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To special educate or not (Part 1)

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2/16/2010 9:00:17 PM
Posted: 6 years ago
For many reasons we as a society and educational institution can't accept that some kids will always be behind. One reason for this that you don't hear discussed is grade levels, which have a negative cumulative effect for roughly half the school population. In college everybody has heard of or learned about the bell curve; which tells us it is normal and expected to have a range of abilities. Yet it amazes me how society, politicians, and educators seem to forget this fact. In education classes teachers even learn that in a given class you can expect a six year grade range. In other words, in a 5th grade class there will be kids with reading levels ranging from 2nd through 8th grades. Time out; did anybody ever tell the general public this? Also, how did this information apparently get erased from the memories of every professional working in the schools? Getting back to grade levels, consider this. The bell curve tells us that half the children will be below average. So in any grade, half the students will be behind. Think about when students start out in first grade. Half of the students will leave first grade below average (or below their peers), or below where they should be at the end of first grade. This cycle continues for most of these kids school years because they don't catch up. And we wonder why so many kids drop out when they reach high school? They have already experienced years of failure. Grade levels tell them, and remind them daily that they are failures. If you don't think so, try explaining to them year after year why they are behind.

Another way society has denied the real-life differences among children and tried to deal with the crippling effects of grade levels is through special education. The development of the categories of special education was influenced more by politics and social pressures than by research. Even today, the few categories that include the vast majority of children in special education (Leaning Disability) are highly subjective in their definitions and decisions of who is labeled and placed into special education. Research into the effectiveness of special education has shown that once a child is placed (get a label), his/her chances of graduating greatly decrease. Of course, nobody tells parents this at an IEP meeting! The child in special education receives an Individualized Education Program (IEP), which sounds impressive. Who wouldn't want an education program tailored to their needs? Well, the problem is that the goals in an IEP are at a level far below his grade placement. What's even worse is that most of these students never get up to grade level, or catch up. So what happens when one of these children gets to high school and they're still reading at a third grade level? I have been in many uncomfortable meetings trying to explain this to parents. But hey, they have a label, and have received professional help, so it's ok to be years behind, or sometimes even nearly illiterate. The IEP becomes a license to fail.

Special education is just a reflection of the problem with our unrealistic expectations. We can't accept the fact that some kids will always be behind, no matter what we do. Since the 1970's, when the government passed massive special education legislation, the numbers have swelled, and it has been plagued with controversy. It's interesting once again how people in education so readily accept research when it seems acceptable, or they are told by the higher ups that they will accept it, but when it's to the contrary educators and legislators turn the other way. The research has shown for a long time now that special education is not working. Kids who are in special education don't catch up, and they are more likely to drop out. I believe this research because I see it every day. Another thing the research tells us is that there are no clear and consistent interventions (treatments) that distinguish the children identified with the disabilities that represent the majority of kids in special education. The disabilities that comprise the majority of kids in special education are Learning Disabled, Mentally Impaired, Emotionally Disturbed/Behavior Disorder, and Other Health Impaired (this one has so many kids because ADHD falls under it). In other words, when an Individualized Education Program (IEP) is made for these children, which specifies the goals and objective of how each child will be taught, they differ very little from disability to disability. A learning disabled (LD) child's IEP will look very much like a mentally impaired (MI) child's IEP, and so on, with all the various comparisons. And I believe this research because I have seen thousands of IEP's. The interventions always involve something like repetition, a multisensory approach (hearing and seeing it, and hands on), having directions read to them, and extended time limits. If you looked at a child's IEP goals and objectives, and didn't know their eligibility, you would have a very hard time figuring out what their eligibility (disability) was. What it really boils down to is we are bringing the material down to their level. If a learning disabled child is reading at a second grade level, he will have the same (or very similar) goals and objectives as a mentally impaired child reading at a second grade level. What needs to happen is that we need to teach kids at whatever level their at (remember the bell curve); but we have to stop pretending that all kids are the same, and hiding as many of the one's that we can get away with that aren't at grade level or behaving in special education. This is malpractice and we have to stop doing it.

After special education legislation in the 70's it was common for schools to have self-contained classrooms. These are classrooms in which special education students spend most or all of their school day. The class size is small, with paraprofessionals to assist the teacher. As with many things in our society, there were more than enough researchers and experts to provide the "proof" demonstrating the reasons and benefits for these classrooms. Well in the 90's this all changed with self-contained classrooms being gutted from school districts. When I started in the field in 1990, I worked under a principal who had already been in education for about 25 years. He told me how they (people in education) had worked so hard to get these classrooms and now they were getting rid of them. And of course the experts had all the research to show why we needed to get rid of these classrooms. I guess they got it wrong the first time? I don't know, but maybe somebody should tell the taxpayer! The research and experts once again helped lead us on another humongous, costly wild goose chase, which only delayed the inevitable. For years the learning and progress of students who were learning and behavior problems were sheltered and protected from scrutiny and real accountability. Basically, as long as you had an IEP it was OK to be far behind all of your school years. And if your behavior was so bad that you weren't learning, that was OK because you had an IEP. I know this sounds harsh and cruel, but don't misunderstand me. Teachers, schools, and districts were doing what they could, and trying to work within the rules they were given to try and educate these problem children. As more kids were becoming more problematic, the schools were expected to deal with them. So kids were often given a label, and any label would do. By the 90's it became obvious that there were too many kids in special education. After all, how could there be that many disabled children? So of course the research was provided to show that self-contained classrooms and labeling were actually detrimental to these children. Nevertheless, the reason the number of children in special education was growing is because there was a growing number of children that the regular education classrooms could not deal with. But that didn't m