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Thursday, 31 March 2016

POINT OF VIEW: Waving to Ray Charles: Missing the Meaning of Disabilities

Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

POINT OF VIEW: Waving to Ray Charles: Missing the Meaning of Disabilities

Article excerpt

Current calls to close the achievement gap between students with disabilities and those without not only ignore reality but, argues Mr. Kauffman, also pose a real threat to special education students and their teachers.

YOU MAY forgive yourself if you chuckled silently as you read the title of this article. The idea that someone would have tried to wave to Ray Charles during his lifetime is funny simply because everyone knew that he couldn't see anyone waving to him. Indeed, waving to any blind person is humorous, but it is par-ticularly funny to think of someone waving to a blind person who is known throughout the world to be blind. Perhaps the humor resides in our seeing the naivete of a child in the social unawareness of an adult. However, anyone who waves to a blind person demonstrates a misunderstanding of facts.

Laughing at something funny might be an appropriate initial response. But some funny events are also dangerous, and besides laughing we need to respond seriously to the danger. Unfortunately, too often we neither laugh at the funny-but-dangerous nor take appropriate corrective action. We then fail in two ways: first by not laughing at funny things and second by not trying to stop something dangerous. Our failures then demonstrate our willingness to ignore reality.

Among the laughable but dangerous assumptions of many who should know better is that there need be no gap between the achievement of students with disabilities and the achievement of those who do not have disabilities. This assumption may be implicit in policy or even explicit in policy documents. Either way, it shows that someone has apparently missed the meaning of "disability." In education, students with disabilities are those who score low on tests because of their disability. Trying to close this gap is like waving to Ray Charles. But educators are led in this misunderstanding of facts by the United States Department of Education.

President Bush appointed the President's Commission on Excellence in Special Education (PCESE) in October 2001. In July 2002, the commission filed its report, A New Era: Revitalizing Special Education for Children and their Families.1 Among the bizarre statements included is this one: "The ultimate test of the value of special education is that, once identified, children close the achievement gap with their peers" (p. 4). Of course, the gap to which the PCESE refers is not closable, for reasons obvious to anyone with an understanding of statistics and disability. Moreover, the federal rules that pertain to scores from alternative assessments under the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act ignore the fact that far more than 1% of schoolchildren have disabilities that depress their test scores.

We would all like to see higher achievement for students with and without disabilities. Nevertheless, students with disabilities, as a group, score lower on tests than do students without disabilities. That is, their average will always be lower, even though some individuals with disabilities will score at or above the average for the general population. However, the PCESE did not define the achievement gap as the difference between what students with disabilities could achieve and what they do achieve -- a gap we could and should close. Nor did the PCESE refer to the difference between what students with disabilities achieve with, versus without, special education. That is another closable gap that we should address. But the gap between the average achievement for students in special education and the average achievement for students in general education cannot be closed without eliminating the top achievers in general education or the lowest achievers in special education -- or both.

Students in general education are the wrong comparison group for assessing the effectiveness of special education. The appropriate comparison would be between students with disabilities who receive special education and students with disabilities who do not, given that students in the two groups are similar in other ways. …


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