Wednesday, June 25, 2014

What Should Arne Have Said

There's been a pig-pile on Arne today over his ill-considered announcement of the DOE's new get-tough-on-states policy regarding students with disabilities (I know, because I was one of the first pigs on the pile).

However. The answer that Arne came up with is stupid, but the question it addresses-- are all students with disabilities getting the educational service they deserve-- is not a stupid question at all.  This is a serious issue, and there are some of the serious points that need to be seriously considered if we're going to have a serious conversation about it.

* "Students with disabilities" is a huge, huge, HUGE category. It includes the students in my classroom who are labeled learning disabled but whose label I would never have guessed because their disability never interferes with their classroom performance. It also includes students with profound levels of difficulty who will never, ever in their lives function "at grade level." And it includes every shade of grey in between. To make any statement of policy about students with disabilities that lumps them altogether is like writing a policy that dictates how we should handle "people with dark hair."

* Parents of students with disabilities often have to fight long, hard, and constantly to get their children the services and support that they should be getting. Many districts and schools have a history of writing off disabled students. That's not okay.

* The balancing act between when parents want, what schools recommend, and what can be realistically delivered is tricky, delicate and not always easily settled. You can't automatically choose one side every time. Anybody who wades into this mess has to know that.

* Standardized testing is often the worst possible way to measure the educational attainments of students with special needs. Watching special needs students deal with these tests drives home the oft-repeated (at least by me) truth that a standardized test only really measures the student's ability to take a standardized test.

* "Well, those LD students are just dumb and you'll never teach them anything anyway," is not a valid position. How they can learn, what they can learn, and how we can determine what they've learned are all tricky, highly individual issues. Almost everybody can learn something, but we all have limits, and some limitations are greater than others.

* The most severely disabled students are like buckets with limited capacity. Do we want to fill the bucket with Skills For Taking Standardized Tests or Skills For Having A Happy Life?  Because those things aren't the same.

So what Arne should have said was something like this:

Our nation, our states, and our schools have an obligation to every young citizen in search of an education. But for some of our most challenged young citizens, that definition of an education may look very different from the standard one. 

I will renew the department's commitment to ensuring that in all states, students with special needs do not have those needs neglected. It is not enough to just do the required paperwork without regard for what is actually happening with the student, and it is not acceptable to simply jam each student into a pre-set standardized slot. 

Yes, there are students whose unique challenges mean they require unique educational plans, and those plans must be made with respect and sensitivity to each student's unique limitations and gifts. But each plan must be made by a team of people who know and care about that student, not simply pulled out of a bureaucratic template created in some far-off office.

We must hold each special student up to the highest possible expectations, but we must temper those expectations with sensitivity and wisdom. It does no good to push people past their breaking point. There should never be another Ethan Rediske. And we must recognize that we may not be able to measure their achievements with conventional standardized tools. We depend on our educational professionals on the ground to help parents see what their children have accomplished. 

The promise of American public education was not made to so-called "normal" students alone, but to every student, no matter what the individual constellation of strengths and weaknesses may be. This administration is committed to seeing that the promise of public education is fulfilled for every American student, not by bending that student to fit our vision, but by expanding our vision so that is large enough, and flexible enough, to meet the needs of each student.

And that, more or less, is what Arne should have said.


  1. Excellent. If only this is what he had said. As not only a teacher, but more importantly as a parent of a student with special needs, his actual statement terrified me.

  2. I am also a parent of a special needs child (autism spectrum) as well as a teacher. I am sickened by his lack of understanding and empathy.

