This has been the second day in a row reading articles in the Wall Street Journal (yes, I renewed it; I couldn’t pass up my cheap subscription price) regarding the United States education reforms. Particularly, these articles focus on mainstreaming disabled students into standard classrooms. The original piece of legislation declaring this to be the law was written in 1975.
I think the idea works. The idea, at least. All too often, what occurs in practice isn’t how it works in reality. Still, these kids get a great chance to learn with their peers, and their peers get a chance to be exposed to some humility. Goodness knows so many children these days need that lesson in humility and humanity. While sometimes those with special needs get put where they oughtn’t be (especially when there is a difference between behavioral disorders and learning disabilities), it’s a good thing to try.
In 2001, our foresighted federal government passed another mass education reform: the No Child Left Behind Act. Its principal was to ensure that children do not slip through the cracks during their education. It is a noble goal, indeed. However, it does expose some truths about children and schools.
Believe it or not, some kids do better in education than others. I would even go far enough to say some are smarter than others, but that is quite an over-generalization on how things work. So when the schools are told to make sure no kid fails, but they’re already doing their best to get as many the best education they can, things get fudged.
Grades get fudged, and when the state requires ‘checks’ (ie, tons of testing) on students’ academic progress, little things are done to help out. Extra time is given, reading comprehension exams are read aloud, and even calculators are given out when they are not called for. Every time this happens, the bar gets lowered a little more. And the bar has been lowering at an alarming rate for over a decade. We’ve succeeded! No child can be left behind now. We won the war on education.
But the truth is that it is different kids who are left behind. Reading a tidbit from Time, it turns out the gifted, the ones who will actually help continue and advance our world, are being left behind. Some argue that they will come out on their own; they don’t need any help. That is hardly the case. What the best way to leave a bright child behind? Ignoring their achievements. You’ll turn them off to the world so fast that by the time it’s even realized, they would be as insubstantial as ghosts.
This very point was brought home to me a while back. I was working in the lab and looked out the window to see a select group of students waiting for a bus to arrive to take them on a trip. I could recognize about half of the kids, and quickly figured out that these were the under-achieving behavioral problem group. They were being awarded with a field trip. Why? I have no idea. Probably just because they showed up. I’m sure it was an incentive to keep their butts in the seats the rest of the year. All this while I’m sure there were twice as many gifted kids being bored out of their gourds in classrooms looking out at them.
These articles pointed out another group of kids being left behind still: those in special education. The mainstreaming combined with lowering of standards (punishment essentially ensues if a kid fails) means that the special needs kids aren’t being taught to bring up their actual abilities. They are instead just being pushed through, helped along, and given diplomas that don’t mean a thing. What good is a high school diploma when a kid is left at a sixth grade reading level? These kids deserve the little extra help from their qualified special education teachers to bring home the points taught to them in their mainstream classes, rather than being given assistance only to pass through the standardized testing that the system focuses too much on.
I do so wish I had a solution. But I would say that this really was the reason I majored in Political Science, so that I might enter into politics to change these frighteningly low standards and bring back the dignity that used to go along with a high school graduation and the prestige brought about by having a rare university education. The common folk of our country got running water, electrical power while still managing to split the atom on a miniscule percentage of the people having college and university educations.