On the Limits of Problem Solving

When Mark and I aren’t blogging about schools and ecosystems, we like to get together for a cold beverage and talk about…schools and ecosystems. Our conversations usually start with some really lucid, optimistic ideas about how we can promote our approach to school design, how we can build connections between like-minded teachers, or how we can help our students become better people. At this point in the conversation, Mark and I are in problem-solving mode. We’re thinking about the obstacles we face as teachers, the obstacles our students face, and we’re trying to come up with ways to overcome those obstacles.

After a couple of beverages, our ideas usually become a bit less lucid and, sometimes, a bit less hopeful. In particular, since we both teach students with disabilities, our conversations often circle around the problems that disabilities present, both for us as teachers and for our students as human beings in a world that likes to pretend that such disabilities don’t exist. At this point in the conversation, Mark and I have abandoned problem-solving mode. We’re not proposing new programs or methods that could somehow measure our disabled students’ academic progress. At this point we’re more contemplative and, I think, a bit more humble.

Anyone who’s taught students with disabilities has (I hope) learned some humility. We’ve learned that no matter how a school is designed, no matter what type of curriculum we use, a child with severe ADHD who is off her meds will not be able to stay in her seat for very long. We’ve learned that increasingly rigorous curricula do not, in fact, help a student with an emotional disturbance control his anger. Even the most rigorous standards will not prevent this student from getting out of his seat, picking up a chair, and throwing it at the girl sitting across from him.

I don’t list these examples to suggest that we should abandon all hope and stop teaching students with severe disabilities. I list them to suggest that we should approach the problem of disability with humility. We should acknowledge that as a society, we are uncomfortable with disability and we are often frustrated that people with disabilities are not able to meet the same demands placed upon the rest of us.

I could hear that frustration in Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s voice when he recently proposed new “accountability standards” for special education students, stating without a shred of evidence, “We know that when students with disabilities are held to high expectations and have access to a robust curriculum, they excel.” Duncan was in problem-solving mode. He believed that he had figured out how to fix our students with disabilities. The solution is high expectations and rigorous curricula, which apparently aren’t already in place.

I have a feeling that the solution is actually not so simple. I recently read a brilliant essay by Fredrik deBoer on what he calls “the death of nuance.” In this piece, deBoer criticizes the ProPublica news service for its coverage of the use of restraining holds on school children. DeBoer describes his own experience as a special education teacher teaching students with severe emotional disturbance, a job that required him and his co-workers to physically restrain students when they posed a severe threat to themselves or others. He writes:

Those risks were neither hypothetical nor minor. The more severe of these cases were children who typically could not last a single school day without inflicting harm on themselves or on others. I have personally witnessed a 10 year old lift his 40-pound desk from the floor and hurl it towards the head of another student. I have witnessed a student jump from her seat to claw and bite at another, with almost no provocation. I have seen kids go from seeming calm to punching other kids repeatedly in the back of the head without warning. The self-harm was even worse. I had to intervene when a child, frustrated with his multiplication homework, struck himself repeatedly in the face with a heavy fake gold medallion, to the point where he drew his own blood.

DeBoer does not argue for or against restraining holds. He does not pretend to have the solution to the problem of disability or mental illness. Instead, he raises some serious concerns about our inability to have intelligent, analytical discussions about complex issues like disability, education, or mental health. He writes:

I am reminded of a few sad realities: that American culture is now synonymous with a juvenile Manicheanism that imagines some perfect world we could achieve if people just weren’t so selfish and evil; that getting showily, publicly angry about problems is more popular than actually attempting to solve them…I genuinely don’t know if people believe in difficult choices and intractable problems anymore; they’ve been bludgeoned by the loud noises and shouting we mistake for discussion into thinking that all problems have clear villains and easy answers.

Reading deBoer’s piece, I was reminded of Arne Duncan’s facile approach to the problem of teaching students with disabilities. The notion that all we need to help students like the ones deBoer describes are high expectations and robust curricula reflects an ignorance so profound that I don’t even know how to respond to it, except to say that when the federal appointees in charge of our public schools are so completely incapable of grasping the problems that teachers and students face, it’s time for those people to get out of problem-solving mode. Any solutions posed by people with such a clear inability to understand the complexities of public schooling and special education will only make things worse.

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