The problem with special education

Learning Disability | Learning Disability Stock Photo When u… | Flickr

There’s a problem with special education in the US. Marc Tucker tries to get down to the bottom of things

“The most likely explanation is that the very act of formally designating a student as a special education student lowers the expectations for that student’s performance held by everyone whose expectations count: teachers, parents, the student and their peers.”

I think Tucker’s hypothesis bears some truth. From my own experience as a special education teacher, I’ve seen how the label introduces its own set of psychological burdens. And we have a lot of kids being labeled who are simply struggling with academics, but not with any overt “disability” that can be clearly discerned.

“Far from suggesting that the top performers should learn a thing or two from us about helping special education students, we should be learning from the top performers how to keep students who do not truly need it out of special education by doing what they are doing to enable them to reach high standards in the first place.”

So how do other countries keep students out of special education?

“The top performers provide far more support than the U.S. does to families with young children—everything from cash awards to nutritional assistance to pregnant women to very long and well-supported family leave for fathers and mothers to universal, high-quality child care and early childhood education. But it does not stop there. It also includes a higher ratio of teachers to students in schools serving low-income, minority students; extra funds for schools serving large numbers of vulnerable students; coordinated social services; strong incentives for their best teachers and principals to serve in schools with large proportions of vulnerable students; more time for students who need extra time to reach high standards; close monitoring of student progress to make sure that students who start to fall behind get the help they need to catch up quickly and more time for teachers to work one-on-one and in small groups with students who need extra help.”

Reading this list, it just seems so common-sense, doesn’t it? Yet the tragedy is that there is little political will nor ideological support for these kinds of investments in the US. You start saying this kind of stuff too often, you get labeled as some kind of socialist or union shill. The reality is that when it comes to things like public education and social services, the people in the US who have the money and/or power to make things happen are most interested in things that sparkle and that offer the promise of a quick fix.

Yet Tucker also provides an interesting point in his conclusion, when he brings up the outlier in special education labeling, Finland, which labels upward of 38 percent of their kids:

“In Finland, they solved the problem by simply saying that many kinds of students need special help. Some may be gifted and some might have a hearing or vision problem. Some might need one-time-only help and others might need continuous help. In Finland, most students get “special education” help at least once in their school career. Because that is true, there is no stigma. Every school has a “special education” teacher trained to provide a wide range of special help to the students in that school who need it. This is an idea worth conjuring with.”

This definitely bears promise. In fact, this is how the special education team at my former middle school began approaching services. We recognized just how much of a stigma being labeled “special ed” had on kids, so we set about rebranding our work. We called ourselves Student Support services–because at some point, every student needs some kind of support.

Sounds a lot more positive, doesn’t it? Maybe special education as a system needs to be rebranded in this way.

Have We Got Special Education All Wrong?, Marc Tucker on Huff Post


Early Conflicts with Teachers Can Lead to Special Education

“The relationships preschoolers form with their teachers can predict their school performance in early-elementary school, concludes a new study.

Through statistical analyses of data on nearly 1,000 preschoolers, researchers from the University of Virginia’s Curry School of Education find that students who experienced conflict with their teachers in preschool were likelier to be referred for special education later on in elementary school—especially for boys whose language skills were low for their age.”

—Carmen Constantinescu, “Children’s Preschool Classroom Experiences and Associations With Early Elementary Special Education Referral” in EdWeek

A Heartwarming Apology from A.D.H.D. Experts: Sorry about pumping your children full of Ritalin


Anyone who worked in education in the 1990’s watched students diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder treated with psychoactive drugs like Ritalin from very young ages. For many of us, it was a bizarre, unsettling spectacle, but the drugs were promoted and prescribed with such confidence and consistency that it seemed there must be no alternative.

It turns out that it seemed that way because a small group of child psychiatrists, with the support of the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), wanted it to. According to a recent New York Times article, these psychiatrists may have used the platform granted them by the NIMH to exaggerate the benefits of drugs and to “distort…the debate over the most effective (and cost-effective) treatments [of A.D.H.D.]”

In essence, these authors of the NIMH report apparently dismissed or downplayed any evidence that behavioral therapy might be a viable adjunct (or alternative) to prescription drugs and preached their gospel that medication alone was the most effective way to treat A.D.H.D.

Not surprisingly, psychiatrists involved in the NIMH study have received financial support from the pharmaceutical companies who benefited most from the study’s aggressive promotion of medication over therapy. Co-author Dr. Lily Hechtman, for example, has Eli Lilly, GlaxoSmithKline, Janssen-Ortho, Purdue Pharma, and Shire; has received research funding from Shire (which manufactures Adderall) and Eli Lilly; she has also been on the speakers’ bureaus and advisory boards of both companies.

Hechtman told the Times that she hoped her aggressive advocacy of drug treatments over social and academic skill building “didn’t do irreparable damage.”

