Defining School Failure

What makes a failing school a failing school? I’m not asking why the school fails, but rather what does failing mean? Certainly, I’m not the first or last person to ask this. People seem to disagree about what failing means in this context, which is why I’m raising the question. When I talk with people about why schools fail, they often struggle to define what school failure actually is. This prompts me to wonder how anyone can know if a school is indeed failing.

Defining school failure should be simple. If the goals of a school are clearly defined and the school cannot achieve these goals, it has failed. It might fail in one specific area, or it might fail universally. For example, suppose a primary goal of a school is to ensure at least 90% of its students can read at grade level by a certain age. If only 80% can do so by this age, then the school has failed. If a school aims to have all of its students graduate on time and it falls short of this, it has failed. When a school aims to achieve anything and it can’t, it has failed.

Or has it?

What if the students are the ones failing? Perhaps the school has adequate and appropriate supports in place, but the students simply can’t achieve to levels commensurate with their ages and grades. The school team does all it can, but students fail to reach benchmarks. The majority of students might have limitations that are beyond what the school can address. If the school has no ability to undo the effects of factors such as poverty, family strife, and community dysfunction, has the school failed when students fail?

I worked in a school that served as an interesting model for what I’ve described above. Students in the school all had physical disabilities. Most had cognitive delays as well. At the time I left the school, approximately half the students in the building had intellectual disabilities. All but a few had some cognitive delays resulting at least in part from their physical disabilities. Several had impairments that would prevent them from ever reading or speaking. Almost no students in this building could read at grade level. This persisted despite class sizes being small and the school having more reading programs and educational technology than the staff had time to use. Was the failure of students to learn to read the fault of this school? I doubt many rational people would try to argue that it was.

So why claim that schools with highly disadvantaged populations are failing? Of course, few schools have a majority of students with congenital disabilities or brain injuries. Many supposedly failing schools do have vast numbers of students who had poor prenatal care, insufficient nutrition, and exposure to trauma during childhood. These schools often serve students whose parents can’t read, whose home lives are tumultuous, and whose opportunities for constructive stimulation are outnumbered by opportunities for destructive conflict. Do schools fail these students, or is there no way for schools to succeed with them?

Any allegiance to the stance that schools might not be at fault will appear to some to be part of a cycle of blame. Having been a teacher, I might be expected to take the side of schools and point a proverbial finger at the disastrous communities that send students to schools. Please understand: I’m not a blind defender of public schools, nor am I a caustic critic of depressed communities. In truth, most schools that serve such dysfunctional populations are dysfunctional themselves. They face their own limitations such as threadbare budgets, transient employees, and questionable management. The unknown is how these schools would fare if the issues that plague them could be erased.

Some schools with disadvantaged populations do well in helping students achieve despite the limitations weighing on all involved. Why not replicate their formula everywhere? Unfortunately, what works in one region, community, or individual school isn’t necessarily going to work elsewhere. The schools that overcome the odds that typically lead to failure seem to be exceptions. Lateral strategies such as charter schools haven’t shown consistent enough results to prove they are the remedy. No alternate strategies have caught on in a convincing manner.

The disappointing but predictable trend seems to be that the highest performing schools usually have the most capable students. These students were ready for school upon entry and have networks of support to ensure success. The lowest performing schools simply have the opposite. While the better schools might have more effective systems in place and the weaker schools might struggle to keep the bathrooms working, each school is only going to perform as well as the students entering it can. The better schools might not be succeeding any more than the weaker schools are failing. These are broad generalities, but fairly reliable ones.

I’m hoping all of this is obvious to readers, but I’m writing this piece in case it isn’t. Attempting to define school failure can lead to semantic acrobatics. Schools can have different goals from one another, thus leading to differing criteria for success or failure. An elementary school in an affluent suburb probably has different goals than an urban alternative education center for delinquent youth. A community’s expectations for a school might not match the school’s actual mission. Regardless of the nature of its goals, a school can fail if these goals are feasible but the school fails to realize them. However, claiming the school has failed if its student body is too damaged to succeed according to prevailing standards is somewhat suspect. To turn special education reasoning on its head, how can the school be expected to achieve up to particular standards if it doesn’t have the academic capital in its student body to do so? That might seem like a harsh way to phrase the issue, but special education proponents use this logic all the time.

None of this is to damn anyone. Students in impoverished communities aren’t to blame if they are actually the ones failing within supposedly failing schools. Simply blaming their communities is much too simple. Massive, systemic failings that spiral out into the fabric of society at large all contribute to school failure. These same failings have to do with why the supposedly failing schools can’t afford paper towels. Although this piece isn’t intended to cast blame, it is intended to make a few points. First, the “no excuses” model adopted by the administrations of many supposedly failing schools is either lip service or complete delusion. Second, the categorical blaming of schools for student failure is woefully naïve. Third and finally, any failure needs to be qualified before anyone can claim anything or anyone has failed.

