For the past 16 years, I have been one of those “good” teachers: the one parents request, the one administration knows will not only keep issues to a minimum, but also manage to teach even the toughest student a thing or two in nine months. Even as a post-undergrad newbie, my “at-risk” students would score surprisingly high on standardized tests and they still liked coming to school every day, which is today’s equivalent of an educational unicorn.
How did I do that? For one thing, I was obsessed with data long before it was cool. Students in special education undergo a great deal of testing and, believe it or not, sometimes those tests contain clues as how best to approach teaching students who struggle to learn in a traditional way. And if a student didn’t have the testing, I innocently asked for it, naively not knowing that triggered a legally binding timeline.
I just thought I was assertive.
In the past few years, all that information hasn’t been cutting it. Not because the students are any less engaging, and not because I’m suffering from the all-too-common teacher burnout. There is no richer a field than education for a person with endless questions, for a person who marvels at the human being’s capacity for change. Teaching is a magical art and burgeoning science and one that I would happily continue doing for all my days.
BUT…I have simply lost my ability to turn a blind eye to the injustice I see done to students in special education. Sure, there are “good” teachers and “good” classrooms and “good” schools, but they are exceptions not the norm. Let’s not hold them up as a way to deny the obvious: the educational system is broken.
This was much more clearly articulated by Tracy Thompson in this week’s Atlantic article, The Special-Education Charade, which details her eight year experience in the special education system on behalf of her 14-year-old daughter. As someone who has participated in literally hundreds of special education meetings, I can verify from the other side of the proverbial table that every point she asserts is true: If your child has a learning disability or AD/HD and is not a behavior problem, you are pretty much screwed. (see my previous post)
In New York City, the special education meeting that determines what kind of educational services a child is/is not eligible is supposed to be a thorough review of a child’s strengths, weaknesses, areas of progress, and continued educational goals in areas of academic concern, as well as social-emotional development, study/executive skills, and medical health. Oh, and you have to squeeze introductions in there, too, as in some cases the people at the table may have never met each other or the child being discussed. And time to read the educational evaluations if someone didn’t have a copy of them ahead of time. This meeting is usually 45 minutes long. And happens with one or more parties on a speaker phone.
For perspective, please take a moment and think of a task that takes you 45 minutes to complete. Here are some I came up with:
wash and dry a load of laundry
watch an episode of Scandal
wait in line at Ikea
bake a lasagna
get a teeth cleaning
My point is, one cannot possibly determine AN ENTIRE YEAR of a child’s educational career by committee in the time it takes to par-dry one’s nail polish. (I tested this for fun once- they were still tacky when I hung up the phone. Seriously.) Anyone who defends this system has never has a child with significant learning challenges and never felt the sheer helplessness that comes with leaving such an important issue in the hands of relative strangers. Most people within the system will not defend it, even if they are the ones running the meetings. The Department of Education is not staffed by fire-breathing dragons. They are, for the most part, well-intentioned social workers, school psychologists and educators with good intentions. But their hands are tied by the very laws meant to protect students with special needs.
There isn’t an easy answer for how to fix this. The law requires students with disabilities are educated with their same-age peers in the least restrictive environments possible. And it is cheaper for schools to place students with “less severe” disabilities in regular classrooms and offer what supports they can in that setting. (though I argue any disability can be severe depending on the context, but that’s for another day) If the law and the money are pushing the trend towards educating everyone in the same classroom (as is totally the case in NYC), then more attention needs to be given to how best to support the teachers and students in that environment. Let’s start by creating a more effective way to create the legally-binding document that tells them exactly how to do that.
And fer cryin’ out loud, let’s take longer than 45 minutes to write it.