, they’re working under the supervision of a teacher, and sometimes teachers get overwhelmed, and they don’t want any student teachers. And I’m keeping an eye on that. (09:16)

I hope that won’t be the case. I hope that we can see that this is an asset to have in an additional workforce, but lots to keep an eye on there. (09:35)

Reinventing Roles in Education

You also spent seven years of your career working on teacher preparation policy as a senior vice president for AACTE. What changes most excite you about the direction of teacher preparation programs and where they’re going? (09:46)

Dr. Jane West: Boy, that’s a great question. I think, like the rest of schooling in our country, our whole system of educating people is just so out of date. I don’t think we’re the only sector. The revolution of digitalization and the internet just has huge implications for everything we do, and we haven’t reconfigured ourselves to harness that. (10:02)

And it’s one thing that I hope that this pandemic will push us into a little more. Do students, particularly middle school and high school, need to show up and sit in a seat for eight hours, even in higher ed? Are there other ways to do this? (10:36)

I think about the medical profession, for example, how they have so many differentiated roles now. When I was a kid, there was the doctor, the nurse. Now there’s the nurse practitioner, there’s the physician’s assistants, there’s the nurse, anesthesiologist, et cetera. (10:52)

We still pretty much have teachers and principals. Why can’t we have a whole lot of different roles? For example, why couldn’t you have a role at a school, say a high school, where the person was in charge of knowing intern opportunities in the community, and that was their full-time job? And they helped develop these and monitor them for the students. (11:08)

Do students, particularly middle school and high school, need to show up and sit in a seat for eight hours, even in higher ed? Are there other ways to do this? —Dr. Jane West Click To Tweet

We have programs like Teach For America, where there are a lot of fine people in there, but the commitment’s for two years, and we’re kind of kidding ourselves, thinking these people are teachers. They’re not. They’re signing up for a two-year experience, and that’s great and we need to use them, but why are we calling them teachers? (11:34)

Why don’t we have a role for smart people, for good people who want to do this for a temporary period of time? And then have a master teacher supervising them. Maybe the master teacher supervises six of them or something. (11:54)

So I think that is the opportunity to really reconfigure how we do business, and I think it’s way overdue, and teacher preparation is part of it. But it’s got to be done system-wide. (12:08)

And we’re beginning to see some experimentation with that. Arizona State University is one school that comes up, that’s really trying to configure some new roles, and to think of this work as teamwork. If you’ve got somebody on your team, who’s really great at X and Y, rather than having one teacher be in charge of 30 kids and do everything. (12:27)

So that is what excites me, is looking for opportunities to really reinvent what I consider schooling. And teacher prep’s part of that. And the whole system has got to be involved. (12:50)

Wow, that answer was quite a paradigm shift. I hadn’t even thought about the comparison between medical, how we have a medical profession, and in schooling, and how we can have more specialized roles. That kind of just blew my mind. (13:40)

Dr. Jane West: Well, you think about it. Why should a teacher have bus duty? I mean, really? Couldn’t we have … That’s just, that’s a literal example. (13:58)

I think if you took a group of great teachers, like Rodney Robinson, and some of these national teachers of the year, or state teachers of the year, got them in a room and said, “Here’s a school with 600 kids, here’s your staff, figure it out,” I think we would have some of the most fabulous inventions. And boy, I’d love to see that. (14:06)

That was just very exciting. Because you’ve got these incredibly smart, accomplished teachers who know their craft, who know their skills, and I’d like to put them in charge. (14:34)

I think that’s fantastic. I think we should put Rodney in charge. (14:48)

Dr. Jane West: Right, I do too. Rodney for Secretary of Education. (14:51)

3 Ways to Better Prepare Special Education Candidates

From your experience working with teacher preparation, are there three things that you think teacher preparation programs can do to better prepare their special education candidates? (14:56)

Dr. Jane West: Well, the number one thing for me and I, this is from the perch where I sit is, to be involved in policy. I think, in many ways, the profession of special ed was birthed through policy. I happened to teach school before there was an IDEA in the early ’70s, in New York, and there was no free appropriate public education. There was no right to an education. (15:06)

I was in a trailer on the playground, with my students, who had recently been transferred from psychiatric hospitals. And it was very challenging to even let them go in the building. (15:31)

And I think that we can’t forget that, that’s sort of our roots, is that it wasn’t that long ago where students with disabilities couldn’t go to school, for whatever reason. And that could happen again. I mean, that’s not impossible. (15:47)

3 Ways to Better Prepare Special Education Candidates Click To Tweet

So I think it’s really important to keep an eye on policy and advocacy. And that’s what I have dedicated my work to in the last several years, is making sure that students know how to do that, know why it matters, and have what I call the skill set and the mindset to be engaged. (16:05)

We have so many wonderful research-based strategies now, for teachers. And that’s really important, the response to intervention, PBIS. I mean, we have so many more skills to teach teachers than we did, say, when I was going through my program. And you simply can’t learn those in a week or five weeks. I mean, they’re very sophisticated. (16:31)

So I think, focusing on, certainly the skill development, I think working under the mentorship of an accomplished teacher is really important, and always keeping an eye on policy. And policy works best when the people who were doing the work can give feedback to the policymakers, and be at the table, and not on the menu, I say. (16:59)

It’s really interesting, you bring it back to policy, and how the birth of it is through policy. And your experience before, and in New York, that sounds fascinating. I wish I could talk to you more about that, maybe after we’re done. (17:29)

But it’s interesting because policy is coming to the forefront right now, because of the pandemic. Do you think that policy initiatives for teacher preparation programs should change, because of the pandemic? Or do you think the pandemic is just highlighting issues that have existed in teacher education, and possibly could become a catalyst for real change in education? (17:42)

