What Is Special About Special Education?


I am intentionally using the same opening to this blog as a piece I wrote on 1 April 2009.  The very nature of controversial issues is the fact that there well may be more than one right answer and I would like to know what others are thinking.

This is one of those touchy subjects and incredibly difficult to write about; I am not even sure what specific position to take due to the complexitites of the issues, so bear me out and add some comments to help me clarify my own thoughts.

There are so many points to bear on this issue that it was difficult to even know where to begin.  I am going to attempt to refrain from teacher/education jargon as much as possible, however, I do encourage anyone who reads this blog to seek out a more in depth understanding of any terminology used and how it applies to the individual, the situation and how one formulates an opinion.

My undergraduate degree is in Communicative Disorders with an emphasis in neuro.  My background, while by no means as in depth as a speech pathologist, is at least a strong foothold in understanding both normal and different learning.  Over the years I have followed up on areas of interest in the neuro sciences, again, not to the level of a neuroscientist.  My opinions are based on my knowledge, experiences and interests of how the brain works.

Over the years in almost all western countries, the inclusion of all children in the education system came to include anyone not in a constant vegetative state.  I can say this with conviction as I have  subbed in special education classes for children with severe needs and have had friends with children which are far outside the realm of a normal bell curve.  Laws and regulations have been passed to educate all children K-12, independent of how low functioning the child may be and independent of any possible future cognitive functioning or ability to live an independent life.  Over the years, it became more and more difficult to define special needs/special ed from regular education as more and more was done to integrate all children into the classroom and provide them with age and ability appropriate learning opportunities.  In addition, we as scientists and teachers became more aware of what was actually on the bell curve and normal was not the same as what it appeared to be 50 years ago.

No matter which side of the path I stand on, while integrating students with severe cognitive and behavioral problems into a regulr classroom is a very high ideal, it was never alloted the money, time and resources for the program to benefit either the special needs student and/or the regular ed student.  It became an increased  work burden (not emotional – most teachers love teaching) on the regular education teacher who was expected to teach from the lowest to the highest student within a classroom, irrespective of the breadth of differences/discrepancies in abilities.  As the  line between the bell curve of normal and different abilitied thinned,  NCLB came into vogue and schools now needed to demonstrate adequate yearly progress/growth of special ed students for federal funding.  Despite the best intentions of NCLB, education in all circumstances does not move in the orderly rhythm politicians would put forth.  Special needs students have not been able to always make the gains required of the underfunded system and the punishment fell to the teachers, administration and ultimately the ‘normal’ learners as funds were cut back.

One might begin to imagine the quagmire, on all sides – parents, teachers, students (normal and differently abled), administration.   The IEP (individual education plan) which was initially created/devised to set targets of growth for students with special needs (cognitive and behavioral) became IEP’s vs. 504 plans (behavioral or ‘other’ special needs) vs. anything that was not consciously an IEP but served the purpose to get kids the help they needed (RSP, etc.). 

In the midst of all of this, some educators decided to mix it up even more by stating they thought it important for each and every child, normal or otherwise to have an IEP or something like an IEP to demonstrate how students were doing each step of the way.  Charter schools in particular ran with the IEP concept as one could easily write in quantitative measures of where the average child should be each year academically.   Charter schools further muddied the waters by asking parents who wanted their child to attend ‘charter school X’ to relinquish the rights to specialized services since the charter schools were convinced they could do a better job of education for all children.  In many cases, charter schools ran just below the radar and did not need to provide special education services, which saved money as RSP and other special services is allocated at the district level by an interesting formula (Rather than allocation based on number of IEP’s and 504’s per site, services are allocated on the basis of a normal 6-10% of population requiring them, independent of actual head count, so even though charter schools attracted many more than 10% of the special needs population, they were allocated the same resources as if they had the same percentage and thus could not ‘afford’ to adequately deliver special needs services. This has since changed somewhat, although charter schools do not provide nearly the level of special services a regular public school would provide.)  The IEP, once used soley to document, track and press for appropriate education of special needs students became the cause extraordinairre of monitoring all student performance.

