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Why Special Education Is Failing Our Children

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I’d like to begin with an analogy…

Let’s imagine you are having a problem with a particular task at work and you work for a good company. Your supervisor has identified your area of weakness and it has become a big enough problem that it is now time to meet to discuss the next steps. I think we can all generally agree that a responsible employer will make a plan at that meeting. This plan will include steps to learn the skills, improve your performance and boost your confidence as an employee. The employer is invested in helping you become better at your position so that their product, business and output thrive.

Now let’s imagine you work for a really great company. Not only do they set up a meeting to help you improve using the resources they have within the company, they might even send you outside of the office for further training and professional development that will strengthen you as a worker. You might even work for a company who gives you a mentor who is with you from the first day. A mentor whose job is to help you be successful from the beginning so that you don’t have to struggle and never have to feel like a failure. The mentor’s job is to see potential problems and give you the tools and support to help you avoid having these issues at all. These companies understand that a happy, supported and confident employee helps their business the most.

Finally, let’s imagine you work for a crappy company. Your boss refuses to help you and you fail. Scared that you will be fired, you beg, in a pool of tears, for help. Then, and only then, they might set an hour or two aside to help catch you up on what they “believe” you are missing. In this situation, you only receive help if you take it upon yourself to track it down on your own. Through reading, reaching out to colleagues who you perceive to be more knowledgeable, and scouring the internet, you build your own path to success. For those employees who do not have the resources, ability, determination and understanding that help is available, being fired is in the foreseeable future.

Now let’s extend this analogy to special education. Any parent of children with disabilities can almost instantly agree that the special education system is the crappy employer. When the whole ideology to help children with physical and developmental difficulties is based on the “let them fail before we step in” mentally, there is a problem. When a child can have two moderate delays and a mild delay at the age of 5 and not be eligible for services because they are not in the right categories, that is a problem. When a school district isn’t willing to offer a child with multiple areas of delay, including one severe, because the state penalizes districts that have too many children receiving special education, that is an enormous problem. When I, as a parent, am being told by the special education committee that even though my child is still delayed, and behind her peers in multiple areas, she is improving and on the path to having age-appropriate skills (not there yet), and will no longer qualify for services, we have a problem. When her therapists, upon hearing that she is being “discharged” start sending me sheets of exercises to start doing with her at home after she no longer gets to see them and are discussing which are the most important to do because the packet is the size of a small novel, we have a huge problem.

A friend of mine who has several children with disabilities said to me, “I’ve never met a parent of a child with disabilities who is truly happy with the service they are getting.” Here’s the thing, if those “happy with their services” parents existed, every parent of children with disabilities would move and put their children in that school. That is the sad truth. If we were doing what we needed for our children with disabilities, there wouldn’t be whole agencies dedicated to advocacy, law offices that specialize in special education litigation or enough Facebook support groups to fill your days with reading.

We are failing our children.

For the most part, it is not the teachers, the therapists or even the CSE chairs who are at fault. We have been blessed with therapists who have gone above and beyond for our child. They have attended trainings, scoured the internet for resources, given up vacation time and spent loads of their own money on therapy tools. As a teacher and as a parent, I have sat through agonizing IEP meetings where the adults sitting around the table are trying to do what is right but are confined by laws that leave their “hands tied.” Who is tying their hands? How can we release them so they can do the right thing? So they can do what our children so desperately need them to do?

Well, like all things, it comes down to politics. When the Common Core was written, it was drafted by people who had spent more time outside of the classroom than in it. It was wrong and people boycotted. Seemingly out of nowhere, it appeared on politician’s flyers that landed in our mailboxes and became a topic of conversation on the radio and around the dinner table. As a teacher, I was questioned about my views on the topic at parties, in doctor’s offices and at the grocery store. Now the next generation of the Common Core exists and the tests are being written using the advice and insight of teachers who actually stand in front of a group of students every day. They are not perfect, but parents have managed to not let the issue fade from view and change is happening.

We need to do the same for special education. We, as parents of disabled and non-disabled children, need to rise up. We need to say it is wrong to let our kids fail before we provide support. What life lesson are we teaching them? We need to make it known that penalizing districts for giving students IEP’s because they need help is wrong. We need to implore institutions of higher education to hire professors who may not have a Ph.D. but have decades of teaching experience to teach their students. We need to push universities to include more in-depth and extensive training in the field of special education for their teacher candidates. We need to vote people onto the local Boards of Education who will support more professional development in the area of disabilities for all adults who will work with children in the district. And we need to provide parents, caregivers, extended families of people with disabilities with easily accessible trainings, respite opportunities and support.

Most of all, we need to update and protect the laws applying to special education. Special education is a relatively new concept. The Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA) was crafted in its original form in 1975. Not long before that, children with disabilities were not even allowed to attend schools. The IDEA was an enormous leap for special education but that does not mean we should accept that it is the best we can get. We need to push local, state and federal representative to care about our children with disabilities like we do. We need to make it a campaigning point and make them want to fight for new evaluation measurements, disability qualifications and more. Disabilities span every race, creed and income. We need to do better for our children. Our education system needs to function like the great company. Our children are the employees and as their managers, we need to support them from the beginning, mentoring them so that they don’t have to fail and can be confident to go on and live productive happy lives. A delay is a delay and the more time we spend in the early years helping them catch up, the farther they will fly when they are grown. We may be exhausted, but our journey has given us more strength than we realize. It is time to make rights of children with disabilities as newsworthy as “No Child Left Behind” has become.

Getty image by AGrigorjeva

Originally published: September 7, 2018
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