I believe that most students with disabilities* can and should
engage with the same academic content that any other student would receive. Furthermore, I believe that most students with disabilities should be held to the same academic expectations as that of their peers. I seem to hold somewhat radical expectations for my students, if what I’m hearing from my colleagues and from New York state education officials is accurate. I was at a meeting with fellow special education specialists in my district several weeks ago and assumed I was speaking to the choir when I shared these beliefs. I was taken aback when a number of other educators strongly disagreed. I heard my fellow educators argue that their students “can’t” be expected to do grade-level work. When I hear the word “can’t” used by an educator to describe their students’ potential, I get so upset. I know that working with children who face significant challenges is tough work. But really?
Can’t? I think such a perspective says more about an educator’s lack of vision than a student’s lack of ability. When you consider disability from a historical perspective, students with disabilities have been denied access to the same expectations and content as that of other students for a very long time. They have been segregated physically, and given “different” curriculum, because no one expected anything from them. Unsurprisingly, students so treated do not often go on to achieve success.
Diluting the Requirements
It was upsetting enough to hear this perspective from my colleagues here in the Bronx. But now I’m also hearing it from education officials up in Albany. There is a plan in discussion and most likely up for a vote soon to
water down high school diploma requirements for students with disabilities. We’ve been here before. New York state used to have a largely meaningless piece of paper called an “Individualized Education Plan (IEP) diploma” for students said to have met their IEP goals, which are highly subjective measurements primarily measured by those who write them. I know that a
high school diploma doesn’t mean much these days, but it’s a slippery slope when we begin completely dismantling any measure of what academic preparedness might mean. What kind of message do we send to kids when we lower the bar for them?
We don’t expect you to be able to achieve this. You CAN’T achieve this. But that’s the wrong message. Instead, we should be saying,
What will it take for you to achieve this? And if you try and aren’t ready yet—it’s OK because there’s other options for you to have a viable career in the meantime and we will help you to get there. Not everyone is ready for college. A high school diploma should be a sign that you are prepared to succeed academically in college, not a consolation prize. If we truly believe that not every student is able to achieve a high school diploma, than we’d better be looking very closely at what we’re doing to
build alternative pathways to careers. But watering down academic expectations for some students is not the way to go, New York. We’re fooling ourselves if we think making it “easier” is helping any kid to succeed. We’re only making it easier for adults to continue to pretend they’re doing their jobs. *
“Students with disabilities” encompasses an extremely wide and diverse bucket, by the way. The differences between any given disability and any given student are so vast as to be nearly incomparable. Yet we persist.
Mark Anderson is a special education and ELA instructional specialist in the Bronx. Previously, he taught special education and served as a coordinator at Jonas Bronck Academy, a district middle school in the Bronx. He has been a New York City Teaching Fellow, a member of the Learn Zillion Dream Team, and an alum of Coro New York's Education Leadership Collaborative and New York Leadership ...