A Tale of Two Systems

Over the last month and a half, I’ve had the opportunity to converse with New Zealand educators, read reports compiled by the Education Review Office (ERO), and learn about the New Zealand Education System.  I have begun to develop a clearer understanding of what special education looks like and how it functions in New Zealand.  The system is different from the United States in so many ways, but the issues educators face are eerily similar.

How does special education compare to the United States?

Staffing and Service Delivery

US: The details of how special education staffing is determined varies between states and school districts.  Overall, staffing is determined by the number of students at a school who qualify for special education (some places also consider the disability category, programming required, and/or the amount of time the student requires support).  Based on this, each school is allocated x number of special education teachers and x number of teaching assistants.  Nationwide, the policy is to educate students in their Least Restrictive Environment (LRE).  This means that we educate students in their general education classroom as much as possible and only move them to a more restrictive environment (e.g. special education classroom or school) when we have determined that it is not possible for them to access the curriculum in a less restrictive space.  Generally, special education teachers and teaching assistants support the students inside their general education classroom and/or in a special education classroom as needed.  Some areas also educate students in special schools when necessary. In some places, students may be placed in a special program within a school.  For example, a high needs student may access a program designed to teach life skills (e.g. brushing teeth, doing laundry, using a phone). Special education teachers also serve as case managers for special education students.  As case managers, they coordinate and schedule support, lead the development and implementation of Individualized Education Plans (IEP), monitor and report on IEP progress, and serve as the central point of contact for the various entities involved in the student’s special education support.

NZ: There are three environments in which students with special needs are educated: general education classroom, satellite class of a special school, and a special school.  Mainstream schools do not have what we think of as special education teachers.  Instead, schools have one Special Education Needs Coordinator (SENCO).  The SENCO essentially serves as the special education case manager for all the students with special needs within that school.  SENCOs identify student needs, coordinate support, allocate resources, provide guidelines for staff working with the students, and monitor progress and effectiveness.  In many cases, SENCOs also have another role within the school.  Some also serve as Deputy Principals.  Others are classroom teachers.  Depending on the school and the SENCO, SENCOs may provide interventions for students with disabilities.  Mostly, their role is to provide classroom teachers and teacher aides with the skills and resources necessary to support the students.  The number of teacher aides a school employs is up to the school itself.  Schools in New Zealand are self-governing.  So, the Ministry of Education makes a monetary contribution to staffing and resources in the form of a special education grant.  Each school is given a base amount of $1,440.61 and an additional $38.93-$75.65 per student based on the school’s decile, which is determined by the school community’s socio-economic status. Additional money is raised through school fundraising or taken from the facilities budget.  If a student has higher needs, the school can apply for additional support in various forms.  For the highest need students, schools will apply for Ongoing Resourcing Scheme (ORS) support.  ORS funding may be used to provide specialists (e.g. speech and language teacher), additional support staff, or needed resources.  For students whose needs do not qualify them for ORS, schools may apply for Resource Teachers Learning and Behavior (RTLB) support. RTLB’s serve multiple schools.  They may work directly with students.  Oftentimes they provide support to the school and classroom teacher, so they are better prepared to educate their students.

Qualifying for Special Education

US: Before a student is given special education support, he/she undergoes a comprehensive evaluation.  This is usually run by a school psychologist, though other individuals may administer some of the assessments.  The student will take a series of norm-referenced tests to measure his/her cognitive, academic, social, and behavioral abilities.  A committee uses this information to decide if the student meets the criteria for any of the thirteen disability categories laid out in the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).  Therefore, any student who does qualify for special education is given at least one disability label (e.g. autism, learning disability).

NZ: Students with special education needs do not necessarily have disabilities in New Zealand.  The Education Act 1989 states, “people who have special educational needs (whether because of disability or otherwise) have the same rights to enroll and receive education at State schools as people who do not.”  In general, New Zealand focuses far less on a given student’s disability, and more on his/her needs.  In fact, students are not given disability labels as they are in the US.  Students may be referred to by their level of need.  For instance, students who receive ORS support have been found to be “high needs” or “very high needs.”  Identifying students who require special education support is left up to the school.  The National Administration Guidelines state that a school’s Board of Trustees, in conjunction with its principal and staff, are required to use “good quality assessment information” to identify students with special needs.  Unlike in the US, formal, norm-referenced assessments are usually funded by the parents.  Otherwise, the school can rely on in-house assessments and can use their special education grant to provide support to any students they determine have special needs.  If a school applies for additional support through a program such as ORS, they must submit a form to the Ministry of Education detailing the student’s needs in areas such as thinking and managing self as well as the interventions that have been tried.

