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Peter DeWitt's

Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at www.petermdewitt.com. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

The Goldilocks’ Principle: Meeting the Needs of Special Education Students

By Peter DeWitt — September 24, 2014 4 min read
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I worry that students who are labeled as special education get our lower expectations because we don’t think they can do more than they are doing, when we should really be helping them do more than they believe they can do.

The Goldilocks’ Principle requires us to find the balance between what is too soft, too hard and just right. It’s a delicate balance, and in this day and age of increased accountability, it’s more important now than ever. After all, the Common Core State Standards set more rigorous standards for learning, but how do we get students who were not meeting the old standards to meet the new ones that are more rigorous?

How do we get students the assistance they need to be assessment-capable (Hattie) learners without the need to slap a label on them? What about parents and teachers who are concerned a student will only get what they need if they have a label in the first place? How do we deal with testing, where some states require students to take a test at their grade level, when they are classified because they are not on grade level in the first place?

Special education has come a long way, but still has a long way to go.

A long time ago I was asked by my principal to teach inclusion in the city school where I had been a teacher for a year or two. At that time, special education students were being taught in hallways or the basement floor of the building. Teachers who said they wanted to teach inclusion were also the ones who happened to never want to instruct those students with labels, they just wanted an extra teacher in the room with them.

Special education teachers were like very expensive finger pointers. They walked around the classroom pointing at papers to get students to stay on task, while the classroom teacher stood up front going through the motions...I mean going through the lesson.

When the classroom teacher really wanted to mix it up and do something different, they would break into center-based learning, which meant the classroom teacher stayed in the room with the children without labels, and the special education teacher took their small group of five special education students out into the hallway to teach.

It never seemed to occur to some teachers that the young special education students, some of whom were very distracted, would not be able to focus in the hallway as classes of students were walking by...students in line staring at the group of students in the hallway.

It never occurred to the classroom teacher that the conversation in the hallway between two adults was much more interesting than any lesson the special education teacher may be teaching.

These were all the things I noticed while I was thinking of ways to teach inclusion the next year. And then in walked Anna. She was one of the best special education teachers I co-taught with in my teaching experience.

Level the Playing Field

I was a fairly naïve new teacher from upstate. Anna was from the Bronx. I once told her how much I enjoyed teaching in the inner city, and she laughed. We were in a city school, which was part of a large suburban school district. It was not the inner city to Anna. Anna grew up and taught in the Bronx before moving upstate...which was downstate for me.

We co-taught. And when I say co-taught...I mean we planned together, taught together and ate lunch together with our friend Jo, who was a speech pathologist. I was immersed in special education, which was great, because my pre-service program didn’t offer any classes unless we chose it as a minor.

When Anna and I did center-based learning it was in the classroom, and not the hallway. I taught special education students, and she taught those students who were not labeled, and then we switched. Most times, we co-taught all of the students together. We would both pull students back to provide what they needed...whether they were labeled or not.

Sure, I always wanted to teach all of the students who came into my classroom. As a former struggling learner, I knew what it was like to not “get it.” But Anna was different. She had a knowledge base that I lacked and I wanted to learn from her.

Although I left the school after a few years to move upstate to another city school, I wanted to teach inclusion because of Ann and the students who came before. All students, regardless of label, deserve the very best. I sometimes worry that they aren’t getting our best.

I worry that students who are labeled as special education get our lower expectations because we don’t think they can do more than they are doing, when we should really be helping them do more than they believe they can do. I worry that co-teaching still means very expensive finger pointers who walk silently around the room pointing at ditto after ditto.

In this day of accountability and testing, I worry this practice will only get worse. Special education teachers, who are some of the best professionals who look at data and can accommodate to the needs of their students, have the pressure to get special education students ready to take tests that are at a far higher level of understanding than the students can complete.

How do we find a balance between having higher expectations without making those expectations so high that we continue to make a marginalized population of students feel even more marginalized? How do we stop forcing students into the wrong box, so they can feel chosen at least once in their life?

Everyone should have at least one time in their life when they feel chosen, wanted, held up for some kind of special treatment. The times are rare, life is short, others have only a given amount of real need and generosity. It is good to be philosophical when we are not chosen, but it is a vital, precious, almost scintillating thing to be young, to be excited, to be wanted specifically for some task, and to feel a possible dream is on the edge of fulfillment. It is vital for there to be an experience of morning in our lives and for this experience to be called on in the memory of other, more difficult mornings to come. There is no mercy in this world if at least once in our lives we do not feel the privilege of being wanted where we also want to be wanted (Whyte, 2001, p.195).

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Note: According to the National Center for Educational Statistics, around 13% of students were classified as special education in 2011. In some schools that percentage is higher, and in other schools it is lower. For an article referring to classification and race, click here.


Whyte, David (2001) Crossing the Unknown Sea: Work as a Pilgrimage of Identity, Riverhead Books, New York, NY.

The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground 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.