I had an interesting conversation with one of my daughter's old middle-school teachers a couple of weeks ago, as I was dropping my son off for his very last middle-school day.
This teacher was wondering whether I, as a member of some parent advocacy groups, could do something about a problem he was seeing in the special-education department in recent years: the passing of students on to the next grade when they have done no work and learned nothing.
He felt that if the kids knew they were going to be passed with a D anyway, they had no motivation to try any harder than that. And that just because they were classified was no reason to allow them to waive effort and learning.
I have no argument with that. Promoting kids because you don't know what else to do with them isn't the answer. But holding them back because you don't know what else to do with them isn't the answer, either.
It seems to me that this is less of an administrative problem -- callously passing kids who don't -- than a curriculum problem -- not having a clue how to get kids to want to pass. Particularly for children with executive function deficits or mental-health issues, the threat of repeating a grade is going to be a pretty ineffective consequence. And taking an additional year to do the same darn thing that didn't work the year before is a pretty ineffective strategy.
The students this teacher was talking about were resource room and inclusion students, so at least in their case grade level means something. But I know this failing-the-year threat is used in self-contained classrooms, too, and I have no idea what it means there. Grade levels on these classes are mostly a formality to make the students look more like everybody else, but don't usually reflect the level of work being done.
If you judge by the numbers, you'd have to say my son got held back in preschool, skipped kindergarten, got held back in first grade, skipped third grade, and got held back in fifth. But of course, he was progressing in his work on the same line right along, below "grade level" but making progress, and his classroom placements had more to do with finding the right mix of teacher and classmates for him than with his success or failure.
I don't know how you can do that in a positive way for some students and a punitive way for others. And I don't know how you can punish a student in a self-contained special-education class for not progressing. Wouldn't that require, instead, a look at IEP goals, placement, and strategies? Certainly, there are kids who don't try, and I absolutely understand how frustrating that is for teachers, and how much they must want to jolt those kids into moving toward their potential.
But I also know that with my own son, the times he doesn't try correspond to the times when things are hard and confusing, and the worst way to address that is condemnation and consequences. I have a feeling that, under all the bravado and disrespect and obliviousness of those oughta-be-failing kids, the same truth applies.
I told my daughter's old teacher to get in touch with me over the summer and we'd talk more. But I don't think he's going to like what I have to say.
What do you think about failing kids in special education? Should they be responsible for their failure, or is the system failing them? Share your thoughts in the comments.