Special education makes education better

I originally set out to write a piece called Relax people, ADHD is not an epidemic.  In it, I planned to outline the history of diagnosing ADHD and how important it is to look at ADHD as a learning difference that requires compassionate understanding of people as individuals and that it requires educators to adjust their teaching practices to meet the needs of the ADHD child as an individual learner instead of as a learner who stands out from a group of learners.  But as I did my research and thought more about the topic, I came up with something more.  Before I go into all of that, let’s dig into some history.

The rise in diagnosis of ADHD

Even though genetics is a factor, the rise in diagnosis of ADHD has largely been accredited to a rise in awareness, similar to the rise in diagnosis of autism.  In 1902, a British pediatrician noticed that some children were impulsive and seemed not to be able to control their behavior.  From the 1930’s to the 1960’s, several types of drugs, including Ritalin, were found to decrease the symptoms of ADHD, and it became better understood.  However, it wasn’t until 1968 that the American Psychological Association first recognized it as a disorder.  Since then, ADHD has become better understood.  We now have a better description of the disorder, diagnosis, and treatment options.  Because of this, a surge in the diagnosis and treatment of ADHD began in the 1990’s.

It’s wrong to say that the first person to ever get ADHD was in the late 1800’s or in 1902.  What’s more likely is that since 1902, doctors, parents, and educators are better able to recognize the symptoms and get a medical diagnosis.  Once someone has a medical diagnosis, it’s much easier to obtain treatment, including medicine and behavioral treatment options.

The timing of the surge in diagnosis of ADHD and other learning disorders is significant to this article, and we’ll talk more about that later.

A brief history of American education and high school graduation rates

Consider the classroom of the 1900’s where the graduation rate in the US was about 6%.  K-12 education was probably held in a one room school house.  Resources were limited, and teachers were very strict.  Students sat in rows and could be beaten if they did not comply with the rules.  Rote memorization dominated educational tasks.  Students didn’t leave their seats and certainly didn’t work on projects.  Given what we know about how people learn today, it’s not a big surprise that so few people graduated high school.  But also consider that high school graduation wasn’t necessary to find work.  It wasn’t even valued by middle class Americans because good jobs could be had by people who could not read.  Also, working on your small family farm was always more important than school.  So during this time, only students who could sit still for long periods of time (or who were wealthy) had any chance of success.

Our next stop in history is the 1940’s with an approximate graduation rate of 50%.  Schools got bigger.  This is probably because the federal government started to require that schools provide education to more groups of people in the US (namely immigrants and Native Americans), making schools bigger.  Funding also increased because big business became interested in education, with a desire for a more educated and capable workforce. Middle class Americans also saw an advantage to education.  With the industrial revolution, you could get a better paying job if you could read or learn a skilled trade.  One room school houses still existed, but with more students enrolled and more funding, public schools were able to expand and provide better facilities.  The way children were taught didn’t change much, though.  Unless you were in a vocational shop learning a trade, you were very likely still sitting in your seat the majority of the time, reading books and memorizing facts.  Hyperactive or inattentive kids were labeled as dumb or trouble-makers and pushed out of schools.  It was the same conform or get out mentality of the early 1900’s.

Despite very few changes in the way children were taught, graduation rates continued to rise until 1970, with a 77% graduation rate.  However, that number began to fall, reaching a new low of about 69%-71% in the years 1995-1999.  And it didn’t really begin to rise again until 2004. This is odd when you consider the fact that a high school a diploma at that time was required for most jobs, and a college degree had become more attainable.  So what happened there?  Well, I have a theory.

The infamous IDEA and NCLB Acts

Prior to the Education for All Handicapped Children Act (EHA) in 1975, children with disabilities could be denied a free public education.  Schools for the first time in 1975 were forced to enroll students with disabilities, no matter how severe.  And schools had to include those students in their reporting numbers.  This could be one reason why graduation rates fell.  

