According to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), every student with special needs is entitled to “free and appropriate education.” This means that every student, regardless of disability, is entitled to receive quality public education in the United States. In practice, however, not every student with special needs is provided with adequate public education. Many times, parents must advocate on behalf of their child’s educational needs, without the support of legislature or policy provision.
The very phrase “special education” evokes conflicting feelings, perspectives, and experiences, making policy discussions on this issue especially sensitive. It is a very hard concept to define, but in an idealistic sense, special ed means that “the individual needs of a student who has a disability are met by the mandate of a legal document known as an Individualized Education Plan, or an IEP.” There is a large achievement gap between special-education students and general-education students, and this gap seems to have been growing over the past few years.
As someone who has grown up with a younger sibling with autism, I am somewhat familiar with the struggles that my parents had to go through in providing my brother with an adequate education. He cannot be mainstreamed, even though that discussion was brought up numerous times by local administrators and legislators. Through numerous battles with our state and township, an agreement was reached to provide my brother with public education at a school for special needs children in another town. This also means that he is provided with free transportation to and from the school, and has access to after school activities and resources.
While all of that seems fine and dandy, my parents face constant challenges within the special needs’ education system. To me, it seems that the most highly contested issue is that of standardized testing within the special needs community. As the No Child Left Behind Act made its rounds through the US education system, it also infested special needs public education. Instead of my brother learning basic reading and math skills, he was being given homework on advanced reading comprehension and other test-related concepts. If he and his classmates did not pass these tests, the school would lose funding. My brother was frustrated because he didn’t understand the material, the school was frustrated in not being able to teach practical information, and my family was frustrated in this wasted instruction.
Not everyone agrees with this “anti-testing” mantra. A teacher who was interviewed by the Huffington Post argues that special needs students should be analyzed with standardized tests because the tests provide data on how students are performing in accordance with “Common Core Standards.” This teacher further claims that special needs schools need this type of statistical information to help future student achievement, and the only way to gather that information is through standardized tests.
Perhaps they would feel differently if they sat down at the dining room table with my brother and tried to help him with his homework.
These assessments for special needs testing have inherent flaws. These tests attempt to generalize statistics for a group of students who are all unique – who all have different socialization and educational needs. By definition, students with special needs need individualized education plans, meaning that their individuality is fundamental to their being, and therefore, fundamental to their success in school. How can we group these individuals together as a cohort to study for future educational change?
Recent lingo on this issue has included “voucher systems,” which would take funds away from public schools and move them to private schools. Earlier this year, Wisconsin Republicans proposed a measure for this type of system, claiming that it would allow children with disabilities to have greater “options” and “flexibility” within the education system. I have a fundamental problem with this system: I believe that a voucher system would put special needs education at risk. IDEA rights may not apply or be enforced as much in private schools, meaning that special needs children in public schools may be at risk.
It is clear that the issue of special education will always be a topic of debate throughout the United States as well as the rest of the world. We must work to preserve every disabled child’s right to quality education. My brother, and the rest of the special needs community, deserves to have quality education as a fundamental right…just like the rest of us.