Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
Nov 28 2013

#85: Equity, special needs, and the American obsession with exceptionalism

I am in the middle of wrapping up 30 hours of state-mandated “Gifted and Talented” professional development. I don’t know how useful it is to call it such given that many of the practices are just plain good practice for any student (encourage creativity! open-ended questioning!), and it’s a bit disconcerting that it is brought up in the context of GT students only.

This, of course, led me to start making connections to other domains of education that concern me: special education and charter schools.

First off, why are 30 hours of GT training mandated for general education teachers but zero hours of special education training are mandated? Warning: unverified speculation alert. I have a feeling this policy is due to some well-connected Texans with high-flying kids who were bored at school and whose parents turned around and screamed bloody murder that their kids’ potentials were not being fully realized. Just a theory.

This is troublesome for a number of reasons which should be obvious: students with special needs are among the most vulnerable to failing, being retained, dropping out, not going to college, etc. For these students to reach their potential requires their teachers to understand their needs and to be trained in strategies and methods that will allow them to access the same curriculum as their non-disabled peers. This isn’t happening right now! The majority of students with special needs are in mainstream classrooms and many of them are languishing because they are “treated the same” as their non-disabled peers despite having a different set of needs. Let’s be clear: the mainstream classroom is in most cases the appropriate setting for these students, but they will not receive the full benefits of this arrangement if general education teachers are ignorant of best practices. Even if you are fortunate enough to have a co-teach setting, general education teachers are still responsible for the content of their classrooms being accessible to all.

But America tolerates high degrees of inegalitarianism. What we don’t tolerate is the idea that exceptionally bright students (as measured perhaps by precocious verbal dexterity and/or computational fluency) might not be given all the tools in the world to conquer said world. Many of these gifted students when left to their own devices will lapse into a spell of auto-didactic activity, but we must have training to ensure that self-driven learning is…done right? I don’t even know! I can’t even to pretend to figure out the hierarchy of priorities that leads us to specially train teachers to reach one set of well-suited students and not reach a particularly needy set of students.

Now I have a bug up my butt about this and I want to know more. I suspect there is a positive correlation between a child being identified as “gifted” and family income. I suspect there is a negative correlation between a child being referred for learning disabilities and family income. Then there’s the pernicious social environment that associates students of color with academic struggle and white and Asian students with academic competence. This is all adding up in my mind as a deeply regressive and unjust practice.

I found an unexpected connection when I was speaking with a friend of mine/co-worker whose child is about to enter kindergarten. Though he and his family live in a more affluent neighborhood than we work and they are zoned to go to some of the better public schools in the city, he’s been scouting out charters, particularly Great Hearts which is new to San Antonio. If you read my little ditty on Edushyster in August, you’ll know that Great Hearts engages in practices which would certainly be barriers to students from low-income households. For this, they were denied a charter in Dallas though they had previously been granted one here in San Antonio. Go figure.

I asked my friend what the motivating factors were seeking out a school like Great Hearts. He cited the college-prep kind of environment, their strict attention to discipline, and their ability to kick out unruly kids. That last reason struck a chord for me: if the way these and other charter schools of their ilk achieve excellence is at the express expense of equity, then how do we respond on policy?

I sense that this desire to expand choice so that middle class families will further segregate themselves from neighborhood schools is of a kind with our desires to see that the exceptionally bright students not be held back by the neediness of other children. Inequity is a feature of this system, not a bug. This ensures that children of well-to-do parents will have a stranglehold on access to college as well as the network to navigate higher ed and the subsequent job market that ossifies our class system.

This set of policies does not serve the greater interests of civil society if inequality is what we seek to correct. The focus should not be myopically trained on excellence. Instead, if we focus first on equity, excellence will follow as a by-product. In the absence of equitable inputs, there will continue to be inequitable outcomes and a greater divergence between the haves and havenots and policies that emphasize the needs of the less in need are neither prudent nor just.

8 Responses

  1. houstonheart

    I completely agree with many of your assertions about gifted ID, race/income, etc. But when I really think about what I see in my own classroom, here are some things I notice:

    1. I am required by law to provide proofs I am meeting my SPED students’ individual educational needs. I am not required to do this for my GT students.

    2. My SPED students have special intervention classes, sometimes twice per day. My GT students have no special classes.

    3. My SPED students have a modified curriculum (and receive a number of other accommodations). My GT students do not.

    4. My SPED students can take advantage of a small-group testing environment to be more successful. My GT students cannot.

