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NCLB - "broom closet" education for students w/ disabilities? Arne Duncan on NPR

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Today on NPR's Talk of the Nation radio program, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan took questions from people regarding the changes proposed to the current law No Child Left Behind. The first caller asked a pointed question Mr. Duncan skirted, but didn't really address.

The very first caller asked a question relating to the education of special needs students, and the disservice NCLB offered them. She expressed the opinion that perhaps education was better for some students in the 60's and 70's when they were educated in smaller groups within the education system (not mainstreamed).

Arne Duncan immediately disagreed. He stated his philosophy has always been that the inclusion of special education students within a classroom has moved education forward for these students. He replied, "We moved students out of the broom closets and into mainstream classes", at which point the caller jumped in and pointed out that for students who can't participate in classroom activities, and are ignored for a large part of the day, they are most certainly in a broom closet even if you can't see it - except it is worse. At least in the broom closet they had a teacher to help them.

A powerful argument in the eyes of a Gilbert mother raising a child who was very much existing within in an invisible broom closet...within a mainstream classroom a few years ago right here in Gilbert, Arizona.

The caller made an excellent point and Arne Duncan missed that point completely. He began to speak about test scores and evaluations, which is an excellent conversation in its own right, but lets stay on this topic for now.

Just because schools "include" special needs kids within the classroom setting, does *not* mean they are saintly, nor does it mean they are treating the students with the respect they deserve.

Here is an example: let's say there is a student named "Pete" who doesn't write well. Pete is as capable of actual learning as his peers, however, when he is asked to write a summary, fill out a worksheet, or take a scantron quiz - he fails miserably. This failure would indicate to teachers that Pete doesn't comprehend the material.

Lets say this cycle happens repeatedly over the school year, and Pete is held back academically because of dismal written test scores. Pete becomes frustrated and angry because he is the kid in class who gets miserable scores, he feels like a failure, and kids start to tease him.

He is also *not* being taught at the academic level he is capable of simply because he can't demonstrate his knowledge and understanding on paper - the "mainstream" way teachers routinely evaluate their students.

If the mainstream teacher can't sit down with Pete to assess him verbally, he not better off than the kid in the broom closet.

What is Pete, and Pete's parents to do? What if Pete's parents don't catch on to the problem? What if Pete spends years in classes being passed along until he reaches the high stakes tests like AIMS, and can't pass? It's a scary thought.

Let's say Pete's parents are able to pinpoint the problem. Is the mainstream classroom adaptable to a "verbal" learner? Can teachers be expected to teach a growing class size AND accommodate Pete's needs? Isn't Pete going to be on the short end of the busy teacher's stick?

This is a real problem in classrooms everywhere including right here in Gilbert, Arizona. In the midst of our "A+" schools are kids in their very own broom closet.

What can the Department of Education do? The answer to that question is unclear. What can Pete's parents do? Seek alternative education sources.

In Pete's case, he is now educated online via Arizona Virtual Academy (AZVA) . He takes his tests verbally while working hard to improve his composition deficits. This option has allowed him to be a "special education" student in one portion of his education, but not at the expense of his academic capabilities. "Pete" went from two full academic years behind, to "on grade level" after the first year of online school (with lots of support).

The caller's point "inclusion for the sake of inclusion is essentially exclusion" deserves more discussion.

Sources: NPR.com, Talk of the Nation -6/13

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Tracy Lynn Cook is a writer in Gilbert, Arizona. To read more, please visit her blog at www.TLCsThoughts.com, or browse by topic:

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Tracy can be found on Facebook.com/TLCsThoughts and onTwitter @TLCsThoughts.

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