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.