Fixing Special Education: 12 Steps to Transform a Broken System by Miriam Kurtzig Freedman

A Design Flaw

  • The law can result on relying on parents to fight schools for service. This means that kids with savvy parents have a better chance. Rather than fostering cooperation, it can create battlegrounds. Meanwhile, parents who have non disabled students with learning issues have no legal right to demand services. Thanks to the many procedures, process is elevated over outcomes. State and local regulations add to red tape that creates a climate where education is less likely to thrive. We need climate change!
  • Thanks to the Response to Intervention (RtI) program, there is emphasis to intervene in early grades so that students many not need special education. This replaces the “wait to fail” approach. Schools are also accountable for special ed students who must receive the general curriculum. The problem that Miriam sees is that we are running two systems with overlapping and confusing requirements when we only need one good one. She also sites legal action where educators and parents must testify against each other one day and be expected to work together the next day.

The Climate Change Reform Steps

  • 1. End the litigation for a student’s services. Teachers and parents should be deciding what a student needs, not lawyers, judges, and outside “experts.” Many cases take years and it’s mostly savvy, well to do parents who take advantage of it. Miriam ofters some ideas of how to do it
  • 2. Eliminate the fear of litigation that grips our schools. It can be demoralizing and cause teachers to spend lots of time doing needed paperwork. Teachers leaving the field often cite burdensome paperwork and a negative adversarial climate. If teachers advocate for students, lawyers wouldn’t be necessary.
  • 3. Reduce the bureaucratic morass. Paperwork is not education; documents don’t teach. The system is so complex that there is non compliance just about everywhere. The focus should be on student outcomes, not meetings and paperwork.

The Change the Path Reform Steps

  • 4. Educate all students without labels. End reliance on the medical model as the gatekeeper for services. Why must we see a student’s behavior as an illness and only treat those who are deemed ill by a complex process? The labeling process also advantages students with effective parent advocates. This results in many children without labels being left behind. Labels can also serve to lower expectations. The current focus may be a good start to move beyond labels and to giving all students what they need.
  • 5. Change the role of parent in the law from “law enforcers” back to “parents.” As the law stands, parents are encouraged to enforce the law, advocate for children, and battle the schools. This assures that the system is skewed to affluent parents. If the schools did the enforcing, the parents could busy themselves talking and reading to children, putting them to bed early, providing encouragement, and supporting the teachers and the schools.
  • 6. Treat inclusion as a means, not the end of a good education. Miriam sees the Inclusion Movement as a philosophy rather than a strategy. It makes no sense to hold students with serious disabilities to the same standards as their age mates. (Doug: This includes giving them the same state tests.) Any level of inclusion should be based on educational, not political criteria. The focus should be on using the pedagogy that is appropriate for each student.
  • 7. Focus on the WHOLE child – strengths as well as weaknesses. Successful people don’t get that way by only focussing on what they can’t do. Special ed, however, often endlessly focuses on weaknesses. Labels can also precede results when kids see themselves through their labels. This is not likely to lead to a happy ending. Business books are filled with advice to focus on your strengths. Vocational schools often see success as they focus on what students can do.
  • 8. Remind students, parents, and teachers that education is an active process. The law places all of the responsibility on teachers and none on students. Now we tell students that if they don’t work hard their teachers will be punished. Do we punish hospital staff when all patients don’t get better? Many books focus on how hard work and practice are necessary for success. Our incentive system is backwards. We need high and appropriate expectations and standards and more incentives for students.
  • 9. End the overuse of accommodations. Stop lying to the students, parents, and regulators. Accommodations should enable students to learn, not help them get by. They are not supposed to lower standards. Parents need to know exactly where the child is instead of getting misleading modified grades. Many schools need fewer accommodations and more focus on teaching and learning. We should also stop pushing kids out of high school after four years if they aren’t ready for college level work.

C. Rebalance Schools for All Students Steps

  • The law’s excesses must be curbed. Too much of a good thing is a bad thing.
  • 10. Educate ALL students, starting from where they currently function. Students with disabilities are a protected class. When school budgets are cut special ed budgets are not. Miriam feels that ALL children are unique and need appropriate education. There are many at-risk students who don’t qualify for special ed services. They often fall through the cracks and drop out. One suggestion is to give all students extended time on key tests like SATs and ACTs.
  • 11. Follow the money for special education and educating SWD – a most challenging endeavor. The trouble is that we don’t know how much we spend on special education. Worse yet, the costs can’t be controlled, and courts rule that lack of funding is no defense. Neither are we sure that the money is well spent. We must know the real costs.
  • 12. Create an action plan. We need an open discussion featuring a wide array of stakeholders. We need to expand what is working and change what’s not. We need to recognize that the system is broken and needs to be fixed. The vision should be educating ALL students to appropriately high standards. We need to question the assumptions that have been in place since the 1970s.
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