I forgot about President George W. Bush’s focus on ending the “soft bigotry of low expectations” until I read this week’s Washington Post obituary for Michael Gerson, the speechwriter who crafted that phrase. That minimalistic phrase remains powerful, making a point that pierces the assumptions and failures of an entire nation.
I’m embarrassed I forgot his words in the years that followed. I know that such forgetfulness is common and can beget ignorance—and that forgetfulness and ignorance combined beget noncompliance and stagnation in regard to special education. Since special education is a topic politicians and journalists—and even some educators—struggle to understand, it is easier to ignore it and/or move to the millions of other issues competing for their time.
Parents experience the same, which explains why so many students can move through the public school system without ever being identified. Over ten years ago, when I suspected my son had Dyslexia, I didn’t follow up because Fairfax County Public Schools (FCPS) staff told me 1) boys learn to read later than girls and my son might just be a late reader, and 2) because I didn’t understand the special education system and I wanted to defer to the educators who I thought had my son’s best interest in mind. I knew I could appeal the decision, but I didn’t understand how. Instead, I hoped the educators were right. Afterall, blindly believing in educators and hope was easier to manage—and a lot less scary and time consuming—than accepting my child had a “disability” and learning how to advocate.
After a friend lent me a copy of Wrightslaw: Special Education Law, I tried to read it and then returned it to her unread. Reading that book was like reading a foreign language. Years later, after my son and I had entered the FCPS special education gauntlet, I bought another copy and the words clicked. Today, it remains my go-to whenever I have a question. It’s ragged and highlighted. Most important, I understand it. Unfortunately, that understanding took a decade (I’m still learning) and didn’t come early enough to help my kids before more problems erupted.
“Soft Bigotry of Low Expectations”
The majority of our nation’s adults grew up in segregated school systems that didn’t mainstream students who have special education needs. Instead, these students were kept separate and moved throughout the schools in between classes for the general education population. In all my own years of public education, I recall seeing the special education class being moved through the halls, or eating lunch in the cafeteria, when I was roaming the halls instead of being in class myself. And yes, they were being moved. There was an effort to get them from one place to another, not as if they were simply moving through the halls with ease or freedom as other students did. I don’t remember Kindness accompanying them. My memory recalls Annoyance and Impatience shadowing or leading teachers.
I grew up thinking special education was for students who have severe physical disabilities. In class, I thought kids who struggled were stupid or didn’t care. Why would anyone work with them? Why have high expectations since they were too stupid and didn’t care enough to ever do anything meaningful or were so disabled they would never be able to do anything anyway? That’s ignorance and the “soft bigotry of low expectations.”
In hindsight, many of those kids in my classes likely had special education needs. It took going through it myself to understand and to realize the problems with 1) failing to identify students with needs and 2) segregating students. However, there are many who continue with my previous thinking, just because they haven’t had the same experiences—or they haven’t been fully trained for their jobs. They don’t know what they don’t know.
Cyclical Forgetfulness & Ignorance
Politicians, Journalists, & Teachers: The Sound of Silence
In 2019, before COVID closures hammered an already broken system, EducationWeek reported on a study by National Center for Learning Disabilities (NCLD) and Understood.org. The report indicated that teachers themselves are unprepared to work with, and ignorant about, student who have special education needs. The following is an excerpt from EducationWeek’s reporting:
In one of the more surprising findings, a quarter of the survey respondents indicated that they believe ADD/ADHD diagnoses result from poor parenting, evidence that “some teachers express beliefs suggesting they are unaware of scientific findings showing that learning disabilities and ADHD are based on differences in brain structure and function.”
Overall, the survey respondents indicated the problems begin in teacher preparation programs, well before education students lead a classroom: Many teachers reported they were not required to take courses in working with students with disabilities or found that the courses they did take left them unprepared to work with all students. The work also details how states’ policies for educator certification have set a “low bar” for preparing general educators to teach students with disabilities. According to the National Center for Learning Disabilities research, fewer than 10 states have specific coursework requirements for teaching students with mild to moderate learning disabilities
The teachers who responded in that study carry the thinking I ditched over a decade ago, yet their jobs require being knowledgeable about, and working with, students who have special education needs. Imagine sitting in an IEP meeting and trying to point out noncompliance to them in bite-sized portions they can digest within the timeframe of the meetings.
Special education isn’t something that can be explained in soundbites.
There’s no elevator speech that can be pitched because special education is overflowing with nuance. No child is exactly the same as another. No noncompliance is exactly the same. No school district or teacher or parent is exactly the same. The only thing that could be considered the same is that the system is broken—but from there everything unravels due to the reasons for, degrees of, and approaches to the broken system ebbing and flowing into nuance.
