Part 1: Children in Crisis

Americans like to label things — especially people.  Putting people in boxes and cross-referencing various classifications seems to be the ideal strategy for assisting bureaucrats in holding on to their jobs — which is to say, better-administering government programs.  We began this unsettling habit a long time ago — long before the American Civil War when massive numbers of immigrants (having been pushed out of their home countries) began showing up on America’s shore.

Following the Civil Rights Acts of the 1960s, bureaucrats began to insist on standard racial and ethnic classification arrangements.  This had more to do with government preferences in an organization than it did any fondness for a particular government classification.  Once Americans did discover a passion (which was tied to access to benefit programs), government classifications changed. 

For example, the government changed Negro to Afro-American and then to Black.  This change occurred when black people learned that it was more effective to say, “I be black” than it was, “I am a Negro.”  Unhappily, government bureaucrats muddled this scheme up somewhat when they began equating skin color to race or ethnicity — evidenced by such terms as “black/non-Hispanic.”

Bureaucrats have achieved the same mishmash with our challenged children.  Following mandatory special education programs within regular public schools, bureaucrats began identifying children according to the levels of their disabilities.  There were medical classifications, genetic conditions, developmental and intellectual disabilities — and all of these demanded some form of educational intervention.  Two models were used to identify these children: discrepancy and response to intervention.

In the discrepancy model, children are entitled to special education services for a specific learning deficiency (also, SLD) if a child possessing normal intelligence provides sub-standard academic achievement.  Criticism, in this case, includes the fact that diagnoses hinging on achievement and IQ cannot predict the effectiveness of treatment.  Children identified with learning disabilities during the first and second year after starting school later receive additional assistance and interventions from remediation to individualized education programs (IEPs) and Individual Learning Plans (ILPs).

Before the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, public school classes often contained a mix of special-education students and general-education students.  Placing children with and without disabilities in the same classroom instead of segregating them was a growing national trend, spurred by lawsuits by special-education advocates.  It was called “mainstreaming.”  In those early days, most regular classroom teachers had no clear idea of handling behaviorally disruptive students.

Within a few years, the parents of “normal” students began to resent the disruptions of abnormal students.  Still, there was not much regular classroom teachers could do about it, especially given high student-to-teacher ratios.  Deeply frustrated, some teachers began leaving the profession, while those “holding on” to their positions became less efficient in the delivery of instruction.  The problem was that resident teaching programs included only a single class about disabled students.

In 2007, most graduating (regular classroom) teachers were offered two courses focused on mainstreaming special needs students.  Teacher’s colleges required that teachers attempting to obtain certification in special education complete eleven courses.  Fifteen years later, some argue, nothing has changed.  While some teachers demand that teachers’ colleges do more to prepare them for mainstreaming, other teachers have no interest in teaching special needs children. Indeed, not everyone is cut out for this kind of work.  Equally valid, special education programs involve a wide range of interventional curriculums and strategies; in some cases, it is very specialized.

The arguments are far from settled.  There are some teachers/administrators who claim that mainstreaming special needs students is significantly disruptive to regular students; others emphatically state that there is no disruption at all.  Unfortunately, despite such claims, there is a substantial body of research suggesting that American public education has become an utter failure — we simply do not know for sure how much of that is related to classroom mainstreaming.  One indication, however, is that between 1989 and 2013, the percentage of special education students who were mainstreamed for 80% of the school day increased from 32 to 62 percent.

The good news is that up to 85% of children with disabilities can master “general education” content if they receive broad special education support.  The bad news is that academic performance among regular students has dropped significantly since the No Child Left Behind Act.  Not only has America’s general educational performance dropped like a rock, but the effectiveness of special education is dismal, as well.  Neither the parents of regular classroom children nor those of special education students believe their children are being adequately served in America’s public education sector.  In 2017, forty parents and fifty special education experts and advocates in 34 states presented a picture of consistently low expectations and unfulfilled demands for adequate educational support.

