Special education is a funny thing. (Not so much “ha ha” funny, more like “Huh, that doesn’t make a lick of sense” funny. Not actually that funny at all, sorry.) We believe deeply in early intervention and a robust special education system in place from the very beginning, but there’s little agreement on what success actually looks like. And to those of us who live in the world of special education, there are few things that make us at best roll our eyes and at worst lay awake at night than hearing even the most well-intentioned policy-makers and elected officials talk about how they’re going to fix special education.
It’s no secret that special education is poorly funded and unevenly implemented in this country. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act of 1990 was intended to address this, and it certainly has made a huge difference for students for students with disabilities in public schools. But IDEA mandates that the federal government cover forty percent of the cost of educating students with disabilities, and in the years since the law was enacted, the closest the government has come to reaching this funding level was about eighteen percent. President Obama poured stimulus money into IDEA in 2009, but that was a short term solution, one that was basically wiped out last year by budget cuts from sequestration, obliterating $579 million from federal special education funding. Since sequestration, funding for IDEA has dropped to fourteen percent, the lowest level in a decade.
Shockingly, government studies show that students with disabilities are not receiving a quality education in our nation’s public schools. The dropout rate for kids with disabilities is twice that of their typical classmates. In a number of states (including California, the District of Columbia and, of course, my own state of Texas, because why wouldn’t it be?), things are bad enough to require federal intervention.
Enter Education Secretary Arne Duncan.
I’m not sure what to think about Duncan. He strikes me as a guy who absolutely cares about education and genuinely wants to make a difference. And he represents an administration that has taken education seriously in a way that not very many previous presidents have done. But that approach to education has hinged very strongly on measuring educational progress with standardized testing, and incentivizing change (“Race to the Top”, for example) in a way that distributes resources unevenly. As troubling as this might be for anyone with kids in public schools, it’s especially concerning for special needs parents.
Last week, in a conference call with reporters announcing the administration’s “major shift” in how the government measures the success of federally supported special education programs, Secretary Duncan made a statement that seemed reasonable at first glance, but upon further consideration raised red flags.
“We know that when students with disabilities are held to high expectations and have access to a robust curriculum, they excel.”
Joining Duncan in the conference call was Kevin Huffman, Tennessee’s education commissioner. Huffman reiterated the view that special education students simply need to be challenged by more demanding homework, and that their progress needs to be measured by more comprehensive testing.
Under Duncan’s new guidelines, the administration will require evidence from the states showing that students with disabilities are making academic progress. And of course, standardized testing instruments will supply that proof.
Look. I get what they’re trying to do. I really do. And my own commitment to inclusion means that I am all about giving our kids a challenging academic environment. But I’m going to go out on a limb and suggest that for most special education students, particularly those with intellectual and neurological conditions, it’s not the lack of academic challenge that keeps them below grade level. Our kids are doing the best they can with the capabilities they have, and by and large, I believe that special educators are doing the same. I’ve called out plenty of my daughter’s teachers for low-balling her, but I still believe that it’s the exception, not the rule.
Challenging curriculum doesn’t make our kids’ disabilities go away, or diminish. Our kids don’t outgrow their challenges. Suggesting otherwise is dangerous, because it gives administrators and policy-makers a green light to decrease funding and programs for students with disabilities as they get older, when the exact opposite is what is needed.
We don’t need platitudes from inspirational posters about trying harder and expecting more. And we certainly don’t need more standardized testing instruments to try to measure our very unique kids and squeeze them into poorly-designed boxes. We don’t need to threaten our schools and teachers into somehow doing better than they’re doing. We don’t need approaches to education that operate under the philosophy that a little elbow grease and a few weeks of number two pencils and bubble answer sheets are going to make the learning difficulties inherent in disability just disappear.
I love the idea of the federal government fulfilling the promise of IDEA. Solid education for kids with disabilities doesn’t work if you equate fair opportunity with equal resources, and the right to a fair education for the disabled is a human rights issue, not an entitlement debate.
But please leave the inspirational posters back in your Washington offices, and the actual warfare to those who aren’t in the trenches merely as sight-seers. “Work harder and test more” simply isn’t a philosophy that works with special needs kids. Honestly, I’m not sure it works for the rest of the kids, either.
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