End special ed

It’s time to end special education, writes Matt Richmond, co-author of Financing the Education of High-Need Students. The special ed model, developed in the 1970s to end the exclusion of “handicapped” students, is “broken,” he writes.

It assumes that only students diagnosed with a disability have needs that require attention and support. The student who reads poorly due to dyslexia gets special help. The student who reads poorly because his parents didn’t read to him – or his family moved three times when he was in first grade — is out of luck.

Monitor all students’ progress and help those who need it, without requiring them to fall into a disability category, argues Richmond. Response to Intervention is an effective model, ” but current laws limit its potential reach.”

Tearing down the divide between special education and general education would benefit everyone. The disability label is not necessary or helpful; it does not define the needs of a child or his potential — nor does the absence of a medical disability negate a child’s struggles or measure his advantage. Our laws and funding structures have created a line which is harshly demarcated but entirely meaningless. In reality, there are no special-ed kids or general-ed kids; there are simply children who need an education. Each one unique. Each one requiring special attention. And every one deserving it.

The special ed funding formula is badly out of date, writes Clare McCann on The Hill. Federal funds are based on old enrollment numbers: Districts with declining enrollment get more federal dollars per student than growing districts. In addition, small states get more than larger states.

Congress was supposed to reauthorize and revise the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) several years ago. 

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  1. Michael E. Lopez says:

    “In reality, there are no special-ed kids or general-ed kids; there are simply children who need an education. Each one unique. Each one requiring special attention. And every one deserving it.”

    Put another way: There is no such thing as “red” or “blue” — there are only individual variations of the spectrum, each wonderfully colorful in its own special way.

    Or another: There’s no such thing as “tall” or “short” — there are only individual variations of height, each wonderfully extended in its own special way.

    Except of course that both of the above statements are sophomoric late-night-dorm-room-philosophy bullcrap. I don’t know if there are Platonic forms establishing “real” categories. Maybe, maybe not. But I do know that humans don’t tend to make categories out of thin air very often. (The fact that you can come up with 2 or 3 or even a dozen completely ungrounded, ludicrous distinctions that have been made historically is proof of my point, not a refutation. We employ millions and millions of distinctions.) We employ categories to track actual characteristics of the world around us. We call those things over there around the table “chairs” because they all seem to have at least something in common. Similarly, we call ourselves “humans” — and set ourselves apart from things like monkeys and Chryslers and supernovae — because we all seem to have some things in common that we don’t share with other things.

    You don’t have to call them “special ed” kids. But it’s silly to deny that some students are really disadvantaged when it comes to their ability to learn and function in a school environment. You don’t do anyone any favors by pretending that the distinction doesn’t exist.

    If the arguments presented by McCann are to be taken seriously, the problem is NOT with the “special ed” model. The problem is with the very notion of large-scale, institutional education which by its very nature must address itself to students’ commonalities, and which by its very nature is less well-suited to dealing with exceptional cases.

    • Michael E. Lopez says:

      And just one quick addendum:

      Yes, I know that “red” and “blue” are, in a sense, arbitrary divisions of the spectrum, and that there are cultures out there that cut things up differently.

      That’s *not* an argument for the notion that there’s no such thing as redness.

      • Considering just the electromagnetic spectrum they are arbitrary distinctions. However they do reflect the biochemistry of our visual photopigments. So the use of color words in language reflects our sensory perception ( of course not all people have the same color vision). Perception is, it is true, representation but it is not arbitrary representation.

        • Michael E. Lopez says:

          That’s a useful point to articulate. I tend to gloss over that because I tend to think of identities as primarily relational anyway.

  2. This reminds me of the initiative Universal Design for Learning, which insists on incorporating special ed “strategies” in all lessons. For instance:

    “An equals sign (=) might help some learners understand that the two sides of the equation need to be balanced, but might cause confusion to a student who does not understand what it means. … An important instructional strategy is to ensure that alternative representations are provided not only for accessibility, but for clarity and comprehensibility across all learners.”

    I kid you not: http://www.udlcenter.org/aboutudl/udlguidelines/principle1

    So instead of expecting students to know what an equals sign is–and explaining it to those who do not–the teacher is expected to perpetuate the confusion by providing “alternative representations.”

    Woe on those who want to learn math.

  3. Parents of special ed children with specific (and more severe) disabilities are the ones who will oppose this concept most strenuously (as they have the full-inclusion-for-everyone movement, once they realized what it meant for their kids). Once everyone is in the same big pot, it’s their kids, who need a lot more services and often a different type or pacing of curriculum, that suffer. The principle of “every child will get what s/he needs” is admirable but falls apart in reality.

    • The most academically able kids also suffer, because they should have more and deeper material, delivered at a faster pace – but the system doesn’t care about them because they will pass “the test” anyway. Any efforts to challenge them are met with outrage and screams of “elitist” and ” lacks diversity”.

  4. Momof4,

    You are quite correct, typically speaking, in most public schools, the highest achieving students usually get cheated out of an education at the expense of the lowest performers (using your pass the test analogy), it’s a crime what happens to a lot of high achievers, due to the fact that if they aren’t challenged enough, they’ll lose interest in school.

    Perhaps the highest achievers should just proceed to college level work and forgo high school, at least that way, they will actually earn credits which can be put towards a degree or certificate, rather than dealing with the issues in a typical high school setting?


  5. In the couple of years I lived in MN, I heard of several kids who didn’t attend HS, but used the state’s PSEO (post secondary enrollment options) program to go straight to CC and on to university – the local school district pays the tuition, fees and books. I was told that it was designed primarily for high-achieving juniors and seniors and it worked very well for my son. I did not know the kids who bypassed HS, but, I assumed that they were math/computer kids who were likely on the autism spectrum, since I was told that they would not be happy in the HS social environment. However, to get to that point, lots of kids have spent 9 years in school, when they could have learned even more material in 7-8 years. They won’t ever get that time back.

    At the same time, there are kids who struggle and fail to learn real HS-entry material, but who could have done so if given another 2-3 years. to cover the k-8 material. Many of those kids will drop out and many more will be left with a HS diploma they can’t read and which will be less useful than toilet paper. The one-aize-fits-all approach does not work and will never work in anything other than a very homogeneous group – despite the reform du jour and the finances applied. Politicians at all levels, admins and the general public, need to accept reality; “all” will never be able to pass any meaningful test and HS options should include good vo-tech (in many areas of which there are current or impending shortages of well-trained people).