Special Education: The Real Challenge

Changing the Hole to fit square peg, Special Education students fitting in through educational reform
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Special Education: The Real Challenge

Stating any opinion on the subject of special education is going to get someone upset. The subject is rarely discussed without passionate debate. This is particularly true when participants in the discussion have a personal stake in the subject, either due to the fact that they have children who have been diagnosed with learning differences or due to the fact that they themselves may have struggled in the classroom.

Contributing to the vociferous nature of the debate is the fact that schools themselves are frequently a bit hazy about how to deal with the challenged student. One year they will champion the idea of inclusion and the next create a resource room. The school may then attempt to try a combination of the two or seek a different alternative altogether. One principal might demand medication while the next might feel that Ritalin is grossly over-prescribed. Parents, themselves fluctuating between tenuous acceptance and flat-out denial, rarely feel a sense of confidence regarding the school’s ability to effectively service their special needs child.

Let’s face it, schools, in general struggle to deal with children who have learning differences. Whether, it is the complicated and complex nature of many learning disabilities, a lack of resources or a lack of competence, the truth is that we almost never ‘solve’ the issues. Children who needed special assistance in 3rd grade usually still need modification in 12th grade. Instead of closing the ‘learning gap’ between the special needs student and the mainstream students, we usually find that the gap only grows as the children move from grade to grade. (I do not deny that this is not always the case, only that it is the rule, with few exceptions.)

If we want to be brutally honest we would admit that trying to have the child with learning differences succeed in many of our schools is like trying to fit a round peg into a square hole. And, if you really want to create an accurate picture, imagine if the square hole changed shapes every year. One year it was square, the next a triangle, the next a rectangle, etc. You would always be modifying the peg, always behind the eight ball, always looking for new interventions and creative solutions.

Maybe the time has come to stop focusing on the peg and start looking at the hole. When was the last time we gave a good critical look at our curriculum and assessed what we are teaching students, and the logic of our expectations? If we want to be brutally honest, let’s be honest about the fact that no one really knows why we continue to teach most of our current curriculum. Our schools look like information factories, producing students expected to know ridiculous amounts of questionably relevant (I am being kind) information. We insist on proficiency in skills that will have no bearing on their success in the real world, without thinking how all this impacts the challenged learner. The ability to reason, access information, investigate, relate and problem solve relationships, are viewed as less important skills, while we all know that they are the true keys to achievement outside of school. And, in many of these critically important areas of development the child with learning differences could excel!

In the end result we can continue to cut away at the peg and hope that one day he or she will change shape and fit in. Experience has taught us that that is simply not going to happen. Only by initiating educational reform and realizing that the challenge is ours, not theirs, will significant progress be made.

4 Responses to Special Education: The Real Challenge

  1. Chris Picha says:

    The article points out that we almost never “solve” the problems assiciated with educational strategies in serving our special needs children. Well, how have we fared in “solving” anything having to do with educating our general population? Edication cannot be viewed as a problem to be solved any more than our healthcare system can be seen as human repair garage. The practice of medicine bares many similarities to the practice of teaching – as the concept of good health is as subjective and elusive as the concept of a good education.

    • Karmi says:

      Interesting point. While I did use the word solve (in quotations, I might add) I was referring to the issues and not to education itself. I think that we have an obligation to work on issues that exist so that we can provide the best education possible to our students.

  2. Terry Adams says:

    Well stated. While it is hard for many to admit, sometimes the mainstream is not the best stream. Dr, Lloyd Dunn coined the phrase “mainstreaming” back in the late 60s. His belief was that children with borderline intelligence should have opportunities with their higher achieving peers. He never expected the term to be applied to all special needs children at all levels of abilities. I liken our schools to a track meet. If every child is expected to fit into the same classroom (hole as you stated) would we then expect track meets to have simply one event with some students carried while others run. Just as track meets have a variety of events because kids have a variety of athletic abilities, so to, should academics have a variety of events for children with a variety of learning abilities. Thanks for the opportunity to voice an opinion.

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