My View: Different not less and the Education System

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Warning: Today is more of a rant, so buckle up. This is my view regarding reading programs for special education students.

Special education system
Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on

Lack of Reading Help

My daughter is a pre-teen in a self contained classroom.  She’s been in that type of setting since Kindergarten.  There are many things that I love about it, and there are things that, well, I don’t love.  I don’t love the way our district tackles reading.  Experts widely agree that when a child doesn’t “pick up” reading through traditional teaching, it needs to be explicitly taught. This generally means using an Orton Gillingham based method.

Lack of Standards

I learned there are currently no district standards around reading for our Special Education classrooms. In every IEP meeting since the 3rd grade, I’ve expressed my concern. 

My child is delayed; I understand that completely. Because of this, I am not alarmed to find her skills slightly below grade level. It is alarming, however, that the district continues to use the same reading program designed for her typical peers. My daughter doesn’t learn in a typical way, and the point of an IEP is that her education is INDIVIDUALIZED, no?

I pushed even harder for services starting in the 6th grade because, unlike elementary school, there was no reading program in her self contained classroom.  None.

Reading Specialists are for ‘typical’ kids

Our district has reading specialists – these are teachers who work 1:1 with children throughout our schools who have reading difficulties.  I requested one at every IEP meeting and in writing and was continually put off – not completely ignored, but not getting any real response, either.  (And yes, I followed the rules; had an advocate at IEP meetings; requested in writing; had a clinical neuropsych eval (at our own expense) stating she has the capacity to learn to read, etc.)

Doesn’t every child deserve the opportunity to read?

The director of the special education program called me (regarding one of my written requests) to remind me that the education my daughter receives is “appropriate” and reminded me that she is not on a graduation pathway, that she is in a “life skills” program.  He reminded me that she is eligible to be in school until she is 21.  He told me that the best reader in her class (a 6th to 8th grade class) was at a 3rd grade level.  That reading specialists were not part of the Special Education program.  To me, his message illustrated a belief that she was not only different, but less important than the kids on a typical education path. A typical path to graduation.

He asked me what I see in her future, to which I emphatically responded that I see a self-sufficient person who knows how to read, and thankfully the district has about 10 more years to help her get there!

Anger and frustration as a parent

What he could not see is red creeping up my cheeks from my blood boiling.  My brain was screaming at me to stay calm, however, my mouth doesn’t always listen … and I said (out loud)  “So, you’re telling me that because you don’t believe my child will graduate she doesn’t deserve to learn to read?  I don’t think he knew what to say to me as evidenced by his stutter ….the kind one has when taken off guard.  Needless to say, the next conversation was between our attorney and the district.

Isn’t reading a life skill?

I started to think about what being on a ‘life skills track’ means.  It means she won’t graduate with a diploma.  She may, perhaps, get a certification showing she has the soft skills employers look for.  Since when is reading NOT a life skill?  I graduated with a high school diploma, and I can tell you that of the skills I learned:  How to speak French, Calculus, Algebra, Earth Science, I don’t use any of them every day.  I do READ everyday.  From the label on my my sweater so I can wash it properly to current research and trends …. I read every day.

Those with the means can (maybe) get services

It took an attorney with a background in special education law, $4,000 and a seething anger that still remains, but our daughter gets daily reading instruction with a reading specialist – and it’s working.  She is able to read more today then she could at the end of the school year last year.  Progress is slow but steady – and that’s OK, she’ll get it in her time.

Advocacy helps everyone – speak up!

An unintended consequence of my action is that the school has implemented a formal reading program in my daughter’s classroom, which may help the other kids in her class as well.  I’d like to believe that I made them think when I said that the district should be ashamed to say that the best reader in her classroom was at a 3rd grade level.   More likely, they were afraid that more parents in her classroom would request 1:1 reading services, and it’s hard to deny that service when you aren’t offering anything in the classroom.

I so often hear the phrase “Different, not Less” but it seems that in our education system, it boils down to an interpretation of the word “appropriate” that drives services, and once they deem someone won’t help the almighty graduation rate, they lose sight of what’s important.  At least that’s the view from where I sit.

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