For challenged students, aspects of educational instruction are substantial.  Disabled students are diagnosed with one or more of thirteen federally identified disabilities under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act: learning disabilities, autism, emotional disturbances, hearing impairments, and developmental inadequacies.  Said tongue in cheek, that’s okay because everyone associated with the American education system has low expectations — including special education students, parents, and teachers.  Many argue that the problems are multi-dimensional: inadequate teachers, inadequate parents, and a wholly inadequate school system.  School districts have no financial incentive to push toward success.  Most school districts are so far behind that they’ll never catch up by the time students reach high school.

America’s pool of professionally-trained educators has fallen, as well.  There is not the time, the compensation, and therefore — a diminishing inclination for young adults to enter the teaching profession.  Of all of America’s professions, teaching has had, for a long time, the highest turnover rate — on average, five years in the classroom.  The problem remains.

But if we are speaking about children in crisis, what can we/should we do about it?  According to one career educator, Nathan Levenson, ten practices will improve Special Education outcomes.

  • Focus on student outcomes rather than inputs:  If the school or district administrators determine that they haven’t achieved their annual instructional goals, their typical response is to add staff, classroom aides or extend the instructional year.  They never notice that there has been no change by the end of the following school year.  Why is no one reviewing and modifying performance standards?
  • Effective general education instruction is the key: Students with special needs and students who struggle spend most of their day inside the general education classroom; therefore, any core instruction provided by the classroom teacher must meet most of their needs.  In some districts, a culture has emerged where special education staff takes the lead in serving students with disabilities.  And in many schools, elementary school children who struggle to read are pulled out of the core reading block to be taught by a special education teacher or paraprofessional.  These are “well-intentioned” efforts but are not what’s best for students with special needs — or for students who struggle.  Levenson tells us that students are best served academically when their general education teacher takes primary responsibility for their learning.
  • All students must be able to read:  In many school districts, half of all special education referrals have reading difficulties.  Special education referral rates jump significantly in the third through sixth grades when reading problems make learning math, science, and social studies difficult.  An overwhelming majority of students who have not mastered reading by the end of third grade will (guaranteed) continue to struggle throughout high school and beyond.  Moreover, these students tend to have increased rates of behavioral problems in later stages and are less likely to graduate from high school or enroll in college.  To raise achievement for all struggling students, school districts must implement only the best reading instruction practices and ensure students benefit from them.
  • Provide additional instructional time for struggling students: Students who have difficulty achieving grade-level standards demand more time for instruction — at both the elementary and secondary levels.  Educators can use this extra time to pre-teach materials, reteach, address missing foundational skills, and correct misunderstandings.  In many schools, struggling students are provided with extra adults, but not extra time.  Struggling learners may receive additional support from a teaching assistant, paraprofessional, special education teacher, co-teacher, etc. They may be assigned to a replacement class, a lower level, and/or a slower pace, but this must not be confused with extra instructional time.  Closing the achievement gap requires additional instructional time.
  • Content-strong staff must provide intervention and support:  There is always a question about whether American schools increase their instructional standards (as many argue they are instead hemorrhaging), but if instructional staff truly understand content mastery, their effort becomes more vital to success.  A teacher who has engaged in extensive study and training in a particular subject is more likely to have a deeper repertoire of ways to teach the material.  However, intervention and support are sluffed off to special education teachers or para-professionals in most districts.  Districts that have made the most significant gains among struggling students have done so by providing these students, whether or not they have IEPs, with teachers skilled in content instruction during extra instructional time.
  • Special education teachers have an essential role: School districts making strides in improving services for struggling students focus on ensuring that teachers play to their strengths. They must leverage their strengths. For example, some special education teachers may have expertise in a specific content area, while others may be very efficient and skilled in assessing and managing the IEP process. Specialization of roles simplifies professional development for special education teachers; general education teachers can develop more profound skills in one area rather than master many different content areas.
  • Paraprofessional support must focus on health, safety, and behavioral needs only:  In the United States, the number of paraprofessionals supporting students has steadily increased.  Of course, such persons do play a critical role in the lives and education of many students, especially those with severe needs, autism, or serious behavioral issues — but these people have also been given a growing role in supporting academic instruction.  This is counter-productive because challenged students must receive instruction from content-strong teachers.  Students need additional instructional time, not more support time.  Instead, school districts must focus paraprofessional support on health, safety, and behavior needs and have certified reading teachers, RTI interventionists, and other trained specialists focused on academic and other specific requirements.
  • Expand the reach and impact of social, emotional, and behavioral support:  Addressing students’ social, emotional, and behavioral needs is critical and, of course, quite challenging.  The key is to expand the reach and impact of existing staff by shifting resources and partnering with others to provide free or low-cost services.  For example, some school districts have doubled student services by streamlining meetings and paperwork.  But even if all non-student work were facilitated, many districts still would be understaffed.  Fortunately, many school districts can improve and expand social, emotional, and behavioral supports within their existing budget by shifting to fewer lower-skilled paraprofessionals and more highly specialized staff — such as certified behaviorists.  Last, some districts expand their social and emotional services, enlisting the help of local nonprofit counseling agencies, teaching hospitals, graduate psychology programs, or even insurance-funded mental health counselors.
  • Provide high-quality in-district programs for students with more severe needs: The key to providing practical and cost-effective special needs programs is to hire staff with the right skills and training, adjust staffing levels throughout the year as enrollment shifts, and provide dedicated leadership for these programs.
  • District managers must know how their experts are spending their time: To implement the best practices at scale and cost-effectively, district managers must have a detailed understanding of how their staff, including special educators, related services providers, and RTI (Response to Intervention) staff, are currently serving students.  Then, the district must work collaboratively to establish the appropriate expectations regarding the delivery of special needs services and set guidelines on the amount of time allocated to students.

