Today, public schools enrol students who 75 years ago rarely attended school. Children who were deaf, blind, or who had developmental disabilities did not typically attend public schools. If they were educated, their education took place at home, in specialized schools or in institutions.
Surveying its history, the promise of universal public education — an idea of the mid-19th century — has taken more than 150 years to achieve. But, when I look at the data about the performance of students with special needs, I don’t think that promise has been fulfilled. Students with special needs do not achieve the same standards of performance or graduation as peers without such needs. The gap is wide.
Some might argue that the expectation of equivalent performance and graduation is unreasonable precisely because of the distinction between students with and without special needs. It is the case that a minority of students with special needs are students with significant physical and health impairments, developmental disorders, brain injuries, and other conditions that will prevent them from achieving at the same standard as students who do not have such severe conditions. But the majority of students with special needs have challenges that are less severe. Eighty per cent or more are students with communication and attention challenges, learning disabilities, behaviour disorders, emotional problems and mild intellectual disabilities.
The nature and number of conditions that result in being identified as a student with special needs have expanded over time as a consequence of a suite of factors. We are increasingly sophisticated in identifying conditions that were previously undetected, and parents concerned about the welfare of their struggling child put pressure on the system to produce a diagnosis that will call attention to the child’s needs. In most jurisdictions, students with special needs attract additional resources to the school board to help address those needs. The classes in which students with special needs are enrolled are often reduced in size to allow the teacher to devote additional energy to their education.
None of this would be a problem if the additional resources and attention helped to produce better outcomes for these students. But it is not clear that they do, at least not with sufficient impact that the gap between them and their peers without such disabilities has been significantly diminished. It does not do them or anyone else a favour if students with special needs do not acquire the knowledge they need to live as productive adults.
Holding low expectations for the majority of students with special needs and providing compassionate, custodial care to the minority with needs that are even greater is not good enough. Not for them, for their parents, or for the larger community.
It is time to take a very close look how we address — or fail to address — the special needs of students. That examination should take into account the contingencies affecting their education, early identification of disabilities and implementation of effective remedial plans, addressing the additional expense that meeting some of their needs entails, monitoring their progress, measuring their success, and holding the system accountable for the results achieved.
Some may argue that the issue has been inadequate resources over the last 15 years. If that is true, the restoration of more than 3,000 teachers to the public school system should begin to produce improvement for all students and especially for students with special needs.
We cannot fulfill the promise of universal public education if there are sizeable groups of students who are under served, under-educated and unprepared for the responsibilities of adult citizenship.
Charles Ungerleider is managing partner of Directions Evidence and Policy Research Group and a professor emeritus of educational studies at the University of B.C.