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Commentary: The self-fulfilling nature of special ed

A doctoral student reflects back on her elementary school days and considers herself lucky not to have been labeled “special ed.”

There is a lot of research evidence that ability grouping does not work (Bandura, 1997; Grouping Kids by Ability Harms Education, Two Studies Show; NEA: Research Spotlight on Academic Ability Grouping). Putting students with learning disabilities in special education classes is basically the same as putting them in low-ability ability groups. I have experienced the benefits of not being put in a special education classroom because of my learning disability.

When I was a young child, my mother read to me every night at bedtime starting as far back as I can remember, but I still could not learn to read until the end of third grade. In elementary school and what was then called junior high, I was enrolled in an alternative education school. I did not get held back any grades, and I did not get labeled “special ed” partly because that was in the 1970s and early 1980s and also because of the type of school I was in.

In fifth grade, my language arts teacher challenged me and my best friend to do a “sixth grade project” in fifth as well as sixth grade. My fifth and sixth grade language arts teacher knew that my best friend and I needed a push in the right direction. I caught up eventually in academic achievement, and I think I was very lucky to not get labeled “special ed.”

This label becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy and limits your academic potential (The Balanced View: Ability Grouping). I am now in a doctoral program in the Morgridge College of Education at the University of Denver, where I am studying research methods and statistics with a minor in educational research. In addition to statistics classes, I am taking curriculum and instruction classes in which I am learning about educational reform, policy and philosophy, and diversity in education.

Education is the one thing that can truly level the playing field. I think that education has leveled the playing field for me because even though as an adult I have been diagnosed as having Attention Deficit Disorder, which is a learning disability, I have been able to make it into a doctoral program in my formal education, and I am about two-thirds of the way through my course work for my Ph.D.

In his book Self-Efficacy: The Exercise of Control (1997), Albert Bandura, the self-efficacy expert, said that if lower ability students are allowed to remain in class with their higher ability peers, they will eventually catch up with their higher ability peers, and I think that is what happened to me when I was not labeled “special ed” and when my elementary school language arts teacher challenged me academically.

Students with learning disabilities should not be taken out of the mainstream classroom and put in special education classes because if given the chance, they will probably catch up with their non-learning disabled peers, and they won’t have their academic potential limited by pejorative labels. Also, contrary to what some people believe, learning disabled does not mean lower-than-average intelligence.

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