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A calm, rational discussion of special education ….

June 27th, 2007

…. is not happening at the Wall Street Journal.

Nobody ever said that covering education is easy, and the job only gets tougher when reporters are called upon to spin compelling yarns while evaluating complex educational trends. Factor in the limitations posed by production and deadlines, and the results sometimes aren’t pretty.

Unfortunately, that’s what happened on the front page of the Wall Street Journal this week when John Hechinger’s story on inclusion ended up sounding more like a rant against educating children with disabilities in the general education classroom.

The story sported the inflammatory subhead “Disabled children join peers, strain teachers.” It stirred up a lot of fear but didn’t provide much insight, and didn’t even begin to discuss the benefits for all students that have been documented in well-run inclusion programs. Instead, the reader was served a stew of anxiety in which programs were evaluated not for their effects on students but on teachers, and the main concern seemed to be whether the presence of children with disabilities is damaging to teacher morale.

The less-than-balanced account relies heavily on the viewpoint of a disgruntled teacher in Scranton, PA, who announces that one particular 8-year-old student has driven her to early retirement. Clearly, this woman has axes to grind. The story appears to quote from a diary she kept of the student’s actions throughout the year, but if the reporter was present to witness any of the events described he gives no indication of it.

The end result is a quick-and-dirty account of a complex subject that deserves far more thoughtful consideration and a lot less finger-pointing – particularly against children. It’s worth a moment here to remember the origins of the federal law guaranteeing children with disabilities a right to education in the least restrictive environment: thousands of children with disabilities in 1975 were not getting any education at all.

It’s also worth remembering that the law provides no requirement that all students with disabilities get the same or similar placement. Classroom placements are determined individually, which gives administrators and teachers the flexibility to serve each student’s needs.

Implementation of special education mandates since the passage of the 1975 law has been disappointing, with students ill-served as states, localities and the federal government have wasted precious time assigning blame over funding and other issues. Inclusion has worked well for both students and teachers in settings in which training and support have been provided, and in which communication has been a priority. Sadly, those situations have been the exception.

The U.S. Department of Education reported last week that after 30 years, only 9 states have met acceptable standards. That’s the real story. We’ve thrown away time in the lives of children that can never be reclaimed. The Journal ought to be asking why school administrators still can’t get it right.

POSTSCRIPT: Did anyone else cringe over the publication of the 8-year-old student’s name and likeness? That she is a vulnerable child with a disability is obvious. That she is not capable of giving informed consent to being publicly pilloried as special education’s Public Enemy Number One seems equally obvious. Regardless of what her parents may or may not have said, this assault on her dignity should not have been permitted.

AND ANOTHER POSTSCRIPT: We wonder why the Journal is suddenly worried that inclusive practices are driving good teachers out of teaching. If you read the fine print, you learn that complaints on this score don’t even make it into the top ten sources of dissatisfaction by reporting teachers. (Not surprisingly, the top gripes circle around such evergreen topics as inadequate planning time, poor salary and heavy teaching loads.) “Mainstreaming special students” comes in twelfth – not enough to keep us up nights.

Click here for letters to the Journal.

One Response to “A calm, rational discussion of special education ….”

  1. Jonathan Says:

    But might there also be some truth that mainstreaming children creates workloads for which teachers are neither resourced or trained and therefore there there can be in many circumstances a lacuna between the ideal of mainstream schooling and the reality, which may not be ideal for many of those concerned.

    But I agree with you that the WSJ is not the paragon of virtue it is often assumed to be. I am trying to imagine how KRM may further debase it. I am perhaps among those who think that P3 girls might not be too bad an idea, but I am sure I do not take this seriously enough…

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More than 50 million people in the United States have disabilities, a number that is growing rapidly as the population ages. Experts say disability will soon affect the lives of most Americans. This website attempts to aggregate news and commentary about disability, and to document the efforts of people who are seeking new ways to address familiar challenges.

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