No Exit: The 'Black Hole' of Special Education

By: Linda Schrock Taylor - January, 2003

Recent news articles have discussed the possibility that two black holes might collide in a few million years. Although an interesting concept, this potential danger pales in the face of a real "black hole," that of special education.

Every year, thousands of our children disappear into the vagueness of special placements, never to be released from the labels and stigma; never to escape and again be seen as "normal." Many teachers must notice this engulfing, this entrapment, of our children; some teachers must surely strive to defeat this grave and senseless closure on potential; but the problem is rarely mentioned or discussed.

A few months ago, the superintendent of our district stopped to ask how things were going. I said that it had been a good year, that I had just released three students from special education - a 7th grader, a 9th grader, and an 11th grader, and hoped to release more in the fall. His surprise and shock were clearly evident.

Mr. S. said, "Linda, these things never happen! Well almost never! I recently asked a fellow superintendent if he ever heard of any kids getting out of special education, and he said it is very, very rare for that to happen." (This is an accurate assessment.)

Mr. S. expressed regret that he had not known about my three students, and said that he would have attended each exit meeting to shake the child's hand and commend them for such hard work. I acknowledged his compassion, but noted that neither my building principal nor the director of special education saw the importance of attending any meetings to congratulate these children, who had earned their way out of special placements and labels. "They knew of the meetings?" my superintendent asked. (Of course they knew - they always receive invitations.)

When I was ready to release yet another student - a 10th grader who now reads at a 12.5 grade level - the director removed the student from my case-load and enrolled him in a math class with mentally impaired students, even though this young man was in pre-algebra last year, and looking forward to algebra this year.

His mandatory re-evaluation meeting was held without me, without the educational consultant, and instead with a general education teacher who had only known the boy for a couple weeks. All might have been lost, but I not only teach my students to read, I teach them to believe in themselves and to advocate for themselves. This young man asked his mother to refuse to sign the paperwork, and to demand a new meeting, to which I would be invited. The new meeting was held, but we won only part of the battle.

This student is back on my caseload so I can supervise his progress, and I am allowed to teach him algebra, on an Independent Study basis. However, even though this intelligent young man is no longer enrolled in any special education classes, he is still labeled "Learning Disabled," despite evidence to the contrary, and remains on the headcount for educational and Medicaid funding.

So, do not underestimate the power of this black hole and of the federal monies - education and Medicaid - creating and sustaining the energy force that entraps and holds these children. Do notice how few honest steps are taken to bring about real reform - reform that would effectively educate American children in general and special education students in particular.

The most shocking and inexcusable aspect of this pretense, the lip-service, given to "accountability," is the dearth of professionals who actively attempt to get students out of Special Education. Few see any value in specifically structuring special education programs towards 'repairing' and releasing children; few feel any urge to commend an exiting child; few see the importance of choosing curriculum and methods that would prevent the need for such programs in the first place.

My advice to parents of special needs children is to become knowledgeable about service models and what can be accomplished through closure-oriented instruction from a well-trained teacher. Understand that only a small percentage of American children are really disabled - truly deaf, blind, physically impaired, etc. The majority of those enrolled in special education classes should only remain in special placement for a limited time - just long enough for problems to be corrected and delays remedied. I have a sign on my classroom door that reads, "This is a Stepping Stone, Not a Resting Place."

If, after testing and observation, it appears that a child's problems have been externally caused rather than being an aspect of his physical make-up, I tell the student that he probably has nothing "wrong" with him and that good gains can be expected. We have a joke in my classroom, that most labels should probably read "TD" (Teaching-Disabled). I honestly believe that if most of these students had been taught to read in 1st and 2nd grades, and had been taught a knowledge-based curriculum, they would never have been labeled and ended up in a special class.

Changes in special education enrollment/entrapment will never come from the top, because a centralized government needs us to be dependent on the State in as many ways as can be invented, encouraged, legislated, and forced.

Change might begin, though, when parents arrive at IEPC meetings prepared to ask tough questions, demand date-specific, written plans, and hold districts accountable for effective remediation and release. Here are some of the questions that need to be asked: "What exactly will be done to remediate my child's weakness?" "What are the skills and success record of the teacher who will be in charge of my child's remediation?" "Which measurable instruments of assessment will be used?" "Please be sure to provide me with base-line and subsequent scores, in terminology that I can understand, preferably giving age or grade level equivalencies."

More questions: "When do you expect to complete the remediation, remove the label from my child, and remove my child from special education placement?"

Change will also begin when schools teach reading within appropriate time frames, using successful methods rather than progressive fads. Change will begin when all children enter 3rd grade - at the very latest - literate and prepared to use reading to learn, rather than to still be learning to read. Change will begin when everyone - parents and educators - reduce the number of students who come to the attention of those who stand to gain by increased enrollment in special education. With any luck, the subsequent loss of monies will slow the spin and weaken the strength of this most dangerous and engulfing black hole known as "Special Education."

Linda Schrock Taylor resides in northern-lower Michigan, where she is a special education teacher, free-lance writer and owner of "The Learning Clinic." She specializes in teaching basic reading and math skills.

January, 2003

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