Defining School Failure

Being A Teacher Without Children

I’ve worked with only a few teachers who didn’t have kids. Most of the ones who didn’t have any were just young and waiting for the right time. Eventually, they’d get around to child rearing. The tendency of coworkers to be parents wasn’t some special phenomenon among educators. Most people want kids. Considering this, I’ve always been on the outside for not wanting any. Some people around me found my lack of interest in parenting to be suspicious for someone in the education business.

A more particular situation influenced my branch of the field. I noticed this wasn’t as representative of the general population. Many of my special educator colleagues had children with disabilities. Most of those who did had entered the field in part because of their experiences with their children. Their connection with the field was deeper than just wanting to teach.

My ability to relate was nil. I’ve never had even the slightest desire to breed. Wanting children has been such a foreign concept to me that I’ve struggled to understand what (beyond biological urges) would make anyone crave a brood. As I aged, I began to think people who wanted children had something wrong with them. The best I was able to do was excuse people for wanting children, chalking this up to something that wasn’t for me but might make sense for others. I realized I was the one with the atypical attitude, but I couldn’t subscribe to the will to procreate.

Not only did I not want kids, my reasons for coming to the field were far less personal than what usually drives teachers. I came to teaching largely because I didn’t know what else to do. I figured there’d be job security. The pay and perks would be better than working in retail. As I started, I developed a sense of obligations to students, parents, and taxpayers. I invested time and effort. I developed relationships. I grew attached to my work, but I hadn’t come to the field with any palpable sense of purpose.

My lack of purpose may have affected my performance. It at least affected my dedication. I saw what I did as my job and little more. It wasn’t a calling. It was what I did during the day for money. I wanted to do it well, though. I gave tirelessly out of the sense of obligation I had developed. This sense of obligation was different than having a mission. To my mind, I could end my obligation whenever I wished. It was a contract. Parents usually don’t think this way. They generally commit themselves without questioning their involvement. Without any sense of a mission, I cut my losses when the work became too frustrating. The willingness to quit and the ease with which I did would’ve been uncharacteristic for teachers with kids.

A critical distinction was that I never thought of the students I taught as my children. Actually, I found this reasoning to be slightly warped when I encountered it in other teachers. My disconnect may have influenced my outlook. I could assume the role of an instructor and facilitator. I could assume the role of an interested mentor. I relished the dynamics of my relationships with students. However, they weren’t my responsibility beyond teaching them. Mentoring them in any way was a choice. I saw a definite line separating my responsibilities from those of their families. My interactions stayed squarely on one side of that line.

Similarly, I struggled to empathize with parents. My outlook was unintentionally cold and I realized this. I could contemplate their situations, but I really couldn’t feel much genuine empathy. As mentioned, I couldn’t relate to what made them want to raise kids. More critically, I couldn’t relate to the protective impulse they felt regarding their children. While I understood that they felt this and I didn’t fault them for it, I saw it as something that occasionally clouded their judgment rather than as a relatable quality. When parents insisted that their children were somehow special, I politely nodded along.

I often wondered if my disinterest in having children was part of a personality construct that inhibited my ability to teach. I’m not a particularly warm person. My matter-of-fact approach to everything turned out to be an asset in the classroom, because I ran an organized program and I could effectively multitask. However, I focused more on clinical results than emotional needs. Being detached helped me make difficult choices, but it prevented me from developing connections with some students. I came off as too formal to some parents. I lacked empathy and others picked up on this, sometimes at the worst times.

I was insensitive. I actually had to feign sensitivity in some instances. Working in schools required me to adopt a persona. People around me were better off not knowing how I felt about particular issues. I harbored thoughts others would’ve found horrendous. I privately condemned parents who had chosen to have multiple children while not having the resources to take care of one. Observing the struggle to care for severely disabled children worked as an effective form of birth control for me. I knew such sentiments were way outside the norm for professionals in the field. I kept my thoughts to myself.

Meanwhile, over and over I heard from colleagues and parents, “You don’t understand, because you don’t have kids.” I agreed. Typically, their point was to say I was out of touch in some way. I tended to think I could see certain issues more clearly without emotion-tinted lenses. Maybe those lenses would’ve been helpful sometimes. I could organize a classroom, plan and deliver instruction, and implement useful interventions, but I lacked the sensitivity piece that many parents who taught could naturally cultivate.

