Sunday, March 1, 2009

What's "Special" About Special Education?

America’s public schools (and parochial schools for that matter) are factories. Mass schooling’s enormous scale requires processing the most students at the least cost.

Cutting costs requires an emphasis on efficiency, rather than community, individuality, or even moral principle. Thus the desolate truth is that the broad mass of school kids are, and always have been, processed like so many cans of soup.

Consider the “school plant” as it’s revealingly called. Signs of its factory-like nature are everywhere. It has numbered rooms in repetitive order, mail boxes uniformly arranged, sign-in sheets or time clocks, a daily inventory (roll) of the “raw material,” buzzers that set things in motion or bring motion to a halt, chairs in ordered ranks, children segregated by age and teachers by function, and an “office” that commands in metallic tone via the P.A. system. The whole thing reeks of the repetitive, impersonal but efficient monotony of a factory.

Yes, competent teachers group kids by skill level, teach lessons that exploit various kinds of intelligence, capitalize on interests, that sort of thing. Such “accommodations” are what makes some factory schools better than others. But in the end mass schooling is still factory-like because limited resources demand efficiency.

What about kids who are so "different" they can't be mass processed. In the "good old days" children who held up production were “exempted” from compulsory school attendance . Later, youngsters too out of the ordinary for efficient processing were only removed from the assembly line and placed in “special” classes. Now federal law requires that "special" children be placed in the least restrictive environment possible. In other words, put back on the assembly line. The trouble is how to do this and still maintain efficiency.

Making matters worse, the very same politicians who order inclusion fail to fully fund it. Yet they assure the public that no child will be left behind and press relentlessly for more and more high stakes testing. This places educators in an impossible situation. They must leave no child behind. They must turn no child away. They must place every child in the least restrictive environment possible. Test scores must get better. But don’t ask for more resources or smaller classes because there’s no more money. Thus, factory type schools are the only option. This is a no-win situation no matter how you look at it. Is it any wonder that teacher attrition is scandalously high? Is it a surprise that enthusiasm for school administration is drying up?

Ultimately, the difficulties “special” children create for factory schools are unresolvable. Such kids inevitably slow production. That’s why these kids are labeled “special” to begin with; the school as factory can’t process them.

This is what is special about special education? It’s the one aspect of public schooling that isn’t factory-like. It’s the only place in school where individual differences really matter. But inclusion requires that more and more "special" kids be put back on the assembly line. Hence, the factory becomes loses efficiency and special needs go largely unmet. Is that what inclusion advocates want? Well, it’s what they’re getting.

To further examine these and similar issues, see articles at


Anonymous said...

Excellent obsevations! You have articulated what I have realized for years!!! Thanks for putting it in common sense, practicality.

My rule of thumb as a special education teacher of too many years:
Any child that needs their "mainstreamed" classes tagged as "inclusion" probably should not be in a regular education classroom... especially as that child progresses through the secondary level.

Anonymous said...

Yes, schools are factories; they even look like them, often made of cinderblock and concrete with industrial linoleum floors. And, they keep getting bigger and bigger and less like communities. I appreciate your column, but, as an English teacher, cringe as your title should read "What is" or "what's" special...

The mis-labeling of outsider teens or anyone who doesn't agree with the teacher as ADHD or behaviorally disordered shows how intolerant teachers are for any individual student who dares to be different, especially who learns differently. The teachers are overwhelmed with classes that are too big, especially for students who need extra help to succeed in class.