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Everything Counts

Is It Time To Drop Special Education?

In 2002 the Fictional Interviewer (FI) visited Don Asbridge (DA) for still another interview. Asbridge is now proposing that a billion dollar big business, special education, be dropped! Can you believe it?

FI: "Okay (sigh), what is it this month?"

DA: "I think it's time to drop special education."

FI: "No, really."

DA: "Really!"

FI: "Well, we've heard you allude to this idea before, and we've all gotten a good chuckle out of it." 

DA: "I'm not alluding here. I'm officially asking you to consider whether or not it's time to drop special education. Special education costs millions, if not billions of dollars. And in many ways, special education just doesn't seem to work."

FI: "How doesn't it work?" 

DA: "That would take another twenty thousand pages, but maybe you should start by reading some Ysseldyke, Glasser, Bush, Reschly, Asbridge, and Szasz writings and research. Then talk with special education students and their parents. then talk with general and special education teachers. Then talk with school administrators, school psychologists, lawyers, and advocates... then talk with the next person you see walking down the street."

FI: "But there is so much money involved. That's why we don't want to drop it." 

DA: "That's one of the biggest reasons why I want to drop it. It's become a big business. Our children have become a big business, that is to say, victims of big business."

FI: "What's the biggest reason?" 

DA: "The biggest reason is that it disables children. It makes them dependent upon a government based system, oftentimes a dependency that lasts a lifetime."

FI: "Come on! Special education doesn't cause dependency!" 

DA: "If that's true, then by definition, special education can't cause independence and therefore cannot ever attain it's goal."

FI: "Are you saying drop special education, or just drop the handicapping condition of specific learning disability?"

DA: "Both."

FI: "Maybe with four tons of longitudinal research and fifty doctoral thesis, someday, about a hundred years from now, you might be able to convince me about learning disabilities, but never the rest of the conditions. What about intellectual disabilities? Deaf, Blind, Autism, Orthopedically Impaired? Emotionally Disturbed? And the rest? Certainly you must agree these students have special needs that require specialized services, accommodations, modifications, and interventions -- and you can never convince me otherwise!"

DA: "I agree. Humans sometimes need specialized services, accommodations, modifications, and interventions."

FI: "So you must be crazy or the meanest guy alive. You admit there are populations with special needs requiring services and yet you recommend taking those services away?"

DA: "No. You have it all wrong. I'm saying take special education away, but keep providing all of the necessary services."

FI: "And how do you propose to do that?" 

DA: "Through Section 504."

FI: "Hmmmm." 

DA: "Section 504 provides reasonable accommodations for disabled students... and Section 504 is free.

FI: "Yeah, right! How can necessary services be provided to students for free? Even you admit there is not funding for 504 services."

DA: "Well, you're half right. We keep hearing that there is no funding for 504, but 504 is a general education program... isn't there such a thing as a general education fund? Therefore, by definition, there is funding for 504. And there would be a lot more money available once sports were dropped (see 'Time to Drop School Sports?')."

FI: "Still, it would be another paperwork nightmare. You're the one always complaining about the red tape and beaurocracy... and now you recommend this shift? From a procedural perspective alone, how could we ever shift all special education students from special education into Section 504?"

DA: "They're already there. All special education students are also 504 students. Remember? All we'd really have to do is shred the special education files."

FI: "But haven't other states tried to reject IDEA funding? Didn't New Mexico try to say 'no' to special education way back under the original 94-142? And isn't IDEA a federally funded program?

DA: "This is a different time and a different place with different people and different issues. And yes, IDEA is a federally funded program."

FI: "So you know that since it's federally funded, it is here to stay, right? Nothing's ever going to change that! It's here forever!"

DA: "Yep. I guess I might as well give up now. But why do I keep hearing the federal government say schools should be under local control?"

"Do not go gentle into that good night."

Dylan Thomas

FI: "Come on, you know they're just kidding about that. All the important decisions are made atthe national level. People like you, the people on front lines, the veterans, the experts - you don't know jack. President Bush knows jack! He's cool - he's my hero!"

DA: "You're right. What was I thinking?"

FI: "Will you please stop being such a conspiricist! You know it isn't President Bush making the decisions... it's the big businesses, the testing companies, the advocates, the think tanks, colleges and universities, book companies, churches and religious groups, political groups, unions, grant agencies, specialized clinics, the media, governmental agencies - people behind the scenes, and the schools. It should be pointed out that even schools look forward to that IDEA check coming in every month."

DA: "You're right again. It is a big business and all about money, politics, and power. I apologize for seeming to be the only one trying to make it about the student. And as it relates to schools wanting their paycheck, yeah, they want their IDEA paycheck. Many of the districts are going broke, in part because they are mandated to provide this expensive program and yet they receive just a fraction of what the program costs. A buck here or there helps them pay for landscaping their new football stadium."