I held my own for a decade and a half. When I had enough, I was able to cut bait and leave with little regret. Lack of attachment made this easier. Maybe I wouldn’t have felt this way if I had kids of my own. With mouths to feed, I certainly wouldn’t have been able to afford to desert my career. My obligation may have felt more like a mission for my children and for the students I taught. I might still be on that mission.

Being A Teacher Without Children

Failing Students

The title of this post can be read several ways. One could read it as an adjective and a noun, as in students who are failing. One could read it as a verb and a noun, as in the act of assigning low grades to struggling students. Still another way would be to read it as what happens when one fails to help students achieve. How one reads it could indicate personal insights regarding education and the relationships between students and teachers.

Failure has many interpretations in education. This leads to stakeholders standing poised to assign blame. Questions emerge when students fail. Did they fail to learn? If so, why? Were they not capable of learning the material? Were they distracted? Did someone fail to provide them with adequate support? Did they learn, but the tools used to measure learning didn’t show this? Attempts to answer these questions blur the boundaries of responsibility.

Special education creates further confusion. Can students with disabilities really fail in the general education curriculum? What if they receive specially designed instruction sufficient to minimize the impact of their disabilities? Who is at fault if a student isn’t making progress? What amount of progress should be considered adequate? Failure tends to be the fault of the teacher or the school according to special education law.

I wrestled with these distinctions throughout my career. Certainly, I thought about them in a broad, philosophical sense. Much more practically and more meaningfully, I thought about them regarding the students in my charge and how I served them. I wondered if I was failing them. I tended to think I was.

I really wanted to help the students I taught. My motivations were mixed. At the most egotistical level, I wanted to prove to myself and to others that I could be an effective educator. Taxpayers were furnishing my salary, so I felt an obligation to them to fulfill my job description. Parents were counting on me to prepare their children for work or post-secondary education, which made me want to give everything I could give. I had enough incentive to please these stakeholders to drive me.

Then there was my obligation to the students themselves. Part of my rationale for teaching was the desire to offer an opportunity to those whose overall opportunities hadn’t been as favorable as mine. I guess there was an element of charity in this. Opportunities weren’t really mine to offer. All I could do was present literacy tools and show them how to use these. I realized early on the limits of my effectiveness.

I tried. I showed up early. I took work home with me. I researched new strategies. I studied the content area I taught. I probed students. I examined results. I planned and implemented interventions. I tried others when the initial interventions didn’t work. I attempted methods that were beyond what felt comfortable to me. I revamped routines, as hard as that was to do. What did I find? Most of the students I taught remained at approximately the same performance levels throughout the entire time I taught them.

I had huge advantages. Small classes. Ample technology. The same students for several consecutive years. None of this mattered. Colleagues praised me for running an efficient, organized classroom. I prided myself on making productive use of everyone’s time. I tried to teach as though my classroom was being broadcast to harsh critics. I should have been able to muster notable results. Instead, gains were almost nonexistent. A few students showed some growth. Nearly as many of them showed regression.

Evidence for the ineffectiveness of my instruction was clear. Reading levels stagnated. Writing errors persisted. Skills didn’t generalize. Crucially, the students I taught tended to do very little after graduating. My efforts felt useless in the face of mediocrity.

The performance of colleagues made me feel even worse. I watched student teachers take over for me like I hadn’t been there. I watched a succession of teachers step into my former classroom and do as well as I had done with the same population. Not only were my efforts inconsequential, they easily could be replicated.

What gripped me most was the realization that in special education, a teacher can do all that is possible and it might not be enough. The nature of teaching students with disabilities begs that some are going to reach a limit. This was hard to accept. I had to reconcile with students who wanted to go college but really couldn’t. I had to offer unsatisfying explanations to parents who didn’t understand why their teenage children couldn’t write. I had to admit that I had tried, but my efforts weren’t enough to help students overcome the limitations they faced.

When I say I failed them, I do so fully understanding the circumstances. I had advantages, but I acknowledge the disadvantages I faced. Fewer than half of the students I taught were of average cognitive functioning. Many were far below this. The balance shifted towards more intense disabilities as my career progressed. Most of the students lived in poverty. Their disabilities led to frequent absences. All of them were coping with adolescence, which is its own interruption. I could go on, but in short, they were limited by a host of factors. Of all of these, their cognitive disabilities were the most difficult to surmount. I only could do so much to help them.

The limitations were real. So were the shortcomings of my attempts to help students achieve despite them. However, I also acknowledge that I might have helped them in select capacities that were harder to measure. I can’t know for sure how teaching them vocabulary and note taking skills may have helped the few who tried post-secondary education. I may have instilled some amount of work ethic in a few. Something I taught may have ended up being useful in some unanticipated way. If nothing else, they got to have a normalized high school experience through me.

