June 9, 2014
Teachers negotiating today's public education environment face a number of challenges; these include negotiating additional responsibilities with insufficient time to complete them appropriately, behavioral management of students who continually disrupt the educational process, and following a test driven pacing guide which doesn't allow for adequate preparation of students who come to school below grade level and who lack the capacity to achieve a firm foundation in the educational standards in which they are expected to display proficiency.
Since our country's inception, there have been many educational advocates driving educational reforms for particular educational interests. However, some reforms --while benefitting particular groups of students-- have had a negative impact on the teachers expected to implement these changes, as well as on the majority students which form a student body. One of the areas of education reform that has had unintended consequences is the area of special education.
It was PL 94-142, passed in 1975 and later renamed IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Act) which mandated that special needs children be educated in the least restrictive environment. Every student of education was required to memorize this law and understand the implications for education. This was a victory for those who advocated on the behalf of those children who would benefit by this law's passage.
While I cannot speak for every teacher, I have both witnessed and experienced the educational disruption caused by some students with IEPs (Individual Instructional Plans) and understand that this has the unintended consequence of interrupting the education of the rest of the students in the classroom. In this age of bell to bell instruction and longer school days for those attending turn-around schools, this seems counter-productive. According to James Madison,
A large republic could encompass many different groups and different interests--economic, religious, and social--and thereby provide a safeguard against the tyranny of the majority. (Bill of Rights Institute)
Madison was less concerned with tyranny by the minority, however education seems to have allowed the minority interest to dictate the rhythm and pace of a typical school day. Students with and without IEPs, some of whom come to school ill prepared and require more attention (sometimes demand that attention) prevent a teacher from providing the best possible education to the students who come with the capacity to thrive at the targeted level of instruction. The demands of a few prevent the majority from receiving a teacher's best.
The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) ensures that all children with disabilities are entitled to a free appropriate public education to meet their unique needs and prepare them for further education, employment, and independent living. Prior to IDEA, over 4 million children with disabilities were denied appropriate access to public education. Many children were denied entry into public school altogether, while others were placed in segregated classrooms, or in regular classrooms without adequate support for their special needs (Katsiyannis, Yell, Bradley, 2001; Martin, Martin, Terman, 1996; U.S. Department of Education, 2010).
While a great deal of attention has been given to equalizing access to the educational environment for an educational minority, through laws such as PL 94 142 and IDEA, other laws, such as NCLB, which I haven't even considered in the article, have implications on how classrooms are grouped, which content areas are given more importance, and demand that a disproportionate amount of a teacher's time be spent collecting (through assessment) and analyzing data, which has the unintended consequence of skewing the balance of what was formerly considered the art and science of teaching.
Because of teacher burnout and attrition, students in poorer performing schools often receive instruction from less experienced teachers who are expected to juggle enormous responsibilities, causing them to either leave the field or leave a district which exacts all of their time and energy –whether they're instructing, doing preparation or paperwork, or at home feeling the pressure of what still needs to be completed in a never ending cycle of expectations, all of which leave a teacher feeling like Atlas, the weight of the world on his/her shoulders with no end in sight.
This impacts the average student, the one who is fortunate enough to have the support of one or two parents, who comes to school with the requisite supplies, who packs or pays for school lunch, who is prepared to learn because homework is completed in an environment where it is taught that school is important and that teachers and adults should be respected. It would seem only fair that these students are entitled to a least disruptive environment, one in which learning takes place among like-minded peers who are excited about and want to learn. The parents of these children are entitled to advocate for their children, too, to demand that their children receive a free (read: taxpayer funded) and appropriate education with minimal disruption from peers who are in the same classroom because their caretakers see school as a daycare that provides free breakfast, free lunch, dental care and babysitting.
In order to understand any political issue and to give appropriate consideration to the challenges surrounding any solution, the founders believed that the populace as a whole needed to have the intellectual capacity to think critically and to have gained a surplus of knowledge from which to draw when formulating policy, to prevent reactionary legislation which could have unintended consequences. If our populace doesn't understand the importance of educating in the least disruptive environment, we will not be able to keep this republic, for which we fought so hard.