Opinion
Assessment Commentary

‘Special’ Education

By Lawrence M. Knowles — September 29, 2008 6 min read

It is Monday morning at a rural elementary school in an idyllic New England setting. The week begins with an all-school meeting: 93 students, kindergarten through 6th grade, gathered in a cavern of a room that serves interchangeably as gymnasium, cafeteria, performance space, and assembly hall. The kids and staff members share news large and small, practicing the community values that are an essential part of today’s enlightened education environment.

On this particular Monday, after hearing about Earth Week events and a few breathless reports of new family pets, the principal makes the unusual announcement that a 6th grader was recently evaluated and found qualified for special learning assistance; she invites the child to step forward and be recognized.

The word “special” is generally understood as a euphemism for remedial, the domain of the blameless underachiever. No responsible educator would expose a student to embarrassment, ridicule, perhaps even bullying by publicly branding the student as “special” in that way. The special assistance I am referring to was of a different sort, however, directed at enrichment rather than remediation, which may explain how the scene I describe could and did occur. The principal is a responsible educator; the child was my own.

It was partly my fault that my daughter was called out in front of her schoolmates. Watching her make her way through elementary school, I had grown concerned at what appeared to be a widening gap between her abilities and her schoolwork. Because the curriculum was falling behind her, rather than the other way around, there were no programs to identify, assess, or remedy the disparity. The standard achievement test used in our state to satisfy the requirements of the federal No Child Left Behind Act is a fairly blunt instrument. Students who fall below grade-level expectations in basic skills receive further evaluation to determine how best to bring them up to the required standard. Those who meet or exceed the standard are left in a fairly undifferentiated mass of the “doing just fine.”

I was not satisfied with being told that my daughter was doing just fine, nor with tests that did no more than tell me she was somewhere in the top third of her grade level. Not being the sort of parent who badgers teachers and administrators to get my child the attention I think she deserves, I set out on my own to find programs that might offer her supplemental learning opportunities. One that caught my interest required that prospective participants take a placement exam, which meant that I would at last get some hard data indicating just where in that top third my daughter might be. The test confirmed my parental hunch that she was nearer the top of the third than she was the bottom. It also provided access to a variety of summer and distance-learning enrichment courses that would give my daughter more interesting experiences than the regular curriculum offered—if I could persuade her to take advantage of them.

Just as I was feeling pleased with myself for dealing with a school problem without embarrassing my child, the principal made her announcement at the all-school meeting and published it in the weekly newsletter to parents. It had never occurred to me that the school would be notified of my effort to identify enrichment opportunities for my daughter, or that it would be told her test results. And never in a million years did I imagine that the principal would broadcast that information to the entire community.

Children will pick on another child for any perceived weakness and use any difference as a lever to exclude, mock, intimidate, or worse. But the weak, the slow, and the unfortunate are not the only ones at risk. Children are equal-opportunity persecutors. I grew up teased, picked on, and ostracized because I was one of the smart kids in class. Every time a teacher praised my work or pointed to me as a model student, I would hear taunts at recess questioning the purity of my relationship with the teacher or casting aspersions on my planet of origin.

Children will pick on another child for any perceived weakness and use any difference as a lever to exclude, mock, intimidate, or worse. But the weak, the slow, and the unfortunate are not the only ones at risk."

Not to sound too much of a fogey, but when I was a kid, teasing and verbal abuse were considered an essential part of a well-rounded education. Schools drew the line at physical assault, and some adult usually stepped in to break up scuffles before blood was spilled. But today’s educators expect something more than a “sticks and stones” attitude toward harsh words. They not only discourage hurtful language, they teach kids how to be kinder and gentler with one another in their words and actions. I sometimes wonder if we aren’t carrying things a little too far, raising a hypersensitive generation with the emotional equivalent of a glass jaw, but on the whole, today’s approach to civility and respect is far superior to the mind-set when I was in school.

Although my daughter has been spared the sort of toughening up that made me the well-adjusted social misfit I am today, she is a pretty solid, unflappable kid. I wasn’t too concerned that the surprise announcement would threaten her emotional stability. Her classmates are a well-behaved, sensitive group, and it seemed unlikely any of them would assail her with charges of alien parentage. I was less sanguine about how other parents would react—I could hear them inwardly remarking, “So, you think your kid is so smart”—but my childhood conditioning has at least given me a pretty thick skin.

When my daughter’s principal decided to make a public fuss about a student who had done nothing but take a test, it not only made me question whether the principal had a blind spot obscuring her appreciation of the vulnerability of young nerds, but it also made me wonder what the gesture said to other kids. When students are recognized for their accomplishments or for being good citizens, the implied message to the rest of the school is “and so can YOU!” What is the implied message in a public pat on the back for a kid who merely took a test that showed that she was smart?

Look at it from a child’s point of view. Two students are tested: One is found to be capable of performing two years above grade level; the other is two years below grade level. The first result is announced and applauded, while the second is hidden from view. Any child is going to understand that juxtaposition as saying to the first student, “I’m proud of you,” and to the second, “I’m ashamed of you.” That shame may be nonjudgmental, it may be sympathetic, it may be accompanied by feelings of righteous indignation, but it is still shame.

Elementary school students may not make these connections. It may be the adolescent, naturally inclined to see subterfuge and hypocrisy whenever an adult so much as blinks, who begins to suspect that all those teachers saying “Yes, you can!” were moved by an inner voice whispering, “I’m sorry, but you never will.” Where the child, innocent and credulous, may accept a sincere, affirming compassion, the cynical adolescent may detect condescending pity. The message that bolstered the confidence of the child may give way to a subtext that fuels the adolescent’s self-doubt.

When that happens, we may lose the single most important tool to help any struggling student: the willingness to try. Without that, all the special programs and sincere efforts of well-meaning educators will be for naught.

A version of this article appeared in the October 01, 2008 edition of Education Week as ‘Special’ Education

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