With time, I still became disillusioned. I sought other ways to foster meaning. This was for me as much as it was for them. Transition skills gradually became the focus of my senior sections. The principal allegedly read my lesson plans, but she didn’t stop me as I veered significantly from the curriculum. Eventually, I began individual seminars on music and poetry in an attempt to exploit student interests. This engaged me, but also gave them something meaningful to explore.

These efforts didn’t change how I failed them according to my job description. My failure wasn’t uniform and it depended on methods of measurement. I had definite successes. I oversaw their IEPs and made sure they made progress towards goals (even if the progress was next to meaningless). Success. I presented an equitable opportunity to access the general education curriculum (even if they really couldn’t access it). Success. I helped several students make progress in decidedly non-curricular pursuits (curriculum be damned). Success. But they didn’t get better at reading. They remained woefully bad at writing. Most of them lived at home without jobs after graduating. Were my smaller successes worth much when considering the depth of such failure?

I suppose success isn’t captured in one element. I assigned too much value on reading levels and writing competency. Yes, a former English teacher just typed that. I don’t think I assigned too much value on jobs, but that was out of my hands. Despite reports that student learning depends so desperately on teacher prowess, success in special education is largely beyond the scope of a teacher’s influence. Success needs to be defined differently for these students, which means failure must have a specific meaning, too.

I didn’t fail, because in most respects I couldn’t have succeeded. I didn’t fail, because I did what I was feasible to support the students I taught. I didn’t fail, because I found alternate definitions for success. That seems to be the key to success in special education. Success and failure can’t be absolutes and instead must be contextual. Applying this reasoning to the rest of life, success and failure become little more than perspectives. Looking back at my career, I’ve tried to keep my perspective as positive as possible. Some might call this rationalizing. I call it dignifying.

Failing Students

Special Education Doesn’t Create Disabilities

A misconception related to the notion of special education being able to fix disabilities is the idea that it might somehow cause them. Parents sometimes blame schools for gaps between expected and actual performance. Ineffective programming might be to blame for some aspects of a performance lag. This is more likely to blame for a lack of progress beyond a given level than for the level itself. An inadequate special education program might be one of a set of factors contributing to below average performance. It isn’t likely to be the sole culprit. It certainly doesn’t cause performance gaps of six or more years. Such differences are not the fault of a school.

As mentioned in my previous article (Special Education Isn’t Meant To Fix Anyone), parents want to see their children perform as well as or better than other children. This is a natural and beneficial impulse. Knowing that their children have limitations is troubling for parents of children with disabilities. Denial is one way of coping with this. Reassignment of blame is another way. If the school is supposed to teach a child how to do math and the child can’t do math, reasoning might suggest this is because the school didn’t teach it well enough.

Sometimes there is some truth to this. A student who hasn’t grasped geometry might have had a geometry teacher who couldn’t clearly express the concepts to either that particular student or to whole classes of students. An entire school might be so dysfunctional that it is unable to cultivate a nurturing learning environment. Such issues could explain deficits for any student. Could they inhibit a student enough to create a need for special education services? Probably not. To stand out in such environments as needing services, a more profound underlying issue likely causes the gap.

Students with IEPs might access the general education curriculum through a variety of avenues. Each avenue has built-in faults. These faults indeed could contribute to existing deficits. Increasingly, students with mild disabilities sit in class alongside students without disabilities. They follow the general education curriculum with accommodations. This is ideal for exposure, but for some students, the pace and complexity of the curriculum as presented this way could be overwhelming even with accommodations. Instead of helping to bridge gaps, inclusion could inadvertently widen them. Inclusion of this sort is sought after per the IDEA, but it isn’t always a smart idea.

Other students with mild to moderate disabilities might receive resource room support or content and skill instruction in a separate special education classroom. These types of instruction are considered concessions according to the IDEA, as they remove students from the general education environment. Doing so might be what some students need, though. The drawback to providing instruction at a pace and complexity level suited to the needs of students is the potential for this instruction to be a lesser version of the actual curriculum. It might deprive students of the rigor and range of the general education curriculum. This might be needed, but it has drawbacks. In some schools, the special education teachers who are responsible for providing content and skill instruction might not be genuinely qualified enough to convey it adequately. Just as full inclusion could be overwhelming, being in a room full of other students with disabilities could be stifling. Behaviors could become toxic. Interactions with other students could be less than stimulating. Beyond the classroom, the very labels associated with special education could become their own limitations. These issues aren’t lost on critics who claim special education programming undermines learning more that it promotes progress.

Special education services could contribute unintentionally to an academic lag. As mentioned, this might be a mirage. By failing to fix issues, special education might appear to make them worse. This appearance doesn’t mean it actually causes the issues that lead to identification. Few claim that special education does this, but some parents who are scraping for answers are willing to suggest so. Of course, parents can blame special education for its failings even if they don’t blame it outright as a cause.

