Parents of children with Autism Spectrum Disorder must be jumping for joy upon the news of the cure for Autism and all disabilities in a June 24th media conference call. According to an NPR report Tennessee’s Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman rejected the notion that students in special education perform below their peers due to their special needs. NPR’s Claudio Sanchez reported, “Huffman challenged the prevailing view that most special education students lag behind because of their disabilities. He said most lag behind because they’re not expected to succeed if they’re given more demanding schoolwork and because they’re seldom tested.”
US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan offered this gem: “We know that when students with disabilities are held to high expectations and have access to a robust curriculum, they excel.”
Huffman and Duncan did not outright say “cure,” nor did they direct these comments specifically to students with Autism. Even worse, they used no qualifier, thus implying that all students in Special Education are nothing more than clones of each other with the same challenges in need of a one-size-fits-all solution. And the solution to making all students in special education show greater academic progress rests on standardized testing, more homework, a “better” curriculum, and high expectations. Under this doctrine, regardless of the diagnoses—from Down’s Syndrome to ADHD to Autism—students with disabilities could be just like their neuro-typical peers when it comes to academics. It infers that there’s no reason why any child with any disability can’t learn the same academic concepts to mastery at the same rate as all other students. They just need to try harder.
News flash for Huffman and Duncan: Testing, curriculum, and even the Common Core State Standards will not magically cause academic struggles to disappear.
As for maintaining high expectations for children with disabilities, Nancy Bailey, special needs advocate and author of Misguided Education Reform nails it with this comment: “Duncan and his ilk don’t know how to assist these kids, and parents find the ‘high expectations’ talk shallow. What parent has low expectations for their child? What person becomes a teacher not to expect great things for their students?”
Peter Greene in his response at the Huffington Post had this to say:
“Maybe blind students can’t see because nobody expects them to. Maybe the student a colleague had in class years ago, who was literally rolled into the room and propped up in a corner so that he could be “exposed” to band — maybe that child’s problems were just low expectations. Maybe that 6-year-old sitting and crying at his desk because he can’t understand the letters like everyone else — maybe that child is just the victim of low expectations. Maybe IEPs are actually assigned randomly, for no reason at all.”
Furthermore, Special Education is about more than academic expectations, though Huffman and Duncan do not address this. Students with special needs often require help in learning life skills from tying shoe laces to balancing a checkbook. Life skills as functional goals cannot and should not be ignored in measuring student progress.
These “non-academic” types of goals can be necessary to foster and show progress in traditional areas such as math, reading, and writing. Cognitive challenges aside, how does a student with fine motor issues achieve more complex writing goals (without the help of specialized software) when it’s a constant struggle to perform the simple act of holding a pencil in the proper position—or even typing the correct letters on a keyboard? And how will the new adaptive standardized tests accurately reflect what a student knows when poor motor skills prevent the child from pressing the correct key—though that same child could give the correct answer verbally?
In fact, sometimes testing for students with special needs amounts to educational child abuse—another issue the US Department of Education and its state counterparts ignore. Take the Ethan Rediske case in Florida. In an appeal by Ethan’s mother to exempt him from standardized testing, she wrote, “Why is Ethan Rediske not meeting his 6th-grade hospital homebound curriculum requirements? BECAUSE HE IS IN A MORPHINE COMA. We expect him to go any day. He is tenaciously clinging to life.”
And there’s more. Like the nine-year-old Florida boy who was forced to take a standardized test that he could not comprehend because he was unable to see or speak, born only with a brain stem.
Most parents and teachers agree that testing is not bad in and of itself. Nor are high expectations—they just need to be realistic. The unique needs of children with disabilities must be taken into account whether it’s a student with severe needs or a student with—in comparison—minor needs who would do well on tests with just a few accommodations.
What students with disabilities really need in order to learn are caring and effective teachers who aren’t being forced to give up instruction time for the sake of standardized test prep. They need IEP (Individualized Education Plan) goals written to both academic and functional needs. And these customized goals may or may not align with the Common Core and Arne Duncan’s vision of education reform. The learning styles of students with disabilities may call for more creative teaching techniques than what would fit in Kevin Huffman’s narrow minded, inside-the-box approach to special education.
If children with disabilities could learn in the same manner and same rate of their peers, there would be no need for special education. There’s no such thing as cookie cutter children, even in the world of “regular education.” All kids are unique in their own right with their own sets of strengths, weaknesses, talents, and gifting. Parents know this. Teachers understand this. Unfortunately the US Department of Education under Arne Duncan and state education commissioners like Kevin Huffman still have a lot to learn.