Thursday, December 18, 2008

Special Educators as Professional Enablers

It is a unique feeling to feel as strongly as I do that the field I am working in is destined to implode. I have this thought most frequently at IEP meetings (where we discuss the special ed 'services' that a child will recieve from the school).

Why do I feel this, and why at the IEP meetings in particular? Because it is there where we discuss whether to read tests to kids that have trouble reading, give calculators to kids that struggle with math, and figure out other various ways to garauntee that students never have to deal with or learn in those areas where they are doing poorly.

Now, what, you say, is wrong with giving a struggler in math a calculator? Because that simple act virtually ensures that the child will never actually have to learn the math she dose not understand. One can (a) learn what "2x2" is and how to perform the act mentally, or one can learn simply that to multiply two times two, one simply plugs in "2x2" into a calculator to retrieve the result. The former way teaches how to understand multiplication (so that when one does it on a calculator, the doer can explain what is being done). The latter does nothing to improve a child's number sense. It only teaches her how to perform steps she has no idea the purpose of.

Well, I am sorry to say that when a high schooler that does not understand decimals (in many cases precisely BECAUSE they learned on a calculator, rather than having the arithmetic concepts explained to them), us teachers decide to throw up our hands and let the student have her way. She will never again have to learn anything about math aside from how to plug in numbers into a calculator.

It gets worse. When a student comes to high school reading on a low level - and don't ask me how someone on a third-grade reading level can even get to high school! - we offer them a bevy of accomodations that ensure that they will not have to actually read things. We offer to read tests and quizzes for them, we offer them the use of software that can read their entire text-book orally, we give them audiobooks of the novel the students are working on in English 10. Anything to get 'em through! (And I am not sure it is entirely fair to give a student a grade in English class who did not actually read, but listened to, the book that everyone else had to read. But such is "differentiated educaiton.")

Why do I think that special education will implode on itself? Two reasons. First, special educators are inadvertently creating a student body so dependent on us that it only gets bigger and bigger and bigger. Like government programs, once accomodations are in place, it is dang near impossible to remove them and the likelihood is that they will only get larger and more robust. (Once I actually tried to suggest that a student no longer needed tests read to him, as he had made good progres in reading. Everyone just stared at me. The accomodation stayed.)

Secondly, I think special ed will implode because we are requiring so many services for so many students without any thought to how we can properly staff for all of these things. My supervisor today informed me that any high-schooler who is reading at a 7th grade level or below shall recieve "verbatim reading" for all tests and quizzes (and lengthy classroom readings). I resisted the urge to tell her that that would mean that about 1/4th of the entire high school (and just about the entirety of the special ed population) needs to have a one-to-one assistant so that they can be read to whenever a big assignment pops up. Obviously that is not workable. But the world of special educators doesn't care if an idea is workable; that takes second thought to whether it sounds good.

My final reason for bloviating on this topic (at length) is that I strongly feel that the field of special ed is in an inadvertent paradox: we are supposed to help people who need help, and instead we are harming them. By providing readers for students, we are telling them that they do not have to read. But in the real world, they will get no readers; no one will be hanging around waiting for them to raise their hand and ask for a piece of information to be read to them. By high school, the goal should be to prepare kids for the world, and that means teaching them TO read, rather than getting them used to someone reading for them. It means teaching them self-sufficiency rather than dependency on others.

I apologize for the lengthy post, but if you are still reading, then either you share my opinion or you are a fellow special-educator. If you are the latter category, I am sorry in advance for voicing an opiniopn that most probably disagree with.


  1. At long last, an honest assessment of the state of American education in general and special education in particular. As Kevin knows, my wife was a "special educator" for over three years before throwing up her hands in frustration and disgust at the fatally flawed system, ideologue superiors, and entitlement-minded parents. (And for those who don't know, "special education" means something in 2008 that is radically different than it did in 1988, when I was eleven and in elementary school.) In my view it appears to be just another maneuver to make excuses and justify evermore teachers and money, at the expense of the children. And all of these problems are well-documented and factual - that is, if you are someone who does not fear Teacher Union reprisal. Kevin, you are a brave one, my friend.

    Do you see any options to privatization now given the current political climate? Any word on what the Obama Administration has in store for us?

  2. Ben,

    I relaly don't think that is going to happen. From an insider's psrspective, we are too deeply entrenched in the public ed mess for the system to be revamped in any but a very slow, incremental way.

    I know a lot of people who are very for the private/voucher system (even public school teachers!). But the problem is so large - we have so much bound in our public schools - that a big change feels to many like changing horses in the middle of a stream.

    And don't think there is a CHANCE of a voucher system passing under the democratically controlled federal government. We had our chance with the republicans and still blew it. (And don't forget that NCLB was a very, very bipartisan effort. While everyone blames the republicans, Ted Kennedy was one of the bill's biggest champions.)