Education Letter to the Editor


September 26, 2001 9 min read
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The Limits of IDEA: Opposing Viewpoints

To the Editor:

In “A Bad IDEA Is Disabling Public Schools” (Commentary, Sept. 5, 2001), parent and legal expert Clint Bolick blames what he calls the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act’s “rule-laden” and “monomanical focus on process ... rather than academic progress” for the disappointing performance of children with learning disabilities.

There are too many rules. There are also too few of the kind that could make a big difference. Special education is subject to the waxing and waning of delivery models and of teaching techniques. Merit is not always decisive in these changes. Merit would play a larger role if parents had choices.

Florida’s pilot voucher program for parents of children with disabilities is therefore of interest (“Florida’s ‘Other’ Voucher Program Taking Off,” Aug. 8, 2001). Florida parents are finding services that work for their children. Cumulatively, their choices could pull special education forward in terms of techniques and models. A proposed new rule for special education: Parents may exit a program that is not working for their child.

In a recent letter to the editor, however, history professor Brian Peterson (“Flaws in Florida’s Voucher Program,” Letters, Sept. 5, 2001), takes the opposite tack. He wants to narrow Florida parents’ choices. He would not permit parents of disabled children to use a voucher to choose “regular school education.” Parents of nondisabled children, he fears, might “push the limits of the [learning-disabled] definition” in order to get a voucher.

Mr. Petersen seems oblivious to the major thrust in special education the past 10 years: “inclusion” in regular classrooms. Tighten criteria for learning disability, by all means, but do not force children from regular education programs.

Mr. Petersen would also bar parents from adding family money to a voucher, should tuition exceed the voucher. He fears such “ ‘topping up’ ... opens the way to vast inequality in voucher-supported private education.”

His second point has appeal. Who could favor inequality? But consider this more deeply. The Children’s Scholarship Fund, a privately funded scholarship program for low-income children (1.3 million applicants for 40,000 scholarships) knows that parental involvement is critical to a child’s success in school. What better way to encourage parental involvement than to let parents choose their children’s schools, then ask them to “buy into” that decision, even with a token amount? The Children’s Scholarship Fund pays a maximum of 75 percent of the tuition.

Let’s look at the rules for special education. But let’s look beyond surface appeal to what is in the best interests of children.

Tom Shuford
Retired New York Public School Teacher
Ventura, Calif.

To the Editor:

Far from being a “toxin that infects our nation’s educational system,” as Clint Bolick claims in his Commentary, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act is an educational lifesaver for millions of children with disabilities. The 20th Annual Report to Congress states that in the past decade, the number of students with disabilities who graduate from high school has increased by more than 30 percent, while the number of students with disabilities going into postsecondary education has doubled.

Further, studies show that special education instructional strategies are highly effective. The Texas Schools Microdata Panel, for example, found that special education programs have a significantly beneficial effect on performance in math and reading.

Make no mistake, special education works. But it was never intended to address the needs of all children. First, within general education, we must provide effective instruction and interventions to all children, thus reducing the number of children referred to special education.

Second, other programs, such as Title I, must provide additional assistance to children who come from disadvantaged backgrounds and experience learning problems. And special education must help children with disabilities—the children who experience learning problems even when given the best instruction offered by general education.

In the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation/Progressive Policy Institute report referred to by Mr. Bolick, several authors said that even with the best early instruction and remediation, a sizable number of students will require the special instructional strategies special education offers.

Special education continuously strives to improve services to children with disabilities. The last IDEA reauthorization included provisions to improve outcomes for students with disabilities, ensure they are included in standardized assessments, allow for earlier identification of students at risk, and discourage students from minority backgrounds from being overidentified for special education. Many of these provisions have only recently been implemented by local school districts. We must evaluate the impact of these provisions and determine what additional reforms may be needed to further improve educational outcomes for children with disabilities.

But there is no reason to wait to improve educational outcomes for our children, nor is there any reason to dismantle the IDEA. Rather, we should use every opportunity to improve our educational system.

Special education has always believed that each child must receive appropriate instruction to meet his or her individual learning needs. We all, in general and in special education, must work to make that happen.

Nancy D. Safer
Executive Director
Council for Exceptional Children
Arlington, Va.

