We're Not All Special Ed

NOTE TO READER: I am very pro good special ed.  Every student, regardless of their situation, in our country is entitled to a K-12 education.  This is amazing, and I'm glad we go to great lengths for those students.  

One of the biggest problems in our entire educational system is Special Education.  It doesn't work, but no one talks about it.  I worked in public schools for ten years, and one thing you could count on every year was that the procedure for special ed was going to change.  No one knows how to do it right.  No one theory makes sense.  But what happens WAY too often is that special ed means a dumbed down general education.  It gets an astronomical amount of money, time, and attention, yet doesn't really work.  My theory is that we're labelling way too many of our students as 'special' and that it's become a badge of honor rather than a challenge to overcome.  

When a student is identified as special ed, that student has what's called an IEP - individualized education program.  This IEP shows what this particular student needs to be successful, and gives very specific details on how this is to take place.  This could be extra time on a test or paper, an individual coach or tutor, a special room for an assignment or test, completing 50% of the problems, or some such thing.  The goal of an IEP is to set students up for success, while providing support the student needs to get there.  When done properly, it works.  What happens too often, though, is that these same things become a crutch.  

I've had a version of this conversation with way too many students was this: "Mr. Bratt, I don't understand this story."  "Ok, I'll say, what's going on?"  The student will proceed to tell me exactly what's going on in the story, down to the detail, the theme, the plot, and pick up nuances of what they read.  "Ok.  Great," I'll say.  "Sounds like you get it."  "No, they'll respond, I don't know what's happening."  I look and them and say, "But you just told me what's happening, exactly."  They look back and say, "Yeah, but I have a hard time with reading comprehension."  Then I'll ask, "Why do you say that? Who told you that?  You did great."  Often, they'll respond by saying, "My teacher told me I have a problem understanding what I read."  So I'll follow up,  "Would you find this hard if you were told you didn't have a problem with comprehension?"  Then I'll get a puzzled look, as if this has never crossed their mind.  "Probably not," I'm told.  

If that happened once it's a problem, but it happens all the time.   A special ed teacher will tell a student that they don't 'get' something or that 'something is going to be hard for you', and then, surprise surprise, the student struggles on that same thing.  I've had way too many students tell me they struggle with reading comprehension only because of their IEP.  This might be a kid that reads comic books and graphic novels all the time, plays in depth, character-driven video games, and tracks complex storylines quite well, but when it comes to reading for school, they "can't comprehend". 

It's sad to see, but no one does or says anything because we can't touch special ed.  I was at a conference recently where a district admitted that they graduate (less than) 1 in 5 students with an IEP.  How is this possible?  Less than 20%?  Something they're doing obviously does not work.  This happens for several reasons, and they are all very complex.  That's why they change their approach year after year.  When I first started in public schools, I noticed this very odd thing: 30-40% of the students were labelled special ed.  As you'd get to know them, there was a very high percentage that had nothing cognitively wrong with them.  Upon inquiring, I was told they were special ed, behaviorally.  WTF?  Behavioral special ed?  When young students behaved badly and districts didn't know what to do, they created a category.  This helps no one.  It also has a bad impact upon the school.  One way the system responded was to give them less suspensions.  For instance, some districts have a policy that a student can only be suspended for 10-days in a school year if they are 'special' ed.  If that is the case, what do you with the following scenario:

Bob walks into school on day one.  In first period, he tells his teacher to fuck off.  Bob is sent to the Dean of Students.  The handbook dictates that Bob should receive a three day suspension, yet Bob is special ed.  This means, if they suspend him for three-days, they only have seven left for the rest of the year.  And since Bob didn't even make it through the first period, they may need to save suspension days. 

Deciding what to do takes on the nature of a choose-your-own-adventure: 

 Bob receives the three-day.  The Dean of Students decides Bob needs to learn his lesson, so gives a three-day suspension.  Bob comes back three days later, walks into the same 1st period class, tells the teacher, "You got me suspended."  The teacher says, "No Bob.  I didn't.  The language you chose to use did.  Bob say, "Fuck you.  You're a bitch."  He then walks up and pushes the teacher.  What now?

Bob receives a warning.  The Dean of Students decides to give Bob a warning for the incident.  Bob is back in class third period.  Students hear that, on the first day of the school year, Bob didn't get in trouble for telling a teacher to fuck off.  

Now I'm not saying that this is an easy situation.  It isn't.  But, if Bob is taught that actions do not have consequences, Bob is set up for failure.  What if the teacher were a police officer?  What if the situation happened in a store and not in class?  If school cannot teach behavior, then school is not successful.    

