The Fordham Institute recently published an article called “Let’s rebuild special education when schools reopen,” by Anne Delfosse and Miriam Kurtzig Freedman. Reading it prompted both of us to offer our own thoughts, drawn from experience. In our view, the guest authors are correct in several aspects, yet very wrong in others. One of us has been a special educator for more than fifty years, and the other has dealt with related policy issues for decades. Both of us have had family members who were so identified. We have witnessed both advances and regression of educational opportunities for children and youth with disabilities in California and across the United States.
Delfosse and Kurtzig Freedman contend that today’s special education laws and regulations unduly challenge schools and create an unfair advantage for children and youth with disabilities over other student groups. By utilizing this argument as their first and primary contention, they disregard the importance of special education laws and regulations as they have been modified and reauthorized over the years.
PL 94-142 and its subsequent reauthorizations (IDEA being the current iteration) have always sought to level the playing field for students with disabilities so that they have access to general education curricula in ways and with supports that enable them to make progress. This leveling requires that some students get more supports and specialized instructional opportunities, as well as accommodations and modifications so that they can learn with their typically developing peers.
IDEA is indeed civil rights legislation. Why? Because for far too long, students with disabilities were barred from public schools! Even today some families must assert legal rights to gain access to public education for their children with disabilities. That is the core reason that such families have legal rights otherwise absent from the public-education system.
Yes, special education is a litigious field. If one takes a look at the vast majority of reasons for litigation, one frequently sees that the issues are emotional, arising from parents’ desires for their children’s success in the face of schools, systems, even educators, that fail to respond adequately to the needs of those students. Parents subject to intimidating meetings, poor communication, lack of adequate knowledge and pure frustration often turn to litigation.
We agree that far too many children are lumped into the specific learning disabilities and other health-impaired categories. There are many reasons for this: educators’ lack of pedagogical knowledge about teaching reading and math, children not being school-ready, often coming from poverty, and children who enter school with different language and cultural backgrounds.
We contend, however, that the real issue often relates to teachers who lack the training, coaching and support for appropriate interventions. The failure to use solid entrance and exit criteria, applied with fidelity and measuring progress at frequent, consistent intervals is all too often to blame.
Consider the outcomes for students who do not receive effective instruction, neither general nor special. One of us has spent years working with incarcerated youth and adults, a population in which the individuals with learning and/or language disabilities may number as much as 51 percent! When one is not taught to read or teachers do not understand learning differences, students do things like act out, drop out, and join gangs. This leads to a staggering propensity to get into legal trouble and end up in the legal and judicial systems. Also important to note: Unemployment rates of individuals with mild/moderate disabilities are extremely high.
Teaching is challenging at best. Preparation programs for teachers of students with special needs are often separated from “regular” training programs in most institutions of higher learning. Special education departments rarely teach pedagogy. General education departments rarely teach explicit instruction, interventions, decision-making, behavior management, and disability specific pedagogy. Seldom do these training institutions support what we know to work: collaboration across fields so that teachers are able to support all students and know how to work together with special education specialists.
Fordham’s guest authors state that “This civil rights law was designed to provide individually planned access to public education for students with disabilities....” Yet they seem to have missed the most important part of the statute’s sentence: “so that they have access to and make progress in the general curricula.” They end this paragraph with “Be careful what you wish for,” then go on to propose separating mild and moderate from more profoundly disabled youth. Talk about being careful what you wish for!
Most states have tried this approach at one time or another. Funding was tied to these groups and, of course, students with more profound disabilities received more dollars. This turned out to be a Field of Dreams, and come they did. Students with all sorts of needs from speech and language to specific learning disabilities to autism flooded into the moderate and severe categories so that school systems received more dollars to support them. It didn’t mean that more students received more of what they needed educationally; rather, it meant more dollars for districts and schools.
The authors are correct that we need to reimagine special education. We need to look across the board at students’ (and parents’) needs. We need to reorganize teacher training institutions. We need better and much more robust coaching and support systems for both novice and seasoned teachers. School districts need to see all students as general education students first through a multi-tiered system of supports.
The first author (Alice) has learned much over her career, first as a child growing up on prison grounds where her father was a federal warden. From that time and from interacting with trustees, talking to and watching incarcerated adults is why she went into special education. The failures of the education system were too often responsible for depriving these men and women of the lives they deserved.
We must do better at getting all children school-ready and changing adult expectations around behavior, pedagogy, and teaching from a focus on the vast middle. There is, in fact, no vast middle. In a classroom of twenty-five or more students, there are twenty-five different learning needs, styles, and outcomes. This, again, points to the critical need to retool our teaching training institutions and much else.
Alice’s great Aunt Ida, a schoolteacher in a one-room schoolhouse in rural Pennsylvania, successfully taught children first through twelfth grade. They would come to her summer cottage to thank her and share their stories about how she had made each feel special and how their success was thanks to her.
We can and must do better. Bifurcating special education is most certainly not the answer.