We’re still talking about children in crisis.  Many parents of special needs students do not feel as though special education programs are meeting the needs of their children.  They are entitled to quality support under the law, but as with most other aspects of the American education system, Special Education is a major failure.  It is time to take a closer look at current practices; it is time to adopt a system-thinking approach to implementing programs that benefit children in crisis — and their taxpaying parents.

Layla will pick up Part 2 of this ongoing crisis and tell you of her experiential experience within this muddled system.

25 thoughts on “Part 1: Children in Crisis

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  1. I could write an entire book on this topic — from the point of view of my own experience. I’ve been teaching nearly 50 years. gasp

    I have never had a single hour of instruction as to how to teach students with learning differences (a term we coined early on in the homeschool group with whom I have worked since February 1998, and the term I prefer instead of learning disabilities). I have, of course, encountered several, if not many, students with learning differences, K through graduate school. One student, a private tutoring student, had Down Syndrome; he was mainstreamed and doing quite well until the required reading for 8th Grade included Of Mice and Men. He had a meltdown — a violent one — over that book! Is it any wonder?

    I haven’t successfully reached each of my students with learning differences. Nobody is 100% successful, although I have agonized a great deal over those students whom I couldn’t teach well.

    But I’ve never been afraid to try! And here’s why….

    I first taught someone mentally retarded back when I was 4-5 years old. The situation? We had a housemaid with a retarded daughter about 6 years older than I was. The cause of her low IQ was 23 febrile seizures in 24 hours — at the age of about two years old. But she was verbal and continent by the time I met her.

    Back in those days (circa 1957), children classified as mentally retarded did not usually attend public schools in Virginia, so the housemaid brought along her daughter Frances Ann, every weekday to our home. Around that time, I was learning to read and could already write my name. I was eager to communicate that information, and Frances Ann wanted to learn to do the same.

    I couldn’t teach Frances Ann to read very well, but I did manage to teach her to write her full name. She never forgot — even when well into her 30’s. I believe that, with more time, I could have taught her to read a bit, but the family moved from Northern Virginia to the Shenandoah Valley upon Frances Ann’s father’s retirement.

