Tuesday, February 24, 2009

What Are the Special Educators DOING?!

Recently, I have been talking a lot about how the discipline of special educaiton has been steadily lowering the bar so that students can "succeed." The reasoning goes like this: since special education students are having a hard time meeting standards, it is easier to lower the standards than to raise the students.

Today, an e-mail crossed my desk (written by a supervisor) that provides a brilliant real-life example of this nonsense. Lately, it has been noted that special education students (and many non-special education students) have been performing poorly on tests ("benchmarks") and quizzes ("short cycles"). My supervisor and some of the higher ups have figured out a positively brilliant way to erase this problem: From now on, we will provide the following "accomodation" to special education students struggling with tests and quizzes:

Test scores will be given reduced percentage when computing grades.

That's right. Since our students are not performing well on tests and quizzes (which comprise 25% of the total grade, per Baltimore County policy), the problem must be that tests and quizzes are too much of these students grades. (What they will find, I confidently predict, is that lowering the test/quiz percentage won't help, as doing poorly on tests and quizzes is strongly correlated with not doing homework [15%] and classworks [60%]. Maybe these will be the next to be reduced!.)

Lowering the bar so that students can APPEAR successful when they are not? This is the very definition of that! Fudging the numbers? You bet. Providing students with the message that it is okay to fail because we will make failure look like "success"? Yep.

This last effect is why the suggestion irks me so much. Schools talk all the time about accountability but, as the above suggestion illustrates, we will gladly bend the rules so that students don't actually HAVE to experience the negative effects of accountability. (This is like the parent who tells their child not to hit or else they will forego dessert, only to avoid enforcing the policy because enforcement would make the child feel bad.) What this rule is inadvertently telling kids is:

(a) don't take our "tough talk" seriously becuase when push comes to shove, we will cave to what is convenient for you; and

(b) it is okay to fail the tests/quizzes beause we will actively help you do it by shielding you from the consequences.

To my mind, special education is not a synonym for immunity from standards and consequences. To me, the best way to help children get though hurdles is to help them - show them how to study, tutor them, and equip them to get over the hurdles, rather than to remove hurdles altogether. The irony is that both methods - equipping students to get over hurdles and removing hurdles - achieve the same results on paper: both lead to the appearance of success.

Unfortunately, special education seems more and more to opt for the latter option. It is easier. It involves far less work from the teacher and far less frustration for the student. It even jibes with the nurturing instinct that so many special (and general) educators have - our desire to see kids successful and aversion to seeing them frustrated. But here's what a policy of lowering and removing bars does NOT do: it does not teach students anything constructive. Not only does it avoid teaching them the information needed to face academic challenges, but it does not teach them how to deal with challenges constructively.

My last big objection to minimizing the ill effects of low test/quiz grades for special education students is that by doing so, we will virtually ensure that students manage to pass classes without demonstrating the requisite mastery of the subject. If a student was not able to pass the 9th grade English tests and, thanks to this "fudge the numbers" policy, ends up passing the class, imagine how lost she will be in 10th grade English. In such a situation - and such situations WILL occur - have we helped anyone? We have worsened the student's situation, we have engaged in the type of number-fudging considered unethical in buisiness practices...but at least we will make the school's numbers work better.

Things like this are going on too often in the world of special education. We have taken our noble desire to see all children succeed and, in our enthusiasm, forgotten that success is only success if one has to work for it. By helping kids pass classes by minimizing their failed test scores, we are handing them a shallow "success" that exists in name only.

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