FI: "You seem to be slapping the face of all special education teachers."

DA: "Special education teachers (and all teachers) are heroic. I'm in awe of everything they do to helpstudents. They provide valuable services to students, their community, state, nation, and our future -- when they're not filling out paperwork."

FI: "So why do you want to get rid of them?" 

DA: "I want to keep them! If a student is having a hard time reading, let the expert reading teacher work with them to learn how to read. If a student is having a hard time with math, let the expert math teacher work with them to learn math. But why call the student a bad name (like 'learning disabled') and why charge $350 per hour for this service when only $25 of it will be funded by the government?"

FI: "But if you get rid of special education, won't that mean people -- special education teachers, speech therapists, school psychologists, counselors, etc. -- lose jobs?"

DA: "No, for at least two reasons. First, children are still going to have difficulties with academics... teachers will always be needed to help them with their academics. Children are still going to have speech difficulites... who better to help them than speech therapists? And children are still going to have real life conflicts and difficulties... who better to help them than school psychologists? Etc. Second, if an individual is performing essential services for students, any district would hold on to that person whether his or her position is mandated or not."

FI: "Oh wow, you are dancing now! You know how things work. Many, if not most, if not all, districts would immediately get rid of school psychologists, counselors, speech therapists, and special education teachers if IDEA did not protect their positions."

DA: "Fine. If I'm not considered an essential employee, I don't want to work for that district anyway. I'llgo sell hot dogs on the street corner and double -- no, triple -- my annual income.

FI: "But a lot of people seem to think that school psychologists just test and place students all day anyway and aren't 'essential'." 

DA: "Just think... if we eliminated special education, we wouldn't have to just 'test and place' all day and could work with all students to help resolve real life difficulties. We wouldn't have to pretend any more. We could work with real problems and maybe even make a real difference. Would that be greator what?"

FI: "What do you mean by 'pretend'?" 

DA: "You know."

FI: "No I don't." 

DA: "Let me try to explain. Johnny is having a hard time reading, so we (the system) have a choice. We could either a) teach him to read, or b) continue to do what we're doing now: we say, 'let's give a lot of tests to find out the problem... Johnny is smart - we know that because of his IQ score. He's not performing wll in reading - we know that because of his academic achievement score. He can't remember to do his homework and he struggles paying attention to forty-five minute lectures in his second grade ELA class when he's present. So why is Johnny having a hard time reading? Well, let's see, 103 ninus 78 equals 25! It obviously because of... because of... because of... well, let's pretend he's disabled. His memory score fell at the 9th percentile and his attention score fell at the 16th - it's a disorder all right! In fact, it's a learning disability. I'll take three days to document all these scores in a mandated report being sure to document that all these scores are valid and were not discriminatory against the student. The report's recommendations (that no one will ever read) will be to provide for him some 'specialized' services in a room full of other students who can't read - who would ever argue with that? We're here to help students, right? And since we don't want to blame the school or the parents or society for the problem, let's just throw up our hands and give up and call all of these students learning disabled. And let's have a big meeting and fill out thirty pages of forms to make it official. And let's be sure not to provide any actual interventions or services to help with memory or attention (except maybe encouraging a slew of medications to address the student's newly discovered 'brain disorder'), otherwise, the student might overcome his difficulties and graduate out of special education and we'll all be out of a job. That'll be $500 please."

FI: "Okay, but you can't just ignore the 'specialized' services the students receive, can you?" 

DA: "The 'specialized services' are the provision of the general education curriculum; the goal of special education is to deliver the general education core curriculum - that's the "specialized" services. Sorry to let the cat out of the bag."

FI: "There is some truth to what you say... that's why my district has moved away from the old model and has started the Response-to-Intervention (RtI) model for students."

DA: "Well, I hate to say it, but that approach is less valid than the previous discrepancy based approach. RtI says that if the student hasn't positively responded to three tiers of their powerful, "research-based" interventions, then the student must have a brain disorder!"

FI: "You are way out in left field. Has anyone ever told you that? I really believe in RtI!" 

DA: "Yeah, people don't seem to hesitate to point that out, but someone has to play left field. Sometimes the left fielder is the one who saves the game."

"When you bite your lip, it's some reaction..."

Rick Ocazek, The Cars

FI: "Don, you must be a very frustrated individual. You keep thinking up and forwarding all of these pie-in-the-sky ideas, yet your views are probably shared by less than five percent, maybe even one percent, of the entire population. In fact, many of your views seem politically incorrect."