Perhaps schools could do more to help students with mild intellectual disabilities perform grade level algebra. Maybe if schools would simply try some unexplored strategy they could help students with severe learning disabilities write on par with their peers. Parents always have the advantage of charging that the school could do something more or something else. The painful truth is such efforts might not make a difference. Parents and educators struggle to accept the possibility that some issues can’t be fixed. Special education isn’t a way to fix issues. It’s a set of services meant to lessen their impact. This doesn’t stop some parents and advocates from blaming special education for stagnated progress.

The reality of limitations isn’t popular in special education circles, even though the existence of these limitations makes the field necessary. Special education might fail to erase limitations. It might even make some limitations more profound. Despite this, it isn’t responsible for creating the conditions that make the limitations exist. Special education doesn’t create disabilities. It doesn’t fix them, either. Instead, it offers services designed to help students access their education despite their disabilities. It does this free of charge for parents. Confusion over the scope of special education makes the enterprise more difficult for everyone involved.


Special Education Doesn’t Create Disabilities

Special Education Isn’t Meant To Fix Anyone

The gravest misconception in special education might be the notion that special education services can undo a student’s disability. Parents who cling to this idea make a huge mistake in their reasoning. Most parents avoid this conceptual pitfall, but those who become insistent that services should result in age and grade level progress are likely to be disappointed. Their thinking has the potential to incite conflict with schools as they seek a viable culprit for the lack of progress. They misunderstand the purpose of special education and overestimate the potential of schools to affect change. Misconceptions of this sort are dangerous for all involved.

Special education is a set of services meant to give students with disabilities access to the general education curriculum or to a curriculum suited to their particular needs. The point is to create equitable opportunities while minimizing the barriers created by disabilities. Services aren’t a remedy for disabilities. Services aren’t going to end dyslexia or extinguish autism. Services are intended to help students with such conditions access their education in a manner as close to the way non-disabled student do as possible.

In defense of perplexed parents, special education law complicates matters through what it expects. Students with disabilities are evaluated and assigned accommodations and program modifications to help them achieve access. They might receive related services such as speech therapy or specialized transportation as supports. The very law that says students are entitled to such services for the sake of access claims many of these services essentially interfere with the general education curriculum. Support is viewed as necessary for access while also being viewed as in the way of how the general education curriculum should be provided. When viewed through the lens of the law that governs it, the entire sphere of special education is a concession. A principle goal of the law is to move students towards the general education curriculum with as few services as possible. The law treats itself as something to avoid.

Adding to the confusion is the notion of progress. Students with IEPs have goals within their programs. The goals are skills or content that students should be expected to perform or know at the end of one year of instruction. Goals are to be aligned with the general education curriculum or with student developmental levels. They are meant to support general education progress, but aren’t necessarily the same measures used to determine grades or advancement (which can be confusing). For a program to be considered effective, students have to continuously make progress towards their goals. This can be an issue. By the nature of their disabilities, meaningful progress might be untenable for some students. They probably wouldn’t be eligible for services if they were good at making progress. Consequently, teams have to find an uneasy balance regarding realistic and worthwhile goals.

A host of problems develops here. Parents can become leery of goals that appear diminutive. A parent might wonder why a goal for a 5th grader is to read at a 2nd grade level. However, if that 5th grader currently reads at a kindergarten level, 2nd grade actually might be too lofty. Parents don’t always accept this. Many want to see progress according to grade level regardless of the presence of disabilities. Again, if their children could do that, special education wouldn’t be necessary.

If a team makes goals too ambitious, the student also might not make enough progress by the virtue of the difficulty of the goals. This can be equally distressing for parents. They might criticize the ineffectiveness of the program. The real problem might be the program expects the student to do more than he or she is capable of doing. Insisting on too much progress can backfire.

Understandably, parents want their children to succeed. They don’t like to dwell on their children’s limitations. They want success stories. Teachers want these, too. They don’t want to be naysayers or to be branded as cynics. Special education tends to only allow success in tiny increments that aren’t tantamount to general education progress. Expecting more than this invites frustration.

Goal progress is touchy, but the global effect of special education is a deeper issue. Services are not cures. Special education isn’t medical treatment or psychological treatment, although it might incorporate aspects of each. For example, a student might receive outpatient physical therapy that promotes walking, but in school, this isn’t meant to correct a physical disability. It’s only meant to assist with access to the educational environment. If it does that, it need not do anything more. Again, special education is about access, not providing cures.

