I’m sure you hear “You are my hero” multiple times a day. But for me, speaking those words is something I never do. I usually pride myself on my arm’s length cynicism. Seeking a hero is not something I consciously do.
But when I’m facing challenges as a special education professional, advocate, and parent – when I feel particularly frustrated or alone in my struggle – you are the one whose words and actions inspire me. From the moment I watched your speech at the 2004 Democratic Convention, I was absolutely swept away by something you probably take for granted. Simply: You are a thoughtful person. You see nuance. Rather than impose a black-and-white view on the world, you recognize and value every subtle shade of gray. I never expected or even hoped to see a President who could do that. You are an inspiration.
And that is why I’m so disappointed, Mr. President, in your administration’s approach to the one subject nearest and dearest to my heart.
Last month, Education Secretary Arne Duncan announced a “major shift” in federal oversight of special education. And while I was initially delighted to finally hear some acknowledgment of special education at all, I was heartbroken to hear the superficial, ineffective approach your administration has chosen.
The article I read claims your administration will “hold states accountable for demonstrating that [special ed] students are making progress.” It says “[s]tates that fall short could lose federal funding earmarked for special education.”
In other words, we’re going to address the very serious problems our special education students face with…more high-stakes standardized testing. I don't see how that addresses any of our issues in a meaningful way at all.
It’s not a question of rigor. I know these children. I work with them every day. My own son receives special education services for autism. I can tell you – I can promise you – lack of academic rigor is not what’s failing these children.
They face low expectations sometimes, yes. But more often and more devastatingly than that, they face unreasonable expectations. In the name of “rigor,” they are forced to comply with a system that wasn’t built with them in mind. In the name of “rigor,” they are denied empathic support that meets them where they are. In the name of “rigor,” they have fewer and fewer minutes in their day for playing outdoors, socializing with peers, or even eating lunch.
It’s not enough to simply impose standardized testing on a group of students and assume that those who score high are well-served and those who score low are not. My son is autistic, but he is also particularly skilled at taking standardized tests. He consistently gets high scores, regardless of how well he’s actually being taught. Many of my students, on the other hand, are extremely diligent and have overcome extraordinary hardships in their lives just to be able to sit in a classroom with their peers. Anyone who knows them can see that they’ve made incredible progress this year. Sadly, that progress is not always reflected on their standardized test scores. I’ve watched them struggle in front of the computers – not with the content, but with the mechanics of the computer itself. I’ve seen them misunderstand the semantics of the questions. In one extremely frustrating instance, I saw a girl struggle simply with the mechanics of filling in bubbles with her pencil.
This is not what learning looks like.
Learning is not black and white. There’s nothing “standard” about it, just like there is nothing “standard” about the children we teach. Yes, they all need to learn reading and math. But how each child gets there is an individual journey. We don’t need teachers who can herd them all blindly through the same hoops. We need teachers who are dynamic and absolutely in love with teaching who can find each student where they are, celebrate their strengths, honor their differences, and earn each child’s trust. Only then can real learning take place.
How do we get there? By valuing the profession of teaching instead of denigrating it. By demanding that our teachers not only be intelligent, but thoughtful, flexible, creative, and kind (and by compensating them accordingly). We get there by seeing and valuing every shade of gray.
We can do this. You can do this. I’m asking, Mr. President, because I know you have the tools. Please bring your thoughtfulness and your ability to see nuance to the issues of public education and special education. Visit our schools. Play chess and four square with our students, join them in the cafeteria, let them tell you all about their favorite things. Give them a reading assessment. Watch them play and argue and forgive each other. Come to IEP and wraparound meetings. Come to staff meetings. Ride a school bus.
Take the time to truly understand the unique challenges and strengths we face. If anyone can do it, you can.