Five initiatives to transform Special Education.


23 Jan
23Jan

Over thirty years, I have witnessed the way special education promotes a neurotypical paradigm with patronizing beliefs about student potential, creating a society-large Pygmalion effect.  In other words, the very structure of "Special Education" unfairly privileges the neurotypical profile. Furthermore, the way we organize schools teaches all elementary students that 14% of the population is fundamentally deficient and thus not fully human. 

Imagine if we structured our school systems with the assumption that students with minority neurological characteristics -- at least 20% of the population (arguably)  -- would need alternative approaches in order to be successful.  Here are simple reforms that would significantly improve the outcomes while cutting the price tag.


  1. Neurodiversity: Treat neurodiversity like cultural diversity, a natural state of humanity that should be respected and valued for what it can offer the human species overall. If children learned from the first day to celebrate neurological differences and recognize each of our strengths, we could significantly reduce the anxiety of being “normal.”

  2. Teacher training: Require an understanding of neurodiversity as part of teacher training.  Teachers, especially in the early grades, should have the training to recognize different neurological profiles and work to ensure that their needs are met.

  3. Lower barriers: Plan educational systems that recognize the different needs of students and provide effective methods for different profiles. Individual Educational Plans are so expensive because they treat each student on an individualized basis.  

  4. Universal Design: Follow Universal Design principles starting in preschool so that all students can experience success from the start. Rather than perpetuating systems that privilege the neurotypical “norm,” Universal Design seeks to create a context that is accessible to students regardless of profile.

  5. Organize classes by skill level not age. Rather than defining grade-level as a social construct, we should divide students by reading level and math level. Rather than placing students into classes for which they're under-prepared and then providing them a paraprofessional to keep them from flipping the desk, we could organize students based on their skills -- reading level, written expression, math level. Then introduce alternative practices for students who need them without the artificial pressure to keep up with some politically defined norm.  


Ben Mitchell - from The Bigotry Of Normal


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