As another example, behavioral interventions are meant to minimize behaviors on school grounds. They are methods of anticipating behaviors and redirecting them. The point of these interventions typically isn’t completely to change a behavior by addressing some underlying psychological issue. The point is to give a student enough focus that he or she can attend to instruction.

No program will take a 9th grade student who reads at a 1st grade level and bring that student up to grade level performance. Attempts to bridge such gaps are where parent expectations can be out of line with the potential of special education services. The law clouds matters by insisting students make progress, but teams must decide what reasonable progress should be. Rather than expecting the student in question to reach a 3rd grade level in one year, the better goal might be to see a measurable improvement in a specific skill area that would support progress. This can be a hard sell to parents who wish to see the performance discrepancy erased.

Transition goals are hard sells as well. Getting a job or going to college aren’t transition goals. These are transition outcomes. Proper interview behavior or college essay writing are examples of skills that support outcomes. These should be goals. Many parents struggle with this distinction. In truth, many teachers struggle with it, too.

The most upsetting circumstance is when after years of services, a student still can’t read, talk, or walk. After years of interventions, a behavior persists or a skill still hasn’t been mastered. Services have been in place to minimize the impact of a disability, but the disability continues to have a profound impact. Parents cling to hope. They so desperately want schools to be the fix. When students don’t reach milestones, the most convenient party to blame is the school. A parent might ask, “Why is my kid in high school but can’t add?” Well, that might be due to your kid’s learning disability or intellectual disability or pervasive developmental disorder. In the presence of a severe enough disability, only so much progress can be expected. Such truths are unpopular in special education, but they underscore its reality.

Parents always can claim not enough progress has been made. They can claim the school hasn’t correctly implemented the IEP or hasn’t tried everything that is possible. Schools have ways of protecting themselves, but they sometimes struggle to do so against claims that inaction has contributed to poor progress. This can be frustrating for teachers, specialists, and administrators, unless they have clear evidence that progress has stagnated because of a student’s limitations. They know parents don’t want such negative news.

Some schools aren’t conducive to learning. Some teachers fail to address the needs of their students. Sometimes schools are in part to blame for delays. Most delays that warrant special education services aren’t the fault of schools, however. They aren’t due to the failure of special education. Wonderful exceptions exist, but services can’t fix such delays in most cases. Special education isn’t in place to cure anything. It’s in place as a form of support. It isn’t akin to taking a car to a shop or getting a prescription from a physician. Educational fixes aren’t as readily identifiable as those in mechanics or medicine.

A rational mind should accept that a disability could interrupt or halt progress. A rational mind should accept that special education services aren’t capable of undoing the effects of a disability. Parents want the best for their children and they can’t always be absolutely, coldly rational. They thrive on hope. Refiguring their concept of “best” can be grating, but it can help avert consternation. The realities of special education might require hope to be modified.

Special Education Isn’t Meant To Fix Anyone

Graduation Redundancy

I graduated from high school twenty years ago this week. Since then, I’ve attended nearly twenty additional graduation ceremonies. A few of these were for friends graduating from colleges. Far more were for the high school students I taught. I suppose I’m somewhat of a graduation veteran. During these two decades, I’ve pondered the relative impact of these ceremonies. While doing so, a curious trend has caught my attention. It might be altering their impact.

This month, students across the country will graduate from high school. Completing high school only happens once. It’s a stepping-stone for many, but a major event for others. For as much as I dismissed high school, I’ll admit feeling slightly overcome when I realized I’d reached the end. The actual ceremony resonated with a mixture of finality and new opportunity—like a commencement should. I was almost embarrassed by how much it affected me. I can understand how potent the feeling must be for those who genuinely struggled to earn their diplomas.

Or maybe I can’t. I fear the potency might get diluted for some students. June isn’t just for high school graduations any longer. Middle school graduations have become quite common. Many districts host elementary school and kindergarten graduations. By the time some students reach their senior year, they’ve had plenty of practice walking the aisle.

When I graduated, I hadn’t previously walked in any other ceremonies. I had one graduation. It came at the end of my public education. It was a coveted event symbolizing an educational culmination. Graduation wasn’t something routine I’d experienced at every interval of my schooling. The idea of graduating from anything other than high school or college hadn’t occurred to me prior to starting my teaching career.

I learned about these additional ceremonies when I started teaching in an urban school district. Their existence puzzled me. I reached a cynical conclusion about why they might exist. In particular, I applied this reason to the middle school ceremonies. The district in which I taught had a pitiful graduation rate. Almost half of the students dropped out. I figured the middle school ceremonies might have developed as a way to celebrate accomplishments before students quit. Less cynically, I thought they might serve as a way to emphasize the importance of schooling. The ceremonies would stress the significance of the transition from middle to high school. I was reaching for a reason.

