Special Ed Digression

I’ve been distracted from writing about the college admission circus for a couple of days, because I’m still finding a program for Ian. Our district is simply too large. The square pegs get completely lost in the shuffle. Luckily, our school district knows that this is a problem and is letting us shop around for other public schools in the area.

I’ve seen a lot. It’s remarkable how school districts that are geographical neighbors do things so differently. My wonky side is baffled about why innovative programs stay siloed up in one school district and aren’t replicated more widely. It doesn’t make sense.

I’ve seen about a half dozen ways of handling the special ed reading problem. Kids are shoved in special ed classes for all sorts of reasons. Some have cognitive deficiencies. Others have attentional issues. Some have very specific learning disabilities, while other have more global challenges.

Schools don’t know what to do with kids who aren’t average, so they round up all the weirdos,  put them in a corner of the school, and hope that a parent doesn’t call a lawyer and sue their ass. So, you can have a kid with an IQ of 120 in the same room as a kid with an IQ of 80. You can have a kid who reads at a third grade level and another one who reads on grade level. You can have two kids who read at the same grade level, but one can’t decode letters and another who doesn’t understand what he’s read.

The differences between kids aren’t so big in elementary school. In high school, they’ve given up teaching the weirdos and have moved onto vocational ed. In middle school, it’s a big problem.

One school might deal with the problem by grouping the kids as best as they can into small groups and having them read something that reaches most of them. Another school might pretend that there’s no issue and make all the kids muscle through a book that’s way above their abilities. Yet another school will use SRA packets and have the kids learn on their own with no group discussions.

I looked at one school yesterday that had a computer program that enabled all the kids to read about the same topic or the same novel, but tailored the text to their reading levels. So, all the kids might read the same article about hurricanes, but one kid would read about it at a third grade level and another would read about it on a sixth grade level. After doing the reading and answering some questions on the computer, the teacher could hold a class discussion about hurricanes.

I don’t see any downsides to this system. Maybe the kids would spend more time looking at a screen, rather than a textbook, but that doesn’t sound too disastrous.

So, why aren’t school districts sharing innovative practices? They is no incentives or pressures for them to make changes. No sticks. No carrots. Especially when it comes to the weirdos.

3 thoughts on “Special Ed Digression

  1. Just my impression. (ducking.)

    I have the strong impression, however, that schools do not want to be known for being “good with special ed.” Maybe it is different in your state, but in our state a district can have its budget derailed by a sudden influx of kids with high needs, as much of the funding comes from the school’s general budget. (To be more detailed, there is reimbursement to a certain extent from the state, to cover earlier costs, but there’s a time lag. Putting through an override to cover the up front costs often fails.) The current structure puts the administrators in the position of often robbing Peter to pay Paul. When that happens, they’re seen as enemies by all the people in the system.

    So there’s a structural disincentive for districts to be seen as innovative.

    Then again, as you note, in the special ed area, most children are unique. So effective teachers need to be observant, innovative, and they also need to be able to persuade the administration to go along with modifications for specific children. That means the really good teachers in this area could easily switch to administration. If each effective program depends upon a teacher leader, that means it doesn’t survive the loss of a teacher.


  2. Do you know what adaptive reading program they were using? I am intrigued by tech-based customization, which seems like it could have enormous potential. But it’s hard to find good evidence based support of the programs.

    I’ve heard good personal anecdotes about DuoLingo, but only for adults who are good learners, and just don’t know the language.


Comments are closed.