Special Education Isn’t So Special Anymore

I have spent much of my adult life either working or volunteering with special needs kids. There’s something about helping kids that most would prefer to avoid that just appeals to me, and it seems I have a gift for reaching them, as well. Even the most difficult kids seem to relate to me, perhaps because I am the king of the clean slate and second (and third) chances. Perhaps it’s because I am genuinely interested in understanding what makes people tick.

Hence this blog.

When I started out in education is worked primarily with the behavior kids, as they tend to be the least wanted students on any campus. Their behavior, which was usually due to environmental factors that were far beyond their control, often sabotaged their ability to learn, as well, so they were usually out in small classes of other special education students. These classes were called “content mastery,” and were taught by teachers who were certified in special education and moved at a much slower pace than their general education counterparts. The persistent and pervasive standardized tests were watered down a bit and students were held accountable for much less content.

One thing that you can count on in education is constant change, and the world of special education is no different. School districts love to spend millions of dollars paying companies of “experts” to come in and install new programs that seem revolutionary to the administrators who write the checks, but tend to be more like “keen sense of the obvious” to teachers, whose (free) opinions are completely disregarded.

One such program that I’ve seen embraced by two different school districts in my area involves putting those groups of special education students into regular classes and adding the special education to classes as a “helping teacher” who helps enable the blending of these groups of kids. I was a part of this program for one year, and I can tell you it’s no picnic. I was responsible for seven different lesson plans across three grade levels, two of them in advanced math and science classes I had zero business planning, much less teaching. Oddly, we didn’t cover too much calculus while I was getting a Bachelor’s and Master’s in English Literature. I’m pretty sure that’s why they initially hired me to teach English, but I digress.

In talking to a good friend who is among the ranks of the helping teachers, I’m going to make a bold prediction based on my observation of the following trend. More and more students are arriving at the high school who can’t read or write on grade level, which means they can’t pass the standardized tests, meaning administration is putting plenty of pressure on those teachers who are in no way to blame for their students’ shortcomings, but are nonetheless solely responsible for … hell, I don’t know … working a fucking miracle.

What seems to be occurring is that more and more students who are not identified as “special needs” are performing at about the same level as those who carry the label. Let’s face it, if no one taught you to read when you were two and taught you to love books and knowledge, you basically have a learning disability. As the number of kids who can’t read goes up, the gap between “special education” and “regular education” becomes significantly less pronounced, and the special ed teachers who are being added to regular ed classes tell me more and more that the regular kids need just as much help as those identified as “special.”

Meanwhile, on the other side of the school, there is a growing magnet program through which students can earn college credit while taking advanced high school classes. They can actually walk across the graduation stage after four years and have not only a high school diploma, but also an Associate’s Degree under their belts.

See where this is going?

I doubt it’s by design, mostly because our public education simply isn’t too smart (and that was before President Trump put a pyramid scheme expert in charge of it), but I believe we are seeing a dramatic shift in the way we look at students. With more and more kids coming out of low socioeconomic homes, the inability to read is going to essentially be treated as a learning disability and those kids will now be labeled “special education.” They may not have individualized education plans and all of the silly, redundant paperwork that goes along with special ed, but they will be in the same classes just the same.

Kids who actually can read and possess the intellectual curiosity that reading fosters and often inspires will be filtered into dual-credit classes. It remains to be seen just how receptive the big four-year schools are to accepting students who spent their first two years of college in a high school. This evolution, however, is already having a drastic impact on our community colleges.

As high schools filter the kids who are academically advanced (or what would have been called average when I was in high school) into classes where they get college credit, the community colleges are left to deal with the kids who get spit out of public education bearing a diploma that basically amounts to an attendance award.

“Congrats! You made it through 12 years of school! We don’t want you any more, so here’s a piece of paper…good luck!”

Some of those kids figure out that without a college degree it’s awfully hard to make a living, and community colleges are now scrambling to figure out what to do with them. I am an adjunct English teacher at two area colleges, and they are working hard to design remedial programs that will help professors cope with college freshmen who really can’t read too well and have no clue what it means when you say “MLA format.”

Imagine…taking a remedial English class in COLLEGE.

Is this an intentional move by the public education system? Is the long-term plan to completely segregate the kids who come from families where they learn to read (and therefore write) from the ones who don’t? It may not be, but if this trend in education continues it’s where we’ll wind up, intentional or not.


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