The following post is a personal reflection about the world of public education, with consideration given to our special education students, based on powerful conversations I recently had in one of my doctoral courses that challenged my thinking...
The public education system in our country should be anchored in one shared belief – every child who attends a public school will get what they need to meet with success when they enter the world as adults. That echelon of success will look different for every child but at a minimum, every child should be functionally literate (critical readers and problem solvers) at a twelfth grade level. Furthermore, the expectation is that our public schools will help our children assimilate, culturally and linguistically, so that when they enter society they will successfully integrate and contribute to the common good, fulfill societal needs and function as democratic citizens. It is imperative that our children understand these expectations and that they are exposed to various curricular modules and learning experiences that equip them with the skill sets they need to meet with success in society and become fully integrated (working, caring for themselves, etc.).
Being that all children come to school with different needs, abilities, background experiences, medical histories and readiness levels, it is imperative that the public school system is prepared to meet each child at their point of entry and move them forward. Does that mean that one group of children may get more than another group based on specific needs over a period of time? Yes! It may mean more materials or more staffing or more resources but regardless of the what, each child will get what they need to begin the assimilation process for an eventual successful integration into society. As the parent of a child with special needs, who has an Individualized Education Plan (IEP), I have the benefit of seeing things through this "atypical" lens. As a result of being born with a condition known as arthrogryposis and also being afflicted with congenital scoliosis, my son requires physical therapy, occupational therapy and a health aide by his side throughout the school day. Clearly, the majority of special education students, including my son, need more (resources, materials, funds, etc.) than most other children in their schools just so they can meet with some level of success and so they can have access to a level playing field. Although this does not necessarily mean that there is an equal distribution of resources among all the children in our schools, it does mean that we are giving these special needs students what they need. I view this blatant inequitable distribution of resources as the right thing to do because it represents a fair and appropriate distribution of those said resources. In the end, it is in our best interest, as a country, to spend more money during the schooling years on our special needs children so that we can increase their chances of being self-sufficient, functional and contributing members of society. If we don’t invest these extra resources at a young age, we may be forced to spend more money to support these students throughout adulthood and into their senior years when they may not be able to care for themselves because of a lack of skills.
Another reason I feel so strongly that it is our responsibility to inequitably support specific groups of students at any given time during their schooling years is that the roots of my educational philosophy are loosely planted in some of the ideas espoused by Thomas Jefferson. My loose interpretation of Jefferson’s belief is that the main purpose of schooling was to “rake the gems from among the rubbish” so that real talent could be identified and pushed ahead to the benefit of our country. This idea of identifying the specific talents of the children within our schools and then fostering and nurturing these talents makes so much sense. By cultivating these God-given talents and helping our children harness their power and impact, we are ensuring the success of our country within the global landscape especially in regards to economic competitiveness. It should be noted that my belief does differ from Jefferson’s in at least one significant way - it is my belief that every child is talented and gifted in some way and that it is our school’s responsibility to identify and develop these talents. From the time when humans are born and are developing in their primary years, I don’t believe that rubbish exists. Instead, I believe all of our children are gems and that by structuring the learning experiences within our schools in specific ways, we can identify each gem and help them develop and maximize their potential. Unfortunately, the identification process is not always easy. Yes, some of our children come to school where their natural talents are instantly visible but many of our students require more resources, materials, support, etc. in order to unearth their talents and begin harnessing their power.
With that in mind, it is clear that it is our responsibility, as a nation, to make sure that our public schools stand by the notion that fair is not always equal in our tireless efforts to give every child what they need to be productive members of American society.