'Nat'l service girls shouldn't be in charge of special needs pupils'

Special education expert to Post: "Ministries just want to save money."

school 88 (photo credit: )
school 88
(photo credit: )
The ministry's new plan to divvy up daily caretaking duties for special education pupils among teachers and girls doing national service is very problematic, Dr. Tom Gumpel told The Jerusalem Post Wednesday. Gumpel, who made aliya from San Diego in 1979, is the chair of the Division of Special Education in the School of Education at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, as well as the president of the Division of International Special Education and Services for the Council for Exceptional Children - the world's largest organization working to improve special education. "I think that [using national service girls as part of the rotation] is bordering on criminal. I just can't see how anybody could agree to such a thing. It takes a lot of time to learn how to do a job like that and do it correctly. The Education Ministry unveiled its new plan for caretakers late last week and released information regarding advances in special education over the last three years on Tuesday. A debate has been raging between parents and the ministry over the new configuration of the caretaker plan. Parents want a single caretaker attached to their child all day, every day. The ministry's new plan calls for a rotation of teachers and national service girls to provide complete coverage. Gumpel told the Post that the debate itself was slightly bizarre. "Historically, kids with mild disabilities had been able to bypass the special ed. system, [because] a caretaker would mediate between pupil and teacher. However, that option was only available to the rich," he said. He went on to explain how the caretakers had come into being in the first place. "Why did the caretaker position develop? Parents felt they were not getting the services they felt they should be getting from the ministry. Services were under-par and the ministry was not responsive to their needs. The only way they could guarantee they could get what their child needed was to pay for it." The ministry has turned an ad hoc solution into a de facto one, according to Gumpel. That is strange, he said, because the potential benefits accruing from caretakers are doubtful and hard to prove. "I don't know of any research that shows clearly that these caretakers make any educational difference. It is not my area of expertise, I don't know the research, but I know enough about these kinds of things that it would surprise me if they had a significant impact. "It would have to have either a significant impact on an a) academic level, or b) social competence level, or c) level of feeling at ease, feeling relaxed and competent. I don't know how to measure feeling competent. It would surprise me if that could be proven empirically. The question is: Who are these caretakers? How are they trained?" he asked. The vast amount of money spent on caretakers by the ministry could be much better spent on hiring more fully-trained and qualified teachers, he argued, who would have a much greater impact on the children than a caretaker - particularly an under-trained one, such as a girl doing her national service. Gumpel theorized that what was really behind the debate over caretakers were parents' feelings of involvement (or lack thereof) in their child's educational program. Gumpel compared the US's IEP (Individual Educational Plan) to its Israeli equivalent, TALA, to illustrate his point. "Why is it that parents feel this way? The IEP outlines short-term goals and long-term goals in consultation with parents. The parents have to sign it. If they don't, then it goes to the principal for mediation and then, if need be, to the district for a fair hearing. In short, there is due process. "In Israel, however, the concept of due process is severely limited, and not a constitutional guarantee. Parents' signatures are not mandated to approve the TALA. Parents' participation is not even mandated by law in the placement of a child in special education. A representative of a parents' committee is required on the committee that makes those decisions, [but not the parents of the child themselves]," so it is no wonder parents do not feel like they have enough of a say and turned to caretakers, said Gumpel. "Nothing should circumvent good teacher training and investment in infrastructure and accountability. Getting a good and rigid IEP system where parents are heavily involved and teachers [are] held responsible; this would do very well to circumvent the need for parents to take money out of their pockets," he declared. "If the schools would have good teachers and good systems there would be no need for private tutors. No parent would want it if they thought the school was adequately taking care of their child," he said. It may even be that the schools are taking good enough care but parents aren't involved enough to see it, Gumpel added. There was only one reason the ministry was using national service girls, according to Gumpel - they're free. "We are getting something cheap but it's going to cost us," he warned, "Ministries just want to save money. I don't doubt they want to help kids but they are interested in saving money." Meanwhile, the ministry presented statistics Tuesday that spending for special education had gone up 23 percent from 2006 to 2008. NIS 6 million was added to fund a longer school day and another NIS 6m. was added for schooling during vacations. New programs for the sight- and hearing-impaired were added this past school year. 250 special classrooms for the hearing-impaired were erected. There were also many more special-ed pupils taking matriculation exams, with double the number of special-ed schools sending children to take the tests (from 30 to 61). The ministry also said it was expecting the final report of the Dorner Committee shortly. The committee examined the special education system and interviewed parents as well as both domestic and international experts, teachers and others, and is expected to make sweeping recommendations.