Saturday, January 3, 2009

It Depends on What Your Definition of "Equal" Is...

What do affirmative action, socialism, and special education have in common? They all subscribe to the idea that "equal" means "the same in result" rather than "a consistent application of standards."

When I was first hired as a special educator, my soon-to-be supervisor mentioned her view that "'the same' and 'equal' are two different things." In context, what she meant is that applying the same rules and standards to all children does not lead to equal education, because some students have different needs than others. Being a new hire, I did not want to risk stirring waters by disagreeing with her, but the idea has become more and more worrisome and wrong-headed to me.

Now, "equal" can mean very different things to different people: (a) "equal" can mean a consistent application of rules; or (b) parity or result. Thus, equality can apply to (a) equality of rules and standards or (b) equality of results gotten.

Applied to the special education situation, one can argue that education can achieve "equality" in two ways: (a) education is equal when all students are held to the same standard, or (b) education is equal when all students are equally achieving. When my supervisor says that "the same" education is not "equal" education, her and I are disagreeing on what definition "equal" should have in education.

As a special educator, I certainly understand that different students come to education with very different abilities, predilections, and situations. But as an educator (without the 'special') I am also sensitive to the fact that American education operates on the premise that students are presented with standards they are to meet in order to advance to the next level. (The very idea of grade levels implies that different grade levels connote different levels of mastery of standards. If it were not this way, grade level would cease to mean anything.)

Unfortunately, special education is caught in a very tenuous middle position. On the one hand, American special education operates on the idea of "inclusion" or "mainstreaming," which says that disabled students and non-disabled ("abled") students should be in the same classes and be taught the same curricula. On the other hand, special education very much operates on a contradictory notion: that students should have work "individualized" to meet their unique needs. Thus, on the one hand, we have 'standards based' education, and on the other, 'child centered' education.

The problem is that these two ideas are in tension because they operate on two different notions of equality. "Standards based education" (the model of "inclusive" education) operates on "procedural, rather than outcome, equality") while "child centered" education operates on "outcome, rather than procedural, equality."

In my experience, special educators tend to be more sympathetic to the latter definition while general educators tend to be more sympathetic to the former definition. That makes me a rarity as I am a special educator who stands firmly with "equality of procedure" rather than "equality of results."

Why? Because it seems to me that there is little point in having a standardized curriculum and grade levels if each student is to have standards adjusted to fit their individual needs. How, in other words, are we to say that a student has passed ninth grade science that utilizes a standard curriculum if we add, as a caveat, that passing ninth grade science does not mean that all students had equal expectations put on them? "James had to do all the homework, while John only had to do 2/3rds" obliterates the idea that they both passed THE SAME class and mastered THE SAME material.

My supervisor might argue, though, that John has a processing delay or that, for some other reason, it takes him longer to do work than it does James. By this view, she is arguing that holding the same standard to two people of differing abilities is unequal.

I cannot say that this definition is wrong (words are defined by usage). I can, though, point out that such a view undermines the whole idea of American publication, with its desire to see all students come out with similar standards having been met. It undermines the idea inherent in grade levels - that passing x grade level means that the student has mastered the type of material expected of students in that grade.

So, in my personal opinion, special education is caught in a contradictory position. They are operating on a definition of "equal" that is in tension with the "procedural equality" that is the very cornerstone of what schools are designed to achieve. Quite simply, if education is to be individualized so that "equality of outcomes" becomes more important than "procedural equality," we might as well do away with grade level standards and any pretense of standards-based education. Quite simply, this would mean that the ideal of "common schools" and "common education" becomes lost.

Sadly, this seems to be where we are headed.

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