Another important consideration is integration in the 1970’s.  Schools had to redraw district lines so that black students and white students actually went to school together.  Before that, black students were forced to go to poor, underfunded schools, so they didn’t perform as well as their white counterparts and were more likely to drop out.

So there were two groups of students that were previously ignored that schools now had the responsibility of educating. However, I’d like to continue to focus on students who require special education services.  

Even though students with severe disabilities were now able to go to school, they were separated from the rest of the population, either in different schools or different classrooms.  They weren’t expected to learn, and those schools and classrooms became a holding tank for when the special education child turned 19, when the school could then legally push them out.  Also, children with ADHD and other learning disabilities were still largely undiagnosed.  So these students were likely still labeled dumb or trouble and encouraged to drop out of school.  So it’s important to understand that EHA required that schools take in special education students, but in practice, special educations students at that time were not well educated.

Thankfully, EHA underwent two revisions (one in 1990 and again in 2004,) and it is now referred to as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).  This law guarantees special educational services to children with an identified need (meaning a diagnosed disorder and behind academically when compared to their peers).  What’s significant about this law is that it started to forced educators to really look at how people learn and to change their teaching practices. Teachers had to start making accommodations for students by putting down in writing what it was they would do to help a special education student learn in an Individualized Education Plan (IEP).  IDEA also forced schools to include special education students in the regular classrooms.  

With IDEA in 1990, teachers starting using better teaching practices with their special education students.  But it was slow going.  This is because these better education techniques take more time in planning activities and more resources like manipulatives for math. Plus it’s messy.  When students are physically working with information, they are creating projects and moving around.  They are not in nice, neat rows.  And to treat each child as an individual learner, well most teachers even today simply don’t believe it can be done.  So even though teachers were aware of better ways to teach, they were slow to change, and often those changes were reserved only for special education classrooms.

Now let’s jump back to our history lesson: In the 1990’s, there was surge in the diagnosing of ADHD. A disability that qualifies a student for special education services!  This is significant because large numbers of students who were previously ignored or encouraged to drop out now had a chance at a better, more individualized education.  So in the 1990’s, we had a surge of students identified with a learning disability, a guarantee of special education services, and teachers started using better teaching methods, but still graduation rates fell.  How could this be? How about a lack of accountability. 

In the 1990’s, schools were largely accountable to parents and families because IDEA didn’t include very many provisions for government oversight.  So if a school didn’t provide a free and appropriate education to a child, it was the parents who had to hold the school accountable, which often meant costly lawsuits.  I remember being a teacher in 2002, and being told to make sure I followed the IEP, or the child’s parents could sue, and the district could lose money.  So, it seemed that at that time a better education was really only for those families who could afford to force the change.  

Then came the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB).  After NCLB and the 2004 revision of IDEA, graduation rates began to rise.  What changed?  Increased accountability with the use of standardized testing and penalties. Schools now have to show adequate yearly progress through some form of standardizing testing.  Now, standardizing testing was definitely around before NCLB, but the scores weren’t used in this way.  In addition, NCLB requires that ALL students’ scores had to be included in the data, which means that special education students now need to meet the same goals as regular education students, which has always bee the goal of IDEA.  NCLB could also affect a school’s funding, so there are consequences for not making adequate yearly progress.  These two laws gave the government more teeth to hold schools accountable for how all students perform in their schools.

All of this culminates into good news for students.  Most teachers now embrace research-driven educational practices that include more movement and real world application of knowledge, which benefits all children not just a child with ADHD or other type of special education student. Prior to 1990, and more importantly prior to 2004 (when we started attaching funding to student success), teachers learned about teaching.  More often now, teachers learn about learning and to see their students as individual learners.  That’s a significant fundamental shift that has helped to reshape our classrooms.  

Graduation rates are going up, but there’s still a long way to go when it comes to improving education.  And while our “dumb” trouble-makers may have contributed to the lower graduation rates of the 1990’s, they are one of the driving forces behind better educational practices today.  And that, my friends, is my great epiphany of the day.  If it weren’t for special education, would teaching practices have evolved?

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