Friday, February 18, 2011

I.E.Please: Thoughts And Reflections On Special Education Today

"He ended with a 56. So I gave him a C."

I know what you all are thinking. Clearly, I'm terrible at math. How else then would you explain the fact that one of my students last semester ended with a grade that was 14 percentage points lower of what his grade needed to be to pass my class? First and foremost, just because my lowest grades in high school and college were in math doesn't mean I'm terrible at math. It just means that sometimes there are situations in the classroom where a final grade does not tell the entire story of a student. Here, the student in question wasn't as bad as his final grade indicated. However, he also hadn't done enough in my opinion to pass the class. I could see bumping up the grade to a 60, maybe a 62 or 63. However, the student ultimately got a C that he didn't deserve. Is this some kind of massive conspiracy? Hardly. It is simply a matter of working with a special education student in a 21st century classroom.

Thus is the dilemma that faces teachers in this day and age that work with special education students who have been mainstreamed. For those who aren't sure what I'm referring to, allow me to give a little bit of history. First and foremost, it should be noted that treating students with disabilities has improved by leaps and bounds in the past half century. Once upon a time, if you did not learn at the rate your peers did, you were automatically assumed to be "retarded" and ended up in special classes, a vocational career track already chosen for you. My own family has experienced this as my dear uncle had permanent hearing loss from birth. His only option for higher education in the mid-1970s was to attend the Oklahoma School for the Deaf. My uncle ultimately persevered and now works for Boeing, having withstood several layoffs in his department to become a stalwart in a very advanced field. As fortunate as he was, countless others during this time lost out on similar opportunities because they were placed in vocational training where it was assumed they couldn't possibly do anything other than rudimentary skills and simple professions.

Flash forward to today. Students today enter the classroom with a variety of learning disabilities. In fact, there is even a movement away from the term "disabilities" to refer to these students as ones with "learning differences." No manner how you define them, this is a group of students that is prevalent in public schools throughout the country. Some of them have physical impairments that make learning difficult. Others have undisclosed medical conditions that they come to school with. Others still have mental impairments that leave them with severe deficiencies as compared to their peers. These students might be as many as six or seven years behind their peers in areas like reading and math. The movement today has been to mainstream these students in a way that they are involved in the general school population as much as possible. It is a noble cause to help them live as normal a life as possible in a school setting. However, it places a great challenge on teachers who teach a wide spectrum of abilities within a single classroom.

These students in the classes are given what are called IEP's, or individualized education plans. These are confidential forms that each classroom teacher keeps in his or her desk. It describes certain expectations and accommodations for the student. These might include anything like preferential seating, modified assignments, additional time on tests or quizzes, use of calculators in math, or even modified grading. In short, these students are given a variety of resources to help ensure their success in the general school population. Thanks to No Child Left Behind, students with disabilities are a sub-group for all year end testing. That means that they are expected to be at the level of their peers by the end of each academic year. As I mentioned before, some of these students are years and years behind in reading and math. Despite all these accommodations, these students are the ones who generally score the lowest on any year end state tests. They are, without question, a target group that schools try to focus on. Recently, our own school added some new students and since our students with I.E.P.'s now make up 15% of our school population, we have taken on additional resource teachers to work with these students in an effort to help them acquire the skills they will need for the upcoming state-wide tests.

As noble as all this sounds, there is a sizable downsize to the world of special education as well. Unfortunately, one of the major pitfalls of special education is how it is funded. As a classroom teacher, I cannot recommend any of my students get tested for any learning disability, even if I have a strong suspicion that they might have one because "I am not a doctor." Even if a trained professional recommends that a student get tested for a learning disability, this test often costs a lot of money and many parents simply cannot afford the price. On the flip side, parents who can afford to have their child tested and qualify for special education services get a sizable tax break at the end of the year so they have an incentive to keep their child involved with these services even if they no longer need them. One of the brightest middle schoolers I taught had an I.E.P. This student was on my academic quiz bowl team and would read 400 page novels for fun. However, when our school special education teacher mentioned to his mother that he might no longer need services, she vehemently refused. That year end tax break was simply too valuable to pass up.

There is also the concern over students who might be taking advantage of their individualized education plans. For every student who genuinely needs a plan and utilizes it to the best of their ability, there seems to be another student who fully takes advantage of the situation. Many students feel that they will pass no matter what, so they do not put forth the effort they need to and are often disruptive in class. Did my student with the 56% work to the best of his ability this semester? In my opinion, no. However, if I had failed him then there would have inevitably been a protest of behalf of his parents. They would demand to see his I.E.P. implemented to the T. If they felt I hadn't done this, they would have the ability to take me and our school to the county board of education to claim that we weren't legally upholding our end of the individualized education plan. As much as I try to, I know there are components of I.E.P.'s that I'm not implementing as well as I should be. For me to keep track of every single accommodation for every single student on every single day is simply impossible. That is ultimately why, even after fighting the good fight, I realize I must submit and give my student a passing grade, even though they did not deserve it.

Ultimately, this begs an important question. Is special education beneficial to our children? Yes, they are getting opportunities that those like my uncle were denied thirty years ago. They are able to interact with their peers in a general education setting. They get to work with students who have superior abilities and get to see what it looks like when a student really pushes himself or herself to be great. However, I wonder if we are properly preparing our special education students for the real world. Sure they will get additional time here for assignments here in high school, but there are no I.E.P.'s in the real world. If our students can't type that report by the time it's due, it's sayonara to that secretary gig. If they can't install that new engine by 4 P.M. then it's adios from the repair shop. If they can't get the customer's order right and the chef rips them a new one then it's au revoir from the restaurant. A high school diploma will give our students amazing opportunities, but if they have acquired the skills they need to succeed with these opportunities is another question entirely. We as teachers will do everything we can with these students and, in the end, it still might not be enough.

Such is the nature of the beast.

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