Saturday, March 21, 2009

Today's false dichotomy: special education vs. general education

Some superintendents, I recently learned from an insider friend, spend the bulk of their time on issues relating to special education. Especially time-consuming are the increasing numbers of court cases in which parents sue schools for failing to accommodate special needs children. All of this, of course, also costs huge amounts of money: an ever higher proportion of school district spending. The more so as more and more kids are getting special diagnoses, along with the I.E.P.'s (Individual Education Plans) that require schools to accommodate them.

A fair amount of this expense, I believe, is attributable to today's right-brain classroom practices: child-centered, group-centered, hands-on learning; the avoidance by teachers and textbooks of explicit instruction; the watering-down of the math and science curriculum with arts & crafts and "creativity"; and the rise of open-ended questions and large-scale/interdisciplinary projects.

How does all this relate to special education labels?

1. Making children work in groups redflags more and more unsocial children as having Asperger's Syndrome, PDD, and social anxiety.

2. The lack of structure of both the child- and group-centered classroom, and the open-ended questions, redflags more and more structure-craving children as having Asperger's Syndrome or PDD.

3. Insufficient explicit instruction in phonics yields more and more children with dyslexia.

4. Nonexistent penmanship instruction, together with grades based on "neatness," yields more and more children with dysgraphia.

5. Insufficient explicit instruction in arithmetic, together with the organizational demands of large-scale/interdisciplinary projects, yields more and more children with Nonverbal Learning Disabilities.

6. The noise and chaos of child- and group-centered, hands-on learning yields more and more children with sensory integration and attention deficit disorders.

7. The dumbing down of math and science and points off for lack of showy graphics, deficient "creativity," and explanations that are insufficiently verbose propels increasing numbers of parents to seek mentally gifted diagnoses so that their children can receive more challenging material and better grades.

Many of the resultant I.E.P's require schools to provide additional structure, more explicit instruction, quieter learning environments, exemptions from group work, exemptions from visual "creativity" requirements, fewer large scale/interdisciplinary projects and open-ended questions, and/or more challenging math problems, to the children in question.

If schools were to provide these basic accomodations to everyone from the get-go, perhaps we wouldn't have nearly the numbers of students labeled with Asperger's Syndrome, PDD, social anxiety, dyslexia, dysgraphia, Nonverbal Learning Disorders, sensory integration disorders, ADD/ADHD, and mental giftedness.

...And schools would save some time and money that might be better spent elsewhere.


Lori said...

I have a question... and I am being serious. Have you looked into Gardner's Theories on Multiple Intelligences, the research on learning modalities, or looked at John Medina's work? As a teacher, I have found it necessary to take all of these factors into account. I am aware of my left and my right brained thinkers and accommodate accordingly. I look at all of my students as if they all have their own IEP. Each student brings their own styles as well as issues to the learning situation. In trying to accommodate everyone, a "one size fits all" approach does not work. Therefor we must address all of the needs of the learners.

This is tricky, as employers look at more than academics when hiring. Along with the academic skills, which I am not downplaying, they also look for team players, inventive thinkers, problem solvers, empathizers ...

Now, unless I am reading this incorrectly, which is very possible, it would almost seem that you are pointing at some of these whole brain/right brain strategies as being part of the cause for such learning difficulties. PLEASE correct me if I am misinterpreting.

Now that I have babbled on, I would be very interested to hear your take on the above mentioned theorists.


RMD said...


I hope you don't mind if I join the conversation. If so, please feel free to ignore my post! ;-)

Like most pedagogy today, "learning styles" has no evidenciary basis for support. There are plenty of meta-studies that have looked at learning styles studies. These meta-studies found no evidence of effectiveness. (if you'd like citations, please say so in comments)

Direct Instruction has proven to be the most effective model for education. I like to think of Direct Instruction like ski school. It does the following:
1. Divides students into groups by ability and teaches them at their level
2. Requires mastery of small skills before the student can move on (in skiing, it's the "wedge")
3. Uses a predefined script, tailored by training and personal experience

There is much more to DI than these items, but they'll get you started.

