It’s time to debate ‘mainstreaming’

It’s time to debate whether debate whether mainstreaming special-education students is fair to all students, argues attorney Miriam Kurtzig Freedman, author of Fixing Special Education, in a Wall Street Journal commentary.

When teachers focus on students who need more attention, other children get less attention, writes Freedman. Yet parents of regular-education students rarely challenge policies that place high-need children in mainstream classrooms.

The special-education system in the U.S. is highly regulated by law, expensive, and sometimes marked by litigiousness. Those working to reform the system are almost exclusively people with a direct stake in it—including school representatives, parents of students with disabilities, advocates, lawyers, special educators, academics and government officials.

Fourteen percent of students are in special education today: 70 to 80 percent have mild or moderate disabilities, including learning disabilities, speech or language impairments, social and emotional disabilities, ADHD, etc. While federal regulations govern special ed, 80 percent of funding comes from states.

Students with disabilities have the right to be in the “least restrictive environment” to the maximum extent “appropriate,” with added resources such as computers, large-print or recorded books, and personal aides, if needed.

Look into the research on inclusion and you will find that this policy is generally based on notions of civil rights and social justice, not on “best education practices” for all students. The effectiveness of inclusion for students with disabilities varies—some groups and individual students benefit; others don’t. This is one reason why inclusion remains controversial in some segments of the disability community.

Very little work has been done to establish how inclusion affects regular students—whether they are average, English-language learners, advanced, poor or homeless. Studies seem to support the social benefits of mainstreaming for children with disabilities and possibly for regular-education students, but what about the effect on their academic progress?

Teachers may tell you (privately) that inclusion often leads them to slow down and simplify classroom teaching. Yet the system is entrenched and politically correct.

Educators and parents should join a “robust, inclusive and frank national discussion” on how to fix a broken special education system, Freedman concludes.

I’d be very interested in what teachers really think about inclusion. How many are getting the supports they need to do it well?

Education and rights

I was working through some ideas for a paper I’m sketching out, and I thought I’d share a little bit of what I’d been thinking about.  Now, we’ve all heard about inalienable rights: life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

And most of us have probably heard (ad nauseum) that education is a right.  We know because, among many other organizations, the United Nations tells us so.

Education is a fundamental human right and essential for the exercise of all other human rights. It promotes individual freedom and empowerment and yields important development benefits. Yet millions of children and adults remain deprived of educational opportunities, many as a result of poverty.

Normative instruments of the United Nations and UNESCO lay down international legal obligations for the right to education. These instruments promote and develop the right of every person to enjoy access to education of good quality, without discrimination or exclusion.

Often.

Article 26.

  • (1) Everyone has the right to education. Education shall be free, at least in the elementary and fundamental stages. Elementary education shall be compulsory. Technical and professional education shall be made generally available and higher education shall be equally accessible to all on the basis of merit.
  • (2) Education shall be directed to the full development of the human personality and to the strengthening of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms. It shall promote understanding, tolerance and friendship among all nations, racial or religious groups, and shall further the activities of the United Nations for the maintenance of peace.
  • (3) Parents have a prior right to choose the kind of education that shall be given to their children.

There are manifold state Constitutional provisions, and a small host of legislative statutes and court decisions establishing various rights to education here in the United States, as well.

So what, exactly, is the extent of this right?  There’s an obvious legal-realism sort of answer that I want to put aside for now: I’m not interested in hearing how the extent of the right is whatever the courts say it is.  My question is aimed at the right not as a legal phenomenon, but as a moral one.  Let’s assume there’s a moral right to an education, a right that one holds against one’s parents, or against one’s society.  How far does such a right go? [Read more...]

Sensible ways to fix special ed

Special education is overdue for “common-sense” reform, writes attorney Miriam Kurtzig Freedman in The Atlantic. “The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) is an example of a statute that has achieved its noble mission but now urgently needs to be fixed in order to address its unintended consequences.” She proposes:

Focus on improving regular education for all students. The better that regular education is, the fewer students need to be identified for special education services. When developing inclusive programs, schools should base them on effective teaching practices that improve educational outcomes for both students with disabilities and regular education students.

. . . end the “medical model” in which IDEA eligibility for services requires a specialist’s diagnosis. This model is costly, problematic, and inexact. It often kicks in too late, after previously undiagnosed students have struggled and failed. The far better solution is to provide timely and appropriate education services for all students in our schools, based on their current performance, without the need for a diagnosis or label.

End the compliance-based approach to special education. Parents and teachers alike should be liberated from endless form-filling and meetings. Compliance does not improve student results. Only time on task — in classrooms — does.

Finally, use mediators, ombudsmen or other dispute-resolution models to encourage trust and collaboration between parents and schools, suggests Freedman.

Has special-ed inclusion backfired?

Has special-ed inclusion backfired? On Hechinger Ed, Sarah Butrymowicz questions whether students with special needs are best served by spending all or most of their day “with a teacher who likely knows little about how best to teach them.”

Federal mandates that students must be educated in “the least restrictive environment” possible.

Some classrooms are led by a general-education teacher helped out by a special-education teacher, in a team-teaching model. In other cases, however, students with special needs receive instruction from specialists only a few hours a day or week in pull-out sessions. That is, many special-education students spend the bulk of their days being taught primarily by general-education teachers.

Yet a typical general-education teacher-in-training only takes one or two courses about special education.

Some teacher-prep programs don’t require a single course focused on teaching students with disabilities; half of secondary programs don’t require field experience with special education students.

Is more training the answer? Or should we rethink inclusion? Teachers have only so much time, energy and ability to “differentiate instruction.” I suspect they could teach more effectively — and be less exhausted — if students were grouped by performance level.