Reacting To Tragedy: Teachers, on the Day of the Terrorist Attacks

To the Editor:

Our high school in Jersey City, N.J., is nearly opposite the World Trade Center, just a short trip across the Hudson River. Ironically, our first written and discussed topic for Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2001, was, “American History: Who Cares?”

As expected, the kids wrote about how boring history is, and how it’s “not about us, or things that happen around here.” Today, from the vantage point of our east-facing windows, all that has changed.

Mario Navetta
Jersey City, N.J.

To the Editor:

I am an education student with only one year left before beginning my teaching career. I am also a parent with two sons in elementary school. It’s important, I think, that we, as educators, use our positions to give children the amount of information they need to comprehend tragic events. I’m not advocating that we tell them everything or show graphic images in our classrooms, but even kindergartners should be told that something bad happened in New York City on Sept. 11. A teacher can be objective without scaring a child.

In the school where I will intern, the principal issued a directive on the day of the terrorist attacks for teachers to give out no information. So teachers said absolutely nothing to their students. Although my sons are in a different school, I was horrified that perhaps, if they hadn’t heard about the attacks in their schools, they would turn on the TV or be told by students on the bus home before I could be there with them. I was grateful when I learned that their teachers had briefly mentioned what happened and allowed the students to voice their concerns and feelings.

Yes, it’s important that we don’t cross the line between what are parents’ rights and responsibilities and what are teachers’, but not to talk at all to students about such momentous events sends the wrong message. And some children don’t even have parents at home. Whom can they trust for the kind of communication they need?

Diane Thomson
Waukesha, Wis.

To the Editor:

On the day of the attacks on New York and Washington, our middle school chose to explain and inform. We spent a good part of our school morning watching the news reports, in English and in Spanish; explaining the terms being used and their meanings; talking about the historical relevance of the events and connections; and discussing what we could do, living on the other side of the country, to help out the people in these cities.

The kids in our school (and I suspect elsewhere) all want to do something. So the elementary school is starting a “penny drive.” All of our students are from the inner city, and their families do not have a lot of discretionary income. So we also have discussed making a quilt, as was done after the shooting deaths at Columbine High School, as well as making and distributing ribbons to wear as a sign of remembrance.

Patty Ann Bryant
Phoenix, Ariz.

To the Editor:

Educators should be aware that there are some good links on the American Psychological Association’s Web site for information on dealing with disasters: both on the home page and if you search for Oklahoma City. The address is http://www.apa.org.

David Weiss
Long Island, N.Y.

To the Editor:

I learned of the tragedy while supervising the hall outside my classroom between classes. My initial reaction was, “You kids believe too much of what you hear; I’ve been to that building and I know that what you’re saying is not possible.”

When the teacher next door verified the information, I felt a sense of horror, a desire to know more, and a fierce determination to remain calm. A hand-delivered message from the principal, however, directed teachers not to turn on TVs or radios and to wait for further information from the administration, which never came.

Meanwhile, I didn’t teach geometry that period. We spent the class time discussing feelings, reactions—and the directive not to watch television. That had surely been meant to help control panic, I insisted, not to suppress information. Initial reports would not, in any event, be able to answer our questions of who, what, how, why, how many, and—most specifically—who is lost?

That night, I cried a lot—every time I failed to learn of my own daughter’s whereabouts. She lives in New Jersey and works in New York City. I contacted my best friend, whose husband had seen the second plane hit the World Trade Center while on his way to a meeting there. It took two days, but I finally learned that my daughter was all right. Now, I’ll be much better able to focus on my students and their academic needs.

Gloria Satchell
Kingsville, Texas

To the Editor:

I am a first-year elementary education student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the mother of an 8-year-old boy. The Madison school district decided not to tell the system’s elementary students about the terrorist attacks, but to let parents discuss the tragedy with their children later as they wished.

I found my own son very angry about these outrageous acts. It was sad for me to see him so angry at such a young age. But, at the same time, I came to realize how strong, patriotic, and loyal he is. He cares about his fellow man and his country, and that makes me proud.

I am trying to learn more from current teachers about how they are handling this terrible situation in the classroom. But I pray that, when I teach, I will rarely if ever need to use such skills in quite the same way.

Judi Luciani
Madison, Wis.


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