I know these notions mention above aren't popular with educators, but the evidence just doesn't support "learning styles"

One more suggestion . . .

If you want to find out what goes on in student's minds, you might want to look at some of Daniel Willingham's materials. He tackles many of these issues in a very readable and approachable manner. He has a great article in the most recent edition of the AFT's quarterly magazine (

Lori said...


I am glad you joined the conversation! This post has me intrigued and I am trying to sort things out. I agree that direct instruction, if done properly, is a fantastic approach. Having been in the trenches over 13 years now, I still believe direct instruction all day every day, would not be the best approach. It is interesting, as I read "DI" I immediately thought of differentiating instruction, which I feel is also extremely important to reaching every child. Thanks, again, for your thoughts and for the resource. I intend to check it out!

RMD said...

I'm glad that you thought I was helpful.
One quick note: I'm referring to Direct Instruction, not direct instruction.

The first is a specific technique to educate developed by Zig Engelmann in the 1960s, that has been refined ever since. Follow Through, the largest education study ever conducted demonstrated its superiority over every other curriculum in grades K-3, on every measure (really . . . not an exaggeration).

However, direct instruction (small letters) is a categories of instructional techniques. In general, direct instruction is going to be more effective and faster than discovery learning. However, Direct Instruction goes a step further and is very, very efficient and effective.

For example, the Franklin Academy (a charter school) in Wake Forest, NC, averages 1 year and 4 months of achievement for each academic calendar year for all grades and subjects as measured by the Iowa Test of Basic Skills. This is an example of what could be accomplished if the education establishment were serious about educating children.

I hope you find this post helpful also.

Have a great day!

lefty said...


It's wonderful to hear that you're attending to your students' individual needs. In too many classrooms I've seen, children are forced to work in groups and to do interdisciplinary projects and the like, and don't receive the explicit instruction they need, and that is what I believe is largely responsible for today's epidemic of special labels.

It's true that employers look for non-academic skills, but are classrooms the best place to learn them? I don't know of any curriculum that has been empirically tested and shown to teach empathy or inventiveness. And if teachers aren't actually teaching these things, they shouldn't be grading students on them.

As for team work in particular, I its importance has been way over-estimated by today's schools. Contrary to what the Reform Math people say, mathematicians don't usually work in groups: I know this from personal experience.

Thanks for your continued posts here; I really appreciate hearing the perspective of a seasoned classroom teaching.

RMD, thanks for your discussion of DI. I actually know very little about it, but am gradually becoming more familiar, and would love to learn more.

Laura said...

You've hit the nail on the head, Lefty.

I will say that on rare occasions, when groups are given clear structure specifically for the purpose of encouraging interaction (during "choice time"), not for teaching academic content, I've seen it actually be successful.

But most of the time, the open-ended group work results in the kind of noise and confusion you described, and yes, combined with the lack of interesting instruction, it's apparently too much for my Aspie boy.

After two years of the teachers needing to calm him down and give him breaks and distract him from the noise and the boredom, I'm sick of it and I'm trying to make some changes to his IEP. There's a gifted special ed class for the whole county I'm trying to make a case for, but I doubt they 're going to be willing to place him there.

Yet he concentrates beautifully and thoroughly enjoys the used DI curriculum (reading mastery and reasoning and writing) that we've been doing at home, as well as Singapore Math. That's what I wish he had at school--not a special curriculum designed just for him, just a good curriculum, taught in a group that can more or less match his pace.

Though I will say they do good handwriting instruction--his handwriting is the one thing that has shown real progress in the classroom these past two years.

Catherine Johnson said...


Lori said...

RMD - Thanks for the clarification! I have started looking at

I discussed this blog entry with my sister, a former speech teacher, now a state trainer dealing with mostly reading and kiddos with special needs. It was interesting the discover that many of these methods are NOT benefiting a large chunk of our population. Once I talked with her and reread your post, I got it!

Thanks, all, for your patience with me and for all of your insight. I return to the classroom next year after serving as our district's high school tech integration coach, and I can't wait.