The Problem With the Concept of Special Education

About ten years ago, something called mainstreaming became popular in the schools in my area. Mainstreaming is educating children with learning differences such as dyslexia in the regular education classroom. They would have a special education teacher in the classroom who would adapt the material for them. Before mainstreaming, children with learning differences were often sent to a special education classroom (also called resource, or a myriad of other different names).

The intentions behind mainstreaming were good. Most school districts in the US require that students learn in their least restrictive environment, and by sending children with learning differences to a different classroom you are by definition putting them into a different and less challenging environment. It was expected to boost student’s self esteem by having them stay in the general education classroom. And it was expected to increase tolerance among students in the general education population for their peers with learning differences.

When I first heard about mainstreaming, I was skeptical. I have multiple learning differences and was sent to resource in elementary school. At the age of 11 it was determined I no longer needed resource and eventually I worked my way into honors and advanced placement classes. The reason I share this is because I want to emphasize that learning differences such as dyslexia and dysgraphia have nothing to do with intelligence and everything to do with a brain that processes information differently.

In elementary school, in some subjects such as science I was in the general education classroom, but for reading and spelling I was sent to resource. And this walk to the general education classroom was a walk of shame. Me and the others who went to resource were branded as “retards.”

In my case, the resource classroom was nice. It kept me away from the mean kids in the general education population, even if it didn’t help me much. I was diagnosed with dyslexia, but I was reading above my grade level. I have a more rare form of dyslexia that is auditory and doesn’t affect my ability to read, but affects my ability to hear. When people would talk to me, the words would get mushed up. Hearing as a child was like sticking your head under a pool and trying to understand what someone was trying to tell you. As soon as I learned to read I clung to it as if it was air. Written language was so certain and clear in a way that spoken language was uncertain.

However, teachers would see that I had dyslexia and, not understanding that dyslexia is more than not being able to read, give me remedial reading lessons. Since I was the only one in resource who read well, though, I was envy and had the admiration of the other students there who couldn’t.

When I learned about mainstreaming, I tried to think about how I would feel if I had my own teacher in the general education classroom assisting me while other students got on fine without their own special teacher, and the only answer I could come up with was mortified. At least in the resource room students without learning differences didn’t have to see me struggle with spelling (and I did genuinely struggle there). Separate classrooms was by no means a perfect solution, but mainstreaming seemed worse.

I recently read an article (which I unfortunately did not bookmark and have had a difficult time finding) about mainstreaming that brought up another concern I had not thought of, but it explains what happened to my son. While the point of mainstreaming was to have the child have an adapted lesson designed to accommodate their learning difference, what happens is that the special education teacher follows the general education teacher’s lead, and the accommodations are forgotten, and the child is punished for not being able to function in the general education classroom. So the problems that happen in separate classrooms follow in the general education classroom, and kids are punished for having a learning difference.

When Buddy was in a special pre-school classroom for children with differences, he was fine. He still needed more services than what the school was providing, but we did not have a problem with the school. Our difficulties began when they put Buddy in a mainstream pre-school classroom, where they built up how there was a general education teacher, a special education teacher to help him integrate, and an aide.

I’ve talked about how on my first meeting with the teacher she told me she would have my son talking normally in a month and socializing like a regular kid in no time, and how hurtful that was. But it also told me she knew nothing about autism. It was also a warning sign. I truly believe in her mind that she felt that Buddy was deliberately not talking to be defiant and spite us. The problem we have run into is that Buddy is obviously extremely intelligent, and so for people who don’t understand autism they don’t seem to understand how a child who is very intelligent can have such a difficult time talking unless he is simply refusing to talk. For a month things were fine, but as the school year progressed and Buddy continued to have autism, she started punishing him for engaging in behaviors typical of children with autism, and behaviors that weren’t harming other students.

This is how the school to prison pipeline starts.

So, what should we do with children with learning differences? The answer to that is so radical I don’t expect for it to happen in my lifetime. But we need to start thinking about the fact that our schools are set up to accommodate only one type of learner and that there are many different ways of learning.

One of the problems I experienced, even in the special education classroom where I was supposed to have an individualized learning experience, was that I was not the typical dyslexic. I could read, I couldn’t spell well, and I couldn’t understand what people were saying when they talked to me. I was given good assistance with my spelling, remedial reading classes that were humiliating, and nothing was done to help me process auditory signals.

But what if instead we expected every kid to learn a certain way, and we tested children for their optimal learning environment before they start school, and then put them in small groups with similar children? And, since learning is complex, and a child who grasps reading easily may struggle with arithmetic, have them move into different groups based on their learning ability in each subject?

For instance, for a child like me, listening to a teacher speak was hard. I would much rather read a lesson than listen to a teacher, and then get get feedback in a conversation format so the teacher could be sure I understood everything. To this day I don’t watch the news on tv, I prefer to read it. However, for a child with a more stereotypical form of dyslexia, having to read lessons would be cruel and unusual, and they would be better served in a classroom with a teacher who lectures and reads material to them. The important thing is that neither method is better than the other, and the kid who learns through lectures is no smarter or stupider than the one who learns from reading. They just learn better through different mediums, and that’s okay.

Even among the general education population, there is variation, with people who are visual, kinesthetic, and auditory learners. And then there are the differences where children aren’t typically separated from the classroom for, such as ADHD, but with classroom modifications they can still learn (and in most cases avoid the need for medication).

If we tested and put some effort into how children learn best and then put them into classrooms that cater to their individual learning style, we can get ride of the stigma that neither separate classrooms nor mainstreaming can: that there is only one way to learn and anyone who can’t learn that way is “retarded.”

If every child is treated as having their own style, then children at the more extreme ends of learning differences are no longer seen as abnormal or worse, defiant delinquents who refuse to learn. It would also focus teachers to grapple with the concept of teaching children in a way that they learn best and not forcing each child to learn the way the teacher thinks is best.

My ideas on this are new and not fully formed. And it is such a radical departure from how we currently do learning in the US that I know it is going to be a hard sell. However, our schools are failing the 15-20 percent of children who have dyslexia, and that’s not taking into account those who have other learning differences such as dysgraphia, ADHD, autism, etc. Making the assumption that most kids learn a certain way and that those who don’t are abnormal and in need of modifications to become normal isn’t helping. We need to completely transform our education system.

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