Response to OpEd Criticism: Square Root of Stupid

Recently my OpEd critiquing the logic of tying federal special education reimbursement dollars was published in the Idaho Press Tribune.  As with its publication in Idaho Education News it was generally well received.

However, I did receive several messages from special education advocates arguing that special education students are capable of performing at academic proficiency and thus schools should be held accountable via Duncan’s plan to withhold the purse-strings of federal coffers for districts who are not proficient under revised guidelines for special education reimbursement.

I responded to many of those private messages individually; however, one particular comment was made on the Idaho Press Tribune comment thread by a Ms. Ellen Chambers.  She wrote:

Mr. Cavener:

With all due respect, I must take issue with your statement that: “… special education students, by definition, have a disability which adversely affects successful academic progress in comparison to typical students. If these students could progress at the rate of their peers, they would not need special-education services.”

Proceeding from the premise that disability, by definition, is synonymous with impaired ability to make academic progress sends one in the wrong direction from the get go.

The fact is, only about 10% of students in special education programs have the types of significant cognitive impairments that put traditional academic proficiency out of reach.

The balance do not have cognitive impairments, they are every but as intellectually capable as their non-disabled peers. (Some are above average in intelligence, some below average, most fall somewhere in between). For these students it is NOT the disability that impedes academic progress. Rather, it is the lack of appropriate special education services that impedes academic progress. These students CAN progress at the same rate as their nondisabled peers IF they are taught in a way that they can learn.

My daughter (now 22) is an extreme example of this. She has high functioning autism. She made NO academic progress (no social or emotional progress, either) whatsoever in public school in grades 1, 2, 3, and 4 (according to the district’s own test results.) Upon transferring to a private school that taught to her learning profile, she flourished. She graduated high school with a 3.9 GPA and is heading off to college.

Right before my daughter left public school her principal recommended that she be tracked into Life Skills classes. He, too, believed that her disability, by definition, would prevent her from making progress at a rate comparable to typical students. The truth was, he did not want to do the hard work of teaching to her learning profile, nor did he want to pay to send her to a school that could.

Thankfully I fought, she worked hard, and her future is so much brighter than it would have been had I believed, as her public school did, that she just “wasn’t going to be able to do it.”

Ellen M. Chambers, MBA
Special Education Activist
Tel (978) 433-5983

“There may be times when we are powerless to prevent injustice,
but there must never be a time when we fail to protest.”
Elie Wiesel

Most of the private messages I responded to were a variation of Ms. Chamber’s critique above; that is to say that most special education students are capable and schools thus should be held accountable.

My response to Ms. Chambers, and many other private messages, is posted below in full.

Ms. Chambers,

Thank you for taking the time to add feedback to this OpEd. I wanted to take the time to respond to you in kind.

First, let me reinforce the statement I made before the quote you included in your comment that I think we can both agree with, “Let me be clear: I share Secretary Duncan’s belief that all students, special-education students included, can make progress toward their academic goals.”

I also happen to agree with your statement that, The fact is, only about 10% of students in special education programs have the types of significant cognitive impairments that put traditional academic proficiency out of reach.” However, I think we have conflicting rationale on the timeframe for academic proficiency.

Secretary Duncan wants Special Education students to be on equal footing at equal times as typical peers in demonstrating academic proficiency (in this case using the NAEP assessment to gather proficiency data). For me, this seems entirely contradictory to the approach outlined in law through the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) in which a team of experts (including the parents and student) are convened to develop an appropriate plan, including academic and nonacademic goals, for the student.

Sometimes this plan recognizes that a student is missing a prerequisite skill required for access to the general education curriculum, and that this skill must be taught to a sufficient level before the student would benefit from exposure to the curriculum. Unfortunately, during this period of intense intervention it is likely that the student will fall behind typical peers academically due to time and resources being spent on an alternate intervention.

Let me give an example. Johnny did not attend kindergarten. He enters first grade with significant behavior difficulties including biting, pushing, punching, kicking, and cursing and peers and staff whenever an opportunity arises. The school begins an evaluation for special education services and places Johnny in tier 2 and tier 3 instruction during the evaluation process as required for the eligibility process.

During this time Johnny continues to struggle to display appropriate behaviors that would allow Johnny access to the curriculum despite targeted interventions within the general education setting that are being implemented during the special education eligibility process. These negative behaviors, along with the fact that most peers did attend kindergarten, continue building a gap between where Johnny is performing and the level most typical peers have reached.

The eligibility process is completed and Johnny qualifies for special education services with under the eligibility of an emotional disturbance. Immediately an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) meeting is called to draft goals for Johnny. At the meeting, the participants agree that Johnny’s behavior is the primary goal as it is a prerequisite for learning in either the general education or resource setting.

As a result, the team members (including parents) agree that a behavior intervention should be the primary focus, and the special education teacher initiates an individualized evidence-based intervention for the student. Sure enough, the intervention works. Progress monitoring demonstrates that episodes of Johnny biting peers and staff have fallen from several times a day to once a week. Occurrences of physical aggression appear only once every 2 weeks. It appears that cursing has been extinguished. Hooray, right!

Johnny now has the prerequisite skill (positive behavior) to access the curriculum. The whole team is excited that Johnny is back with his peers participating in the general education environment. Better yet, Johnny is making progress in the curriculum since he returned.

Here’s the rub though: At more than halfway through the first grade year Johnny is still learning kindergarten content while his peers in first grade are learning more advanced decoding content. His teacher does an excellent job accommodating for his continued needs and individualizing his lessons with the help of the Special Education Teacher, and progress monitoring shows that Johnny is making progress.

However, Secretary Duncan wants Johnny, 1.5 years behind at this point, to catch up with typical peers by the time of testing. If Johnny does not perform at grade level then his school will lose funding. This despite the fact that the school has done an excellent job implementing a behavior based IEP goal and intervention that is now allowing Johnny access to content in the general education setting.

I completely agree with you that Johnny is capable of reaching academic proficiency; however, to expect that this happens on a timeline of typical peers ignores the individualized approach that IDEA mandates. Instead, it places special education students into a one-size-fits-all proficiency score utilizing a high stakes exam to assess proficiency.

In my opinion, a student’s IEP goal which monitors progress, not a set proficiency score, is a much more logical way to determine if a student is growing, and is a much more logical measure to attach funding if the Secretary so desires.

Agreed, most special education students are capable of reaching academic proficiency. However, to suggest that they will do so on a timeline synonymous of typical peers ignores underlying nonacademic interventions (such as behavior) that will have to be taught and mastered before many students can absorb academic content.

Secretary Duncan’s plan ignores these prerequisites through the assumption all students are on track at the same time. This fallacy financially punishes schools who are implementing exactly what IDEA mandates and envisioned: an individualized approach to education.


2 thoughts on “Response to OpEd Criticism: Square Root of Stupid

  1. Eric Hook

    As a school board trustee with a 10th grade education and dyslexia as a child, it never ceases to amaze me how as a society we continually try to reinvent the wheel and all we do is grind a flat spot in it. Get govt. out of it, get back to local control and quit holding back the individual student with standardized testing.



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