    I visited Frances Ann a few times after the family moved to the Valley, but had to stop doing so because her seeing me upset her so much. She was particularly vexed that I was married and she was not. She was also quite vexed that I could play the piano and she could not.

    We remained in touch via the mail, particularly around Christmas time. I talked with her by phone a few times, but the call always upset her because I wasn’t there in person.

    I lost touch with Frances Ann after both of her parents had died. I often wonder what happened to her. If alive, she would now be around 75 years of age.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. How complex is special education as part of the home-schooling process? My guess is that as educational systems place more responsibility on general-education teachers, those people will simply abandon the profession and find something else to do for a living. It will produce (and probably has already) a crisis in the classroom. You should write that book, AOW.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Mustang,
        How complex is special education as part of the home-schooling process?

        I can only speak for “my” homeschool group.

        Depending on your definition of the term special education, the issue is quite significant: at least 7%-10% of each class (Classes are multiage groupings, such as 5th-8th). I even had a non-verbal autistic student in my class for 3 high school years; for the first year, my best student, a senior, was his student mentor. He’s gone on to earn his associate degree and is now majoring in psychology at a local four-year college. He communicates via the Rapid Prompting Method.

        But bad behavior is absolutely not tolerated in “my” homeschool group! If a student is clearly on the spectrum, the parent or the student’s special teacher must sit at that student’s side–or out they go as expelled, tuition forfeited. The expulsion is my call and my call alone. I expelled only two — because of violent behavior.

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      2. Yes, AOW should write a book about this. It is so important and I am in agreement with you. The idea in VA DOE is to mainstream even the most severe of disabilities within the classroom so that normal kids will be accepting of “non-normal kids” and vice versa. It is crap, believe me. In one class my son was in made a tent for him in the back of the classroom if he had a meltdown. He knew he was different and was picked on when he finally had his meltdown around 8 years old he tore up, and I mean literally tore up that tent and told his teacher she should sit in it not him. Then he left the classroom and proceeded to meltdown in the Principles office and she was upset because “he messed up her office.” I am not saying you do not discipline, talk to your child, they must know their limits and consequences for inappropriate actions. But this was not the case. She was just upset about the mess in her office and couldn’t care less that he was emotionally and mentally upset. Her solution, after I offered to help straighten her office with my son helping me and a profuse apology was, “I don’t care just take him home. I do not want to see him. He is undisciplined. ” When I explained what happened in the classroom and the teacher felt bad about it she said no excuses if it happened again he would be “suspended.” No professionalism. Just because one is educated does not mean they are qualified or have “commonsense.”

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Layla,
          Just because one is educated does not mean they are qualified or have “commonsense.”

          HEAR! HEAR!

          Both mainstreaming and segregating have their drawbacks. The constant desire to label children drives me up the wall. I never read any student’s file until I had personally worked with that student for at least a few weeks. But I have to remind myself that I was a master teacher before I had to deal with significant learning differences among my students. You see, I was teaching high school Spanish during a time that only college bound students were taking foreign language at that level.

          I can’t speak to your son’s situation. But I know from experience that sometimes homeschooling is the solution — at least for a time — in a homeschool co-op or in classes taught by a master teacher. Unfortunately, such a solution is not possible for all.

          I should add something else here: I find students with learning differences to be interesting. I can’t explain it better that in those inadequate words.

          Liked by 1 person

    2. AOW, All children are different and what you did at 4-5 years old was more than the adults now in the VA DOE would do. You cannot even be responsible for her reactions if she was normal let alone mentally retarted. Unfortunately, the way they think, and process many things is so different than the rest of us. What is normal for us is not for them.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Layla,
        If you have time, you should look into books written by John Elder Robison. I read his book Look Me in the Eye about 15 years ago. How I wish that the wonderful book had been available before I ever entered a classroom as a teacher for the first time. How much I learned!

