Here is the link to the topic that has truly upset me:
And here’s my commentary.
I have not been a fan of Arne Duncan for years–not since my first year of “neutrality,” a year in which I thought I’d give him a chance… As far as I can determine, the only good thing he has done during his years in office as Secretary of the US Department of Education (USDOE) is offer a waiver program to states that wanted to serve their children better than No Child Left Behind (NCLB) directed.
The “discovery” that special needs children are not testing at grade level and “announcement” that the USDOE is going to fix this is the most ludicrous announcement out of this department to date. Most kids are in special education because they can’t test at grade level, not because of the teaching or abilities, but because of neurological and/or emotional problems that make this impossible. We’ve known this for over 50 years. This is not news, and both psychologists and educators have been identifying and refining specific learning disabilities and “best practices” ever since. We know that what works for one child may not work for another, and we want teachers–special educators and general educators alike–to have the best available tools to help every child achieve to his/her greatest potential.
Regarding test scores, it’s not that most of the special needs students aren’t smart enough; it’s that they cannot score well on tests–tests that continue to be given the same way regardless of learning problems. You cannot give a child diagnosed with dyslexia a written test and expect good performance, even with adequate time constraints. You cannot ask a child who cannot understand the abstraction of numbers and ask that child to perform well on tests that ask them to solve equations. You cannot ask a child with unmanaged or newly diagnosed ADD/ADHD to concentrate successfully for an hour or longer on any test. You cannot expect a child with emotional involvements to concentrate on a test when things at home are so bad that fear or anger or any random thoughts related to emotional perceptions are uncontrollable during a testing session. (Who among us hasn’t found our minds drifting elsewhere in the middle of a test? For a child with emotional involvement, it is extremely difficult to pull focus back to the task at hand, even after therapy and “training.”) To expect special needs children to meet achievement levels all along the continuum–or even within a year or two of receiving individualized help with a specialist–is unrealistic and indicative of an insensitivity to their disabilities and needs.
That Arne Duncan–with his Harvard degree in sociology–clearly didn’t “get it” during his schooling, and certainly does not “get it” now is a step backward for education in general and special education in particular. Special education is designed to help move children along at their best efforts from continual training and support, not at a “normative rate” that is meant to address skills of students with no disabilities or exceptionalities. Period.
Any person involved in education who does not understand that students with special needs are thoroughly tested before acceptance into a “special” program is not a true educator. In Duncan’s case, his senior thesis on urban schools may not have included thorough research into special education, and he clearly missed the readings and classes specifically related to special needs children. This is not unusual in many Ivy programs of study–or any post-secondary study in education–but it is an important lack when one’s political motivation gets in the way of adequate study of a problem before “administering” it. He doesn’t need to know everything in the world about special education; he needs people on his team who are extremely knowledgeable about the topic. Clearly, Duncan is not even savvy enough to determine which of his own advisers know the subject versus which are simply reading the political “trends.”
This announcement is far too close to the original contention that NCLB was something positive for all children. It was positive in that it stressed the need to equalize normal educational expectations across the country. But that should never have included special education and special education services. That NCLB became law under Tea Party types should not be forgotten. The law was passed with disinformation and general cluelessness in its van. It was reactionary and not well thought out. It was based on uneducated assumptions and general lack of understanding of educational/psychological research. That Duncan was a key player in the information gathering related to NCLB was a real surprise to me when I looked more closely at his biographical information. Either that information is wrong, or Duncan wants to be associated with NCLB for some reason.
In passing NCLB, the Tea Party never bothered to find out what special education is all about. Schools are no longer one-room Little House on the Prairie type school rooms. Parents are no longer satisfied that their children have learned to read and calculate simple arithmetic. Educators are no longer convinced that they can help each and every child in the classroom learn, especially if the child is smart but handicapped by neurological or social/emotionally difficulties. Most children who are identified as special needs do not have parents who can afford to provide private tutors and specialists to help them work with their educational challenges. Thus, the government–this time under the leadership of a president for whom I had tremendous respect–is caving into the demands of the wealthy while children in poorer school districts and middle-city urban neighborhoods suffer the consequences of “normative school achievement.” If these students could be part of the norm, they would be out-testing students in wealthy school districts and private schools. But Arne Duncan should know this, since his Harvard “senior thesis” related to education in an inner-city school. However, that his training was in sociology rather than education is evident from his programs during his cabinet term and his misunderstanding of what special education is all about.
I had more faith in President Obama than perhaps I should have had. I honestly believed that he would be in touch enough with his own cabinet and informed enough about education issues to curb his dog. And that’s all I see Arne Duncan as–an untrained dog who goes after appearance rather than substance, and whose “handler” looks upon with amusement. For years I believed that President Obama knew more about education than he does, too.
The USDOE’s new policy on special education appears to support my impression of Dr. Duncan, although I am going to need to study it more carefully before committing unwaveringly to this opinion.
Or perhaps “un-waiveringly”…