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.