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Terri Mauro

Failing Children in Special Education

By July 9, 2008

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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.

Read more: Special Needs News | IEP FAQ | How to Report an IEP Violation

Photo: Dave Einsel/Getty Images
July 9, 2008 at 10:07 pm
(1) John says:

As a parent of a child in special ed i have some fairly strong opinions on the subject. Retention has been shown in many studies not be an effective way to “help” a special ed kid learn. As a parent you have to become an effective advocate, know your rights and use your knowledge to obtain appropriate services/placement/goals for your child. If the child doesn’t progress (meet his well written IEP goals each year) then it is time to press the district for more, since it is their responsibility to make sure that individual child is making progress and meeting his/her goals. Since the deck is so much stacked against the parents and kids (in terms of knowing the secret combination to the lock that releases individual, appropriate services) bottom line – the system is failing the kids.

July 11, 2008 at 10:45 am
(2) Berta says:

I don’t think the system is failing the kids, so much as the parents are failing them. I’m new to the whole special ed thing – my sister passed away in ’05 and I’m raising her daughter who has cerebral palsy & is confined to a wheelchair and have seen lackadaisical parenting – the parents are just going with the flow. I’ve learned so much about my rights & my niece’s rights – more so than the other parents who have been raising their children for 14 years! I have been battling our school system since Hayley arrived at my doorstep from the very beginning. I think too many times, it’s easier for the parents to go with the flow instead of questioning “why”. I question “why” every chance I get, and double check the answers I’m told. I’ve discovered that IF the school system knows the correct answer, they will lead you on the wrong course. Needless to say, the U.S. Department of Education and it’s civil rights departments are on my speed dial and they don’t mind answering questions.

July 12, 2008 at 9:29 am
(3) Christine says:

We are seeing the affects of this very story you are writing about. Every year we sit at the same table with a new IEP team and the only constant pieces at the table are the parents and our child whose academic gap continues to widen. We have learned the hard way that there is more to managing this process than going with the flow. Parents have to be prepared, do their homework and educate themselves on what is available for children and what their rights are. Unfortunately the school system makes this very difficult for parents. The information is not forthcoming, you don’t always know what to ask for or what’s available and in the meantime our children suffer. We have hired an advocate and are working with other outside resources to navigate through the system to get our child what he needs to be successful in school which by the way is a full time job for parents not to mention costly.

July 24, 2008 at 3:00 pm
(4) Donna Kearney says:

The system doesn’t work and we need to make changes, because my son is failing in the Public School System. Of course the teachers believe in passing to the next grade, and when I started getting loud he was getting B’s all of a sudden. I now have an attorney trying to get out of district placement, but it is all about money and it is very frustrating. When my child isn’t called on with his hand up because the teacher doesn’t like to call on those kids it shows that the current system doesn’t work. I have e-mailed everyone from news to the governor, but even though this is such a hot topic, it doesn’t seem to be addressed. Our kids only have one education so I am fighting for my sons.

August 21, 2008 at 10:06 pm
(5) Barbara Siragusa says:

I feel the frustration of the school system, after many meetings for my 9 year old son, who has now started 3rd grade, and cannot even read yet. The thought is that he has already repeated kindergarten and for 10 is a big boy, that to keep him in 2nd grade would not be good for him, but yet he is now in 3rd grade, and already had an outburst in the classroom his first week of school as he was asked to read in front of the class and could not. I would appreciate any help with resources from anyone who reads this, as I am at a loss as to what to do from here…

September 7, 2008 at 9:35 pm
(6) mel says:

First, your son should have it written into his iep that he will not be asked to read in front of the class. Then, question what reading program is being used to teach him to read. Insist that they try a different program. Wilson is a reading program often used with kids who have difficulty learning to decode. If you have funds, employ a tutor or try Sylvan Learning Center. Make sure as a parent you read every night with him. Use books that are at his level (not necessarily at his grade level) so that he does not get frustrated, and sit down and explain to him that you understand that he is having a hard time with reading and this means he will have to work twice as hard as the other kids to be successful, but you will be there with him while he is doing so as you know he can learn to read.

Good luck.

March 25, 2009 at 3:56 pm
(7) LeeAnn says:

My son was placed in Special ED this year, so I am fairly new to the Speical ED rules. Before my son was placed in Special ED he failed kindergarden, failed the first grade, the only reason he passed the second was because of his size, an how the other kids would have treated him. Now he is in the third grade an they seem to want to fail him again. I have heard alot of the parents making comments about the other parents not working hard enough for their child, well that is not the case here, I have took my child to alot of different specialist, he has been in a speech program before he even started school, which turned out to be a great thing since he has a speech disorder. Getting back to the point my son’s grades have improved so much it is unreal. He is participating in the AR program at the school, an has recieved two rewards for his reading, shich this time last year he couldnt even read a sentence. I am worried myself that he will not pass. I have asked his teachers a number of times how he was doing, alol they say is that he has improved so much since last year. My son has alot of anger issues I was told that his problems in the class room affected him passing. I think that failing my child is not the answer. I think that if you see the child improving alot they should give that child credit for trying. I understand how hard it is on some teachers, but I also feel that is why they went to school was to teach children with special needs. If my son fails third grade I am afraid he will not even try to work next year an he is doing so much better grade wise. Everyday when he brings home good grades you can see his eyes light up, so my answer to the question is if a child is trying I dont think they should fail them, to me that is what special ED is all about helping children learn who have a hard time learning.

