Thursday, February 19, 2009

Special Education in Public School (Or "Who's Pimping Our Kids?") Pt. 1

About week ago, I found myself up late one night for no other reason than somehow my body’s timing was off (having taken an unplanned nap earlier that day, my usual sleep pattern was thrown out of kilter). Looking for something to nudge me back into my normal sleep pattern, I started flipping through the television channels only to locate a guilty pleasure of mine…South Park.
For those who know of the often controversial animated series, it uses bawdy, sometimes gutter humor to make social commentary about the often idiotic tendencies and beliefs we harbor as a society by skewering our most heartfelt beliefs via parody. On the night I was watching, Park was in rare form. Creators Matthew Parker and Trey Stone used their highly popular and successful vehicle to poke fun at an issue that is somewhat close to me…our predilection as a society to label any disruptive behavior found in our children with some alphabet-soup-laden title. In this particular episode, they focused on the absurdity of over diagnosing of children—at least in many kids—with Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD).

That episode of South Park sparked recollections of my personal experiences in the public education system over the years. During 2007 school year, I found myself in a long-term substitute teaching position student at an alternative public school for students who fell under the auspices of those needing an Individualized Education Plan (IEP), more commonly known as “Special Education” students. Working with predominantly black and/or low-income student, to say that this particular experience was eye-opening would be something of a criminal understatement.
First, I have to say that most teachers work under conditions that would rival the military in terms of stress, the pressures to meet deadlines and create tangible results, and scrutiny from those who have no clue what such a vocation entails. And on this latter point, I would wager any amount of money that those who criticize teachers—especially those working in city/urban-type settings—would be pulling out their hairs if they were expected to work under such trying conditions. Further still, if they work with Special Education students, they should not only be knighted, but given sainthood, and have a special place in Heaven reserved for their eventual arrival; they are literally expected to turn water into wine…without the enjoyment. That having been said, and after my own experiences in the public school system, I reserve my own criticisms for others involved in the “education” of special needs students…students, their parents, and administrators/decision-makers.
Back in the day when I was an elementary school student in the public schools, those we called “Special Ed” students were those with obvious deficiencies…those who utilized special equipment to assist them in their regular day-to-day struggles such as wheelchairs, leg braces, electronic hearing aids, or in extreme cases, human assistants. In other cases, the special education students were those who had afflictions that we didn’t understand back then, but whose episodes would disrupt the learning process of the regular classrooms, such as Turret’s Syndrome or Epilepsy. They were all placed in a classroom at the far end of the school building. They rode the “special bus.” Granted, in retrospect this segregation (as it were) created a level of social stigma among the regular students, it was hard to ignore the kid who wore the football helmet all the time, even in the off season. But in 1975, the Education for All Handicapped Children Act mandated "free and appropriate public education" to all public school students with physical, mental, or behavioral disabilities. That wasn’t the problem.
The difference between then and now was the 1997 Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), which expanded the ‘75 act to include all children with disabilities—regardless of the type or severity of their disability—an education in the least restrictive environment. This essentially meant integrating “special needs” students with the general classroom (i.e., non-disabled students), with a minimal level of separation for special tutoring, instruction, or etc.
At issue is the expanding definition of what constitutes a “disability.” For example, there have been more than a few studies critical of the over diagnosis and the resulting over-prescribing of Ritalin for an increasing number of American children( For those significant number of cases where the diagnoses may not apply, it is suspected—and I’m very much inclined to believe—that these instances are nothing more than cases where parents don’t put their feet down insofar as punishment and direct parenting. In these cases, Ritalin should not be the first “remedy” of choice; I’ve always been partial to a more “natural” approach…a strong male father (or mother absent of the father) figure with the will and the legal sanction to use a hickory switch. While I’m far from the first person to believe that medical doctors, child psychologists, and other like professionals over diagnose and “discover” too many purported childhood behavior-related “disorders,” I am one of the few fortunate (or “unfortunate) enough to have experienced how such questionable medical practices adversely affects public education.
From my own experiences, integration creates a ready-made circus-like atmosphere in many classrooms, complete with “special” class clowns. The resulting dynamic is predictable; the focus of the teacher is shifted from instruction to maintaining classroom order and the attention of the already easily distracted class is commanded by disruptive “special education” students. And because of their special status, the disruptive students tend to be given a “pass” or light sanctions when their behavior warrants more. It doesn’t help that most parents are standing at the ready with a potential lawsuit cocked and loaded in the event that their “special” children are treated “differently than the other students.” And because of the increased levels of funding that special education students and programs which cater to them command from the states, it seems that there is a greater effort to keep them a part of the total student population, which further reinforces the kid-gloved treatment that they are given when it comes to their in-school behavior. The result is that learning suffers, grades and test scores suffer, and discipline suffers.
I can’t remember how many times I have seen the parents and guardians of disruptive students get phone calls from stressed-out and frustrated teachers about their child’s oftentimes reprehensible behavior, only to have those same parents return the teachers’ concerns with a chewing out, a justification, or an outright defense of their child’s behavior from these same parents. And of course, there is usually very little backing for the instructor’s recommendations from principalss and other administrators. The necessity of disciplining the unruly and/or instituting progressive actions meant to create a classroom atmosphere conducive to learning is irrelevant compared to the fear of giving upset parents any reason for either pulling these funding cash cows out of the school district—as if that were even likely in most low-income urban areas—or bringing legal actions against already cash-strapped school districts, no matter how frivolous, how much at fault lax parenting, or how undisciplined children contribute to this pathological dynamic of learning…such as it.

To Be Concluded...


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