Stephen D. Lalonde

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Education Blog

The Achilles' Heel of Public Education- Special Education

Posted on January 2, 2015 at 7:00 PM

   There was a time in the not-too-distant past when special needs students and their parents were disenfranchised and underserved. Over the years that situation has been addressed and in many ways is now out of balance in the other direction. In addition, individuals with lower and lower cognitive abilities have been brought into the public school system.

   Too often the effort to be politically correct obscures or completely ignores the truth. In dealing with special education this is certainly the case, so I will make little to no attempt at being politically correct in this blog.

   When "no child left behind" became the law of the land, it's premise was that “all children can learn.” The truth of that premise depends on the definitions of “all” and “learn.” In the most liberal use of "learn" the premise may be true, although some of the students where I taught seemed to be essentially in a vegetative state, which would suggest very little capacity to learn. What is more disturbing about the premise is the implication made by the statement. Based on the regulations associated with the law, it is reasonable to assume that the statement implies that all students can learn all elements of basic education. That is clearly untrue. The cognitive ability of students is a gradual continuum from extremely low to genius. There is no clean break point between those students who need special services to learn and those who do not. That point in the continuum is arbitrarily chosen. Some of the students that I have seen have to be diapered and spoon-fed. They speak no intelligible words and cannot appropriately respond to even the simplest command. These individuals in the past were institutionalized, but I am not suggesting that we return to that practice. I do object, however, to holding teachers responsible for performing virtual miracles, and then berating them when that doesn't happen. The original law required all definable populations within a school (gender, race, socioeconomic level, etc.) to make "adequate yearly progress" or AYP as measured by standardized testing. My school included 43 "severe and profound" special needs students. The standardized test materials were placed before the students, which for some of the lowest students would seem cruel had they the cognitive ability to understand what was expected of them. Fortunately they did not. It certainly unduly stressed those low students who did. Again, in the original law if any of the definable populations failed to make adequate yearly progress for three years, the school was declared a “failing school” and was required to add the words "a failing school" to their letterhead. Our severe and profound population failed to make adequate yearly progress. Every other population succeeded and yet we were defined as a failing school. By that time the letterhead requirement had been removed from the law.

   There are stringent legal requirements around producing and maintaining an "individualized education plan" or IEP for students identified a special needs students. There is a tremendous cost in resources and materials associated with this process. Funds specifically identified for special education are provided, but fall far short of what is needed in order to meet the requirements of law. Consequently, the cost is supplemented from the general budget in most school districts. That means some of the resources that could and should be available to all students, are used to support special needs students only. In other words, a disproportionate amount of resources are used to provide a disproportionate level of service to students who have a reduced capacity to benefit from their education. If economic resources were ample for public education then that would not be a problem. However, that is not the case. Public education has generally been inadequately funded in my state for decades. The laws and regulations dealing with special education cloak these issues in secrecy. Most people don’t have any awareness around this issue which is why I am writing this. The pendulum has swung from those who were disenfranchised to those who have extreme privilege. In other words, special education has become the tail that wags the dog.

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