Sunday, October 26, 2008

System Failure

Show me one child in the Bronx without special needs.

In the New York City public schools, things look very different than they did when I was growing up. In my schools, special education was a rarely talked about program which was generally buried in secluded areas of the school. In high school there was a large classroom complex at the end of a hall which was otherwise seldom trafficked. As far as I can recall, the members of these classes had developmental disorders, ranging from severe to mild, which prohibited them from learning apace with those in general ed. In NYC, special ed brings to mind behavioral disorders before anything developmental.

Special education becomes a threat that teachers hold over students. It slips off of their tongues, and to my ears is a shocking insult – both to the children being threatened and to those who do have legitimate special needs.

“I don’t think that you even belong in this class – I think that you are acting like you need to be in special ed!” Generally this isn’t even effective. The children talk about it afterwards, showing their hurt and upset by the way that they dwell on the words. Generally they shake it off when they are scolded – they are used to being scolded after all. The kids who are getting in trouble now are the same ones who have been getting in trouble for the last ten years. It doesn’t mean much to them to get yelled at – and it doesn’t mean much to their parents any more when they get a phone call. These are the kids who end up in special ed – the ones where teachers and administrators with limited time and resources have run out of ideas.

My principal said the other day that systems are designed perfectly to get exactly the results that they produce. In the Bronx, the education system fails about 50% of the students. This is the 50% who will not graduate. Who will be shuffled through the school system without ever being properly tested or assessed – the ones who will leave as illiterate as they entered. The school system is designed perfectly to produce exactly the results that it gets. We all operate within that system – and it’s a system that gets inadequate results in this community. So you have to work outside of it.

The 20:80 rule applies here. The rule that says that 20 percent of people use 80 percent of the resources, 20 percent of people have 80 percent of the wealth, 20 percent of the people commit 80 percent of the crimes. In my school, 20 percent of my students take up 80 percent of my attention. Normally that attention is that which I write about here – that which consumes me and leaves me questioning my abilities at the end of the day. I don’t often write about the hysterical skits that 603 created to illustrate Hammurabi’s code, or the kids who proudly handed in to me the barely comprehensible essay for the national ‘What it means to be Latino’ essay contest that I told them about. Instead it’s the ones who defy me and disrespect me – the ones who disrupt the class and abuse their fellow students. Those are the kids who take up our attention, who we chase around the halls, and have countless talks with about why they behave this way, what they want in life, how they are harming themselves most.

The truth is, they aren’t harming themselves most. Every student is hurt. Every student who I teach suffers because in the middle of my lesson the lights will flicker on and off, or a band of boys will waltz in and smack every child on the back of the head on their way to the board, where they will pick up chalk and tag the chalkboard. By the time security comes they are long gone, and no one has the energy to chase them down for every offense. And above all, chasing them down doesn’t’ seem to have much long term impact. These boys are avoiding class because they were never taught to read or write or add or subtract. Because they were left behind, neglected and forgotten and failed by the system years ago. And now, rather than admit these deficiencies, they avoid them.

So the 32 kids sitting in my class, listening to what I am saying, pencils poised to their paper, are suddenly distracted by one more example of what not to do, as opposed to being shown by me what they should do.

There are meetings all the time about how to get these boys out of our classrooms out of our school, our of our hair. Put them in a self-contained special education class – get them into another school – suspend them, expel them. Again, the system fails them and special ed becomes a dumping ground for behavior problems rather than a place to serve the complex and diverse ‘special’ needs of the students in our school.

How can you fix the problem if you can’t fix the system?


  1. Laura, one thing I've learned about writing is that the desire to write is prompted by an attempt to figure out the answer to a question. Please keep trying to figure it out out loud.

  2. Write more about your spectacular homeroom!

  3. Laura, I hope you don’t feel as if you have to turn around that 20/80 ratio all by yourself! You’re right, the ratio of special ed has grown, because of society’s demands. I wonder if a lot of these kids come from single parent families. I hate to tell you this (I would have acted the same way as you, which is wonderful!), BUT maybe you should concentrate on a couple of students from that 20%, and never forget the rest of the students. It’s sad but by the time they get to you, it has been the entire social structure == family, neighborhood, previous schooling== that messed them up. Remember, you need to protect yourself, and measure your strength, so as not to burn out. You have the potential to be a FANTASTIC teacher.