DA: "Okay, I can accept that. But first and foremost, I'm a scientist and a skeptic. I have a hard time mindlessly following the way things always have been. I admit it. I also have a hard time accepting that what we're doing at the present is best educationally and psychologically for our students - the future of our country. I am very frustrated about the way things are. The fields of education and psychology are much too young to think that we have everything figured out already. And the field of politics is much too *$#%@ to try to figure things out for us. And I have a hard time going home every night and looking at myself in the mirror having disabled another student that day."

"The masses are wrong, always have been wrong, and always will be wrong."

Madeline Murray O'Hare

FI: "Oh, now you're going to bring religion into it?"

DA: "Well, everything counts, but let's talk more about that in a future interview."

FI: "So let's try to put this all together. What you're saying is that people got together one day a long time ago and invented, legislated special education and out of hundreds of possible choices, chose only a few educational conditions to address, and now you want them to disinvent, legislate away, special education?"

DA: "That's right."

FI: "And you are saying that the student's educational services and civil rights could be adequately and appropriately addressed through the provision of Section 504 reasonable accommodations, a free service they are already receiving?"

DA: "That's right. That's the way it works in the real world... everywhere except in the make-believe world of education."

FI: "And you are saying this simple change could save millions, if not billiions of dollars to the taxpayer?"

DA: "I couldn't have said it better myself. Why do we have to have not one, but two expensive federal programs to serve and protect individuals with disabilities? It just seems highly irrational to me... it's kind of like having two insurance policies. I'm a taxpayer and I'm guessing you are too."

FI: "And you're saying this change wouldn't necessarily cost anyone their jobs?" 

DA: "Right."

FI: "And you're saying reasonable accommodations and the protection of civil rights is what's needed?" 

DA: "Yes, and high quality education of course."

FI: "And you're saying this change would be beneficial to the mental health and psychological welfare of students?" 

DA: "Yes. You know, it really shouldn't take a rocket scientist to figure this out. Do we want to disable humans so that others can make a lot of money off of them... or do we want to empower humans? That seems to be the choice here. If general education did it's job to begin with, this would all be a moot point, we wouldn't even need special education. But I'll deny ever having said that. You didn't write that down, did you?"

FI: "Yes I did. I got it all." 

DA: "Damn!"

FI: "But we all know people want a simple explanation. If their kid is struggling in school they want to be able to come to the school and find out their kid has an attention deficit disorder or a learning disability. There, it's that simple. And once they get that lable, then everything is easy. A label provides an explanation as to why their child is struggling - and an easy excuse. Then, they don't have to invest in their child's future any more because the government, the school, the taxpayers will do that now. That's what people really want and you know it! And think of all the money people made and will make along the path to disabling that child."

DA: "Now you're getting it."

FI: "But what about the neuropsychologists? They've found patterns, you know, brain patterns! What about them?"

DA: "This isn't about them. This is much larger than them." 

FI: "Hasn't the national graduation rate gone up since special education was invented?"

DA: "That depends on who's research and stats you believe. President Bush's graduation rate in Texas recently increased dramatically, but that's because he shipped out to alternative schools everyone who wasn't going to graduate from regular high school. Brilliant, eh? In general, the national graduation rate gradually improved the from the 1880's until the 1960's, about the time that, well, um, we started disabling students (see graph above). Since then, the high school graduation rate has leveled or even decreased."

FI: "What happened in the 60's?" 

DA: "I don't remember the 60's."

FI: "Is there anything you can think of that might have caused this decline in the grad rate?" 

DA: "Well, quite obviously American society is complex -- your guess is as good as mine and we all know correlation is not causation. But the JFK assassination certainly had a jarring effect on American society, years of war has taken a toll, many citizens starting taking LSD and various other substances, we invented the GED, welfare was institutionalize, and we began systematically disabling our very own precious children."

FI: "Anything else?" 

DA: "We accomplished our national goal of landing a man on the moon... you know what happens when you set your goals too low. And it probably hasn't helped that every four years we get a brand new "Education President," who was elected for his new plan to save education. The graph above is actually pretty interesting. By eyeballing it you can see everything in education was seemingly going along well until about the time of World War II, when graduation rates leveled out, which would be expected given that we were in warfare. Then things got back on track briefly until the Korean War. Then progress was pretty chaotic throughout the Vietnam era with the graduation rate continuing to decline as America has remained in almost constant warfare and other disabling practices since. I guess I'm probably getting just a little bit off topic, but it seems plausible that the disabling of our children is co-occuring with the disabling of our nation. And since our governmental leaders won't or can't step forth and stop this disabling phenomenon, maybe it's time the schools step up and stop this apparent [to me] phenomenon? In effect, that's what I'm recommending in this interview. Oh darn, I forgot, school psychologists can only address the reliability and validity of our IQ tests, what was I thinking? Where are the social psychologists? Historians? Anthropologists? Political scientists? Sociologists? The media? Philosophers? Real presidents? Oh, never mind.

