Julie Delegal: ‘High expectations’ don’t always solve disabled students’ problems

Dear Arne Duncan,

You’ve taken some flak recently for saying that children’s disabilities can be improved by “high expectations.” As President Barack Obama’s Secretary of Education, you’ve surely developed a thick skin.

But as the parent of a child with unique brain wiring, and as someone who once thought autism was “curable,” I understand. I’ve looked at that “clouded” thinking from both sides now, from up and down, and still somehow — well, you know how the song goes.

It’s a noble idea, the notion that expecting miracles will bring miracles. Sometimes it does –with a whole lot of hard work in between. But sometimes, Arne, it just doesn’t.

Count me among the parents who want to provide every child with the best interventions science can offer. Put me in the “hope” column. If we don’t offer science-based individual education plans (IEPs), if we fail to teach and test the kids who can excel in academia, then we risk losing valuable human potential: the next Albert Einstein or Charles Darwin or Nikolai Vitti.

In that sense, it’s our obligation as parents and educators and policymakers to hold out the highest expectations for all our children, including those who have disabilities. Give them everything we’ve got. Then test them to prove we’re right. Right?

You should have seen me back in the day, Arne, me and my high expectations. The principal at my children’s school didn’t quite know what to do with me or my oldest child. But the people there served our son. When I needed them to serve him better, I spoke softly and carried a big lawyer (my husband). We fought for years to assist other families in getting their special-needs children appropriate services.

Sometimes it helped. Other times it didn’t. Here’s what I learned.

Some disabilities, like our child’s, can be mitigated. He was nurtured — academically, socially, emotionally — by the best. There are no more compassionate, kind, loving, or hopeful teachers on this planet than the angels who surrounded him throughout his school career.

The effects of the same disability in my friend’s child, however, could not be improved. Not because she didn’t drive him to numerous therapies when he was a small child. She did.

Not because she didn’t fight tooth and nail to get him appropriate interventions in the public schools — she did that, too. She also gave her child the best science had to offer by enrolling him in a specialized, private school in Jacksonville.

Her child has his share of angels, too. He thrived in settings where the teachers understood behaviorism. He showed he could get through the day without self-injury — most days — when those around him provided clinical-level applied behavior analysis.

But all the love and high expectations in the world couldn’t pull him anywhere near “academic proficiency.” Administering a standardized test to this profoundly autistic, nonverbal young man would have been an act of futility – not to mention a profound waste of time and resources.

A wise lawmaker once told me, “Not every problem needs a bill.” He served his constituents efficiently, by talking to people, creating relationships, and solving problems.

In this case, Arne, I’d say that not every exceptional child needs your policy of high expectations, to the extent that those expectations include academic work and testing that are inappropriate to the child’s unique needs.

The place where we determine what’s appropriate for an individual child is not in the Secretary of Education’s office. It’s in conference rooms at schools where parents and teachers hash out individual education plans. Leave it to the parents and practitioners, Arne, to decide who needs standardized testing, and who doesn’t.

Take all that noble energy that’s wrapped up in “high expectations” and shift it to making sure that parents can obtain appropriate services for their children. Students with disabilities deserve everything we’ve got. Their individual circumstances, along with science, should guide the way. It’s a shame, though, that we still need to hire lawyers to get it done.

Julie Delegal, a University of Florida alumna, is a contributor for Folio Weekly, Jacksonville’s alternative weekly, and writes for the family business, Delegal Law Offices. She lives in Jacksonville. Column courtesy of Context Florida.


Julie Delegal


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