As a former special education student, I was quite pleased that the Center on Education Policy found that special education students have been making academic gains in most states since 2006. The bad news, however, is that special education students are still performing far below their peers.
Of course many people are not surprised by this gap. They think, well, these students are in special education for a reason. But what they dont realize is that many of these students have the mental capacity to perform just as well as their peers.
As the Centers recent report Special Education: A better perspective points out, many in the special education community argue that the majority of special education students, with support, can perform just as well as their peers. As a matter of fact, one study the Centers report cited estimated that only 10 to 15 percent of all special education students have a severe handicap. Most are diagnosed with disabilities that do not even necessarily mean their mental ability is reduced.
For example, there is no reason students with physical handicaps cant perform as well as their peers–but they are classified as special education students. And nearly 80 percent of special education students spend at least 80 percent of their school day in a regular classroom.
I, along with many of my friends, was part of that 80 percent. For the most part, we have led pretty successful lives after high school. Many of us have earned bachelor’s degrees and even graduate degrees. Needing special help to get through elementary and high school didnt impede us from reaching our goals.
And our goals were set high. From the first day we met with our resource teacher, Joanne Daniels, she not only expected a lot from us but insisted we expect a lot from ourselves. There is no doubt I and many others of her former students would not be where we are today without her.
Was it always easy? Of course not! There were a lot of tears, and frustration reared its ugly head from time to time, but never from Mrs. Daniels. She always kept her eye on the big picture and kept reminding us how capable we were.
At first we didnt really buy into it. My friends and I figured it was easier to think of ourselves as dumb than to actually think we could succeed at school if we just put in some effort. It was easier to try to make our classmates laugh than to study or finish our homework. But like a boxer with a great jab, she wore us down. By the time we were set to go onto high school we knew we were prepared. Not only did we graduate from high school, unlike way too many other special education students, many of us went on to earn a college degree.
There is no doubt in my mind I wouldnt be where I am today without the high expectations of Mrs. Daniels. But as a policy researcher, it pains me to see so many special education students performing so poorly when I too believe they can be successful.
Does it take more than high expectations? Of course. But without high expectations there isnt much chance of continuing the trend of closing the achievement gap between special education students and their peers. Jim Hull