"Your ax belongs to a dying nation."

Pete Townshend, The Who

FI: "Are you trying to say that there might be more reasons or explanations as to why American schools are failing than just bad teachers?"

DA: "Yep."

FI: "Hmmm, well, how much exactly does special education cost the taxpayers?"

DA: "I don't know. Go look it up if you want."

FI: "I've heard you mention the 'Rights Without Labels' (RWOL) approach. What about that?" 

DA: "That approach is in some ways very similar to what I'm proposing and holds much potential to bevery effective for students. When I propose and discuss concepts such as dropping labels and being careful about diagnosis and services, etc., you should remember these aren't new concepts -- if you think this is too tin hat or radical, please be reminded that RWOL is a NASP-approved approach. It's true I'm years ahead of my time and views such as these seemingly remain a minority view at this time, but there is quite obviously an increasing grassroots movement sharing many of these views and ideas."

FI: "President Bush has suggested that if everyone just prayed harder and if we implemented a voucher based Christian model of education (like he's started in Washington DC) then everything would be just right. Is it true that if we followed his proposed model, then everything would be fine? For example, there wouldn't be a need for special education because any and all problems would be solved through prayer (and money)?"

DA: "I guess we'll see what the voters think at the next election. But then again, we saw what the voters wanted the last election and that didn't seem to matter... he somehow got selected anyway."

UPDATE, AUG 1st, 2011: We now are able to see the results of ten years of NCLB. NCLB met it's goal, which was to destroy the public educational system.

FI: "I'm confused about one thing... you've always said to keep politics out of education but over the past year or so, especially now, I see you getting more and more political. Aren't you being hypocritical?"

DA: "President Bush, our current Education President, in his acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention on Thursday, August 3rd, 2000, called all educators 'bigots' and 'discriminatory against students,' so I can see you're confused - and why you hate educators. I must say I'm embarrassed for our system that has reached the point that I, a simple man, a humble public servant, a professional educator, a social scientist - not a politician - must spend time engaged in political intercourse. It's truly a sad day in the history of America. All I want is to be able to show up to work every day and provide professional educational, mental health, and psychological services for students. If all, or even most, decisions being made by our politicians were beneficial, effective, mentally healthy, educationally sound, and positive for students and America, you wouldn't hear a peep from me. I would be diligently serving students, families, and schools to the best of my ability, which is my sole professional goal. But my professional goal is at risk... in fact, the schools and those who work in schools... and most importantly, students... are under attack. It's war. It's a war on education, there I said it. I'm merely attempting to defend myself and the noble fields of education and psychology. When it comes to ethics, humanity, and what's just, I'll side with education and psychology over politics any day. And I feel if I don't speak up, then who will? At the very least, I might be able to go home and look at myself in the mirror.

UPDATE: AUG 1st, 2011: I wrote this nine years ago -- too bad you didn't listen then. Will you listen now?

FI: "So why don't you have the courage to take your message to the state or national level. Why do you just sit and write this uh, uh... stuff?" 

DA: "Well, this page is available to the entire internet worldwide. Maybe I'll e-mail it off to a senator or someone. But I'm not going to take the next ten years of my life 'playing the game,' raising funding, and having ongoing meetings and secret cocktail lunches with legislators, special committees, advocates, lawyers, special interest groups, etc. Any time spent not working with students is wasted time. In fact, I'll probably be run out of the profession well before then. You know, it's not like I have 400,000 professonal educators all standing up and saying, 'Don, I agree... I support this cause... let's get organized and start this revolution now." In fact, I usually just get chuckles or scowls when I forward useful, cost-effective recommendations based on common sense, logic, experience, and research."

UPDATE: AUG 1st, 2011: In defense of myself, although I never marched on Washington, I did actively and courageously post unpopular opinions in popular times on a monthly basis for ten years. I continue to speak up in every professional environment on a daily basis.

FI: "Well, this is where we started. We all get a good chuckle hearing you come out with this stuff."

DA: "I hope I made your day!

UPDATE: JUL 21st, 2019: Well, almost twenty years have passed since I asked this most basic existential question, "should special education even exist?" Some [many] who read this piece get plenty upset, usually citing my responses related to their president and religion rather than addressing the real question. What do you think? Are scientifc practitioners (and all of us) allowed to ask questions, to forward hypothesis, or do we have to just keep on keeping on? I know the answer.

Drop Special Education © 2002, 20012-19. Donald J. Asbridge, Ed.S. Bakersfield, CA USA Some rights reserved.

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