My Disabled Son Deserves a Diploma

Boston Globe, December 15, 2002

Must high standards necessarily be about winners and losers? Or can we think instead of high standards as what we aim for in public education but which looks different in each child? A diploma that means something could be, conceivably, a document that conveys specific information about the individual graduate: information that a potential employer or college would find very useful. If we were to allow towns control over graduation,the flexibility to decide how to use tools such as the MCAS, we might then have diplomas of value.

My two sons’ experiences can provide insight into how this would work. My fifth-grader is what most teachers would call bright, perhaps even gifted in some areas. He is conversant in various subjects and stays on top of his work. This child, as expected, tests well. He scored ”advanced” in the fourth-grade MCAS. He has mastered the standards set before him. If our town stamped ”passed both English and Math MCAS” on his diploma, this may prove to be helpful information to a potential employer or college admissions board as to this son’s abilities, the way the SAT might help. In that case, there is no reason not to use this information. But performance on MCAS should be used only where it will help. Other indicators can be used for different circumstances.

My seventh-grader, on the other hand, has autism, and his neurological sensitivities and reduced language create such discomfort and confusion for him that he frequently exhibits maladaptive behaviors. This son, who attends a state-overseen private special education school, has an Individualized Education Plan, or IEP, rather than following a generalized curriculum. But the IEP uses the state curriculum as its basis. My son’s IEP is a 30-page document with goals not only in state-mandated subjects such as English, social studies, science, and math (at his level), but also in behavior strategies. All goals are measured by his teachers each quarter, and a highly detailed progress report goes home quarterly. Once achieved, the goals will help make my son appear and function more like a typical person, so that he will eventually be able to hold a job.

The standards his school holds him to are every bit as exacting and scrupulous as those of my other son. Thanks to Education Reform, both boys’ schools incorporate the Massachusetts Curriculum Frameworks, set out a complex set of goals and evaluate them carefully. Both schools demonstrate a high sense of accountability, and high standards. Both schools are training my sons for what lies beyond school. Yet only one boy will receive a diploma at the end of it. At best, if the state has its way, my autistic son will receive a certificate that merely tells an employer that this child is limited in what he can do.

My autistic child is limited in some ways, but he has also learned many valuable skills that will eventually make him a good worker. This society would benefit more from his employment than his institutionalization. Kids like him would have a better shot at getting a job worthy of him if they felt that their diploma was not substandard like the certificate.

Furthermore, if the diploma could indicate my son’s drive and progress, the self-control he has learned by mastering his behavioral goal, for example, that skill set may be of more value to a potential employer than the fact that he could not perform 10th-grade mathematics. Tremendous improvement like that is invisible on the current MCAS-driven diploma, and would only be viewed as a failure by board policy.

If we are looking for ways to make children more marketable in this demanding economy, then we must allow them to earn real diplomas, provided they have been given by accountable schools like my sons’. Only then will we have a comprehensive and just system of public school education worthy of our children.