In all of this, it became unstated, yet believed, that special needs children (whom even the best and brightest and most positive physicians and psychologists/psychiatrists knew better based on research),  were to be in some way given or helped to absorb the same education as normal children.  Not that everyone even really believed, at least in a scientific way, this was possible, but it sounded like the perfect moral high ground.  Anything less would mean the school, the teachers, etc. was not doing their best to acclimatize all students to the world and living in it.

Into this sour brew of educational idealogy and high moral ground and save the world ethos, came the Supreme Court Decision on 22 June 2009 and the vast different views cast upon the decision.

My experiences both in the U.S. and abroad, both in science and culture, have led me to believe that not all living organisms are produced the same, react to their environment the same nor survive and/or reproduce the same.  This is evolution in scientific terminology.  In cultural circles, a living organism which does not have the ability to do something productive and helpful to the community (village, clan, pack, etc.) is not given the same or equal resources as the other living organisms in the grouping – and not always by choice.   Example:  A guppy gives birth to 10 baby guppies.  One of them gets ich while the other nine in the aquarium do not. No outside source adds the chemicals necessary to get rid of the infection and so the one guppy dies.  This now increases all the other resources for the remaining guppies and improves their chances of mating and passing on genes.   In the human animal, if a child can not help gather food from the field, go on a hunt, etc., it generally gets less food and as is often the case with any physical difference in a living organism, may have an organ(s) which did not develop well in the womb. The combination of inadequate nutrition and a pre-existing/underlying medical situation often means the child/adult dies much younger than the surrounding population.  In both the guppy and the human family, I would venture to say there is sadness and grief (to what extent I do not know but I believe all living things have the ability to feel on some level) and yet it is the way of existence.  In culture, this may be viewed as god(s) will, etc. 

While I do not suggest one might make a ‘Sophie’s Choice’ (Willam Styron) and call it a day, I do suggest that there are ideological situations which cross lines and have made special educaton not such a clear cut case for us (non-Supreme Court Judges) or the Supreme Court.

I personally no longer  (I have in the past and may once again choose to do so) support students with moderate/severe special needs in a regular classroom as it is too disruptive to learning for everyone.  It is often frustrating for normal children to learn with distractions which are ongoing and I find it unfair to have the ‘smart’ children work with the less abled children so everyone is on course. Should there be a time when each special needs student has a reliable and supportive para-professional/behaviorist to work with the student, I most likely would change my view .  While I understand the world is not an even playing ground, I also understand the limited resources of education dollars, time and energy.   I fully support ALL students getting an appropriate and full education, however, the environment of said education varies.

Based on my experiences as a teacher and the many conversations I have had with parents expressing their concerns over their normal child being disrupted and the equally ardent conversations with parents who believe their child has a right to an equal education, I still cling to the idea that learning is somewhat sacred and requires a certain ambiance.

Mind you I have worked with children on all areas of the autism spectrum, children with 504’s from ADHD to anti-seizure meds to anti-depressants, and children who were born hydrocephalic (water on the brain), Down’s Syndrome, retarded in some cognitive manner.  I have also worked with adults recovering from a stroke,  aphasic, adults with spastic tremors, etc.  and in each case, my heart went out to each and every one and yet I also deep inside felt it was unfair in a formal learning situation to mix and match.   I have also worked with a variety of these groups in summer camp and it was successful beyond my imagination, although it was informal learning and no grades.

When the Supreme Court came out with their decision, my first thought was (1) How do we define special education? (the definition, as interpreted by schools, varies in many respects) (2) How do we define appropriate education? (We currently have districts left, right and center falling apart and falling on themselves with normal children) (3) How could we push back the tide of all these years believing integration and mainstreaming was best and allow parents to decide a specialized setting was best when it was these self same parents who fought for integration/mainstreaming, in spite of the pitfalls? (4) What new teaching methodology would be expected of me the classroom teacher to accomodate the new change in view of appropriate special education?  Would I be acountable if the parents decided to select a private school for their child? (5) Would we expect parents of special needs children to be more involved in the whole educational process? (6) Would this change the whole debate on abortion vs. right to life, especiallly now that amniocentisis is commonplace?

All of these thoughts have been racing through my mind. There is no one right answer – there are many.  There is no one way to foot the bill – there are many. How do we as  a just society decide what to do that would not look like a back step for the last 50 years of progress for special needs?

Is special education ‘special’ or, in my mind, is it just that we need to rethink the bell curve for everyone?