Over 13% of our children have been identified as special education students. This means that we believe that a typical education program will only meet the needs of 87% of our kids. The great majority of special education students (currently over 40%) fall into the category of “learning disabled.” While specific learning disabilities are a very real thing, they are not nearly as common as one would suspect. In fact, in the late 1990’s, when our mandated standardized testing was beginning to get completely out of control, the percentage spiked to more than 46. That’s right, over 46% of students (over 6% of the total population) with IEPs, were supposedly learning disabled.* This got the government’s attention since the feds were responsible for funding much of the services for special education students. So they put in place something called RTI, Response to Intervention, which is now mandatory for all school districts. Before referring a student for an evaluation that may lead to identification in special education, the school must document multiple instructional and/or behavioral interventions for the student. Imagine that; if the kid isn’t learning, try something different. The problem with this approach is that kids who REALLY need services are being delayed for months or even years, while the school goes through the necessary gyrations to warrant an evaluation.
Teachers and parents really push to get the evaluations completed and have students identified. Getting a student identified as learning disabled usually just means demonstrating a gap between the student’s ability and achievement. In other words, if the student is behind in reading, but has no lack of intelligence, the student is learning disabled. It never occurs to us that perhaps the education the child has been receiving is lacking. Parents and teachers believe that once the child is labeled, there will be some magic that will “cure” their child and make her able to learn. They think that once a “special education” teacher is assigned, their child will make incredible gains and all will be well again. Nothing could be further from the truth. While there are many incredibly good special education teachers, many don’t have much more to offer than mainstream teachers. In fact, there are huge numbers of special education teachers who have attained their certifications through “emergency” or “alternate” routes. They may have only taken a class or two, or are in the process of doing so. The surge in special education students has led to a shortage of special education teachers, so states have put emergency provisions in place to keep them in compliance with the mandates of IDEA legislation.
I have been working with special education students since 1982, and gotten to know thousands of kids. Out of all of these kids, I can think of a small handful who had real learning disabilities. Almost all of the students I have known with this label had no disabilities at all. They were simply suffering from a lack of appropriate instruction, mostly in the area of reading. Once I was able to provide quality, direct instruction in phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, and comprehension, they were miraculously cured of their afflictions. In math, social studies, and science, I just needed to modify instruction slightly so they could use their strengths to become successful. If they had behavioral issues, I needed to find ways to adjust the learning environment, and/or modify their behavior, so they could learn. In other words, I had to be a good teacher and employ the multitude of tools and strategies I had learned over the years to meet the individual needs of every individual student. This is not magic. It is just good teaching. The answer to helping special education students is to help teachers become better at what they do. We need to stop labeling kids, and start improving teachers’ skills so that all can be more successful.