And so we keep on learning…..or do we?

I have long been troubled by what the right, correct, accurate, thought out, proper, logical and so forth  answer may be about special education.  This is based on the fact my teaching credential was obtained in a non-traditional manner (BA in speech pathology/audiology) due to my undergrad studies.  On one hand I have a better than average understanding of learning disabilities and the possible underlying basis going into the credentialing program, learned a ton being a teacher and helping to write IEP’s/504’s and being a participant of the student study team, working closely with my special ed colleagues to mainstream students into the science lab. On the other side of all the great things written in the previous sentence, I was worn down and exhausted each day from putting in all  I had for my 5-10 special needs students in each class and noticing it was never enough as well as realizing my regular ed students were not getting as much as they deserved from me. Finding a balance on this razor blade edge was never easy and there were days it felt more like a razor blade than others.

The 1980s was the decade when many of the state’s large mental hospitals were emptied. After years of neglect, the hospitals’ programs and buildings were in decay. In my new legislative role, I jumped at the opportunity to move people out of “those places.” I initiated funding for community mental health and substance abuse treatment programs for adults, returned young people from institution-based “special school districts” to schools in their home towns and provided for care coordinators to help manage the transition of people back into the community.

Every year, one in every five children and one in every four adults has a diagnosable mental illness. A quarter of all mental illnesses are considered serious.

In the case of inner city schools, this number is amplified and it is these figures which are the 5-10 students per class can be found.After all was said and done, I wonder if indeed all of us who jumped onto the mainstreaming band wagon and least restrictive environments, etc. really were on the correct train. There are many disabilities which are organic in nature and can be overcome with some routine medical and therapeutic efforts. There are substantially more disabilities which have a mental health component and require more than my professional education and experience provided, in addition to the fact there has been a gross elimination of counselors, psychologists, speech pathologists, RSP and other professionals at every school.

……….But when you look just a little more closely, what you find is a young man with a sly smile, quick wit and an inquisitive mind who — when he’s healthy — bears a striking resemblance to the youthful Muhammad Ali…………Yet it’s the policies of my generation of policymakers that put that formerly adorable toddler — now a troubled 6-foot-5 adult — on the street. And unless something changes, the policies of today’s generation of policymakers will keep him there.

And then there were the recriminations from the very people who had hoped they were enacting the best, right, correct and well thought out ideas. These thoughts could have been written by anyone in elected government, it is not specific to Connecticut.

But we legislators in Connecticut and many other states made a series of critical misjudgments.

First, we didn’t understand how poorly prepared the public schools were to educate children with serious mental illnesses.

Second, we didn’t adequately fund community agencies to meet new demands for community mental health services — ultimately forcing our county jails to fill the void.

And third, we didn’t realize how important it would be to create collaborations among educators, primary-care clinicians, mental-health professionals, social-services providers, even members of the criminal justice system, to give people with serious mental illnesses a reasonable chance of living successfully in the community.

During the 25 years since, I’ve experienced firsthand the devastating consequences of these mistakes.

It is these very recriminations which make me cringe as it was that approximate 30 year time period which I taught in public schools and experienced the anguish of educating every student to the best of my ability while my elected officials were busy cutting me to my knees.  This continues to be  the same program which is in force while teachers are being subjected to merit based on test scores.

Typically, schools and parents follow exactly what the author is stating.  It is far easier to take the easy course when you have limited resources and hope for the best. It is also the worst possible time to not take immediate action, as with children who are on the autism spectrum.

When Tim entered elementary school, it took us three years to convince school officials that his symptoms weren’t caused by problems with Tim’s having been adopted, his racial identity (we’re white, he’s black) or our parenting. That by then we had three children younger than Tim who also were adopted transracially and were thriving helped make our case. The school’s evaluations suggested he had what was then called attention deficit disorder and some learning disabilities. He was admitted into special education, and the school drew up a mandated individualized education plan (IEP) for him. It focused mostly on helping with his organizational skills and, at the school’s insistence, his “self-esteem.”

Tim’s IEP clearly needed to be revised after he received his new diagnoses. But his principal told me repeatedly that “he just needs to follow the rules,” as if Tim could will away his illness. In a due-process hearing we then demanded, Tim’s special education teacher declared that Tim’s biggest problem was “overprotective parents.”

And during my teaching years in public schools, the worst I encountered was the outset of charter schools.  Wherein the following and worse was stated more often than not:

What followed were many years during which one public school after another knew it couldn’t educate my son but had nothing to offer, holding him back in one case and bumping him ahead in another.

It was this very time period, the advent of charter schools, in which I saw how education and our elected leaders failed education the most. And it was when I realized until people came ‘clean’, the Michelle Rhee’s of the world would just continue to blame the wrong folks.

More than one educator has told me that I shouldn’t blame the schools: Their purpose is to educate children, not to treat them. I understand this. But I also learned from personal experience that ignoring a child’s special needs makes meaningless the special-education concepts of “appropriate” and “least restrictive” education that are embodied in the laws we passed.

These terminologies — and the realities they represent — were things that policymakers thought about too narrowly. The word “disability,” for instance, should have covered Tim and children like him. But as a friend who worked a generation ago on drafting the regulations for the federal government’s Individuals with Disabilities Education Act told me, “Paul, we were thinking of kids in wheelchairs.”

What we really need is more people able to own up and admit to deficiencies in how funding and managing education is done so we can move forward. The blame game has long been a subtle smoke screen to demonstrate all that is wrong with education, demonize teachers and not acknowledge some of the worst possible choices in education  which have been made – NOT BY TEACHERS, RATHER, THE VERY PEOPLE WHO SHOULD HAVE HAD OPEN EARS AND EYES.

Until we have a ‘truth and reconcilliation’  about what has happened these past 30 or so years, we will never get close to filling the gap created by politicians.  We can continue to blame teachers – it will not solve the problem so clearly laid out by Paul Gionfriddo.