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Education policy maven Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute think tank offers straight talk on matters of policy, politics, research, and reform. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

The Angry Moderate Reformer, Part V: Time to “Re-question” Special Education

By Guest Blogger — August 16, 2013 4 min read
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Note: Jonathan Plucker, a Professor at the University of Connecticut, is guest posting this week.

Thanks again to Rick and his assistant, Max Eden, for letting me pinch hit this week. Before jumping to today’s topic, I’d like to reflect on the responses to this week’s posts.

My thoughts on the Bennett and Daniels kerfuffles received some strong responses, but the post on creating true education markets to promote innovation in teacher preparation (Tuesday’s post) surprised me with all the insightful comments from across the political spectrum. Some doubt that such a system can truly be win-win-win, providing a boost to teachers, preparation programs, and market forces junkies, but most commenters have responded with variations of, “This just might work ....”

And Thursday’s post on poverty (and, to a lesser extent, race) is overwhelming me with e-mails, tweets, and blog posts. Thanks to those who have commented, pro or con, during what was a fun week of posting.

A book that has caught my eye recently is Scott Kaufman’s Ungifted: Intelligence Redefined. Scott is an adjunct professor at NYU and a big presence on social media, blogging extensively about issues related to psychology and cognitive science. I’ve known Scott for some time, and in addition to being a great guy, he has a very deep knowledge of psychological and educational topics. His book has gotten a lot of play since its release a few weeks ago, especially within the gifted education community and from psychologists who study intelligence, but it deserves a careful read by a broader audience (see a short version of Scott’s argument here).

Scott argues that the ways we choose to identify and nurture talent, and also identify and address disabilities, need to be rethought. Although many scholars have advocated for different approaches to special education, broadly defined, we still depend heavily on fairly traditional definitions and measures to help students with special learning needs. What makes Scott’s story powerful is that it is literally his story - he weaves his personal experiences throughout the book (especially the first half).

Scott was identified as having learning disabilities, with a number of educators feeling that he couldn’t be smart if he was receiving special education services. Well, it turns out Scott is really smart, and his early experiences with testing and the special education system have led him to (rightly) question them.

I readily identified with Scott’s story. The two most talented students whom I taught in elementary school got stuck with labels early on and had a hard time shaking them. In one case, a student who had been learning English for only a couple months was ineligible for any enrichment or acceleration because her vocabulary test scores were only around the 25th percentile (her math scores were at the 99th percentile, and her comprehension score was around the 50th percentile). The rationale for denying her a wide range of services? “She’s an ELL student, she’s not eligible for any other services.” We worked to get her the services she needed, but it was dismaying to see a student get caught in the cracks between the silos of students services.

One reason I like Ungifted is that Scott goes beyond the “here’s what happened to me” memoir approach and really digs into the available research in psychology, education, and neuroscience, among other areas. The back third of the book provides his unique view of intelligence and talent, which is both accessible and scholarly. Scott bravely puts himself into the middle of debates on special education, gifted education, and human intelligence, which is the intellectual equivalent of seeing a tornado, hurricane, and tsunami converging and saying, “Hey, I need to go visit that spot!” His general tone fits within the emerging school of book writing on education, exemplified recently by Doug Lemov and Matthew Tully, where the authors base their observations on personal experience and observations, back it up with some relevant research, and put themselves out on a limb to spur necessary discussion.

The necessary discussion here (and this admittedly goes beyond Scott’s intent in the book) is to answer the question: What is special education, and how do the various pieces of this broad field fit together from a policy context? How can special education services interact with other student services to best help children grow? What were the negative effects of NCLB for special education students? And what do we do about our horrible disproportionality problems, with more minority and poor students in special education (and getting suspended and expelled) than white and non-poor students, with the opposite pattern in gifted education programs. What evidence do we have that newer developments such as RtI address these issues?

It’s a bit overwhelming to consider all the important policy issues surrounding special education, but that’s why I’m advocating for a “re-questioning” rather than a “re-thinking.” For all we know, things may be optimally organized and working great for every child. I doubt that, but I also can’t say I’m sure of it - we need to get some clarity on these important policy questions.

When I’m in policy meetings, both in DC and in various state houses, special education receives little attention, which partially explains why so many special education policy questions have yet to be answered. I admit I’ve been part of the problem - when the possibility of special education projects came up at my centers, my usual response was, “Great topic, anyone else want to do it?” It felt messy, controversial, and complicated. But the pass-the-buck approach to studying special education policy is ill-advised, and Scott Kaufman’s work should inspire us to ask and answer these questions more often and more effectively, and from a broader set of perspectives.

--Jonathan Plucker

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.