(Note: throughout this piece I talk about academic performance. I want to take the time now to stress that there isn’t anything inherently special about having a high GPA or doing well on a couple tests. It doesn’t signify one’s intelligence (no test can), and it doesn’t mean that one is smarter than someone else...it just means that the person with the higher score will think they’re smarter.)
About an hour ago, I was walking from my apartment to campus, pondering the topic for the next blog post. For a fall day, it’s fairly warm outside. The leaves are turning. I’m wearing shorts as I type this. My Educational Psychology class has a test tomorrow, so I had just finished a little studying while I had been eating lunch.
One of the topics that comes up consistently in Educational Psychology is teacher expectations for students. There are any number of things that can change teacher expectation: race, grades, posture, and, of course, whether a student happens to be in a special ed program. There have been a number of studies that have shown that teacher expectation has an incredible impact on how well students perform. It’s even so well documented that it has a name: the pygmalion effect. In essence, this fancy name (that’s probably named after a dead, white man) means what I’ve been trying to show for the last two pages: kids (and the rest of us) rise to the expectation level that people have and sometimes these expectations become internalized.
When this happens, kids expect more of themselves, so they try harder and apply themselves more. In my case, I learned how to study, and I started paying more attention in class once it became clear that everyone seemed to expect me to be academically successful. Eventually, I started to expect it of myself.
As I was walking, I was thinking about all this, and I asked myself the question:
“If this is true, then shouldn’t every student have the same high expectations? Should I have expected the same academic performance from both myself and James?” - One of the kids who had been in special ed in my high school. -
My immediate answer was, “Of course not; it wouldn’t have been fair to have held him to the same standard. He would probably have struggled and may have eventually shut down. It just wouldn’t have been fair.”
“Okay, well what about Jason and Jonathan?” - Who had had the highest and third highest GPA’s respectively. -
“Of course. We took all the same classes. None of us could have gotten through pre-calc without the other two. ”
“What about Gavin?” - Another one of my classmates who had never needed any special ed help. -
“Yeah, it would have been fair to expect the same of us.”
“What about Jason and Allison? Should they have had the same expectations?”
“What about Allison and Cody?” - Cody had also been though the special ed program. Allison hadn’t.-
“Well... Oh, I see where you’re going.”
Completely unconsciously, I had assumed that the special ed kids from my high school couldn’t handle the same expectations that the rest of us could. I knew that each of us were always going to have different levels of success (few students ever have the exact same GPA), but for whatever reason, the kids in the special ed program needed to have training wheels when the rest of us didn’t.
I thought this because the special ed kids had always had training wheels. They had always received extra help or easier assignments, and almost all of them genuinely believed that they couldn’t handle the material the same way the rest of us could. And, they had good reason to believe that. Whenever they were in the classroom with the rest of us, they were always behind because we had covered the material faster than they had. They saw that the rest of us seemed to know so much more than they, so they assumed it was because we were smarter. They assumed it was because they needed the extra help they were constantly being given. Through the years, whatever small difference there had been in cognitive ability between us and them blossomed into a gulf that could only be bridged by the extra help they had always been given. By labeling them as “special ed,” they became special ed.
The implications for this line of thought are tremendous. Special ed programs exist in almost every school, and billions of dollars are spent on them. They’re seen as an integral part of education in many circles and many teachers have the exact same unconscious thought I had earlier today, “It simply wouldn’t be fair for them. They couldn’t handle it.”
Now, I don’t think we should get rid of the extra support that special ed students get. That would only make the problem worse. Instead, I think we should normalize the help those students get so that the resources are available for everyone. Some college professors do this in their classes. They require everyone to come to office hours at least once or twice in the semester. This makes seeking additional help part of the class, which makes the associated stigma disappear. In an elementary through high school setting, this could be used as a tool to keep everyone in the same class. Require every student to go to the ‘Extra Help’ center a couple times a month during study hall and don’t separate the class while teaching.
We should also avoid labeling students as much as possible. One of the special ed kids in my high school would often use his ADD as a crutch (at least in my opinion). Whenever we were partners on a project, he would often give up fairly quickly when I tried to walk him through the problem. He would occasionally say things like, “Don’t you remember? I have ADD.” and “I can’t do this.” Because of the belief that his ADD needed help, he seemed to have lost the ability to problem solve without their assistance.
These ideas to fix the special ed program may sound well and good, but (now that I think about it), there’s a very good reason why they haven’t been implemented yet. School funding has been on the chopping block for legislatures at all levels of government for a long time. If schools had the money to hire more ‘Extra Helpers,’ I’m sure they would love to. The various labeling techniques used may just be a cost effective way of picking out the kids who need the most help. Schools may or may not realize the effect class separation has on student psychology. If they do, they may have decided that the alternatives (slowing down classes or using more primary teacher time to explain concepts) were too much of a burden to put on classes who needed to move quickly in order to be fully prepared to take the next standardized test.
But, regardless of school’s reasons for why special ed programs are the way they are, we should always keep in mind the experiences and confidence level of the kids in those programs. Because it’s their lives we’re changing.