The Special Education Problems We Aren't Solving

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I teach in a school where more than 30 percent of the students are classified as special education. We have classes that accommodate a wide range of student needs — classes of varying sizes and student-teacher ratios.

Laura Klein head shot Laura Klein

Like most schools in New York City, we have been moving rapidly toward inclusion — moving children from more restrictive settings (smaller classes, less movement) to less restrictive ones.

There’s a lot to criticize about the way special education works in this enormous system. It is cloudy and incongruous, difficult to define, and difficult to find any universal truths when you talk about it. I see its deficiencies with much clarity, because I see the way that it fails my students, year after year.

I guess that the failures stand out more than the successes — when it works, you don’t think much about it. What I have struggled with in the last few years is to define what aspects of it specifically fail the students — what is the problem that we aren’t solving.

First, the system relies heavily on parent advocacy and participation. When a parent is engaged, the system responds. When he or she is not....

This is illustrated by a student I had this year who I will call Danny (the names of all the students I write about are changed to protect their privacy).

Danny was new this year to the middle school where I teach, and at first seemed to be an eager participant in the class. He made fast friends with some of the good students in class, and came for lunchtime tutoring. However, he failed to produce enough work for us to adequately assess his level, and in less than a month had stopped spending time with the students who came for extra tutoring.

He got in trouble a few times for sending inappropriate e-mails to girls before his school account was deactivated, and he eventually began to cut class. Danny was never a behavior problem — actually, it was very rare that we heard him speak at all. When called on, he would stare blankly at us before turning away, and though he would write his name on his papers, he never completed assignments.

When I measured his reading, he tested at a second-grade level, which I’m sure accounted for much of his reluctance to participate.

As this pattern progressed, we began to wonder if perhaps Danny had been classified as a special education student in his previous school. We asked to see his file, and found that his previous school had failed to send any records on him.

When we asked him, he said that he was from Newark, or Harlem, or L.A., making it rather difficult for us to pin down the district we should be contacting.

There was no working number for his mother, and despite numerous attempts to contact her, no contact could be made.

We began to document religiously all of the interventions that we attempted with Danny, in an effort to make him successful in our class. We made sure that during lessons one of us, or a teaching assistant, stayed near him to answer his questions and keep him on task. We referred him to the school counselor for an emotional evaluation.

It didn’t make much of a difference. He rarely asked questions, and he completed no work. Administration for Children's Services was contacted several times, both because of how unresponsive his mother was, and because signs of neglect became noticeable on Danny.

No action was taken that I could see. He continued to come to school each day, sit quietly in class, and produce little to no work.

As the year went on, Danny made friends. He spent a lot of time cutting class and getting off task with his friends. This social growth was probably an improvement, but it did nothing for his academics.

Danny failed his state exams, which consigned him to summer school this year. In all likelihood, he has a learning disability, but without parental consent he was never formally evaluated. Our documentation of interventions and testing didn’t lead to him getting the Individualized Education Program that he likely needs.

This is a sad story, but it is a common and untold one; students who should be classified as having a disability and eligible for services that support and assist them often aren’t.

In my school, the most common reason is a lack of parental consent. And so the years go by, and students slip further and further behind, struck down daily by the barriers that have not been adequately evaluated.

The special education system fails these kids; the referral and evaluation process relies too heavily on parent advocacy and participation, and those students who are unlucky enough not to have those assets lose out.

On the other side of the coin are the students who have been evaluated but who are not accommodated in a way that meets their needs. Though their evaluation is individualized, we don’t individualize our response to their needs as much as we need to.

This is especially the case for students who are classified as emotionally disturbed. This is one of the four specific classifications that special education students are assigned, and it is very common among my students.

The problem that exists here is related to the way that we lower standards for special education students — a trend that perpetuates the academic inferiority that these students feel. It is a case that is illustrated by a student named Eve.

Eve is a smart kid, really, perfectly capable of being a strong student, and an active participant in class. Eve scores well on tests in the weeks when she has paid attention, and fails miserably in the weeks when she hasn’t.

She acts irrationally at times, lashes out at peers and teachers, and is plagued by negative thoughts and an overburdened emotional state. Her performance in class is affected by her temper and her feelings, which she hasn’t yet learned to control. She is classified as special education with the specific label of "emotional disturbance."

Eve has been classified as such for years, and she has a tragic family history which explains much of her anger and confusion. She is in the habit of caring about her schoolwork whenever she is in the mood to care, but doesn’t mind low scores or failing grades.

Eve has no reason to care. She has never been held over, has never been to summer school. She’s naturally bright, catching on quickly to and retaining enough information to ensure that she passes the state exams at the end of each year. She regularly fails classes, however, and learned long ago that this is not a big deal.

Eve has an Individual Education Plan, which states that because of her status as a special education student, she doesn’t need to meet the same standards as other students. To me, this is alarming, because it is quite evident that Eve is perfectly capable of attaining high marks in her classes. Yet, the I.E.P. says that she can be promoted by meeting only 40 percent of the standards, and so this is what she strives for (or rather, settles for).

As a result, year after year, Eve has gone on to the next grade without actually having learned much of anything. She is atrociously behind in basic skills — computations and reading fluency trip her up — but she is able to quickly grasp complex concepts when she puts her mind to it.

This is, unfortunately, the case for a large number of my special education students. It is more common for them to be identified as "emotionally disturbed" than "learning disabled."

Yet while that emotional state tends to affect work ethic more than cognitive potential, students with this classification are given an adjusted promotional criteria just as those students who are learning disabled are.

And so frequently I look at the I.E.P. of a student who has proven himself to be gifted in one way or another, and be startled to find that he is only expected to be able to master 30 percent of the standards. And so they do. Set your standards low, and people won’t fail to meet them. But why don’t we demand more?

It’s no wonder that students graduate from high school without learning to read; we enable them to underperform. Indeed, simply by being classified as emotionally disturbed, they can fail all of their classes starting in kindergarten, and still be promoted each year.

Special education is undergoing "reform" in New York, but it doesn’t address major shortfalls of the system as it exists. And so we fail the many students who are like Danny and Eve, and the problems that we don’t solve quietly hinder the potential effectiveness of special education reform.