April 2003

The House’s proposed changes to IDEA, along with Secretary Paige’s, reflect a basic belief that standardization equals access to better education. One can understand just about every proposed change to IDEA in these potentially destructive terms, from the discipline amendments to the reduction of paperwork to the testing. The main thrust was articulated by Secretary Paige in February: “IDEA must move from a culture of compliance with process to a culture of accountability for results.” This, in a nutshell, is the problem with the proposed new IDEA. Compliance implies adapting for an individual’s needs; accountability implies adapting an individual or his program to a standard, and not necessarily to the individual.

What does one single standard do for learning?

The standards-based education proponents find that only by holding students and or school systems to a “high” (read single) standard will we be able to beat the “soft bigotry of low expectations,” according to President Bush. This is a lofty aim, yet it overlooks a number of important facts: that not all children demonstrate ability in the same way, therefore it is difficult to assess if a standard has been met; that testing instruments are often imperfect and cannot accurately assess knowledge, particularly if a disability is involved (the I.Q. is a good example of this); that historically underresourced, overcrowded classrooms cannot produce the same pedagogical results, particularly in a simple test, as wealthier districts; that it is not yet clear what an educational standard should be. Is it mastery or is it basic competency; is it about Euro-centric curricula or does education take into account world history, world issues; are we aiming to produce workers or thinkers? And do standardized curricula end up achieving sound education, or do they “teach to the test?” (See the 2003 Arizona State University Study.) These questions must be debated thoroughly and answered before weakening protective laws such as IDEA and setting up systems of assessment that determine important outcomes like diploma-granting, financial aid, and the ability to get a job.

Perhaps the most egregious aspect of standards-based education and assessment is the way such assessments are used. Either they are used in an outright punitive fashion, denying graduation to those who cannot meet the standard, denying school systems funding if they persistently demonstrate “failure;” increasing the drop-out rate (see the 2001 Harvard Civil Rights Project)and the rate of grade retention (see Anne Wheelock’s “Social Promotion and Grade Retention,” publshed by the The Consortium for Equity in Standards and Testing, in the School of Education at Boston College), and the more subtle but equally devastating affects that persistent failing has on the students themselves in terms of self-esteem (see the new U.K. study titled “A Systematic Review of the Impact of Summative Assessment and Tests on Students’ Motivation for Learning,” by Wynne Harlen and Dr. Ruth Deakin-Crick of Bristol University, which demonstrates that standardized testing actually discourages, rather than motivates low achievers.)

What we may end up with, when we adopt a single standard and hold every student to it regardless of how long they have lived in this country or how severe their disability is, is a two-tiered system of those who pass and those who fail. Having failures does not indicate a high standard in education; it just as likely indicates an unjust assessment. We should not be looking for failure or focusing on passing a test; we should be looking at individuals’ body of work.

What would make IDEA and public education a success?

If the focus remained on compliance, but an improved compliance, with emphasis on staff development and the production of higher quality Individual Education Plans (IEPs), we could accomplish the true aim of IDEA, which was providing the means for children with disabilities to gain access to a public education. But this does not mean making teachers jump through all sorts of hoops to gain special education certification, as the House bill proposes. Rather, the federal government would put more resources and increase funds for the training all teachers, including regular education teachers, in the latest special education techniques. This would improve their ability to teach more children, within the regular classrooms and would possibly prevent some referral to special education classes. We may be able to cut down on paperwork with decreased referral. Certainly if existing IEPs were written with challenging yet realistic goals and with the necessary apparatus for measuring progress, there would be more paperwork, but if the goal of education is to be genuine accountability to disabled students, and that is accomplished through a good IEP. Relevant IEPs can only be achieved through adequate teacher training.

With even better-trained teachers, education would improve for all. The more children whose disabilities can be worked with in inclusive classrooms, alongside typical peers, the more we adhere to the Least Restrictive Environment (LRE) aspect of IDEA that promotes normalization and inclusion of the disabled into the “real world.” LRE also provides invaluable life experiences to regular education students. What an irreplaceable learning experience it would be for example, for a high-achieving regular education math student to witness and possibly help with the unique challenges and struggles of a child with Asperger’s syndrome, equally gifted in math, yet unable to make small talk?

Inclusion means handling the issues that arise within the classroom in a manner that educates and improves the students’ situations. This includes handling students with discipline problems. Any teacher can be trained in proper use of physical restraint and the judicious use of time-outs to handle behavior problems that occur in relation to a disability. Certainly the teachers in the state-certified special education schools must learn these techniques. Why shouldn’t all public schools adapt such techniques as best practices and maintain more of their severe students in-house? If public schools were to use the Functional Behavioral Analysis (FBA) to analyze and come up with solutions that would help retrain a student who is acting out, or adjust the environment of the classroom, more children could learn how to function within more typical classrooms. What’s more, the better prepared a teacher is, the safer the environment. Restraint training includes deescalation techniques, after all. Teaching a child how to deescalate and keeping him there in the classroom whenever possible reinforces positive messages that the child can remain in control of himself. Understanding that behaviors can be a part of a disability and are not a moral issue is part of dealing with certain disorders.

Individualized standards are the path towards the successful, non-discriminatory education of the moderate to severely disabled. Teacher training could include writing IEPs that keep expectations high but are geared towards each student’s particular strengths and weaknesses. Is there much benefit to forcing a child with severe autism, for example, to learn lesson after lesson of American History so that he can try to pass the standardized exam on history, if the reality is that this child needs to learn how to function in the world without autistic behaviors? This child can instead be taught how to read and write, do math, so that he may learn the habits of a good education, but the school should be able to focus on his particular needs so that he may perform well on a job. Once he achieves his demanding personal goals, he should get a diploma just as the student who passes the state’s test.

We may not like it, but the reality is that not all children can achieve the same high standards as everyone else, but they can achieve their own high standards. This is not a soft bigotry, or a low expectation. We can have high expectations of disabled students by relying on well-written IEPs. IEPs should have certain benchmarks, goals, and those who write them should have special training in setting high-quality goals. The key is looking at the progress a student has made, where he has ended up in relation to where he began, rather than where he has ended up in relation to all other students. Progress made can be measured and can be an adequate assessment of knowledge acquired just as much as achievement of a single standard. In fact, under the proposed single-standard system, a child of accelerated ability may come into school and only need to learn a little to get to the “high” standard set forth by ESEA or the state system, yet his achievement will be the more highly praised than the child with significant special needs who advances tremendously in his push to learn. Yet the latter student may not make the “high” standard of the other child. Under this new system he will be deemed a failure, rather than the success he is.

Only by improving school funding and the professional development of teachers will we start to see improvement in the special education of students. If paperwork is a problem, we need to fund more IEP staff. If discipline is a problem, institute better restraint training. If class size is a problem, fund more school buildings and more teachers to staff them. If shoddy education is a problem, train teachers better, pay them accordingly, and develop curricula that teach students the excellent habits of a thinking person. Only by understanding and teaching to their disability, by focussing on compliance and the individual, will we have standards these children can meet and we can be proud of. If we impose a single method of assessing, all we will get is failure, and shallow achievement, while congratulating ourselves on having a “standard” that is nothing but a sham. We must go back to the questions of “What is the purpose of public education?” and “What is a diploma for?” and answer these satisfactorily before we impose tests and then consequences. That is not public education; that is public discrimination.