My reasoning got upended when I found out suburban districts were holding similar ceremonies. These were schools without such significant dropout rates. Many held ceremonies at all junctures between buildings. Students generally don’t quit during middle school, so the ceremonies at younger grades probably served some other function. This didn’t mean urban schools didn’t hold them for the reasons I suspected, but it suggested other reasons must also be at play.

Further reasoning was nearly as cynical. I began to think the additional ceremonies were indulgences. They were at least as much for the parents as they were for the students. They were opportunities for parents to snap pictures. They were excuses for parents to buy little suits and dresses. Parents could see their kids in tiny caps and gowns. They could buy glossy portraits to display in their living rooms (I briefly suspected a cabal among school picture companies). Each additional ceremony was another reason for parents to gush over their little angels.

I’m not a parent, so I can’t relate. If parents feel the ceremonies are important, good for them. My family was content with a high school graduation. Everyone I know who is my age seems to have reached adulthood intact with only one ceremony. If students today need the extra recognition as a form of encouragement, then I guess they should have this. I’m not callous enough to say this is dismissible nonsense for a succession of self-centered and over-indulged generations, but I could see how one could argue as much.

The entire phenomenon confounds me. To begin, how had I missed its encroachment? I’d been out of high school a mere five years when I learned about these extra ceremonies. In that span of time, who had decided they were necessary? What had changed? I wasn’t certain if schools had started the trend by offering them, or if parents had pushed until they got them. Either way, by the time I found out about them, they were firmly entrenched in the culture of many schools.

The concerns I have about these ceremonies—especial those for middle school students—have not to do with indulging anyone. Schools indulge students and parents in much more profound ways. My concern is about assigning too much worth to the wrong achievements. I suppose the recognition of milestones is good. Finishing middle school is a milestone. However, is it an achievement worthy of a cap and gown ceremony? Should anyone be proud of someone who graduates from middle school? Shouldn’t this be more or less expected to happen? Could schools be reducing the perceived worth of high school graduation by making it one in a series of ceremonies rather than the point of public education? More practically, might middle school graduations be setting a precedent for students to expect to be rewarded for simply being present?

I’m probably over-thinking this and coming off like a delusional curmudgeon. I’ve already admitted my age in this piece, haven’t I? Perhaps I’m exaggerating how much importance is assigned to each ceremony (although apparently out-of-control parent behavior at graduation ceremonies has become a trending topic in recent weeks). I could think of additional cynical condemnations of these ceremonies. What I should do is recognize that kids now expect to be recognized more often and for less than when I was a student. Parents expect this recognition as well, and maybe more so. There’s a precedent, which is difficult to take back. I’m not certain taking it back would achieve much. The ceremonies might benefit all involved in some way I’m not seeing.

Let the students and parents have their ceremonies every three or four years (as if it this were up to me). Let students bask in the chance to feel good about themselves. Let parents watch their little angles through the screens on their phones. I think it’s weird, but what I think isn’t going to postpone anyone’s party.

Graduation Redundancy

So Teachers Are Rebels Now?

In an effort to promote my writing, I created a Twitter account. I didn’t feel great about doing so. I’d been avoiding social media. Getting started turned out to be more or less painless. After I got over my petty hang-ups about Twitter being a cauldron of vanity and insincerity, I discovered a connected community of warm, welcoming educators. I met teachers who described themselves as passionate, dedicated, and creative. I anticipated this. Similarly, I expected many of them to be positive and outgoing, eager to share ideas and promote effective tools and programs. Most of those I met exemplified this. What I didn’t expect was to find a burgeoning army of educator-activists. Without seeking them, I found hundreds of teachers claiming to be rebels and radicals. This struck me, because I’d never thought of teachers as being either.

Social media has helped open my eyes to trends I hadn’t otherwise noticed. Not noticing had much to do with the insular nature of where I worked. I spent most of my career working for a dysfunctional school district. The school at which I taught was somewhat of an oasis, but I wouldn’t say it was at the cutting-edge of contemporary education. It had ample technology, but methodology was specific to the highly needy and atypical population. Many currently popular practices just weren’t appropriate for these students. Consequently, I often dismissed trends after giving them perfunctory consideration.

The concerns of teachers around me were immediate to their situations. Those who worked in the building with me tended to concern themselves with issues limited to the physical needs of students, which were exceptional to say the least. Teachers were more concerned with keeping parents happy than they were with overarching issues in education. As the special education liaison in this school, I spent my days fretting over compliance issues rather than contemplating anything more esoteric. Across the district, primary concerns among teachers were the lack of a contract, the possibility of schools closing, and the real threat of getting assaulted by students. Everyone feared getting cut from their schools or laid off. No one trusted administration. Concerns were very here and now.