  3. I'm so happy to have found your blog through HuffPost. I especially enjoy your wonderful analogies. My very favorite post is "The Hard Part." It expresses so exactly (but so much better than I could) my thoughts and feelings. I also appreciate readers' comments, such as NY Teacher's response to the June 21 UPenn post, how it's not one size fits all, but one size fits few; Della Palacios' analysis in response to the June 2 post on Civic Irresponsibility; and Heike Larson's comment on Montessori education in response to the May 5 post An Educated Person. My daughter and I spent a day at a Montessori school because we were curious as to how it worked, and it was amazing. We concluded that all schools should be Montessori, that it's the model to follow.
    Over the years, like other veteran teachers, I have seen a lot of "education reform", all thought up and imposed on us by non-teachers with no idea what we do, all touted as "magic bullets" for solving all problems, from buildings without classroom walls (pretty distracting for the students, but hey, saves on building material costs,) to block scheduling. This most recent trend of "data-driven accountability" and high-stakes testing is particularly pernicious because of the money-making aspect. And in a recent article about Thomas Piketty's new book, Matt Bai talks about the "almost mystical power we ascribe to data," which I certainly think is relevant to the current reformster trend. The problem is not just that it depends on how you interpret the data or what methodology you use, or even that teaching is too complex; it's that data doesn't tell you what you need to know even at the most basic level. Data can tell you that absenteeism or graduation rates are higher or lower this year than last or in one school compared to another, but what it can't tell you is WHY. If you don't know why, you can't figure out how to improve.
    I am convinced that the ONLY way to improve education is to use approaches based on COGNITIVE RESEARCH on HOW PEOPLE LEARN, and to use them in a COORDINATED WAY, instead of just throwing one out there every once in a while randomly. EVERYTHING else is just a fad. And I haven't seen using cognitive research on any of Arnie's lists.

  4. I nominate Peter Greene for Secretary of Education.

  5. Lack of understanding and lack of empathy are one thing…but what is most terrifying to me, as a lifelong special educator, is his obvious lack of KNOWLEDGE, EXPERIENCE and profound lack of FAMILIARITY with the enormous continuum of special needs classifications he has so casually lumped under the generic term "special education"…and then goes on to proclaim the same 'standard measure' for ALL of these students. His very words reveal his ignorance, otherwise he would know he could never do justice to any special education child by making one blanket statement meant to address all of the diverse conditions that encompasses. We as a society, can never go back to the 'ignorant generalities' about special needs…not after nearly 50 years of focussing on 'individual' education plans…and 'individual' strengths and weaknesses. NEVER. He is hinting at common 'cut' scores for all children, regardless of circumstances…and that takes the practice of education back to the dark ages. He jimmied open that long ago padlocked door of descriptive adjectives historically used to describe 'uncommon" learners as lazy, unmotivated, distracted, weak, not trying hard enough, not competing, uninterested, restless, lethargic, sloppy, messy, unkept, unorganized, disruptive, undisciplined, stubborn…and on and on…What he has done is unforgivable and if this actually makes it into national policy it will set the trend for re establishing 'special schools' outside of the mainstream nation wide…isolating special needs so their low scores will not put their mainstream schools at risk of losing federal / state education funding. It is very dangerous to have ignorant people in high places…I can't even begin to imagine how this will play out at direct service levels…TFA's are already preparing their recruits for special ed positions with an extra few weeks to their 5 week trainings…Is the special education classroom the next arena to feel the reformers wrath? Enough is Enough…we can not let this political reform ignorance prevail any longer.

  6. What Arne should have said is, “I have just come to the realization that I don’t know diddley about education and am therefore resigning immediately.”

    I have a dream …

  7. Agreed! Duncan has performed miserably as SOE, and should do Obama a favor by resigning. His ed policy is a blight on the administration's record.

  8. as a long-time teacher of moderately cognitively disabled students (IQs between 40 and 55), i spent a lot of time telling administrators, etc., "IF THEY COULD PERFORM AT GRADE LEVEL, THEY WOULDN'T BE IN MY CLASS."
    my kids took the Illinois Alternative Assessment every year. some did very well, others... not so much. even tho it was a multiple-choice test in which you really had to do poorly to score poorly, i always considered it much more a test of the student's disability, and not his/her achievement.

  9. Please read, sign, and circulate the petition entitled: DUMP ARNE DUNCAN. Thank you.

    Here is the link to the people’s petition to rid the nation’s public school system from this one man disaster:

    1. Also, call the White House and tell them Duncan should be relieved of his duties. Write and call Senators and Congressional reps and tell them that 20 US Code 7861 needs to be rescinded.

  10. Hi! I just found your blog via Twitter. As a special education teacher for the last 19 years, Arne's comments astound me. (well, not really...I've heard things like them before....) Seems to me our special ed federal requirements for the "compliance" we have been "doing so well" is incompatible with what Arne wants to do and most importantly what the students actually need. I'd like to get rid of high stakes testing altogether and go back to using assessments to help me plan my upcoming lessons.