Tuesday, January 5, 2010


If you have a learning disability, you get an IEP (Individualized Education Plan). If you suffer from mental retardation, you get an IEP. If you have developmental disorders, you get an IEP. If you have socio-emotional disturbances, you get an IEP.

An IEP is required for a student to be put into special education. As is the case throughout the country, students need to be in special education for a wide variety of reasons. This wide array of problems is funneled into a catch-all cure called an IEP. . Any problem that prevents a child from being successful in general education settings is treated with an IEP.

An IEP has many parts. It describes the grade level that the student is working at, and it has anecdotes of their performance that are provided by their teachers. It describes their academic abilities, their social abilities, and talks about the various solutions that have been tried. After this exposition section, the team of people writing the IEP begins to prescribe solutions. Generally they will say that a student needs intervention services, and that they need to have modified promotion requirements. This means that they will be put into a more restrictive setting (smaller student-teacher ratio, less movement between classes, etc.) or will receive services (speech, counseling, etc.). Often this is a good thing, and it allows students to achieve a measure of success that they wouldn’t have been able to in a large General Education class. The more restrictive setting provides students with more stability.

The modified promotion requirements, however, do not necessarily lead to success. These generally say that the student has to master only 20-40% of the content for the grade in order to be promoted to the next grade level. In the cases of Mental Retardation, learning disabilities, and in some cases, physical impairments, this may be necessary. However, in situations where the problem the student is experiencing is socio-emotional, this is a counter-intuitive solution. These students often operate on the same grade level as their peers, and are fully capable of doing the work. Modified requirements say that they don’t have to.

Often students with these problems have difficult home lives, and come to school angry and hurt and confused. This overflow of emotion prevents them from completing the necessary work in class, and from behaving in a way that is acceptable. This is a problem, and should certainly be addressed – however, it is a very distinct problem. These disturbances are mot similar to mental or physical handicaps, and they should therefore not be treated in the same way that those handicaps are treated. Lowering academic standards only exacerbates the problems that these kids are having, as now they are able to get older and move up the grade levels without ever having to learn anything. They find themselves 3 years later, still operating on a 5th grade level while their peers have grown to a 9th grade level. This doesn’t make them happy, generally – in fact – it often makes them more angry, and less likely to succeed in school. The farther behind you get, the harder it is to catch up, and the special education system in low-income schools does these kids a great disservice.

Socio-emotional disturbances are probably more common in low-income schools than in high-income schools by virtue of the problems that are associated with poverty which these kids face every day. And yet, in high income schools, if a child is depressed or angry or upset, they receive counseling and guidance, and other services which may help them.

Depression is an affliction of the wealthy – in poor communities there is no benefit to diagnosing or treating depression. Many health insurance plans don’t cover mental health services – and certainly for the uninsured families that attend this school, mental health is not a priority. There was an article in the New York Times last week that drove this point home, entitled "Children on Medicaid Found More Likely to be Prescribed Anti-psychotics." It talked about doctors with little time prescribing antipsychotics, harsh, severe medications, to address the problems children from poor-communities have. With more time and more money, they may be diagnosed with a learning disability, depression, or another affliction which would allow for less severe medications with less serious side-effects. But in these communities, the resources required to make an accurate diagnosis are not always readily available.

The time, money, and long-term commitment that are required to address mental-health issues are not resources that are readily available in poor communities. It is far easier to slap band -aid on the problem than to search for a real cure. Their problems are as real as anyone else’s, and yet in these communities it is far too inconvenient to address them properly. We forget what a luxury it is to have real solutions for our problems, to have doctors and parents and teachers who have the time and resources to treat us as individuals. Too often, the problems that these children come to school with are prescribed a one-size-fits-all IEP, which misses all of the real points of their difficulties. And the depression and anger and sadness that is in their lives is taken in stride, expected to disappear if the children can just learn to behave themselves.

Bandaids are cheap, a whole box for $5. They aren’t preventative, and they aren’t cures – they just keep out the dirt and germs, hopefully allow a wound to heal on its own. But for those problems that don’t cure themselves – those cuts that seem not to scab – they just provide a cover, to hide the problem from ourselves and the world, though it still hurts beneath the bandage.

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