Before entering Baltimore’s alternative teacher certification program in 2006, I had no experience or training working with special needs kids. My first day in the classroom, an administrator at my inner-city high school handed me a thick pile of manila folders. Curiously, I asked, “What are these for?” The administrator, herself new to the position, smiled wily and told me that those were IEPs. Individualized Education Programs are a legal record kept by the school system of every documented special needs child. I counted twenty-three folders, far more than any other teacher at the school.
Before analyzing the pros and cons of an ESE (exceptional student education) label, let me preface by saying that I failed miserably teaching in inclusion-oriented freshmen classes. From 2006 to 2007, I never once saw the lone certified special educator in the building. At the time, it was not considered unusual that a special educator not actually teach students. Rather, the special educator’s primary job was completing paperwork from the city and state education departments. Her office door was always closed. My social studies department head, a thirty-year veteran of ‘the system’, offered no advice save a sarcastic ‘Good luck with those!’
It was clear that those twenty-three students with special needs were viewed as burdens no teacher could handle effectively. Accommodations and modifications to daily lesson plans are mandated by the state for each child labeled with an IEP. In practice, this meant tailoring 24 distinct lesson plans for each of the 180 days in the school year. It does not take a doctorate in education to know that crafting 4,320 lessons in a school year is like resolving to climb Mount Everest—a noble goal precious few are capable of achieving.
The benefits of labeling a child are that they may receive legally required assistance that helps the student navigate the learning environment. A student with ADHD, for example, may be allowed to stand at his desk rather than sit for 55 minutes. Another having mild Down’s Syndrome may have a peer teacher that can explain complex vocabulary in manageable terms. A shocking number of my 9th graders were functionally illiterate. Many had been labeled for years, with nothing but paperwork to show for it.
Accommodations for nonreaders might include pictures, pie charts, pictographs, video, and audio supplements. Ironically, I became adept at this not during my time in inner-city Baltimore, but as an English Instructor in South Korea. Regular interaction with students who needed alternative explanations made me a far better special educator than years of classes and workshops on the subject.
Later on, as director of a learning center, parents would ask me if their child should be labeled. Only a child psychiatrist is qualified to answer definitively. But I did share my experience working with more than 1,400 students around the world. The bottom line: most education systems pay lip service to students and families with an IEP. The legal mandates are unenforceable without expensive litigation. Even for a phenomenal education team that incorporates all the right pieces, funding is a critical issue. Will schools have the equipment necessary for students hard of hearing? If not, who will purchase the equipment? How quickly can this be procured and disseminated among what may be seven separate classrooms for one particular child? These are questions that take more time than many administrators are willing to give.
The danger of labeling is that label will follow a child throughout their academic career—from kindergarten to college. The danger is that a label entitling a special service amounts to lip service from a community of professionals obsessed with political correctness. The sad truth is that out of the hundreds of students I have taught with IEPs, only a small minority needed more than a caring teacher and supportive home could provide. For those children whose needs warranted intervention by the state, there was only the silence of a manila folder—given to first-year teachers in every U.S. state.