Dr. Jane West: I think the teaching profession has always suffered from being undervalued. And I think that’s, really comes from sexism. It’s predominantly female, it always has been. And my mother was a teacher and a principal, back in the days when you could, either, as a woman, be a teacher or a nurse. That’s sort of the history of this profession. (18:06)

It’s still, I think teachers are 80% white women, despite all the work we’ve done, and they’re underpaid, undervalued. In other societies. It’s not like that. You know, teaching is a very high prestige career. You have to have a master’s degree, at least, to be a teacher in other countries. (18:30)

Here, we have just lowered the bar year after year after year. And it makes a difference. Something like 40% of all teachers have to work a second job, to make ends meet? I mean, that’s some wrong with that. You know, this is our future we’re talking about. (18:50)

So I think, whatever we can do to really raise the profile of teachers. And I think, this pandemic, there are a lot of people who are beginning to appreciate teachers more than they ever did. (19:30)

I think the teaching profession has always suffered from being undervalued. —Dr. Jane West Click To Tweet

Especially parents. (19:25)

Dr. Jane West: Especially parents, and whether or not that will translate into better pay, and more autonomy … You know, teaching, a lot of these reform efforts have rendered teachers, just have really infringed upon their autonomy, I think. When you lower the bar, when you don’t have any requirements to be prepared to be a professional in any area, you are going to increasingly want to dictate what they do. (19:27)

The more professional training you have, the more you can use your judgment. That’s what an expert does. Part of the expertise is the judgment that comes from experience, knowledge, practice. (19:59)

And as we lower the bar, and take away the skill and the capacity that the teachers develop, if they’re in really rigorous programs, there comes with that an increasing set of dictates of, “Do it this way. Here’s a curriculum. You got to be teaching about bees on Thursday.” And that turns off people who really want, have a deep desire to engage in learning deeply. (20:14)

So, it’s a complex set of variables, and it’s one reason I love it. Because it’s not easy, and you’ve got a foot in higher ed, and a foot in K-12, which are two different cultures as well. So trying to cross that bridge is always interesting, but there’s certainly a lot to think about, and a lot of opportunities, and a lot of risks, too. (20:49)

The Magic Wand Question

One of last things that we’d like to do on our podcasts is ask this question. We call it our magic wand question. And so the question I’m going to ask you is, if you could wave a magic wand and change one thing about education policy in the US, what would it be? (21:16)

Dr. Jane West: Every teacher had to have a master’s degree in a really rigorous program. (21:32)

Interesting. (21:38)

Dr. Jane West: I think that way you get a much more highly set of skills. At first, it would probably cause a real shortage, but then, I don’t know, you have to start somewhere, demanding a higher … Just more professionalism in our field. (21:39)

When you have a field that says, “Oh, it’s okay. You don’t have to be trained, just take a dumb test, and you’ll be certified,” that doesn’t do anything for the field. I mean, it may put a body in the classroom for a year, or a week. (22:03)

But as far as really building professional expertise, I think that that’s just critical. So that’s what I would do. And the fallout would be intense, so … (22:18)

That would be disruptive. (22:35)

Dr. Jane West: It would be quite disruptive. (22:37)

Lightning Round

We also like to end our podcasts doing a lightning round. So what I do is, I will ask you a series of questions and you give a one-word to one-sentence answer. (22:40)

Dr. Jane West: Okay. (22:51)

Are you ready? (22:52)

Dr. Jane West: I’m ready. (22:53)

Okay. Last book that you read and enjoyed? (22:54)

Dr. Jane West: Ooh, I just finished it. It’s an Italian novel called The Leopard, by Lampedusa. It’s the only book he ever wrote. It’s about Italy in the 1860s, when Garibaldi came in and took over, and united all these disparate factions, and the downfall of the aristocracy. (22:58)

My master’s is in literature. So I’m very interested, and I’m going to look this up. (23:20)

Dr. Jane West: Oh, I belong to this great literature book club. (23:23)

Fantastic. Favorite conference to attend, when we can attend them again? (23:30)

Dr. Jane West: Oh, AACTE’s conference is always fantastic. (23:36)

Your go-to resource for special education? (23:39)

Dr. Jane West: Oh my. Well, I do a lot of work, so I tend to read Politico, LRP, Ed Week. I also write a blog every Friday, so I’m always reading and gathering information. I scan. I don’t have one particular place. I learn a lot on Twitter. (23:43)

That’s been another, someone else gave that answer, and I was kind of surprised by that. But that’s fantastic. (24:07)

Dr. Jane West: Yeah. (24:13)

The next destination on your travel bucket list, when we can travel? (24:13)

Dr. Jane West: Scotland. Edinburgh, Scotland. (24:19)

Ooh, that’s a good choice. Well, Jane, thank you so much for joining us on the Teacher Education Podcast. We appreciate you taking the time. Your insight into policy has been particularly helpful as we’re going through this unprecedented time. (24:21)

And I’ve been really excited to talk to someone that has so much expertise in special education. So I’m just so glad that you could take the time and join us. So thank you for sharing your experiences. (24:34)

Dr. Jane West: Oh, thank you. (24:44)

Conclusion

That’s it for today. Don’t forget to subscribe. If you like what you heard, please rate and review this podcast, to help others find us. The Teacher Education Podcast is brought to you by GoReact. This episode was hosted by me, Hillary Gamblin, and produced by Danielle Burt, Joseph Winter, and Jordan Harris. Chad Jardine is our executive producer. Guests on the podcast are expressing personal opinions for informational purposes only. They’re not acting as official representatives for the universities or organizations.

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