When Special Education Is Not the Answer

Special education currently impacts the lives of millions of American children -- and disproportionately black males. These students are often relegated to less rigorous learning environments that stifle their educational and social development.
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By all accounts, Matthew was a special student. Every day he showed up to school eager to learn and full of questions. Never lacking in energy, Matthew would often get distracted by the littlest thing and sometimes found it difficult to focus. When his teacher began assigning students regular journal requirements that asked students to both listen to the instructor and write at the same time, Matthew became flustered and was unable to process both tasks at once. His frustrations were quickly realized by his teacher, who after some time addressed these concerns by classifying him as a "special education student." This label, given to Matthew in the third grade, cast a shadow over his ability to learn for the remainder of his time in school.

Unfortunately, Matthew's story is not uncommon. Too often we're witnessing students who are in need of additional attention or supplemental learning materials get categorized as "challenged" and placed into specialized classes that don't adequately address the real issues. To be clear, I am certainly not knocking the institution of special education; in many cases, it provides learning-disabled children with the opportunity to find their place in the classroom. It opens doors for students who would otherwise get lost in the fray. It is, by all accounts, a necessary and impactful way of addressing our most challenged students. But it's not always the answer.

Special education currently impacts the lives of millions of American children -- and disproportionately black males. Today, young black men are placed into special education programs at alarming rates. These students are often relegated to less rigorous learning environments that stifle both their educational and social development. Once a child is labeled as challenged, their chances of reaching their full potential become limited. The fact is, these children may be facing real-life challenges that don't necessarily involve the classroom, but they stem from issues at home.

Take, for instance, Matthew. While his teacher noticed his inability to perform two tasks at once and his limited attention span, she assumed that this meant he needed special education. What she failed to realize was that Matthew came from a single-parent home and often arrived to school without a proper breakfast. His abilities in the classroom may have needed some additional attention, but because of lower expectations and a lack of awareness by his teacher, he was misdiagnosed and faced years of ill-fated classroom learning. This systematic failure to properly educate black males is a problem that we must immediately address.

Dozens of recent reports shows that minorities are disproportionately placed in special education programs. Yet, we have yet to address the reasons why. We are failing our kids and these implications are discouraging. A large percentage of the students who are placed into special education can be mainstreamed if diagnosed correctly and taught in ways that meet their needs. Further, our country's failure to properly educate these children contributes to the overall startling statistics relating to black men; everything from drop-out rates to incarceration. While we address the issues in the classroom with the quick fix of special education, the long-term effects speak for themselves.

It's time we start looking at how the system is failing our kids by first implementing early and often screenings. Further, we must remove the stigma from our special education students. Educators must make a commitment to invest in each and every child and find collaborative methods to best meet the needs of special education students while help to instilling self-esteem. They must ask the tough questions and get to the bottom of issues that may stem from problems at home instead of assuming they're problems with one's ability to learn.
Our kids need support not saviors. Without parental involvement, community and school-based support, key legislation and teacher training, these students don't have a chance of living up to their full potential. Let's move towards a positive culture of teaching that embraces all learning styles for all kids. When we begin to treat each and every student as special by accepting and embracing their unique way of learning, we are forgoing the quick-fix of labels and making long term investments in our children's future.

As you can imagine, we will never know the full extent of Matthew's potential. Because he carried the special education label, over the years, his love of learning and his grades diminished. Fortunately, he does have a job, but his path would have been markedly different if he were able to complete his education. Going forward, let's make sure that the thousands of other Matthews out there are well equipped to complete theirs -- even, if necessary, by way of special education -- without the negative labels.

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