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Moving Special Education to the Virtual World

Whenever I have a question about Special Education--the confounding laws, the increases in the percentage of identified students, a definition of best practice--I turn to kosobud.jpgKathleen Kosobud, whose expertise and experience I trust. Recently, she challenged her edu-colleagues to consider the possibility of custom-tailoring a fully electronic educational experience for high school students with IEPs and social adjustment problems. Great solution? Or was she probing at a slick (and cheap) resolution for a costly school dilemma? Here's Kathleen's take on it:

"Can't handle the outbursts? No worries--send him to ABC Virtual School, and restore calm to the classroom."

Recently, I was asked to suggest educational options for a high school sophomore with emotional disabilities who was currently refusing to attend school. One of my suggestions was to consider online coursework, to allow him to continue to earn credit while the family and local school system worked out a plan to return him to school.

His situation came to mind when I began reading Educators Weigh Benefits, Drawbacks of Virtual Spec. Ed. I was especially concerned because the cases identified in the article involved children with behavioral issues, akin to those of the young "school refuser". It provoked me to wonder what would happen if these children never returned to school? What would they gain and what would they lose?

Virtual schooling, while possibly allowing a student with emotional/behavioral issues to continue his "academic" learning, can as easily become a convenient way to actively exclude a variety of "problem" students from the general classroom: children whose behavior is disruptive, children who are hard to teach, children who need more attention or feedback, and so on.

Virtual learning may provide an alternative to face-to-face instruction for a student who responds poorly to the social environment of the classroom, but how does it help that same student progressively adapt to a world that continually offers many similar social challenges? When the milieu for social interaction is removed, has he been further handicapped? In a world where "practice makes perfect" do we disadvantage him by removing all opportunity to practice and perfect his ability to adapt? If he returned to the classroom, would we have had any opportunity to improve the likelihood of his success?

One of the bigger struggles in the world of education has been the struggle about who belongs in the general education classroom. Brown vs. the Board of Education broke through many barriers and established the principle that "separate is not equal". The merging of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA, 2004) with No Child Left Behind has allowed children with disabilities to gain many things, among them "access to the general curriculum in the least restrictive environment", ideally learning core academic content side by side with their peers: other children.

From a human rights perspective, all children belong; children are children first, and come in all kinds of packages. But special education is more than just the academics. For children who have difficulty adapting to the busy world around them, special education is there to provide the services and supports that allow them to make progress, socially and academically.

A key report from the National Academies of Science National Research Council, Minority Students in Special and Gifted Education (Cross & Donovan, 2002) suggests that myriad environmental factors contribute to behavior, and that we need to look for ways to reduce the impact of these factors, while at the same time implementing effective and individualized measures to help a child adjust while remaining in the general classroom. Although this report focuses on the over-identification of minority students in special education and the corresponding under-identification of minority students in gifted and talented programs, the recommendations concerning behavior are relevant to all children.

Whatever challenges are present in the classroom, it is our job, as professional educators to help remove the barriers that cause a child to function poorly in that environment, and build the skills we need to be of greatest help, for a child to "make it" in the classroom. Such measures include providing appropriate adjustments and modifications to the environment that allow for a child's success.

So I feel compelled to ask, is virtual learning just another diversion; another place to "dump" a problematic learner; another place that, when the child fails, says: "We taught him, he just didn't learn"? Virtual schooling is not a panacea; it may not solve the problems that are the most pressing for children whose behavior is considered problematic.

Every year, the education system loses children with disabilities. We lose them to the juvenile justice system, where an estimated 30% to 50% of the children in the system have been identified with high-incidence disabilities. We contribute to the school-to-prison pipeline where disproportionate numbers of prisoners come from minority groups and/or have a record of high incidence disabilities. Finally, we lose students with disabilities when they drop out of school--at twice the rate of the general population.

Our system of education operates on many taken-for-granted assumptions. Let's begin to examine some of those assumptions by considering our commitment to their success.

By Kathleen Kosobud

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