Resetting Education: The special needs of Special Ed

Faith Merino · August 6, 2012 · Short URL:

Special Education comes with its own set of challenges, and technology is offering solutions

Most would agree that you have to be a pretty selfless person to be a teacher.  The days are long, the pay sucks, and when something goes wrong, you’re the first person that everyone blames.  Never mind the fact that the only way you’re even able to stay on top of the unique needs of each of your 20 or so students is by taking your work home with you and doing it after dinner. 

But Special Education teachers?  They’re a special breed of selfless. 

If you’ve never experienced a day in the life of a teacher—any teacher—it’s all about controlling the chaos and getting as much done in as little time as possible.  Teachers have to find a way to miraculously get a room full of emotionally volatile and hyperactive little people to somehow work together in unison to get through the day’s activities.  But more importantly, that teacher has to find a way to customize each lesson and assignment to the individual educational level and needs of each student.

Now, let’s compare that to a day in the life of a fictional Special Ed teacher named Mrs. Jones.  Mrs. Jones has 16 students.  Two have Down Syndrome, four have autism, two have ADHD, and the rest all have varying degrees of mental retardation.  Not only is Mrs. Jones dealing with a wide range of developmental disabilities—the kids are also from several different grade levels.  The classroom is 4-6, so some of the kids are in the fourth grade, some are in the fifth grade, and some are in the sixth grade.  Mrs. Jones clearly has her hands full with the basic task of classroom management.  Now, add to that the fact that each of her 16 students comes with his or her own Individualized Education Program (IEP).

What's an IEP?

When a child is diagnosed with a disability, she is legally entitled to an IEP as mandated by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).  The IEP comes with an array of specific goals for that student’s education.  For example, if the student has autism and is non-verbal, his IEP might include developing a method of communication he can use with his teachers and peers, such as a blend of sign language and picture exchange.  The IEP may also include modified academic goals, like reading and math skills.

Obviously, this means that one IEP meeting might include a whole team of specialists and stakeholders, including parents, speech therapists, occupational therapists, psychologists, physical therapists, social workers, mobility specialists, and other professionals—all of whom are there to make sure the student receives an education based on his needs rather than existing programs and services.

So if you’re Mrs. Jones, your classroom doesn’t just consist of 16 students—it also comes with 16 sets of specialists and professionals who are all staying on top of you to make sure you’re meeting each student’s needs on time.

Needless to say, Special Ed is a totally different ballgame. 

The growing Special Ed population

There are approximately 6.6 million students in the U.S. who receive services mandated by IDEA.  That’s out of approximately 53 million students ages 5-17 in the U.S.  And with increasingly accurate and earlier diagnoses, special education has become the fastest growing segment in U.S. education.  Roughly one in six U.S. children has a developmental disability, and the prevalence of developmental disabilities rose more than 17% between 1997 and 2008, according to the CDC.   The fastest growing population in special education is students with autism.  The prevalence of autism increased 289.5% between 1997 and 2008.  Today, one in 88 children is diagnosed with autism.

Several companies and organizations have come up with different solutions to the fast-growing needs in Special Education.  Some, like MyAutismTeam, are offering solutions to meet the specific needs of children with certain developmental disabilities.  One company that really deserves special attention is Goalbook, a service that was designed by a former Special Education teacher to help others stay on top of their students’ IEP goals.

Co-founded in 2011 by former teachers Daniel Yoo and Justin Su, the platform is both a service that allows teachers to track their students’ progress toward their IEP goals, as well as a social platform where teachers, parents, and other members of a student’s team can collaborate.  When Yoo was a Special Education teacher for 7th and 8th graders in Palo Alto, he struggled to keep track of all of his students' IEP goals and felt like there was never enough time to collaborate with everyone.

“What we’ve found is that when everyone is using Goalbook, IEP meetings go much faster and smoother, because everyone’s on the same page,” said Justin Su in an interview. 

The importance of communication

Having everyone on the same page is critical to a student’s success.  Take, for example, a non-verbal autistic child whose typical week might include school, speech therapy, occupational therapy, ABA therapy, and music therapy.  Let’s say four of those five players are teaching the student to answer “yes” or “no” for items he wants or doesn’t want, while one of those players—maybe the speech therapist or the music therapist—is having him answer “okay” or “no.”  He gets confused, doesn’t make any progress one way or the other, and no one knows why. 

To help keep everyone on the same page, Goalbook’s platform has an intuitive design with visual aids, like built-in charting that automatically tracks a student’s progress towards an IEP goal.  There is also an activity stream reminiscent of a Facebook wall, so all of the team members can see what’s going on.  Additionally, administrators can view real-time reports to make sure students are on track.  And to make sure that teachers don’t fall behind on deadlines, Goalbook automatically reminds teachers when a deadline is approaching.

“The problem of implementing personalized learning for students is a difficult one to solve,” said Su.  “Each student is an individual, and each one has different goals.  The goals are in lots of different areas, and there are different stakeholders.  If you do this with ten students, that’s a lot of goals and stakeholders.”  He added: “There are a lot of edtech companies that are trying to create better content, like Khan Academy.  But what we’re trying to do is employ the best technologies from the enterprise space—the kind of workflow technologies you get with Box and Yammer—and apply them to the management of IEPs.”

The time-savings that Goalbook offers teachers is priceless, since it makes it much easier for teachers to collect and track data—a time-suck that even General Education teachers have a hard time balancing.  So it’s no wonder that Goalbook has several thousand free users and 25 schools that are paying to license the technology.

But when you think about it, every student has her own individual educational needs.  Special Education students definitely have more complex needs, but no two students are exactly alike—which is why Su says Goalbook is planning on expanding in the coming year to help meet the needs of at-risk students—those who are falling behind but aren’t actually considered special needs.

“Our vision has always been an individualized plan for all students,” said Su.


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