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Special Education Illustrates Standardization’s Shortcomings

January 11, 2016

In thinking back on the posts I’ve written over the past four years, it is surprising how few deal with Special Education, especially given the amount of time I spent on that issue as a building level administrator and Superintendent. In reading Tracy Thompson’s January 3 Atlantic article, “The Special Ed Charade” I was reminded of the reason why: the complicated and costly Special Education programs are NOT the problem, they are, instead, evidence that the factory model of schooling is flawed and fails thousands of children across the country.

Ms. Thompson’s article does an excellent job of presenting the inherent complexity, conflict and frustration of the special eduction process from an informed parents’ perspective. In doing so she touches on the reasons schools struggle to provide the services: understaffed offices, overworked teachers, and— most of all— a flawed design.

In her description of why her husband and she were compelled to make a vital decision regarding her daughter’s ninth grade placement Ms. Thompson acknowledges is is “…because there are so many special-education kids and so few special-education caseworkers—”. In her description of the many challenges her daughter encountered in having the IEP implemented by her classroom teachers, Ms. Thompson acknowledges that this is because”...general-education teachers..are overworked, stressed, and under-trained in the discipline techniques that are most effective with kids whose brains are wired differently.” And Ms. Thompson does an excellent job of describing the economic and emotional costs of special education. She recounts her experiences at IEP meetings involving 15 professionals and does some back-of-the-envelope calculations on the costs that, if anything, are understated. She does an excellent job of describing the mounting frustrations a special education parent experiences when the schools are not responsive, a frustration that can result in the parents seeking legal help which results in the schools doing likewise and the result is often highly contentious and unproductive meetings that last for hours and add to the costs to both parents and the schools.

But Ms. Thompson sees through the haze of IEPs to the root cause:

(My) daughter had the misfortune of being at an elementary school noted for having the highest standardized test scores in the county and an institutional culture that seems to regard kids with learning disabilities as impediments to their goal of keeping those scores high. You could say the school and I had differing agendas.

In the end, Ms. Thompson and her husband pay for their daughter’s education at a specialized school out of their own pockets:

…This fall, my daughter started at a private high school for college-track students with a variety of non-standard learning styles, where the motto emblazoned on the front of the buildings is “Because not all great minds think alike.”  There’s no relentless standardized testing, classes are small, there’s a rich arts curriculum, teachers are skilled in addressing individual learning needs, and teacher pay is not determined by student test scores. The full retail price of sanity is steep—$32,800 a year—and over the next four years that will make a sizable dent in our retirement funds. But at least we have retirement funds to plunder. Parents with fewer financial resources than ours take out loans or second mortgages, or they homeschool. Or they settle for what they can get. 

In a world that made sense, students like my daughter would be seen for what they are: canaries in the coal mine that public education has become. Their struggles highlight the dismal state of teacher training in this country, the urgent need not for more tests but more innovative teaching methods, and the dogged persistence of such educational “theories” that learning disabilities equal low intellect, or that it is possible to discipline a child into learning differently. And in fact, educators do know better: In some pilot programs here and there, there are small seeds of change. Those could take a generation to flower, and for parents like me the wait may seem more like a couple of centuries. Time passes slowly when you’re in an IEP meeting. Childhood doesn’t wait.

But from my perspective, the school Ms. Thompson describes in her closing paragraphs should be the standard and parents who have neither the finances or time required to doggedly monitor their child’s progress should have the same access to an individualized program for their children as Ms. Thompson had for her daughter…. and the Network School envisioned by this blog would do that and undoing so would preclude the need for “special education”.

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