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A Serious Misunderstanding About Special Education and Discipline Problems

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With the intention to bring awareness to racial inequity, over classification, and meeting quotas, apparently educators made some difficult decisions following the Obama-era rule on racial disparities in special education. Instead of taking stock of each school's classification process and causes and purpose, according to this Jason L. Riley's editorial in the WSJ, some districts turned away from questioning themselves and analyzing the results of their actions in order to protect their funding.

The Obama Education Department's obsession with disparate-impact analysis also led it to pressure schools into disciplining fewer black students, even if those students represented a higher proportion of troublemakers. In 2016 and 2017, President Obama and his wife visited Washington, D.C., schools that boasted fewer suspensions and higher graduation rates. But a Washington Post investigation last year revealed that administrators at some D.C. schools were underreporting the number of suspensions. 

Perhaps the aspiration and expectation that all educators would act in support of all students, with integrity, caused a misstep in the implementation.  It is true that there are frequent racial imbalances in school classifications of black students if it is looked at on the surface. The editorial cited a study that found if student data revealing premature births, high levels of lead in blood and other issues that spring from poverty black children, in fact, were under represented in special education classes.

The editorial swings between student behavior issues and classification of special education students.  Conflating these two factors is dangerous. Policy makers of good will can become confused about whether to adopt a special education system that serves large numbers of minority children because their needs are higher or to force the regular education system to stretch itself and meet the needs of children who benefit from more services but are limited by random quotas. But trying to set aside the over classification limits placed on schools by the last administration is too simple a solution. It will make no difference and benefit few, if any, children.  There are, however, two specific areas that make considerable differences.

Personal and Professional Ethics

There are those in our profession who lack the ethics that we assume they have. It is the lack of ethics, not the quota demands that is a problem. In Poughkeepsie, NY, for example, the high school principal is presently suspended as a result of allowing students to graduate without having met attendance requirements or passing required exams. When the decision has to be made between doing what is right and fair for the students and the desire to reach a target, the choice should not be a difficult one. But, school leaders are human too and carry concerns about their own survival and the implications for their future and for their families so bad decisions can be made.

Silence is not Golden

The other area is speaking up. When articles appear in national media overlay special education and behavior problems, we must speak up and attempt to clarify the domains. They do intersect but they are not synonymous. Reach out to colleagues to write in response to these confusing statements. Call upon the organizations that represent you to clarify these types of misunderstandings.

No one knows better than educators that the classification of students is a complicated business and multiple factors affect decisions. We must hold each other accountable. An examination of who is classified and why should be a part of every school's annual process. And, never, should we allow misunderstandings or self-interest contort the value of special education services and the examination of suspension rates and graduation rates. We are not immune from bad actors in our profession but they are few. Policy cannot be written for just those few. We cannot allow this mixing of fact and fallacy to hang in the air without speaking out.  We must be both ethical and active. And if the Education Secretary will listen, we should be the ones guiding her to a place of legitimate policy.

Ann Myers and Jill Berkowicz are the authors of The STEM Shift (2015, Corwin) a book about leading the shift into 21st century schools. Connect with Ann and Jill on Twitter or Email.

Photo by PDPics courtesy of Pixabay

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