Coloring Outside the Lines: Good Special Education Isn’t a Place; It’s a Mindset

We were well into our umpteenth beginning-of-the-end meeting when my daughter’s sixth-grade humanities teacher stated what should have been obvious from the start.

“Mandy always blurts on topic,” he noted, acknowledging that yes, answers to his questions tumbled out of her whether the query was aimed at her or at another student. But far from perceiving her as off-task, this indicated to him that actually, she was hyperfocused on the lesson.

Mr. Olson was a ninja when it came to noticing which themes most drew her attention, and he plied her with dark humor and dystopian story lines. He used this same I’m-gonna-hook-you-somehow approach with all his middle school students, whether they were reading at an elementary level, still learning English or voraciously consuming literature.

Unlike Mr. Olson, most of Mandy’s teachers perceived her as talking out of turn, exhibiting willful defiance to be met with consequences. Her special education case manager regarded it as her job to physically remove the annoyance from those teachers’ classrooms. Two blurts, three blurts: Once she had exceeded a teacher’s tolerance, it was off to the rectangular silo of the special ed room.

We, her parents, saw the blurting as the product of a neurobiological stew, including autism, that prevented her still-immature prefrontal lobe from ensuring that she said the answers silently to herself. And we saw her enthusiasm for everything from classifications of marine organisms to classic sci-fi disappearing under a wave of shame and self-loathing. No surprise, given that her herculean efforts to pay attention were met several times a day with punishment.

I wish I could tell you that Mr. Olson’s simple observation changed the crime-and-punishment nature of the conversation. Unfortunately, he was not a permanent member of her Individualized Education Program team, the group of educators and parents who drew up her special education plan. He was pulled into this end-stage meeting only to meet the legally required number of people present.

I also wish I could tell you that this well-regarded middle school was unique in viewing special education as a place where a separate teaching staff was responsible for children whose disabilities manifested in quirky behavior. Or that either set of educators was ultimately responsible for ensuring that in either physical space, students were being challenged academically.

Special education — the place and its staff — owned students’ deficits. With an occasional exception like Mr. Olson, no one owned their strengths.

Last year, the staff of the Center on Reinventing Public Education and the National Center for Special Education in Charter Schools fanned out across the country to visit public charter schools where special education students were doing better than expected or where promising practices were on display. The number of programs they identified was small, and even the best of those had plenty of work to do to help all students reach their potential.

In a new report, the two organizations identify a handful of good strategies in place at these schools, but the main ingredient underpinning every success story is a hard one to articulate: a belief that students with disabilities are the responsibility of every adult in a school, not of an isolated special education department.

“In the schools that seemed to blur the lines most consistently, the sense of shared community expressed by students with disabilities and their parents came from more than close proximity to their peers,” the report’s authors note. “It came from the shared experiences they were having with their peers and the fact that differentiation in learning was the norm across these schools for all students.”

Specifically, the report continues, this means special educators and general educators work side by side in classrooms. In addition to ensuring there is always more than one teacher, this allows educators to share the data that help each to meet students’ varying needs. This shared responsibility for individualized instruction is, as the report’s case studies show, not just good for children with disabilities but also an excellent strategy for ensuring that all students flourish.

This is a major leap forward from inclusion — the practice of allowing special ed students to attend general ed classes as much of the time as possible — which is currently held to be the progressive gold standard. Inclusion, CRPE points out, is still bound up in the concept of proximity, children with disabilities in the same physical space as their conventionally abled peers.

By contrast, in a program where students with disabilities are truly integrated into the school community, they get the same lessons, carry out the same science experiments and participate in the same social activities as their classmates — using individualized strategies. Importantly, in these schools, this isn’t solely a special ed tactic: They approach all their students in exactly the same personalized way.

Let’s hover over this point for a moment, because it’s critical. Like their peers nationwide, most of the teachers at Mandy’s former middle school were trained to teach a given subject to kids who show up at school well prepared and without distinct challenges. Unless they chose to specialize, their training programs typically included just one class on special ed. Nor were they taught much about other learning challenges.

According to a report released earlier this year by Understood.org and the National Center for Learning Disabilities, only 17 percent of general education teachers feel “very well prepared” to teach children with mild to moderate disabilities. One in three teachers in the same survey attributed learning and attention issues to laziness, and 1 in 4 believe ADHD is the outcome of poor parenting.

A little more than half believe that Individualized Education Plans, or IEPs, provide value to students, and just 38 percent believe the plans help them to be better teachers.

Teachers’ feelings are closely tied to their confidence in their ability to be effective with special ed students and, by extension, with inclusion, the report found. Teachers with less than five years of experience are less likely to feel they could succeed with students with mild or moderate disabilities. And they are less likely to perceive those students as being capable of achieving at grade level.

Yet other research estimates that up to 90 percent of students with disabilities are capable of performing at grade level, given the right supports. But nationwide, just 20 percent score proficient on state math and reading assessments. In 2017, the four-year graduation rate for special ed students was 67 percent, versus the overall rate of 85 percent.

One in five U.S. students has a disability, a rate high enough to make burning down the silos a priority. But I daresay schools that are able to do the incredibly daunting work of integrating every child into a culture that teaches individuals with an array of needs will find success with many more of their challenged students.

Along with “blurred lines” between general and special education, CRPE and the National Center for Special Education in Charter Schools identified two other traits crucial to the success of the schools that were doing better with their students with disabilities: trusting relationships with families and an orientation toward continual problem-solving.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that when adults are collectively responsible for student success, they will problem-solve across bureaucratic lines — or blow the bureaucracy up entirely. And educators who, like Mr. Olson, recognize a child’s gifts and seek to burnish them will find that parents are eager to be their partners.

My family did not get what we needed during our fated IEP meeting. We did, however, draw a bright, shining boundary. No more would we go along with punishing Mandy for her engagement. We moved her to a charter school that works hard to meet kids where they are and where, if she’s not in a regular classroom, it’s because she’s chosen to finish her work in a quiet space. Like other public schools, it is obliged to uphold the law regarding protections for kids with disabilities. But its staff are free to set aside tactics that don’t work and try new ones that might.

In my house, “she’s blurting on topic” has become one of our favorite bits of shorthand, a boiled-down way of suggesting we should check our neurotypical, or nonautistic, way of reading a particular behavior and assume instead that our girl is working very hard. Funny thing: Validating the effort she’s making invariably puts a little wind beneath her wings, a small dose of buoyancy that has enabled her to solve her own challenges.

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