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A Recipe for Mediocrity: Tell Every School to Meet Every Need for Every Kid

Inside Schools, which bills itself as "your independent guide to NYC public schools," just published a long story documenting the frustration of some parents that every NYC school isn't prepared to accommodate children with every conceivable special need. The lede really was touching. The story opened: "'Special needs children need not apply.' There was no sign hanging on the main office at PS 289 in Bedford-Stuyvesant last week, but there may as well have been. Essence Louis says she was told Friday that she couldn't register her son Michael for kindergarten because next year the school won't have the kind of class he needs."

There are a few things going on here. First, last December, NYC chancellor Dennis Walcott decided to roll out a new special ed program "aimed at educating special needs children in the least restrictive settings possible, and, preferably, in their neighborhood schools, especially in elementary school." NYC is wrapping up a pilot program in 265 schools and is now aiming to expand access for special ed students to all schools in the 2012-2013 school year. The district committed itself to this misbegotten policy for fall 2012. When you promise people things, it's hardly surprising that they get frustrated when the results don't live up to their expectations.

Second, the idea itself is a dubious one. In a familiar case of well-intended special education militants getting their way, damn the costs or the consequences, the NYCDOE took the aspiration embedded in "least restrictive settings" to new heights. NYCDOE committed to do everything possible to serve every student with special needs in their neighborhood school, and to push students out of self-contained classes into general education classes, while putting it on principals, teachers, and other students to make it work.

Third, I'll happily concede that the intentions are admirable. Walcott declared, "For too long, educating students with disabilities has meant separating them from their general-education peers. We know that this model leads to some schools over-serving students with disabilities, while others under-serve them." This is all true enough, so what's my beef?

The problem: this is just another example of well-intended policymakers and system leaders casually piling new demands on principals and teachers, and saying, "I'm sure you'll find a way to make it work." I find it unfathomable that anyone thinks every school should or will be able to competently cater to every sort of student need and interest. I mean, let's keep this simple.

If we told the owners of the terrific local burger joint that they also need to start serving sushi, pizza, enchiladas, and French cuisine, because people have different preferences, and everyone has a right to eat, I suspect it'd have an adverse impact on quality. If I told a first-rate high school math tutor that he had an obligation to also tutor in science, Mandarin, and history, because he's the only tutor in the neighborhood, the quality of his work might decline. Yet, this "duh"-caliber observation is largely absent when advocates are asking schools to shoulder yet another burden, especially when discussing how to best serve kids with special needs. It's hard to find adults who are skilled at teaching certain subjects or doing a good job mentoring and instructing kids with particular needs. Instead of blindly insisting that every school and every teacher should figure out how to do everything well, which NYCDOE's new policy does, seems to me it might make sense to be a bit less doctrinaire about we might best serve all kids.

Let's be clear: the issue is not whether we ought to serve all kids. That was resolved decades ago. We all agree that we should. The question is whether we think every school, or every classroom, ought to be expected to meet every need of every student. And that strikes me as a recipe for mediocrity.

For those who want a little more context for my take, check out my 2010 book The Same Thing Over and Over. While this discussion is focused on districts, rather than schools, the logic is almost precisely identical. So, let's go ahead and do a brief excerpt:

Today, the world is dotted with providers that specialize in doing a few things-- or just one thing-- well. Organizing schooling around a sea- to- sea chain of local monopolies made good sense when the cost of travel and communication was high and communities were composed of residents who routinely lived in one place for decades or even a lifetime. Advances in communications, transportation, and data management technology now make it possible, though, for one provider to oversee outlets in thousands of locations-- and to offer the same specialized service in each of them. Yet school districts are not permitted to operate in this fashion.


Today, every school district is asked to devise ways to meet every need of every single child in a given area. Since they can't tailor their service to focus on certain student needs, districts are forced to try to build expertise in a vast number of specialties and services. Transforming any sprawling, underachieving organization is enormously challenging under even the best circumstances; it may well be impossible under such conditions. This arrangement demands that districts juggle a vast array of demands and requires them to necessarily become the employers of nearly all educators in a given community.

This makes it enormously difficult to selectively hire educators who agree on mission, focus, or pedagogy, and the resulting grab- bag of faculty and leaders must then strive to forge coherent cultures. This is a needlessly exhausting strategy and one unlikely to lead to wide- scale excellence. Transforming any sprawling, underachieving organization is enormously challenging under even the best circumstances; it may well be impossible under such conditions. Once again, the point is not to advocate for some rush to disband geographic districts but that we would do well to cease assuming the district as an inviolable fact and explore the merits of other ways to coordinate, manage, and deliver services.

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The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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