March 27, 2009 at 6:52 pm
(8) Amy Campos says:

Barbara Siragusa I can understand your frustration…I have a 9 year old also who could barly read,struggles with basic math along with writing and spelling.My daughter is on her third year on an IEP and still we are on square one.I have contacted a Lawyer who is also the founder of the Special Ed advocacy center….I’m sick and tried of the chicago pulic school system so I have taken seriou action to inform myself better on my daughters rights to a fair and good education just like every other “normal” kid.The truth is she is not and her cousin who is also LD but goes to school in the suburbs got her IEP hours brought down because she is doing so well.These are some of the things that cause me to raise my eyebrow and question….What is going on with these school and why do burb school do so much better then urban? We must continue to fight for our kids for a fair education no matter their situations…By educating ourselves on our kids rights and getting in the faces of school administrators and teachers….FYI-I was told by a special Ed teacher friend of mine “Schools don’t like parents like you who know too much”.

May 11, 2009 at 7:50 pm
(9) Cindy says:

My son has learning disabilities. He needs extra help and guidance and he can do it. Last year he was in a small class of only 15 kids he did excellent work. This year he is back in the class with 20 + kids and he cannot follow with things at the rate of speed they are going and he is failing terribly. Some kids need the extra help and when it is not provided they cannot learn at all. I feel that these students will succeed in life with the extra help. Not getting it for them is a failure of the school system.

August 5, 2010 at 7:08 pm
(10) ann says:

As a special education teacher, I have found that when parents are consistent, follow-up and work with the teachers the kids are successful and are able to earn a passing grade. Students need to know that failure is not an option. I work with students who are certified and elegible for special educations services; however, all of my students have IQ scores in the “average” range. Every year I seem to have the same scenerio with at least one family. I email and call the family daily about assigned and or missing work that I feel the student can complete independently or with very little academic support, but the work does not get completed at home. I even mail assignments home, so that the parent will have an extra copy. The work is not completed. I offer to help the student before school, after school and/or during lunch, but the student refuses and the parents will not support manditory help. Sometime around the end of the year this family contacts the school because they are angry that their child is failing. They usually claim that they have not been told that their child is failing.

August 10, 2010 at 7:51 pm
(11) Ria Wallace says:

Where I believe the system is failing is putting State Tests Scores above actually teaching.
Many Title I Schools are failing the mark when it comes to clearly identifying a special needs child.
Special needs children are labeled not taught to learn regardless of their limitations.
When a teacher tells a parent that they told the student she can not make him learn, then maybe it is time for the teacher to choose another profession.
When school officials continue to deny children the tools to learn, they are commiting the worst act of child abuse immaginable. Especially when it involves a special needs child.
Title I schools in our area refuse to communicate with the parent. BBSST meetings are being held about our children and parents are not being notified regardless of the repeated requests.
I firmly believe that when you have a special needs child, yes you have to be the advocate, however, why does the school have the right to push parents into costly battles so that their children receive an education? They don’t.

August 12, 2010 at 3:49 pm
(12) No Fape in Ohio says:

I was one of those “educated” parents. I read the regs and fought for my child. My school district reported me to CPS claiming I had Munchhaussen by Proxy in order to get me to stop advocating. When this didn’t work, they simply exited her from special education. I continued to fight, I disagreed with their evaluation an requested and IEE. They refused an IEE and instead file for due process against me! I challenge anyone to find a due process case in Ohio in which a parent, without an attorney, won. It doesn’t happen. Despite the fact that my daughter failed the proficiency test, 40% of both her math and reading grades were D’s and F’s, the Ohio system found she could be exited from special ed!!! She has numerous medical diagnoses that make OHI obvious, apparently, to no one but me. The system is failing our children.

May 24, 2011 at 1:53 pm
(13) steve says:

as a child i grew up in the spiecl ed sysem of the 80s when it started and then thay did not know what thay where doing and was lost in the system and because of that and the strain of being promissed things that i never saw like moving on to reguler classes that i never saw i dropped out now i have no diploma and i want to go to a tech school and follow my dreams of being a cheif but i can not do to it.thay say go and get your GED but it is not that easy for someone with slow learning disablity.the GED is structured for avrage students not for those who need more help.now my son is in it and i am not going to let him get lost in the system like i did

January 30, 2012 at 5:41 pm
(14) Sierra S. says:

I really think they need to “fix” this deal with Special Education. I’ve been in these kinds of classes for Math since I was in the 5th grade and I have Asperger’s Syndrome, which really, for me, means that I CAN learn and I did. I am now in my first year of college. But after having been through these classes for so many years, I find it unfair that students in those classes are getting cheated out of a better education. I only made it because I had a good math tutor and my family had the money to help me out with my problems in mathematics and algebra. I am doing a paper this semester in my Composition II class that will be dealing with the positions that students are left in after having gone through Special Education and I was wondering if it was okay with you if I use this article to help back me up??? Please E-Mail me back with your answer at Filiplisa@aol.com! :) Thank you!

