Special Education – We Can Do Better

As the 50th Anniversary of Martin Luther King’s infamous “I have a dream” speech has received a lot of news coverage it got me thinking about another very important area of civil rights… special education.

Until recently (last 30 years) our government completely failed to protect children with disabilities and to mandate that they too be educated with a quality and meaningful education. Prior to the 1970’s public schools did not address the needs of all learners. Congress found that roughly 2 million children were receiving no education or very little education which eventually resulted in the passage and enactment of the Education for All Handicapped Children Act of 1975 (EHA).

For the first time children with disabilities had a legal right to a free appropriate public education (FAPE). This included the development of individual education programs (IEP) and provided federal funding to assist states in the expense of educating all students regardless of their disabilities.

Over the years the EHA has been expanded and reauthorized eventually becoming known as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). While we have come a long way in our journey to protect the educational rights of all children it is frustrating to see school districts spend so much of their precious resources fighting against families and government regulations that protect students.

Having had the opportunity to visit schools around the world including refugee camps, where make shift schools house hundreds of kids with just a few teachers and little to no resources for children with disabilities, I really do appreciate the progress we have made in the US. But it also reminds me that there are only three things schools need to be successful: 1) willing students; 2) teachers that care; and 3) involved parents. That is it. You don’t need bloated administrations and inflated salaries. All you need are parents, students, and teachers working in conjunction with each other.

It is frustrating that so many school districts focus on the success of their high students as a reflection of the quality of their school. I believe success should be measured by the amount of growth each student makes regardless of how that compares with their peers. If school districts focused on meeting all of a student’s learning needs and worked collaboratively with families and other professionals to identify each area of concern, student growth would inevitably increase.

The only reason we have to enact laws mandating the education of all students is because public school districts failed to reach all learners. And even today, with all of the recently enacted legislation school districts still struggle to understand that all students are important and valuable members of our society.

Unfortunately, many special education administrators have forgotten the whole purpose behind the enactment of special education laws. As a result, they too often focus on doing the minimal amount possible instead of addressing all of a student’s unique needs. A clear example of this is students who remain year after year in a resource program with little to no progress. Instead of trying to understand why a particular student is not making progress and develop a specific program designed to meet their individual needs school districts will leave students in the same failed program. Why? Because that is what they have available and the law doesn’t necessarily require them to provide more. Yet, if your job is to reach all learners schools should be compelled to adjust their programs accordingly. But this is not the case. School districts too often offer limited services resulting in student failure instead of success. Herein is the problem and the reason why we still have so far to go with special education.

It really comes down to understanding one’s purpose as an organization. A public school’s sole purpose is to educate students. The quality of that education depends on many factors. The US Supreme Court has determined that public schools do not have to maximize a student’s potential they only have to provide them a basic floor of opportunity. But, this doesn’t mean schools can’t go above and beyond this requirement.

I know many teachers who work into the night and on weekends to better prepare themselves for the benefit of their students. They do not have to put in the extra work, but they strive for excellence. Similarly, special education departments should want to be the best they can which requires going above and beyond the minimal requirements of the law. But this is rarely the case.

For example, when parents bring in outside assessments to share with their child’s IEP team, too many times schools dismiss the new information. Outside assessments are second opinions of what a student needs and as such are very important. The IEP team should be thankful for the additional information as it can be used to develop an appropriate program for the student. However, I have seen many districts complain about the length of outside assessments or that certain assessors discuss findings outside of their area of expertise. Instead of focusing on the new data and how it can be used to benefit the student, school districts often take a defensive posture as if you are attacking them and their findings.

The courts have held that the fundamental purpose of the Education Code is the welfare of the students. In California the special education portion of the Education Code is intended to ensure that all individuals with exceptional needs are provided their rights to appropriate programs and services which are designed to meet their unique needs under the IDEA.

For this to occur, school districts must not feel threatened by independent assessments. In fact they should welcome the additional information and appreciate lengthy and detailed reports on what the needs of the student are.

If I was an educator I would want all the information possible on a student’s deficit areas so I could fully understand their learning needs and develop an individualized program specific to that student. Can you imagine going to a medical doctor with a second opinion and being told that the report contains too much information? Well that is exactly what many school districts are doing.

In conclusion, while our special education laws have provided great protection for students with disabilities we still have a long way to go to get school districts to understand the purpose behind such legislation. It is my hope to continue to work collaboratively with school districts and help them understand that the law is just a starting point and not the end. That is, schools can provide above and beyond what the law requires. Special education laws only require mediocrity; however, I believe our public schools should strive for much more…. not because they have to, but because they want to.

0 replies
  1. Carrie Friedrich
    Carrie Friedrich says:

    As a teacher there is always a struggle between those of us who teach and those that make the administrative decisions of what a student receives in terms of services and support. I agree, it is a collaboration between the teacher, family and student. We can do better.


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