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An Open Letter in response to The "Burden" of Special Education

In his "FROM the FOUNDERS" editorial in the March 2011 issue of Greenwich Magazine, Jack Moffly, the founder and editor emeritus, of the magazine states: "There should be no mystery why our public school system is struggling to improve its test scores even as it spends $4,500 more per student than the state average. This can be attributed in part, but not entirely, to the burden of special ed." Unfortunately, Mr. Moffly is not alone in his mistaken notion that special education is a "burden" to be endured. Professionals, who should know better, also have very disturbing misconceptions about students who require special education services. At a recent CSE meeting for a student at the Windward School, a school for students with language-based learning disabilities, the chairperson of the meeting blurted out her belief that learning disabled students do not respond to intervention. In essays written by students who attend Windward School, we find equally alarming reports of misunderstandings by teachers who worked on a daily basis with these students in their former schools. One student commented, "Imagine going to school every day and praying that you won't be called up to read. Now imagine knowing that you try your best in school every day but still have report cards that say you are failing, not trying and need to start making an effort in school." 
In response to Mr. Moffly's editorial comments, I sent the following letter to him.
While it is addressed to Mr. Moffly, its real audience is all those who under-value the potential of students who receive special education services and consider special education a "burden."
Dear Mr. Moffly, 
I am the Head of the Windward School which serves students with language-based learning disabilities. I am disturbed by your statement: "There should be no mystery why our public school system is struggling to improve its test scores even as it spends $4,500 more per student than the state average. This can be attributed in part, but not entirely, to the burden of special ed." Contrary to your assertion, being identified as a student in need of special education services does not preclude attaining high levels of achievement.
In his book, Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell contends that the extraordinarily successful individuals he studied did not reach their level of achievement by pure merit. He posits that "the outliers in a particular field reached their lofty status through a combination of ability, opportunity, and utterly arbitrary advantage." Gladwell' thesis has serious implications for educational institutions like Windward, where admission to the school can be the difference between educational success and failure. 
Part of Windward's unique mission is to return students to the mainstream as soon as they are ready. Research conducted at the University of Oregon indicates that students scoring in the lowest 20 percent on a standardized reading test should be considered at significant risk for poor reading and language outcomes (Good et al, 2002). Between 2005 and 2010, 729 Windward students have returned to public and independent schools. When these students first entered Windward, their performance on standardized reading tests put 30 percent of them at significant risk of not achieving the literacy benchmarks. Simply stated, the research indicated that 220 of these 729 students were at risk of not being successful in school.
In spite of this dire prediction, the teaching methods employed at Windward allowed these children to make huge strides in reading as demonstrated by the Schools cohort analysis of the performance of students who leave the school. When the 2005-2010 cohorts left Windward, 95 percent of the students scored in the "average to above average" range in vocabulary and 97 percent scored in the same range for reading comprehension. 
In addition, Windward continues to monitor our students' progress once they have returned to mainstream schools. When a student has been at a new school for at least two years, administrators and guidance counselors are asked to complete a survey evaluating their performance. Approximately half of the students attend independent schools after leaving Windward and half go on to public schools. Results indicate that over 90 percent of Windward graduates are performing academically at or above the average of their grade-level peers. 
Unfortunately, while Windward students are making the most of what Gladwell might call an "arbitrary advantage," other equally deserving students do not get this opportunity. Gladwell's work and the experiences of countless families reinforce the need to provide more students with instructional programs that allow them to reach their full potential. Through its outreach efforts and the Teacher Training Institute, Windward is committed to making the "utterly arbitrary advantage" of research-based instruction the norm for all students rather than the rare exception that it is today. In the absence of effective instructional practices that address their learning needs, it is the special education students who are burdened -- not the school or school district.
Dr. John J. Russell, Head of School
The reality is that special education students who receive research-based instruction are capable of achieving academic success. With real accomplishment, they are able to restore their confidence and self-esteem, which all too often have been damaged by the careless comments of those who consider special education a "burden." A seventh-grade student summed it up this way, "Have you ever had serious trouble in school? Teachers yelling at students can really hurt self-esteem. I know because it happened to me; however thanks to Windward, I have improved not only my academic performance, but how I feel about myself as well!"


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