Updated: Jul 24
There is a disturbing trend in education that I began to notice around 2013, and that is the inclination among teachers and administrators to funnel anyone who is not learning at a typical rate toward special education.
There are several reasons that students do not learn. Having a cognitive disability is one of them. But so are lack of interest and lack of effort, social-emotional issues, as well as poor attendance. Special Education seems to have become an umbrella placement for any of these cases, when it should be reserved for those who are truly encumbered by an inability to learn. Teachers are required to document the interventions they have attempted with their lagging learners, including those who just don’t seem to want to learn.
After a certain amount of documentation has been collected (this usually takes much of the school year), a student can be referred for cognitive, speech, and/or social-emotional testing to determine whether he should be placed in special ed. The paperwork for this process is massive. Once a child has been classified as such, he is given an IEP, Individual Education Program, that dictates everything about his education from that point forward: learning goals for math and/or reading; social-emotional goals, if appropriate; accommodations and/or modifications for classroom instruction and testing; number of minutes per week the students will receive instruction from the SpEd teacher; and disciplinary measures.
The IEP is a legal document enforced at the federal level. Keeping up with it is such a huge undertaking that some school districts (including my former Colorado district) give their SpEd teachers one full workday every two weeks just for paperwork. On that day, no services are rendered to students.
Here is an example of that paperwork:
This form is one page of a 23-page packet that must be instituted and then updated annually for every SpEd student. Examine the part at the top of this page labeled Identified Area of Need. Why are items such as Life Skills and Energy Level now considered special education?
Around 2013, we teachers were counseled by our principal that we could and should refer anyone who was lagging for special education testing, after the appropriate documentation was completed. Imagine being a teacher with, say, three students who hate school and just don’t do anything. Parental support is negligible, so there is nothing really to be done about the lack of achievement. But it does affect the teacher’s record and ability to receive a highly favorable evaluation at the end of the school year.
Now, say it is made clear to you, the teacher, that if these children are documented for special needs and then placed under the special ed umbrella, their lack of achievement is no longer your sole responsibility; it becomes merely an asterisk to your record, making clear that the child cannot help his under-achievement due to influences outside his control and should not be considered when determining the teacher’s final rating.
The incentive to place children in special ed is huge, both from a teacher’s perspective and that of the school, which is able to remove these children from its testing statistics, or, at the very least, list their record with an asterisk. From the teacher’s standpoint, it is great to be able to hand low achievers off to someone else and be absolved of the responsibility for their failure. But children who are unmotivated are not special ed candidates, at least not the special ed envisioned early on, decades ago. According to current statistics published by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), 15% of all public education students have an IEP. Does this sound reasonable? 15% of our youthful population suffers from a learning disability of some sort?
If you’re thinking that can’t be accurate, you may be correct. Another website, SupportiveCareABA.com, reports that 1 in 59 children has one or more specific learning disabilities. That’s far fewer than 15% of our population. Of course, this website also lists other maladies that lead to IEP’s, such as ADHD, depression, and anxiety. The final bullet point from SupportiveCareABA is that “the prevalence rate for all types of specific learning disabilities combined is around 5-15%”. This wording seems to indicate that these non-cognitive elements affecting how students learn should be considered when determining eligibility for an IEP. But is this not a misleading notion? I suppose it depends on your definition of "special education", which evidently has evolved significantly since its conception.
The special education program in this country is federally mandated and involves massive and ongoing paperwork, so much so that the needs of the children are not necessarily met because the needs of the bureaucracy take priority. In my book, Chaos in Our Schools, I share an anecdote about a SpEd teacher I worked with here in New Mexico up until a year ago. In 2021, our school received a visit from the higher ups in charge of making sure all our SpEd paperwork was in order. (This is an annual visit.) They found a lot of incongruities and instructed Mr. SpEducator to fix them. This visit was in December. By the publication date of my book in May 2022, he was still so focused on fixing his paperwork that he hadn’t worked with any of my three SpEd students at all. Since December. Their paperwork indicated that they were receiving 60 to 90 minutes per week of specialized tutoring in math and/or reading, but they weren’t. Mr. SpEducator retired for the second time in June 2022 and no other SpEd teacher could be found, so these three students spent this full school year entirely under my tutelage only.
Now this case may be an anomaly based on the non-traditional aspects of our tiny school which had employed the only SpEd teacher they could find: a person on his way out of education who had already retired from the public school system as a high school SpEd teacher and who had never taught elementary school before. But what if it isn’t? (An anomaly, that is.)
From my vantage point, none of the three SpEd students under my charge seemed to be truly learning disabled. Two of them suffered from extreme uninterest or laziness, and the third had a deplorable attendance record, so he had quite a few learning gaps. When I taught reading and math concepts, none of them had any trouble learning them. But all three have an IEP that assures they will continue to receive services for their disabilities all the way through high school.
I am not saying we should not meet the needs of children who are beset by non-cognitive elements affecting their education. I am saying that these needs can be met through in-house differentiation and specialized grouping of children, including decreased teacher-to-student ratios. This is exactly what my model school would do, as you can see from this graphic taken from our Home Page:
Why does it matter whether children receive instruction under the special education umbrella or not, as long as their deficits are being addressed? For one thing, it’s terribly expensive to do this and encourages a system of buck-passing among educators charged with teaching reluctant learners. And for another, it’s disingenuous to treat children who have no learning disability as disabled. Telling parents or guardians that their child is “special ed” when he has no cognitive inability misrepresents the truth. But it has become very much to everyone’s advantage to do exactly this.
Well, except the children. And their parents.