The impact of specialized academic instruction on special education

Specialized Academic Instruction (SAI) has become a fact of life in most public schools in the state of California and elsewhere. The hybrid program promised to adhere to the mainstreaming goals of the Individual with Disability Education Act (IDEA), as well to alleviate finances for struggling school districts.

In many respects, the program has fulfilled some of those goals. But its supposed success is a mixed bag of sorts when closely observed.

The program hasn’t been fully endorsed by most special education teachers or by the California Teacher Association (which wrote a scathing report in its monthly magazine). Also, the selling and implementation of the program was done by consulting firms outside the educational system. The consultation alone has proven to be extremely expensive for many districts.

One thing is certain: there are plenty of opinions about it. And those opinions may shape this special education program in the years to come.

Some facts about SAI

SAI was meant to replace two traditional special education programs, Resource Special Program (RSP) and Special Day Classroom (SDC). In particular, it was geared toward school districts that offered RSP classes and SDC classes.

RSP catered to students with minor learning disorders. They were often placed in general education settings for 50% or more of the day. Usually, they can operate in a general education classroom with some accommodations. In many cases, they still had to take special ed. courses for key subject areas such as English, Math, Science or Social Studies. 

Most districts used RSP teachers for learning centers or for co-teaching courses. Others had special RSP courses in core subjects. Primarily, these teachers’ jobs were to observe, monitor, and assist special education students enrolled in general education courses.

Usually, a student in a RSP course had been labeled “RSP” and would have language and math skills at or a few grades levels below their non-disabled peers. In high schools, for instance, if they were reading, writing or doing math at a 5th grade level, they’d be enrolled in an RSP English or math course.

SDC served a population of students that were far behind their general education and RSP counter parts. Often, they spent less than 50 percent of the day in the general education population. In some cases, they took only one general education course (physical education). SDC course in subjects were given to them.

There were other programs such as Basic Skills and adult transition courses that catered to students with developmental and intellectual disabilities. Many of these courses were also streamlined into something known as CBI.

The positive effect of SAI

The SAI courses combined RSP and SDC courses. As a result, it limited the number students within this new course and forced school officials to mainstream nearly every student designated as RSP.

Mainstreaming is the act of placing students who fall under the special education criteria into general education classes. The process reflects the goals of IDEA known as Free and Appropriate Education (FAPE).

While it’s an indirect effect, mainstreaming has helped to lower the cost of hiring additional instructional assistants, ordering specialized educational materials, and constructing new building or classrooms.

SAI courses have also become a gateway of sorts for a population of students who are designated as “basic skills.” These are students with severe learning disorders – they may have a certain form of autism that would fall onto the upper-lower end of the spectrum. Others would have skills far below their peers – both special and general ed.

This program has helped with mobility, in terms of moving some students up the educational ladder. It has reduced the need for basic skill courses, and has helped student in these positions to expand their education and development of skills.

The negative effects

For all its positive attributes, SAI is still a very flawed program. Its effect can be felt directly and indirectly in the classrooms that bear its name and the special education student it affects.

For starters, SAI was supposed to combine two programs. However, some school districts have decided to combine it with Basic Skills or Emotional Disorder (ED) courses as well. The result is daunting for the teacher who will have to deal with 15 to 20 students with varying degrees of disabilities, skill levels and behavior.

It’s not uncommon to have a high school class with one or two students reading at 1st grade level and others at 3rd, 4th, and 10th grade level. Also, it’s not surprising to have students designated with mild/moderate disabilities (auditory or visual disorders, Asperger’s, ADD/ADHD) and students with severe disorders (intellectual or developmental disorders, low-functioning autism, emotional disorders) placed in the same classroom. In the past, this has created a volatile mixture that has made classroom discipline and effectiveness nearly impossible.

Another problem with SAI is that there are rarely any accommodation/modification tools or curriculum offered with it. In many cases, teachers are expected to teach the students the same curriculum and standards as used in the general education population.

To top off the situation, special education teachers are often working alone. During the recent financial crisis in California, many districts cut the instructional aid workforce by more than a half. This meant that many district didn’t have the personnel to aid special education teachers and students unless there were for specified reason. In many cases, instructional aides were limited to CBI courses or one-on-one coverage for a particular student.

The negative effects didn’t stop at the classroom door, either. Many special education students who didn’t fit the criteria for SAI courses were mainstreamed into the general education classrooms, whether they were ready or not.

Many general education teachers complained of seeing a spike in behavioral problems, student frustration, and failures among the mainstreamed students. Also, many of them complained about not being adequately prepared to handle and serve this particular population.

And, to make matters worse, the implementation of the program reduced the number of RSP teachers available to monitor these students. SAI was part of an overhaul by of the special education program in many districts. Some managed to do this efficiently as possible by offering other programs such learning centers and co-taught courses (with a special education teacher and a general education teacher in the same room) along with SAI. Other districts didn’t do this.

As a result, RSP teachers were often reassigned to SAI courses, had an extra hour of collaboration or monitoring of RSP students removed. Thus, the ability to go into a general education classroom to observe or assist a student with disability in these courses was compromised.

Another issue – one that has been around since the inception of special education – is that SAI has become a dumping ground for students who couldn’t make it in the general education population. There are times when an SAI classroom may start off the year with 5-10 students. By the end of the school year, the number will rise above 20. A lot of times, if a mainstreamed special education student is failing a course, the counselors will automatically move him/her to an SAI course. This may happen despite the possibility the student was not doing his/her homework, or had simply needed tutorial help.

What does the future hold?

SAI is far from perfect. And, in many respect, it hasn’t done anything different from its counterpart programs of SDC and RSP. It’s more of a financial and streamlining fix than a viable academic program. It doesn’t help students to move on to the general education classroom. In fact, it may trap a student there for the remainder of his/her school career.

As with many educational programs, it will get replaced with something else. It’s not a question of ‘if’, but ‘when’. One must wonder what it will be replaced with. While SAI set the stage for more students with disability to be included in the general education setting, it has also create a lot of frustration and confusion.

If change does come, hopefully, there will be a need to either improve what is being offered or get rid of it and find something else.