Dr. Gene Arnold, another of the study’s co-authors, told the Times he now views the NIMH study as a “lost opportunity to give kids the advantage of both and develop more resources in schools to support the child.” Like Hechtman, Arnold has received research funding and other fees from Shire. And Dr. Peter Jensen, who oversaw the NIMH study, has received training and/or research funds from Novartis (makers of Ritalin) and served as a consultant to both Novartis and Shire.

Today, these psychiatrists claim to regret pushing drugs over therapy so aggressively, particularly since more and more research is showing that behavioral therapy in combination with medication is the most effective treatment. As a special education teacher, I’ve certainly seen that drugs can be a necessary and effective component of treating A.D.H.D. As one psychologist told the Times, “Medication helps a person be receptive to learning new skills and behaviors, but those skills and behaviors don’t magically appear. They have to be taught.” In other words, drugs can help students calm down and focus, but they won’t teach a student how to function effectively in and out of the classroom.

This point is so patently obvious that it’s hard to believe the NIMH psychiatrists simply missed it. And it’s even harder not to gag when the same psychiatrists say, as Dr. Hechtman said to the Times, presumably with a straight face, “The people who pay the price in the end is the kids. That’s the biggest tragedy in all of this.”

Is It Our Society or Our Children That Have a Learning Disability?

Will asked some strong questions about the vague meaning of learning disabilities in his last post. The question he asked that most struck me is “why does a society that cares so little for disabled and disadvantaged adults cast such a wide net when classifying students as disabled?”

Because the reality is that such classification is incredibly subjective. A learning disability is defined as “a condition giving rise to difficulties in acquiring knowledge and skills to the level expected of those of the same age.”

One logical question that arises from this definition is “what causes such a condition?” And it is the various answers to this question that makes special education such a murky domain.

Early childhood experiences can have a tremendous impact. Children raised or continuing to live in environments with inattentive or abusive guardians end up with the traits of disability. But are such children truly “disabled” in the sense that their limitations are due to innate differences? Or does it even matter?

It does matter, because the difference is that in some cases, such as when a child has brain damage, it is clear that there is a disability attributable to that specific child (due to no one’s fault other than fate, nature, or god, depending on your perspective). But in cases where it is environmental, the disability is attributable to conditions created by a deficiency in something or someone else. In other words, it is not the child who is disabled, but that they live in a “disabling” environment.

Perhaps this is why we “cast such a wide net.” It may be that our society feels uncomfortable distinguishing clearly between such cases, because if we begin to acknowledge that children are being raised in disabling environments, then it would require us to take collective action. It is much easier, in some ways, to simply label a child with a disability, and place the burden on her.

Because a disabling environment can be fixed. A child with a real learning disability cannot.

Thoughts on Disability


As we discuss the challenges of creating school environments that fully integrate students with learning disabilities, it seems worth exploring the idea of disability itself. One of the most interesting things about teaching special education is seeing what a huge variety of students  are lumped into the category of “students with disabilities.” Under the umbrella of special education, I have taught students diagnosed with: dyslexia, attention deficit disorder, cerebral palsy, autism, emotional disturbance, and Asperger’s Syndrome– not to mention dozens of students classified simply with the catch-all diagnosis, “learning disability,” a category which can cover students with mild dyslexia as well as students whose testing reveals borderline mental retardation.

Students with these diagnoses present their teachers with wildly varied needs and challenges, but they are bound together by this one word: “disability.”  So what does it mean? For practical purposes, a learning disability is any condition that interferes with a student’s ability to access a school’s required curriculum. This is simple enough when a student suffers from a disability like deafness. Since this condition makes the physical aspects of learning inordinately difficult for students, the school’s responsibility is to offer the student accommodations (such as assistance with notetaking or sign language interpretation) that will ensure the student’s deafness does not prevent them from learning.

With diagnoses like “emotional disturbance,”  however, the problem of disability is far more complex. The federal guidelines define emotional disturbance as:

  • An inability to learn that cannot be explained by intellectual, sensory, or health factors.
  • An inability to build or maintain satisfactory interpersonal relationships with peers and teachers.
  • Inappropriate types of behavior or feelings under normal circumstances.
  • A general pervasive mood of unhappiness or depression.
  • A tendency to develop physical symptoms or fears associated with personal or school problems.

With criteria this broad, one could argue that most adolescents who struggle in school suffer from emotional disturbances. So, is emotional disturbance an actual learning disability? Or, is it simply a catch-all label used to get students who display “inappropriate behavior under normal circumstances” out of mainstream classrooms? How do we distinguish the type of “pervasive depression” that qualifies students for special education services from other types of depression?

Moreover, if a student’s depression isn’t interfering with their learning, should a school be responsible for providing emotional or psychological support? If “pervasive unhappiness” constitutes a learning disability, how happy must a student be before they’re considered ready for mainstreaming? If a student is academically successful when receiving special education support, should those supports be withdrawn?

One final question: why does a society that cares so little for disabled and disadvantaged adults cast such a wide net when classifying students as disabled?