During my last few years, I’ll admit being so jaded that I deliberately tucked my head in the sand and ignored national trends. Looking at the field from the outside and through the lens of social media, I’m getting to see some of what I’ve missed. Apparently, teachers have been growing increasingly irate. I’d always thought of teachers as being somewhat of a whiny bunch, but what I’m seeing now is outright anger among them. I’m accustomed to complaints about working conditions. Such complaints often prompted me to sigh and roll my eyes. I’m accustomed to criticisms of paperwork and even testing. Among my peers, these had rarely gone deeper than lamentations over volume. What I’m seeing among educators nationwide is more pronounced. Teachers aren’t just exhausted and annoyed. They’re ballistic and demanding change.

The venom seems to be directed towards corporate-sponsored educational reform. Much of it is focused on standards and related high-stakes testing. Teachers have united with parents and advocates under the opt-out banner. Ubiquitous opposition is thriving against almost any federally mandated or corporate-backed initiative. Educators across districts and states are vehemently opposing charters, vouchers, and anything resembling the monetization of education. I knew some ire had been brewing, but this organized opposition developed without me noticing.

The phenomenon intrigues me most at the individual level. Many teachers have aligned themselves with branded movements. The teachers doing so describe themselves as being something akin to insurgents. Some claim to be lateral thinkers. Others state they are revolutionaries. A few teachers insist they will do anything to make their voices heard and to defend public education. A few go so far as to say they are pissed off and not going to take it anymore, whatever “it” is. All of this oppositional energy surprises me.

As a teenager, I thought of teachers as perfect examples of conformist drones. To me, they symbolized everything I questioned about adulthood. My angst-ridden teenage mind wanted nothing to do with the complacent lives the adults around me led. Teachers in particular appeared to seek the safest, most stable possible path to earning a living. They had job security, routine, and no need to do anything daring. Teaching seemed like the opposite of a career for a radical thinker. Beyond any of this, teachers were authority figures. How radical could they be if they were part of the faceless establishment?

Age and maturity altered my perception, but experience reinforced some of what I’d thought in my youth. The teachers I’ve known haven’t exactly been rabble-rousers. My high school teachers led banal lives, at least as far as I knew. The prospective teachers I met in college partied like typical college students, but their interests and desires were portraits of middle-class status quo. Most of my actual professional colleagues have been dedicated and effective educators. However, I’d describe precious few of them as rebels of any sort. The ones who have been oppositional have also lived slightly unorthodox lives. The bulk of teachers I’ve known have lived lives filled with cars and televisions, children and soccer practices. They’ve been provincial and traditional, occasionally complaining about their comfort, but far from bent on changing anything.

This probably still describes the majority of teachers. The aggravated ones I’ve found through social media represent those who feel angry enough to post their vitriol online. Social media tends to exaggerate trends this way by giving such a platform to those most driven to use it. I’ve chosen to follow some angry teachers, which leads me to discovering still more of them. Sites like Twitter fuel this tendency. Far more teachers are likely busy trying to earn their livings and raise their families. They aren’t concerned enough with large-scale trends to bother battling them. The self-described radicals probably would call these teachers sheep.

I might be seeing an unrepresentative sample, but the anger within it points to bitter undercurrents. Teachers are angry. They are at odds with administrators, district officials, and state departments of education. They are disillusioned with corporate interests invading education to an unprecedented degree. I’m not certain how widespread this really is, but it’s undeniably there.

My guess is a bandwagon has helped this anger spread. While most teachers I’ve met have been complacent, many also have been unusually emotional people. Current threats to education have elicited an emotional response. I think of teachers as followers every bit as much as I think of them as leaders. Seeing masses of teachers follow emotion-fueled trends seems fitting. The recycled rhetoric they use might demonstrate uniformity of voice, but also it might demonstrate subscription to trendy adult angst.

Despite what I’ve seen firsthand, history is filled with firebrand teachers. A new and vocal coterie is channeling the defiant educators of yore. Some teachers definitely are angry. People usually don’t get angry just so they can feel angry. Conditions are pushing teachers this direction. Maybe they feel cornered. I had felt cornered, but for different reasons. When I felt this way, I simply left. The teachers I’m meeting online seem poised to stay and fight.

I’m not clear what fighting will entail or accomplish. I suppose they can complain on social media and vote for political candidates they think will support their causes. While protesting corporate involvement in education, most will continue to permit corporate involvement in every other aspect of their lives (what they eat, what they wear, how they get electricity, etc.). At least these angry educators are digging in their heels and getting fired up where they feel it matters most. The image of a teacher as a rebel or radical will take some getting used to for me, but good for them. Maybe I’m less of a radical than they are.

So Teachers Are Rebels Now?