The “special education” myth (imho)

I teach (therefore I am?).  And on top of that fact, which says something about both my character and my tolerance for pain, I teach Montessori.

I also talk to myself.  Periodically I will find myself in the car speaking out loud to the nobody callously ignoring their seatbelt in the passenger’s side of the car.  In addition, I usually have little memory of how I got into a self-discussion on whatever topic I’m pontificating on.  I’m not sure if this is a sign of insanity, but I’m pretty sure it makes me a very verbal person.  But I digress.

Just yesterday I found myself going through a one-sided discourse on the idea of full-inclusion and special education.  It may have been tied to a thought I had about why educational theory is even relevant to the average teacher, which in turn came from something else, but I’m not sure.  Anyway, I know that the idea of full-inclusion verses pull-out teaching is a bit of a hot button issue.  My housemate happens to have a Master’s in special education, and is a damn-fine educator.  If I’m not mistaken, he has expressed the opinion that a full-inclusion environment is not best for students with learning disabilities.  To be fair, he works in a traditional-education model charter school.  In that case, I agree with him.

But here’s my rant:

The idea of “special education” as it currently stands bothers me.  Let’s address the stigma attached to the term first.  When I say “special education” the concept that first comes to most people’s mind is students with learning disabilities…those students who are not learning on an ‘average’ level.  Why?  Why is it that the gifted and talented student is not included in these initial reactions?  Because far more focus and effort is given to this first category of students.  This is the category that the majority teachers find most frustrating.  When I talk to a teacher who works at another “Full-Inclusion” (notice the capitals) school, what they’re referring to is that they accept students with learning disabilities (although there are almost always qualifiers attached – “We don’t work with behavioral students.  We don’t work with students on the Autism spectrum.  Etc…).  But why shouldn’t students who need the challenge to progress be given this same amount of effort?  Why do we so often reward their innate academic abilities and curious nature by ignoring them to focus on those who aren’t as naturally academic?  And even further, why aren’t we challenging them to be peer-teaching the students who need help from and modeling of skills just like theirs?  It’s not like we as teachers can take credit for these student’s natural skills, but we can certainly take advantage of them, if we allow for it to not bruise our egos that a student might be a better teacher of a topic or skill in a particular instance within the day.  Students who find school comes more naturally to them should be given the same focus as any other student, and should even be an integral part of our teaching strategies.

With this premise now we find ourselves with 2/3 of our possible student population being qualified “special education”.  The remaining 1/3 are the normal students–but what the hell does that mean?  Is “normal” those students that meet our expectations at a reasonable pace?  Are they meeting state standards at a pace that allows them to get through the 7th grade standards within the 7th grade year?  Seems very arbitrary to me.  Besides, an educator in the state of California once told me that he did the math for the standards, and if you started on day 1 with standard 1.0 and worked systematically through the standards till the last day and the last standard, you’d have just seconds to cover each.  That certainly doesn’t seem reasonable.  Are they the students you have to pay attention to the least?  I don’t know of any teachers that would admit to not paying attention to a full third of their class…even if they wanted to.  In fact, if you talk about individual students with most teachers you would discover that almost every student falls to one side of that concept of “normal”…further, most students cross the divide and have BOTH talents that give them an advantage in certain areas, and difficulties that cause them to struggle in certain areas.  The concept of the normal student is not a category of students in your class, but rather an imaginary pivot point on a number-line like spectrum of your students.  It is is a hypothetical, conceptual, and practically non-existent idea of a student.

What I’m proposing is NOT that we do away with the study of and understanding of learning disabilities, or how to recognize the gifted and talented students, or the strategies as to how to work with both.  What I’m proposing is that we adjust the way we’re thinking about these things until we see that these exact strategies can be applied to almost every student in existence.  I’m arguing for the end of the concept of “Special” education, and the beginning of differentiation as the standard model for classrooms.  In this way, I am for inclusion in all but the most extreme cases.  As a colleague of mine once said, “We may write them for students with LD, but what student couldn’t use an IEP (Individualized Education Plan)?”  If we stop tracking our classrooms to have students all move at the same pace we eliminate the concept of the student who is “behind” or “ahead”, and instead create a differentiated environment where every student can be exactly where they need to be.  We accomplish this by encouraging peer-teaching so that any student who needs help has access to it at any given time, regardless of the current responsibilities of the teacher or the knowledge of the teacher.  We can give open-ended topics of study that allow students to create their own projects and decide how far they want to go with that topic, rather than simply assigning projects that are single-objective over and over again until we have touched on every standard.  We can stop giving grades that encourage students to work only until they have reached a rating that is satisfactory to them, and instead encourage them to pursue knowledge of a topic until they have slaked their own thirst for knowing, which we carefully cultivated through an air of excitement for learning and respect for knowledge.  We as teachers can focus on the skills the students are learning in the projects rather than the informational bits they are getting.  We’re in an age where the conversation about the doubling of all human knowledge is taking place, and that very event will probably happen many times within their lifetime.  It’s impossible to teach them everything they need to know about any subject.  The skills to learn on their own are far, far more important.  This frees them up to choose topics of interest which will drive them to a higher work level.  And lastly, although there are plenty more, we can make it part of the culture of our class to respect that each student will be in different places, both because of learning styles and interests.  This serves many purposes, but mostly it allows us to differentiate for students within the social structure of the class with no other thought than what is best for that student’s learning of that given skill.

Differentiation must become our standard approach to education, and we must eschew the current concept of special education, if we hope to teach the modern student to achieve their full potential.  As we move towards an ever broadening cluster of future opportunities and challenges students need to be moved out of the pidgin holes that the currently operating idea of special education mandates we put them in.

Please feel free to help me to a better understanding if you feel I have missed something.