April 20, 2012 at 8:42 pm
(15) Susan says:

Wow- someone commented that it is a lack of good parenting that is causing special ed kids to fail. UGH. My son has ADHD and an Executive Functioning Deficit. We had to hire an advocate to get him the services he needs and deserves, which are not huge or costly to the school district, yet they continue to fight us on it. She feels we have more than done our part as parents. We’ve tried everything to get him to study, to motivate him, to work with him. We have other children and do not have any problems getting them to work to their potential. I suggest that person read and learn about learning disabilities and the school systems- open their eyes. Watch the movie Waiting for Superman, which is a documentary on how the public education system in our country fails our children. Our schools are lacking in support for these kids, and are paying teachers- and rewarding them with tenure,even if they allow children to not learn because it just doesn’t matter. Their career is not merit based and it’s a shame what this has done to the school system in the US. It’s easier to stick a child in special ed and allow them to do poorly, than expect them to reach their potential which requires real work from teachers.

August 22, 2012 at 7:07 pm
(16) Jacob says:

Hello All,
I find it comical that parents want to blame the school system. I am a special education teacher and equal rights for these students is my passion. Unfortunately, most parents don’t give a darn when it comes to their kids. I cannot count the number of times I’ve called an IEP meeting to either have the parent no show or they just flat out say, “Tell me about it, send the documents home, I’ll sign them and send them back. Most posts I’ve read, you are the exception to the rule which is great, you actually CARE!!! It’s sad when parents who have no concept of how the school system works enjoy bashing public schools so much instead of helping them. I wonder, how many times have complaining parents offered to help in the classroom? This is my 6th year working as a teacher, and I’ve been an assistant to a special education teacher for 2 years prior to that. How many parents offered help? You guessed it, ZERO. Wouldn’t it be nice if teachers and parents worked together? Instead, we get phone calls from parents pissed off because their child lied to them about something. I’m sorry, I cannot fix family issues, they need a family therapist for that. Stop complaining and do something about it, get in the classroom and see what it’s really like!

December 19, 2012 at 2:51 pm
(17) Rick says:

All sped students graduate with a CIA diploma instead of a CAA. Individualized (IEP) diploma instead of an academic diploma, so sped students fall under a different requirement to graduate. Due to the students disability their IEP states that their grades will be based on effort and work completed, and IEP objectives. Their grades will be determined by their Special Education Staff and general ed staff WORKING together. This means that if needed, the IEP would step in for a student who is failing and allow that student to be passing if their sped teachers felt that their IEP objectives were being met. Now you may ask then why shold gen ed. teachers do grades for these students, well by law we (staff) cannot discriminate because of a disability and have to allow the students F.A.P.E. ( law class). According to the IDEA, an IEP will measure the individual achievement and functional performance of a child. The only way a student should be failing is because of their lack of attendance and refusal to do work. I am also a SpEd teacher and do not blame anybody because I am as frustrated as everyone. That is why I am looking up info to support my SpEd kids not blaming parents.

July 27, 2013 at 2:41 pm
(18) Chelsey says:

Currently 43 percent of students in special education do not graduate. Youth with disabilities have a significantly higher likelihood of being arrested than their non-disabled peers. Only 13.4 percent of youth with disabilities are living independently two years after leaving high school (compared to 33.2 percent of their non-disabled peers); and less than half of all youth with disabilities are employed after having been out of school one to two years (Educational Support for Inclusion).With chilling stats like these, we must face the truth that our education system is failing them. For success in this situation the student, the school, and the parents must all take responsiability to be advocates for these students. As a school teacher this kills me to admitt but there is a lot of failures happening. With 43% of special needs students not completeing highschool it would be foolish to insist that the school systems have nothing to do with it.

December 19, 2013 at 1:43 pm
(19) Naveen Jain says:

Our entire educational system is due for an overhaul.

Without better funding for support at home and school, we are bound to stay on
the same track of failing All of our kids. Thanks for discussing this.

March 9, 2014 at 11:56 am
(20) kteach says:

Simply because I am a gen ed teacher, I’m sure that many will say I am biased. I have seen many facets of this issue since I began teaching. I have seen parents who are concerned and parents who simply want to know that their child will make it to the next grade. I have seen children who genuinely try, struggle, and work. I have seen students who are entirely capable, confess that they don’t try, and laugh because they will pass anyway.

Before any blame is doled out, it is important to understand that every situation is different, as is every child, parenting situation, and school system. Some in all three categories may be doing it right. Others have work to do. It is unfair to blame a single individual for the failure of a child. It is also unfair to singularly slam “the system” for the problem.

Parents, please advocate for your child. Teach them that education is important. That we are blessed to live in a country that allows a free, public education for every child. However, nothing gets solved by hating on teachers. There are fools in every profession. Even yours, reader. But there are also many people who see teaching as a calling, and pour themselves into making the most benefit with what tools they are given.

In one way or another, we could all say we are wronged.

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