        Check out this at Wikipedia. There is even a teacher’s guide now! He also has a blog. I don’t always agree with him, but I love to read his take on things.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. When I was a freshman in High School, I took Algebra Ia and English Ia. The ‘a’ was for the “track” I was placed in. I believe it served both educators and children, well.

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      1. Sure, in northern California there were three groupings of students, a,b, & c tracks. The a’s covered the material significantly quicker than the b’s, who went faster than the c’s. By the end of a two semester year, the a’s had covered then entire math or English comp book, the b’s between half and three quarters, and the c’s about half. Groupings were largely based upon standardized test scores. Class size was about 30 students per class. There was no “mainstreaming” of developmentally challenged students, they received more individualized instruction in groups of 4-8, which also may also have been tracked (I don’t know). It was a maximization of teaching resources to better meet student needs.

        Liked by 3 people

        1. What I miss most, and what is missing from the current curriculum, IMO, are all the Industrial Arts classes I took in HS. I took Architectural Drawing, Metal Shop, Auto Shop in HS… and unless you attend an exclusively VoTech School in Maryland, you’re not exposed to any non-college based education alternatives. When I graduated HS in 1975, I was well prepared to attend the Merchant Marine Academy… where I added welding, brazing, soldering, refrigeration, diesel, steam related skills to my vocational skillset.

          Liked by 1 person

        2. That today we don’t have Computer Engineering and Electronics Labs in every HS in the country is, IMO, a sin against future progress.

          Liked by 1 person

    1. If we’re looking for perfection in any human-centered system, we’re wasting our time. Schools in the U.S. have been tracking (or streaming) students for a long time. There are as many drawbacks as there are benefits. It helps students when they’re placed into classroom populations where they’re on par with all other learners — you don’t want students struggling to keep up with the pace of instruction, but on the other hand, you don’t want children thinking that they are being tracked because they’re inferior in a particular content area … even if it’s true. My daughter had a really difficult time with mathematics. Her teachers in the US all but gave up on her. Then I received orders to Japan, and we arranged for a Japanese math tutor. Wow … what an amazing tutor she was. Patient, persistent, and my daughter finally “got it.” She never struggled with math again. European schools track students as a matter of course. They are not worried about “self-esteem” issues. Self-esteem comes from achievement.

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      1. In math in northern California, the ‘a track was Algebra I, Geometry, Algebra II, Trigonometry, the ‘b track culminated in Algebra II, and the ‘c” track in Geometry.

        I attended 4-7th grades at Academia La Castellana in Caracas. I took pre-Algebra in 7th grade, which I was forced to repeat in 8th grade when we returned to California because of the Middle School “tracking” system not accommodating more “advanced” math students. Pre-Algebra was the highest they went in Middle Schools (7/8) (a deficiency of the tracking system which other states supplementied with Gifted &Talented/ Regency programs).

        Liked by 1 person

        1. In Maryland, my son took a version of the PSAT in 7-8th grade and scored well enough to be allowed to attend private courses @ Johns Hopkins… which was what passed for a “gifted and talented” program for more affluent parents in our region.

          They “mainstreamed” him. At teachers conferences, the teachers all said that he always had his head down on his desk and didn’t appear to be paying attention… I can’t imagine “why?”.

          As each of my children went through school, the learning got worse and worse. My two youngest ended up at The Baltimore School for the Arts (a Baltimore City Public School), one a theatre major, the other a dance major. It was the best School in the Baltimore City school system. It was ‘audition only’.

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        2. to clarify, Johns Hopkins didn’t mainstream my eldest son. We couldn’t afford their program. He went to our local Harford County HS (Fallston High) and ended up with a ton of AP College credits.

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        3. My middle son did attend Peabody Prep though (Johns Hopkin’s Music School). It was a block away from the Baltimore School for the Arts, and he took classes after normal HS hours).

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        4. My daughter was accepted into Johns Hopkins University Film Studies program, but she ended up at NYU doing film studies there. She then went on to Georgetown Law as is an attorney practicing Entertainment Law.

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