Studies are showing that if you are a student in special education, you will be better served if you are a white boy. Despite the dominance of women in the field of public education, boys are referred and enrolled at a higher rate than girls (Wehmeyer and Schwartz 2001). It is possible that boys truly do have learning issues in greater numbers than girls. However, studies point to the likelihood of tester and cultural bias (Anderson 1997). Also, despite the popular belief that more minorities are placed in special education, a large study recently found that in fact, most students who receive special education services are white (Morgan et all 2017).
Why would we as a culture be putting white boys into special education at higher rates than other groups? Is that really a problem? Isn’t that better than the problem of minorities being lost in the special education system and not being included in general education?
Thankfully, special education is no longer the place to park kids who don’t fit in. It is – correctly – where we say to kids, “We expect more. We think you can do better. We want to help you.” Special education is a discipline of rigor for students and educators. Its aim is to mainstream kids whenever possible while also giving them specialized tools to succeed. Unfortunately, we are not giving those tools to everyone. Our expectations remain the highest for white boys.
The issue is not that white boys shouldn’t receive fewer services, but that the other groups should also receive them when needed.
But what do we do? Special education is expensive. If we are favoring one group over the others, at least we’re keeping costs down. Do we really want to put more students into the pool?
Do we keep things as they are? Do we increase special education funding for all the students who need it? Or do we raise the bar for eligibility (meaning that some white boys won’t be eligible) and focus on lessening our own biases so that all kids get a fair chance?
What is needed is a study that compares the futures of students who receive special education services versus those who do not. What is being lost by kids who don’t have special ed? How big a deal is this?
As an educator, I have seen girls and boys of color get lost in the mix. If they are not acting out, they are easy to miss. It’s really hard to treat everyone equally. It’s hard to see beyond the talking and the (usually boy) behaviors and focus on the less visible kids. And frankly, a quiet boy is sometimes easier to pay attention to than a quiet girl. She just kind of fades into the class. School culture often gives the message that as long as the quiet girl and the boy of color are getting by, it’s okay.
But of course it’s not okay. If special education is going to neglect boys of color and girls, then general educators need to step up. They need to bug these kids to do better, they need to bug the special educators to evaluate them. Special educators need to take off the race and sex blinders. We are all working to meet the needs of every child. EVERYONE needs to help everyone.
Many middle and high school students in special education are enrolled in study classes. Study classes are usually taught by special educators. Teaching these classes can be challenging because teachers don’t want “Support” to be a study hall – which is hopelessly out of favor now. After all, teachers don’t want kids to postpone work by thinking, “I don’t need to do this at home; I’ll do it in Support.” Yet teachers do want to help students with the work in their academic classes. Kids should not feel overwhelmed by homework to the point that they don’t do it at all. Allowing kids to do homework during the day helps some students because of the structure of school. They do homework better when they are not at home.
I visited a middle school study class that addressed both concerns. All students had been assigned a research project in English class. In the study class, the teacher focussed only on this English project. Kids were not allowed to work on math homework that should have been done the night before.
The special educator attended the students’ English class so she knew the requirements of this project. She guided students through the various points of research or writing. Kids could use the school library or online materials for their research. The teacher also helped them set up all the documents that they needed to fulfill the assignment, from notecards to final draft. At the end of each session, students shared their work with the teacher. She then either made more edits or waited to see the edits that their classroom teacher made. Each day, she had new ideas for each student, she tracked progress, and communicated with the English teacher about new topics or concerns about the project.
The teacher’s focus on this this multi-step assignment helped kids with a particularly challenging activity, but left other homework as the responsibility of kids themselves. They were able to work on the project at their own pace in a structured environment while still maintaining work habits outside school.
That is giving kids support.
I am so glad to have found this video of a talk by Professor Thomas Hehir at Harvard University. He asked disabled students at Harvard how they had gotten to the school. After mentioning their parents, most students described a teacher who had propelled them past the limits that others saw. Dr. Hehir’s stories remind us that educators need to push all students out of their comfort zones. Sometimes we educators want to be a little easier on disabled kids because they are already dealing with significant issues. But if we focus on the child and what s/he can do, we can help them go anywhere, even to Harvard.
“Really, everyone here is a special education student.” This was a dean at my high school. I went to an arts school. Years later, I was researching special education in arts schools, and of course I talked to my “home” folks.
I was skeptical of his assessment – you mean there aren’t specific services for kids who were on IEP’s at their previous schools? (This was years ago and not a reflection of what that school does now.)
And yet I wonder if my life in the arts led me to specialize in special education. The similarities are significant. Both require intense individual instruction. I had an hour-long private violin lesson each week; in theater I was critiqued for my individual performances. Visual artists receive specific comments on their works; each dancer knows that his/her body is being monitored at every moment.
Likewise, in special education, each piece of work is assessed to track a student’s progress toward individualized goals. For some students, behavior is chronicled and sometimes reported home daily.
Also, both the arts and special education celebrate uniqueness. Special education teachers see students adapting to the general curriculum in ways that make sense to the students. Yes, teachers give them tools. But the tools are – ideally – prompted by observations of the kids. The kids come first.
I took a class at my arts high school called Tradition and the Individual Talent. I don’t remember our discussions, but I remember that title. It speaks to the arts and to special education. Tradition is the great history that we inherit, it is the general curriculum that prepares students for life (we hope). Individual talent is the artist’s unique voice. It is the special ed student finally relating to geometry after noticing the shapes in a paper airplane.
In the daily slog of deadlines, meetings, and grumpy kids, we can lose the wonder of intensely individual voices. We forget our role in helping them become part of the world. But if we are involved in the arts or in special education, we are giving uniqueness an honored yet incorporated place in our communities and in our lives.
As a special education teacher, I have run annual meetings, three-year reevaluations, mid-cycle reviews, and meetings to “graduate” students from special education. I believe in these meetings; I believe in the public special education system. I also believe that there is a need for public school teachers to enter the world of parents and independent schools. A synergy is possible if we take our current processes from public education and mix them with other experiences and educational offerings. Tutoring is one way to do this. Another way is to work with independent schools to create unique ways to reach a broader range of students. Public and independent schools each have powerful strengths. Bridging these worlds can improve both systems, to the benefit of all students and families.