Education Letter to the Editor

‘Kicking Down Barns’: In Special Education, Complexities Matter

March 22, 2005 1 min read

To the Editor:

Kalman R. Hettleman’s diatribe against special education (“The Illusion and Broken Promises of Special Education,” Commentary, March 9, 2005.) is fundamentally flawed.

Mr. Hettleman tosses away students with “severe disabilities” in one sentence, saying that high standards should not necessarily be enforced. His disgust is reserved for that part of the system that deals with children who have learning disabilities, considering them ready, willing, and able to partipate fully in the current educational world of standards and tests. At least they would be, he argues, if schools had trained personnel who knew research-based instruction, were versed in learning programs and methods, and were able to set high goals.

Mr. Hettleman comes finally to the matter of underfunding, and then jumps right back onto the backs of educators who are “slow to embrace research that discredits low expectations.” He goes on to praise “the great majority who toil heroically.”

All this rant accomplished was to make me dizzy. Why? The most dangerous kind of statements are the ones that are sometimes true. Mr. Hettleman is right, sometimes. He should know better than to think he has grasped some great, fundamental truths from a series of sometimes-correct statements.

He is dealing with very complex issues and is apparently out of his league, or at least out of his field. Just for starters, many students with learning disabilities are among the most difficult and hard to teach of any students. Their disabilities can in fact be extremely severe. The complexity of their needs may even outstrip educational issues associated with students who have severe cognitive disabilities, dismissed earlier by Mr. Hettleman. For many years, educators have questioned whether or not the full constellation of symptoms and needs that accompany the child with learning disabilities can ever be effectively dealt with in the context of a public school.

I can’t help thinking of an old adage. Any jackass can kick down a barn. It takes an architect to build one. To those who know little of the complexity of educating children with learning disabilities, Mr. Hettleman’s remarks may have some meaning. To those of us who know what is involved, his remarks are worthless.

Laurence M. Lieberman

Boston, Mass.