No Exit: The ‘Black Hole’ of Special Education

by Linda Schrock Taylor

Recent news articles have discussed the possibility that two black holes might collide in a few million years. Although an interesting concept, this potential danger pales in the face of a real ‘black hole’ – that of SPECIAL EDUCATION. Every year, thousands of our children disappear into the vagueness of special placements, never to be released from the labels and stigma; never to escape and again be seen as ‘normal.’ Many teachers must notice this engulfing, this entrapment, of our children; some teachers must surely strive to defeat this grave and senseless closure on potential; but the problem is rarely mentioned or discussed.

A few months ago, the superintendent of our district stopped to ask how things were going. I said that it had been a good year; that I had just released three students from special education – a 7th grader, a 9th grader, and an 11th grader – and hoped to release more in the Fall. His surprise and shock were clearly evident. Mr. S. said, “Linda, these things never happen! – well almost never! I recently asked a fellow superintendent if he ever heard of any kids getting OUT of special education, and that fellow said that it is very, very rare for that to happen.” (That is an accurate assessment.)

My superintendent expressed regret that he had not known, and said that he would have attended each exit meeting to shake the child’s hand and commend them for such hard work. I acknowledged his compassion, but noted that neither my building principal, nor the director of special education, saw importance in attending any meetings to congratulate these children who had earned their way out of special placements and labels. “They KNEW of the meetings?” he asked. (Of course they knew – they always receive invitations.)

When I was next ready to release another student – a 10th grader now reading at a 12.5 grade level – the director removed the student from my caseload and enrolled him in a math class with mentally impaired students, even though this young man was in pre-algebra last year, and looking forward to algebra this year. His mandatory re-evaluation meeting was held without me; without the educational consultant; and with a general education teacher who had only known the boy for a couple weeks. All might have been lost, but I not only teach my students to read, I teach them to believe in themselves and to advocate for themselves. This young man asked his mother to refuse to sign the paperwork, and to demand a new meeting, to which I would be invited. The new meeting was held, but we won only part of the battle. This student is back on my caseload so I can supervise his progress, and I am allowed to teach him algebra, on an Independent Study basis. However, even though this intelligent young man is no longer enrolled in any special education classes, he is still labeled ‘Learning Disabled,’ despite evidence to the contrary, and remains on the headcount for educational and Medicaid funding.

So, do not underestimate the strength of this black hole, and the power of federal monies – education and Medicaid – to create and sustain the energy force that entraps and holds these children. Do notice how few honest steps are taken to bring about real reform – ones that would actually, and effectively, educate American children in general, and special education students, in particular. The most shocking and inexcusable aspect of the pretense, the mouth-service, given to “accountability,” is the dearth of professionals who actively attempt to get students OUT of Special Education. Few see any value in specifically structuring special education programs towards ‘repairing’ and releasing children; few feel any urge to commend an exiting child; few see the importance of choosing curriculum and methods that would prevent the need for such programs in the first place.

My advice to parents of special needs children is to become knowledgeable about service models and what can be accomplished through closure-oriented instruction from a well-trained teacher. Understand that only a small percentage of American children are really disabled – truly deaf, blind, physically impaired, etc. The majority of those enrolled in special education classes should only remain in special placement for a limited time – just long enough for problems to be corrected and delays remedied. I have a sign on my classroom door, “THIS IS A STEPPING STONE, NOT A RESTING PLACE.” If, after testing and observation, it appears that a child’s problems have been brought about, rather than being an aspect of the child’s physical make-up, I tell the student that they probably have nothing ‘wrong’ with them and that good gains can be expected. We have a ‘joke’ in my room – that most labels should probably read “TD” (Teaching-Disabled). I honestly believe that if most of these students had been taught to read in 1st and 2nd grades, and had been taught a knowledge-based curriculum, they would never have been labeled and ended up in a special class.

Changes in special education enrollment/entrapment will never come from the top, because a centralized government needs us to be dependent on the State in as many ways as can be invented, encouraged, legislated, and forced. Change might begin, though, when parents arrive at IEPC meetings prepared to ask tough questions; demand date-specific, written plans; and hold districts accountable for effective remediation and RELEASE:

  • What EXACTLY will be done to remediate my child’s weakness? – What are the skills and success record of the teacher who will be in charge of my child’s remediation?

  • Which measurable instruments of assessment will be used? Please be sure to provide me with baseline and subsequent scores, in terminology that I can understand, preferably giving age or grade level equivalencies.

  • When do you expect to complete the remediation, remove the label from my child, and remove my child from special education placement?

Change will also begin when schools teach reading within appropriate time frames, using successful methods, rather than progressive fads. Change will begin when all children enter third grade, at the very latest, literate and prepared to ‘use reading to learn,’ rather than to still be ‘learning to read.’ Change will begin when everyone – parents and educators – reduce the number of students who come to the attention of those who gain by increasing special education enrollments. With any luck, the subsequent loss of monies will slow the spin, and weaken the strength, of this most dangerous and engulfing black hole – “SPECIAL EDUCATION.”