Often, many of the behavioral special ed students came from poverty, and no one knew how to deal with them, so they were thrown under the blanket of special ed.  It's sad to see, and doesn't benefit anyone.  Of course it is a problem, and what I suggest is that we have a better conversation about how to do so.

The law is on the side of anyone with an IEP, and there are a lot of extra people in schools to help these students.  There will be a special ed teacher, a special ed coordinator of some kind on the school level, but usually there are more people as well.  These are extra salaries focused only on special ed students.  If their IEP's are not followed, the parents can sue the school district.  School districts know this, and avoid these costly lawsuits at all cost: often at the expense of quality education.  This is especially problematic if a parent knows the ins-and-outs of their student's IEP.  Why? They have a constant threat, a trump card.  There are many parents and students that use these threats on a nearly daily level.  

I had one student that was given three days of extra time, as stipulated through her IEP.  For two weeks during class, she didn't do a thing.  Not one.  She spent the entire time talking to friends and distracting them.  When I asked her what was going on, she told me, "I get three extra days."  I was like, "What?  How?  You've had two weeks."  She responded, "It's in my IEP."  She was a senior and had been using this excuse all through school.  Her and her mom would complain.  She'd start a two-week assignment after it was due, and claim it was what her IEP provided.  She'd not work for two weeks, and then start.  This is not the intent of her IEP.  But again, who was going to touch it?  Her special ed teacher walked in and said she was to get extra time.  In my opinion, this is helping no one, but there was nothing anyone could do without creating a major scene.  

These things happen all the time.  Some of these students can stay in school until they're 21 or 26.  One such kid hated the principal of the school he was at.  He was always in the principal's office, and felt like the principal picked on him.  His response, "Fuck him," he told me, "I'm going to stay here until I'm 21.  He can't kick me out. He'll have to deal with me for three more years."  The kid was right, too!  How does that help anyone?  (Part of me respects the student's will power, but that's not a good way to solve a problem.)

I know that right out of the gate, haters are going to hate.  That's because special ed brings up so many feels.  I see questions like: how can you say that?  How can you be insensitive?  My child is unique?  Sure, that may be the case, but as a country we've labelled too many students 'special' without asking any questions on how we can best educate them.  And what's worse is that in many districts, "special education" has become synonymous with minority students.  To me this is part of institutional racism.  

Why I think this is such a big deal, and such a big problem, is that our special ed programs are simultaneously the best and worst parts of the American educational system.  Our best special ed programs are simply amazing, and one of the best things about the United States.  We truly treat all people as worthy, and go to great lengths to make that happen.  To see good special ed is to witness beauty.  Many of these students have a transformative effect upon the school, and greatly improve the school culture.  At Creston High School (RIP), in Grand Rapids, MI, the special ed program was amazing.  The teachers were inspiring, the coordinators fantastic, and the program was inspiring.  The students did many great things, including community events and job training, but one thing they did every week was collect the recycling around the school.  The effect on the 'regular' students was amazing to see.  Students that were usually hard and mean were nice, kind, compassionate, and helpful to their special ed peers.  These students changed the way a class operated, and had a very positive effect upon the school culture and climate as a whole.  There was a recognition not everyone is the same, but a disability does not label the person; often, those with severe disabilities shine the brightest.   My buddy Benny D talks about how being in a circle of friends when he was younger changed how he thinks in many areas of life.  In this, he is not unique.  Special Needs groups often have this effect, often radiate joy.  (I volunteered for one at a camp a few years ago, and it was beautiful and inspiring to see the effect these people had.  You can read about that experience here, but it was awesome and powerful.)  

The worst of it, though, is as bad as our educational system gets.  Students write one sentence when they are supposed to write 1.5 pages, and they receive an A for it.  A student does no work, but receives a D- so the teacher doesn't have to justify why or how they fail.  A special ed teacher may plan zero curriculum, yet instruct regular ed content on a subject they no nothing about; that same teacher gives grades and punishment.  This is horrible.  

I heard a teacher at an 'urban' school, tell the parent of a 'special ed' student that, 'all of our students here are special ed'.  This is false, but if we view it this way, no wonder our schools are failing.  

I propose two changes.  1.) We change the name from 'special' to 'challenged'.  There are students with challenges.  If we can support them and help them face those challenges head on, we all benefit.  If we use a word that has a positive connotation, and then use it as a crutch, the student does not benefit.  2.) We need to talk about special education in a realistic way.  Graduating 1 in 5 special ed students is a tragedy.  We can do better.  But to do better, we must have a dialogue about what works and what doesn't.  An IEP cannot be an excuse for failure.