Hence, it is easier for the Washington Post, as one example, to write a special interest article than a policy article. Writing about a family that has been treated poorly is easier than writing with authority about all the noncompliance that continues, the state laws that aren’t in compliance with federal laws, the federal laws that are outdates, and so on. It’s easier to try to evoke pity than understanding and interest from readers—and pity, not lack of understanding or interest, is what draws readers (and clicks and sales). In a conversation with a Post reporter, I shared that FCPS had proposed an inappropriate program for my son four school years in a row. When the reporter called to fact check, he said that FCPS proposed a program I didn’t think was good enough or that I wanted. I corrected him and said no, it wasn’t about a program being good enough or what I wanted—and I certainly never said that. It was about whether the program was appropriate for my student. I tried to explain appropriate and why it is an important word, what it means, how it is used in special education law. The next time we spoke, it was clear the previous conversation about appropriate didn’t take. Yet, appropriate is a key word when it comes to special education.
Both journalists and politicians have varying degrees of experiences and interest—and they have dozens of stories and issues vying for their attention. It is impossible for them to be experts on everything, so they are novices or have surface knowledge of many things. Neither novices nor individuals with surface knowledge can be expected to understand the nuances of special education.
In journalism, the education beat is an entry/low-level beat within many news outlets. The exception resides in outlets that are education focused period (The 74, Education Week, Chalkbeat, etc.) Young and/or inexperienced journalists try to understand special education and then are promoted to a different beat before, or by the time, they grasp special education issues. They move up and then a new journalist replaces them.
For politicians, it’s easy for them to say they will create world-class education systems, without indicating they know this should include special education. For example, I’m in Virginia and wasn’t surprised when Glenn Youngkin won on education simply because the opponent he faced (Terry McAuliffe) was a previous Virginia governor who left a noncompliant system in his wake when he left office. Within months of McAuliffe leaving, the United States Department of Education (USDOE) and Virginia’s Joint Legislative Audit & Review Commission (JLARC) started investigating Virginia. These two agencies released three critical reports of Virginia within a six-month period. Among other things, the findings among the reports indicated Virginia’s regs would have to be changed because they were in noncompliance with federal regs, Virginia was failing to investigate credible allegations of noncompliance, and the Virginia Department of Education (VDOE) was failing internally as an organization as well as externally in its mandated responsibility to ensure compliance.
Adults—whether they are politicians, journalists, teachers, or anyone else—who weren’t in Virginia, or who didn’t have kids in schools (or weren’t working in Virginia schools themselves), when McAuliffe was governor might not know or remember the education disasters that occurred during his term. They might not know about the USDOE and JLARC investigations that followed—and they might not be aware that Virginia’s noncompliance has continued two years after the USDOE and JLARC investigations release dates, and five years after USDOE and JLARC started investigating, and that the noncompliance has existed across both major political parties. It isn’t one person’s or one party’s fault. It is the fault of decades of ignorance of the issues and the forgetfulness of organizations always focused on the next thing.
Parents: “My kid is actually smart”
The segregation mentioned earlier has led to adults believing special education is a bad thing and an indicator of a child being “stupid”. Too often, I’ve heard a parent discuss his or her child’s struggles and then add, “but my kid is actually smart” and then “I don’t want my kid held back” or “I don’t want my kid in team-taught classes with other special education kids.”
One parent contacted me because her daughter was struggling to finish tests and the mom and daughter were concerned by how this was impacting grades. The daughter was tested and areas of need were identified, to include a borderline impaired processing speed that was impacting her across the board. The parent and daughter refused an IEP, because neither wanted to be associated with special education. When the student was a junior, the parent contacted me in a panic because her daughter needed extra time to finish the SAT and College Board was pushing back on the parent’s request for accommodations. The student had failed to finish the SATs she’d taken within the amounted allotted time. Evidently didn’t even come close. She legitimately needed more time, but refused it throughout high school because that would require an IEP (or 504 Plan). By waiting until the daughter was a junior, my gut is that the daughter and her parent were profiled as “Varsity Blues” parents/kids looking for advantages when taking the SAT. Had the student had an IEP or 504 Plan when she needed it, it could be said that high school would have been less stressful and she wouldn’t have had problems with obtaining needed accommodations from College Board.
What’s the Solution?
Change and improve courses for teaching graduates; change, improve, and monitor teacher licensing; change, improve, require, and monitor continued education for teachers.
Teachers are graduating with little to no experience with or about students who have special education needs, even though the likelihood is high that they’ll be working with such students throughout their careers. This is documented in the EducationWeek article mentioned above, as well as in numerous other reports and studies. They weren’t prepared before COVID and the situation is worse after COVID.
We can’t change the thinking of every member of older generations who grew up in segregated systems—to include teachers, journalists, and politicians.
However, we can change what is being taught to every teacher moving up through college and eventually into teaching themselves and we can change the continuing education and licensing requirements for teachers who are already teachers.
Providing educators the support and training they need should help kids, and in the perfect world should decrease noncompliance. Decreased noncompliance could beget fewer lawsuits, complaints, and interactions with parents—all of which free up time and money to invest in teachers. In addition, more time, training, support, and money have the potential to impact the mental health of teachers and students.
Until we get there, it’s going to require everyone to remember past lessons and to raise expectations, and to consider that we, ourselves, might just need more training and experiences and open minds.