Individualized Education Plans

US: Each student who qualifies for special education services has an Individualized Education Plan (IEP).  The IEP is a legal document and outlines the student’s strengths, needs, goals, and services and support the school will provide.  The IEP is reviewed and updated at least once a year.  The IEP is developed by an IEP team, which consists of, at least, a general education teacher, special education teacher, administrator, and parent. 

NZ: Not all students with special needs have IEPs.  IEPs are written when the student requires a change in the curriculum, adaptations to teaching strategies, changes to the classroom or school environment, or transition planning.  Even still, it is up to each school to determine if and when they formalize a plan within an IEP.  IEPs are developed by a team, like the United States.  Members of this team may include parents, whanau, school staff, and specialists.  Schools and communities are tightly bound, so an IEP team may also include a community member close to the student, such as a coach. The team determines the purpose of the IEP.  They develop goals and outline modes of support (not only for the student, but for staff as well), and services.

What are the mutual issues?

Support and Funding

When conversing with educators about special education, both in New Zealand and in the United States, the need for increased support consistently arises.  In both cases, funding is at the heart of this.  In the United States, schools complain of not being allocated enough staff.  Special education teachers are overloaded leading to increased responsibility being placed on classroom teachers.  The same is true in New Zealand.  Principals and teachers report that schools’ special education grants cannot fund the needed number of teacher aides, and it is difficult to receive ORS funding. So, schools are forced to fundraise or use money earmarked for other purposes, such as facility maintenance, to pay for teacher aides and needed resources.

Time to Receive Support

In the United States, the detailed process used to determine if a student requires special education takes months.  Therefore, classroom teachers and parents often become frustrated by how much time passes between when a student is informally identified as needing additional support, and when the student begins receiving special education support.  In New Zealand, educators have to choose the appropriate additional funding entity (e.g. ORS, RTLB) and fill out detailed paperwork for each kid in order to get the staff needed to provide support.  They report that it takes a long time to find out if students qualify or not.  If they do not, the school may choose to go through an appeals process, which takes additional time. So overall, there is a lot of time spent waiting and hoping that a child will receive the support he/she needs.

I find it interesting that here we have two countries with different policies and practices for identifying students, different ways of outlining services and support, and different methods for allocating staff and services.  Yet, the barriers to providing students with what they need to be successful are similar.  For students to progress in the curriculum, schools need to be given funding to adequately staff their schools.  Students need to be identified quickly, and there needs to be minimal time between identified students with special needs and providing support.  How do we do that?

That’s a question I’ve been asking myself a lot over the last few years.  Many of the problems with education are systemic.  Changes are required at a policy level for schools to be empowered to provide high quality education to all students.  Unfortunately, I don’t think I can solve these systemic problems within the next three months. 

Then I think about a conversation I recently had with a principal.  He said that its about finding ways to work within the system, or sometimes circumnavigate the system.  It’s about finding the loopholes and using them to create the school environment we, as educators, know students need.  When I asked him how he manages to pull this off, he replied that it takes a thick skin.  A leader willing to do what is necessary in a broken system must be prepared to take ridicule, be chastised by those above and stand up to it, speak out for what is needed (and be prepared to do that for years).  Perhaps most importantly, this principal had built a strong school community.  He had the support of his students, teachers, parents, his Board of Trustees, and the community around the school.  He had a team.

This is why my project is focused on collaboration and team building.  Improving education isn’t about building the strongest individual educators, its about building the strongest education team.  It doesn’t just take a village to raise a child, it takes a village to educate one too.

One thought on “A Tale of Two Systems

  1. Fascinating! One thing that really jumped out to me was that NZ trusts the B of T, principal and staff to use good quality assessment info to identify students with special needs. Sounds very sensible. Wondering who makes up the Board of Trustees?


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