Mediocrity guaranteed: Do it all in every class

Telling “every school to meet every need for every kid” is a recipe for mediocrity, writes Rick Hess in Ed Week.

New York City Chancellor Dennis Walcott has committed to educating special-needs children in neighborhood schools, especially in elementary school. However, parents are finding their local schools aren’t prepared to serve all special-needs students.

That should be no surprise, Hess writes.

If we told the owners of the terrific local burger joint that they also need to start serving sushi, pizza, enchiladas, and French cuisine, because people have different preferences, and everyone has a right to eat, I suspect it’d have an adverse impact on quality. If I told a first-rate high school math tutor that he had an obligation to also tutor in science, Mandarin, and history, because he’s the only tutor in the neighborhood, the quality of his work might decline. Yet, this “duh”-caliber observation is largely absent when advocates are asking schools to shoulder yet another burden, especially when discussing how to best serve kids with special needs.

. . . the issue is not whether we ought to serve all kids. That was resolved decades ago. We all agree that we should. The question is whether we think every school, or every classroom, ought to be expected to meet every need of every student. And that strikes me as a recipe for mediocrity.

Or worse. In my 11 years of blogging, I think the complaint I’ve seen most often from teachers is that they’re expected to teach children of vastly different achievement levels, abilities and disabilities in the same classroom with little useful support.


About Joanne


  1. Whenever I think about raising the bar in my history classes, I think of the aggressive moms of special needs students who will attack me if I do. If I have time and energy, I will devise a “modified” assignment that will hopefully satisfy these moms; if not, I will avoid raising the bar.

    Example: I ambitiously tack on lots of map study to my history curriculum (way above and beyond the state standards). I am so battered by battles with these moms over the map quizzes that I’ve radically dumbed down the quizzes for everybody. It’s hard enough to add extra content (the maps); it’s too much for me to add the extra plus special ed modifications atop that.

    I think we overpromise services to the parents of special needs kids. In a world of infinite resources, they could get what they want without harming the community. In a world of finite resources, their law-fortified demands have a net negative effect on the schools’ effectiveness.

  2. Ponderosa,

    Do you have to assign a given assignment to every student in the class? Or can you meet the special needs kids parents concerns by just excusing their kids from some of the assignments? Or is that too blatant for the parents?

  3. Michael E. Lopez says:

    Or is that too blatant for the parents?

    I nearly choked on my coffee when I read this. It is without a doubt the funniest thing I’ll read all weekend. Thank you for making my morning, Mark.

    • Or is that too blatant for the parents?

      Oh man! That applies in SOO many situations. Thanks ML, post a YouTube of your spittake 🙂

      Mark, my experience was that you’d BETTER have a modified assignemnt ready to go; or ELSE you’d be marginalizing whomever. I tried to post homework sets on the board coded as: B (Basic) what you need to PASS – say around C, S (Standard) might get you to a B+ and H (Honors) you’re in the groove for AP Calc / Calc I. The message was explicit: work till exhaustion or confusion; go as far as you can.

  4. I’ll come to this discussion from a different perspective. When my son was 5 years old in a hearing impaired classroom, the mode of communication was not appropriate for him. He did not want to sign, but as he was severe to profoundly deaf, it was an expectation and requirement. We went to due process and petitioned the district to pay for the tuition for an oral school education (which would have not cost the district additional money…it was cheaper than what they got from public funding for my child) but it refused.

    The district stated it had to provide my son an education in the “least restrictive” environment. We argued it would be actually least restrictive for him to be with peers with a similar disability. It would not be fair to place him in a mainstream classroom with hearing peers and hold them back and it was not fair to my son as he would in all probability drop further and further behind since it took him longer to understand the information.

    WE took control of the situation, placed him in the private setting, he made great progress from instruction tailored to HIS needs and he successfully mainstreamed.

    If parents and schools would be honest about the child, and educate the child based on where the child is at that point in time, it would truly be for the child. As it is now, public education is a system that protects the system. It does very little for children and is so caught up in political correctness, it has become impotent.

  5. In general parents do want the appearance of equal treatment so as not to embarrass their kids –which is understandable. Crafting alternative assignments and deploying them tactfully is doable, but it’s just one more thing in a grueling day. We CAN do it all; it’s just that we can’t do it all WELL. Do we want quantity or quality? Based on the way we treat teachers in this country, it seems we want quantity. I teach 210 seventh graders –seven periods a day. I’m lucky in that I only have two courses to prepare for –many teachers have more; still, I feel worn out. I’m in my early forties and I often ask myself how I’ll manage to sustain this amount of effort in ten years. I have a friend who is a former middle school teacher who says, every day since he quit teaching feels like the first day of summer vacation. Foreign teachers visit our schools and invariably comment on how grueling our workday is compared to theirs. They are given much of the afternoon to grade, plan, call parents, etc. We’re supposed to do these major chores AFTER a very taxing 7.5 hours of managing and educating 210 rambunctious twelve-year olds. It’s too much. Want quality education –with differentiation, lucid presentations, amazing integration of technology, beautifully crafted tests, etc. ? Have kids go home at 1.

  6. Some parents not only want modifications or accommodations, but also that those actions will not affect the final grade for the class. In other words: make the work palatable and also make sure my kid graduates in the top 10 without any mention of the accommodations/modifications it took to get him/her to graduation.

    This statement does not apply only to special education students. In Maine, the Department of Education is on a quest for “Mass Customized Learning” via standards-based learning and Common Core-based assessments to create “learner-centered” education. Each student will have his/her own individual education plan (in which, of course, s/he will be strongly personally invested). If the DoE’s plan goes through (it’s still in draft stage) and actually gets implemented at the classroom level (I’m not holding my breath), the work required by teachers and ed techs will be phenomenal – and costly. There are no plans for increasing funding, by the way.

  7. Obi-Wandreas says:

    Much of this is also a result of the mindset that everyone should go to college which has killed the vocational programs. Instead of giving everyone a chance of developing necessary, useful and marketable skills, we now have a morass of students being pushed through mediocre curricula, thinking that they’re being prepared for ‘knowledge work,’ but don’t actually know anything.

    Telling people that we can’t teach them to do what they can do well because we’re too busy trying to get them to do what they can’t do is nothing short of insanity.

    • Stacy in NJ says:

      “Telling people that we can’t teach them to do what they can do well because we’re too busy trying to get them to do what they can’t do is nothing short of insanity.”

      Yes. What an awful and awfully true statement.

      • Which is the Khan thread conversation redux.

        • Stacy in NJ says:

          Yes, well, it’s Sunday morning so I’m in a Hallelujah and Amen state of mind.

        • Which is your half of the redux. Much of the disagreement in the Khan thread actually isn’t a disagreement, it’s two separate conversations with each group trying to drown the other out.
          Student ability needs to be considered into choosing educational pathways, but poor curriculum design and implementation can be just as devastating as a serious learning disability, no matter the inherent capabilities of the student.

          • That’s absurd. You can agree that curriculum is important without being a zealot. It doesn’t overcome cognitive ability, nor does it drown it out.

          • Curriculum can’t overcome innate ability, but it definitely can drown it out if done improperly. For a person to do anything they need to be taught to do it, and being taught improperly will cause them to do it improperly. A person of spectacular intelligence, if taught a skill improperly, will fail spectacularly.

  8. I think back to the single sex classroom post. Perhaps if we pushed the idea that kids (not just “disadvantaged” ones) are diverse in which type of instruction works best, we could do better. However, this would (as noted in the original post) require multiple independent educational systems and there’s a lot less graft and power for educrats in such a system. Especially if the logical approach to it is via vouchers.