    5. I know every single one of my SPED students’ IEPs backwards and forwards. I am required to attend special meetings about these IEPs. Not the case with my GT students.

    6. If my SPED kids get below a 70 on a test I am mandated to give a retake. I am not mandated to do anything for my GT kids.

    So…while I agree with much of what you wrote, what I see in my classroom is that I devote way more time, attention, and energy to meeting my SPED students’ needs as opposed to my GT students’ needs. And it seems that a lot of this inequality is built into the infrastructure and day-to-day operations of my school. Part of it may be that my school is just bad, in general, at meeting GT needs. But is it emblematic of something else? Just some things to consider.

    • mches

      I think you raise some excellent points. The IDEA does require extensive checks on teachers and schools to ensure that students with special needs are getting those needs met. These measures have been deemed necessary to be certain that all students with disabilities are provided a Free and Appropriate Public Education. This is absolutely fair. GT students without disabilities do not require any additional measures to ensure they are accessing the curriculum. Modifications would be wholly inappropriate, small group testing and intervention classes unnecessary, and so on. That students with disabilities require these measures and additional instructional attention is absolutely appropriate given their needs.

      What is interesting, though, is this: of those 6 points you raise, how much training were you required to have before engaging in any of those practices as a classroom teacher?

    • Fran

      Interestingly your Sped students are expected to take the same state test as the GT kids and they are expected to be proficient. If not your school doesn’t make AYP or the RTTT goals. I will be surprised if you told me different.

  2. meghank

    Great Hearts was also denied a charter in Nashville, TN, and the state commissioner of education, Kevin Huffman, withheld millions in dollars from the Nashville Public Schools as “punishment” to the board for denying the charter.

    I’ve always been against exclusionary public schools and charters like Great Hearts, but I think it’s perfectly appropriate to provide Gifted/Talented students services within diverse schools (assuming, of course, that those with special needs are also receiving services). It’s not just that GT won’t “achieve their true potential” without special services (I am thinking of the pull-out services I received). They actually are at great risk of becoming not just bored, but depressed with a school system that is not meeting their needs. The risks that accrue to a GT student who has lost interest in school (and learning) are, in my experience, similar to the risks for general ed and special needs students who lose interest: drug and alcohol use, petty crime, dropping out.

    Of course, school (elementary school) is depressing for all students right now under the testing obsession and the common core. So both our points are moot until we do something about the ridiculous amounts of test prep starting in kindergarten that causes children (GT and special needs alike) to hate school from the beginning.

    • mches

      My non-rhetorical questions:

      (a) Are GT students at significantly higher risk for depression, drug and alcohol abuse, crime, and dropping out than non-disabled, non-GT students?

      (b) Are the interventions necessary to reach GT students’ needs any different than interventions to reach “average” students’ needs?

      • meghank

        I recall reading about studies during my Exceptional Children class in college that suggested the first was true.

        The second is, in my experience, true. I don’t know if you know much about gifted/talented pullout programs? In my school district, we had a great one, called C.L.U.E. They gave us a lot of logic problems to work out/discuss together and many special projects to do that were over the heads of most of our peers. It was only 3 hours two times a week, but it made a huge difference, and it wouldn’t have been appropriate for the majority of students. Our regular education teachers, by the way, did not do anything special for us and were not and still are not trained on how to deal with Gifted Talented.

        Another point I wanted to make is that it does not cater only to the well-off. Certainly there is some skewing in that direction because more affluent parents are more pushy in getting their kids identified, but many low-income children who do not have pushy parents benefitted from this program as well.

        • mches

          I am familiar with the pullout programs you describe. They sound precisely like the GT classes I had in elementary and middle school. My high school did not have pullout classes and I did not participate in any GT activities that I can recall though the prevalence of AP/Honors courses rendered that moot.

          With regard to GT students (potentially) having greater risks in those areas, are these things that are best treated with sheltered instructional environments, or would expanded mental health services at the campus level be more appropriate and accessible to all students in need? Also, is it possible that creating pullout classes ostracizes GT students which leads to peer resentment and hostility?

          • Meghank

            I think these things are best prevented (not “treated”) with an education that meets their needs, not with mental health services that they will hopefully never need.
            It has not been my experience that pullout classes create hostility in other students; has it been yours? In my experience, the other students generally just see it as the C.L.U.E. students’ having to do extra work.

            Again, school is depressing for all public school students right now. Until we stop the constant testing abuse in our schools, it doesn’t really matter much how we try to help in other ways.

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