The Irascible Professor SM
Irreverent Commentary on the State of Education in America Today

by Dr. Mark H. Shapiro

"My heart is singing for joy this morning.  A miracle has happened!  The light of understanding has shone upon my little pupil's mind, and behold, all things are changed."...  ...Anne Sullivan (Helen Keller's teacher).

Commentary of the Day - October 6, 2008: Putting the Special Back in Special Education.  Guest commentary by Poor Elijah (Peter Berger).

When I was growing up, my neighbor Ellie was an "exceptional child."  Ellie had what we today call "special needs."  We didn't see much of him.  Mostly he stayed at home behind his high picket fence, and whenever he wandered out, I could tell he was different from my friends.  I went to play at his house once or twice, but after we'd stood by his goldfish pond for a while, it was clear we didn't have much to say to each other.

Ellie's 1950s basement classroom was a vast improvement over the asylum, or worse, that would have been his lot in earlier days.  Our town was well ahead of districts that offered no education at all to kids with handicaps.  Some simply informed parents of "exceptional children" that there was no public education available for their child.

Spurred by that inequity, mindful of the potential lost when handicapped kids were barred from public schooling, and led by a United States Senator whose daughter was "exceptional," Congress in 1975 passed the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, which guaranteed all children the right to a "free appropriate public education," including "services" and "instruction specially designed to meet the unique needs of the handicapped child."  The children covered ranged from profoundly handicapped Ellie to kids with reading disabilities.

The law promised money to accomplish this objective.  Unfortunately, most of the federal funding never materialized, which left states and towns to pick up the bulk of the special education tab.  To the present day, escalating, unreimbursed special education costs figure significantly in escalating state and local school budgets.  It isn't appropriate, nor is it my intention, to scapegoat handicapped children or to blame them for rising property taxes.  But there's a lot wrong with the way we administer special education.  While we need to be compassionate, our evaluation needs to be honest and based on classroom reality.

The point of special education ought to be providing specialized instruction for students with learning handicaps beyond what classroom teachers with twenty other students can offer.  Many special ed teachers will tell you that's why they went into teaching.  Unfortunately, other special educators and policymakers see special education more in terms of self-esteem and guaranteed success in the form of inflated, meaningless A’s and B’s.  That guaranteed success commonly becomes school policy.  When kids object, "I can't get an F.  I'm special ed," they're often repeating what well-intentioned but misguided adults, both parents and teachers, have told them.

In addition, special education is in thrall to "inclusion."  Also known as "mainstreaming," it's derived from the sensible idea that special ed students should be placed in the "least restrictive" setting in which they can receive appropriate instruction.  If they can learn successfully in a regular classroom, that's where they should be placed.  If that doesn't work, the next step might be a smaller group setting with material aimed specifically at their level, followed by individual instruction, or placement in a special school.

Unfortunately, contemporary mainstreaming has lost its senses.  Decades of zealous inclusion-at-all-costs have placed handicapped students in classes where content and skills are utterly over their heads.  Advocates continue to argue that this boosts handicapped students' self-esteem while allowing their regular classmates to experience compassion.

Compassion is an admirable quality.  But it isn't compassionate to insist that children spend their school days in a classroom world that's beyond their comprehension.  Being visibly lost while the rest of the class watches isn't a guaranteed boost to anyone’s self-esteem.  It also isn't an education.  Merely being in a room with other kids who are learning isn't learning.  A child's real educational needs should trump our philosophical preferences.

In a related vein, special educators spend a disproportionate share of their time, often half their week, attending meetings and processing paperwork.  Avoiding lawsuits is a top priority.  The director of the ACLU dismissed schools' and teachers' "fear of lawsuits" as "overblown," but chances are he was on his way to court to sue somebody at the time.

Americans have traditionally been passionate when it comes to people's rights.  Our history leads us almost reflexively to equate any limitation on individual rights with the tyranny and evil we associate with King George and slavery.  This is especially true when you're talking about children's rights.

It's also a settled issue, though, that one person's rights end where the next person's begin, that I can't violate your rights in the name of exercising my own.  This is also especially true when you’re talking about children.

I can't tell you how many times I've heard parents declare, "I don’t care how my demand affects other kids.  I just care about my kid."  While I'd like to think I'd blush if I said something that selfish, I can understand how parents can be single-minded.  I don't understand, though, how so many advocates and special educators can be equally blind and unconcerned with the needs of the twenty other children in my classroom.

My heart goes out to students with learning problems, whether they're seventh graders who can't read, or autistic children who can't speak.  It isn't right to ignore their educational needs just because their abilities fall short of other students' capacity to learn.

But it's equally wrong to compromise other students' education in the name of bringing handicapped children into a mainstream for which we're ironically making them even less prepared.  Advocates' claims that I can meet the needs of profoundly handicapped students and grade-level students simultaneously in the same classroom are unfounded and absurd.  It's wrong to require that I reduce and dilute what I teach in a vain attempt to reach children that we've deliberately placed in an inappropriate setting.  It's wrong to subject classrooms full of children to chronic, sometimes incessant disruptions, whether they result from deliberate misconduct or the unintentional aberrant behavior that frequently accompanies mental and emotional disorders.

It's vital that we address the needs of children with learning handicaps.  But it's equally essential that we not compel other children to bear the cost.

Special education has a rightful place in our schools.  But it's not the only education our schools need to offer.

2008, Peter Berger.
Peter Berger teaches English in Weathersfield, Vermont. Poor Elijah would be pleased to answer letters addressed to him in care of the editor

The Irascible Professor comments: Poor Elijah's comments on special education are sure to stir up a hornet's nest of debate, but he raises some good points.  Points that need to be considered.  The parents of special needs children understandably want the best education possible for their children.  And, at times they can be single-minded in that pursuit.  Nevertheless, public education has to attempt to meet the needs of all its students, often with very limited resources.

One of the challenges of special education is the very wide range of problems that special needs children can have.  These range from profound physical, mental, or emotional challenges that are very difficult to address to relatively mild deficits that can be amenable to appropriate intervention.  In the IP's view, what has to be avoided is any "one size fits all" approach.  Mainstreaming can benefit special needs children with relatively mild learning problems, while those with more profound difficulties may need a much higher level of individual attention than can be achieved in an ordinary classroom.  The key should be proper diagnosis of the individual child's strengths and weaknesses, and the development of an educational plan that promises to provide the most benefit to the individual child.  In any case, the decision to mainstream should balance the needs of the exceptional child with those of the other children in the class.

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© 2008 Dr. Mark H. Shapiro - All rights reserved.
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