What Arne Should Have Said

U.S. secretary of education Arne Duncan speaks at a gun violence conference in Danbury, Conn., Thursday, Feb. 21, 2013. The c
U.S. secretary of education Arne Duncan speaks at a gun violence conference in Danbury, Conn., Thursday, Feb. 21, 2013. The conference, organized by members of the state's congressional delegation is to push President Barack Obama's gun control proposals. (AP Photo/Jessica Hill)

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

* 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.

Cross-posted from Curmudgucation.