Teachers and Education Officials: Expect More from Students with Disabilities

 

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By Onlysilence (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
I believe that most students with disabilities* can and should engage with the same academic content that any other student would receive. Furthermore, I believe that most students with disabilities should be held to the same academic expectations as that of their peers.

I seem to hold somewhat radical expectations for my students, if what I’m hearing from my colleagues and from NY state education officials is accurate.

I was at a meeting with fellow special education specialists in my district several weeks ago and assumed I was speaking to the choir when I shared these beliefs. I was taken aback when a number of other educators strongly disagreed. I heard my fellow educators argue that their students “can’t” be expected to do grade-level work.

When I hear the word “can’t” used by an educator to describe their students’ potential, I get so upset. I know that working with children who face significant challenges is tough work. But really?

Can’t?

I think such a perspective says more about an educator’s lack of vision than a student’s lack of ability.

When you consider disability from a historical perspective, students with disabilities have been denied access to the same expectations and content as that of other students for a very long time. They have been segregated physically, and given “different” curriculum, because no one expected anything from them.

Unsurprisingly, students so treated do not often go on to achieve success.

It was upsetting enough to hear this perspective from my colleagues here in the Bronx. But now I’m also hearing it from education officials up in Albany. There is a plan in discussion and most likely up for a vote soon to water down high school diploma requirements for students with disabilities.

We’ve been here before. NY State used to have a largely meaningless piece of paper called an “IEP diploma” for students said to have met their IEP goals, which are highly subjective measurements primarily measured by those who write them.

I know that a high school diploma doesn’t mean much these days, but it’s a slippery slope when we begin completely dismantling any measure of what academic preparedness might mean.

What kind of message do we send to kids when we lower the bar for them? We don’t expect you to be able to achieve this. You CAN’T achieve this.

But that’s the wrong message. Instead, we should be saying, What will it take for you to achieve this? And if you try and aren’t ready yet — it’s OK because there’s other options for you to have a viable career in the meantime and we will help you to get there.

Not everyone is ready for college. A high school diploma should be a sign that you are prepared to succeed academically in college, not a consolation prize.

If we truly believe that not every student is able to achieve a high school diploma, than we’d better be looking very closely at what we’re doing to build alternative pathways to careers.

But watering down academic expectations for some students is not the way to go, New York. We’re fooling ourselves if we think making it “easier” is helping any kid to succeed. We’re only making it easier for adults to continue to pretend they’re doing their jobs.

 

*an extremely wide and diverse bucket, BTW. The differences between any given disability and any given student are so vast as to be nearly incomparable. Yet we persist.

Providing context for concepts may hinder transfer

“One implication of this pattern of results is that as an instructor designs their instructional materials, they should be asking themselves whether they are trying to optimize their students’ demonstrated mastery of the material itself or their ability to transfer their understanding to new materials. . . .

Simply adding richer meaningful content to in-class examples may make intuitive sense, and may have immediately obvious benefits in terms of student engagement and comprehension. But as the results of our experiments make clear, these short-term benefits seem to come at the cost of students’ long-term ability to apply their knowledge. If educators are to take advantage of these inherent benefits, they will need to give careful consideration to how such examples are designed and used together in order to plan the most effective instruction.”

—Samuel Day, Benjamin Motz, and Robert Goldstone, “The Cognitive Costs of Context: The Effects of Concreteness and Immersiveness in Instructional Examples” on frontiers in Psychology (H/T Greg Ashman)

The Traits of Achievement

A provocative opinion piece in the NY Times, “What Drives Success?” by Amy Chua and Jed Rubenfeld, suggested this Sunday that cultural traits can provide the impetus for success:

It turns out that for all their diversity, the strikingly successful groups in America today share three traits that, together, propel success. The first is a superiority complex — a deep-seated belief in their exceptionality. The second appears to be the opposite — insecurity, a feeling that you or what you’ve done is not good enough. The third is impulse control.

Any individual, from any background, can have what we call this Triple Package of traits. But research shows that some groups are instilling them more frequently than others, and that they are enjoying greater success.

Reading this, I thought of how this “Triple Package” of traits connects to some of the concepts that Jim Collins articulates in Good to Great (which I’ve discussed here before) for the most successful organizations.

In the framework of concepts that Collin’s lays out in his book,”Confront the Brutal Facts,” “The Hedgehog Concept,” and “A Culture of Discipline” especially resonate with the logic that the authors of the NY Times article present, though I will argue that the term “superiority complex” that Chua and Rubenfeld choose may not be the most useful.

Let’s look a little closer at how these traits of successful organizations and cultures align.

Insecurity and the Brutal Facts

According to Collins, one of the central traits of remarkably successful organizations that have gone from good to great is that they are willing to “confront the brutal facts.” In other words, these organizations create an environment where the truth is able to be heard, even when it might not be something that leaders want to hear. There are mechanisms in place for people to provide honest feedback without fear of reprisal.

This openness to unpleasant news bears some linkage to the trait of insecurity in an individual or culture. When you are insecure, you are sensitive to feedback even from strangers in the street. You dissect run-of-the-mill conversations to determine why your comments didn’t seem to land the way you imagined it would.

Insecurity, as Chua and Rubenfeld suggest, can be pathological in the absence of the other traits of success: “Insecure people feel like they’re never good enough.” But when complemented by other qualities, this sense of never being good enough can turn into a driver of achievement. Insecure cultures, like organizations, tend not to be complacent.

Insecurity, the Superiority Complex, and the Stockdale Paradox

One of the ways that Jim Collins explains how “Level 5 Leaders” manifest the capacity for “confronting the brutal facts” is what he terms the “Stockdale Paradox.” Named after an Admiral who was tortured “over twenty times during his eight-year imprisonment from 1965 to 1973,” the paradox delineates that even as you confront the brutal facts of your reality, you must also be able to “retain faith that you will prevail in the end, regardless of the difficulties.”

This paradoxical faith, even when faced with the most daunting of circumstances, parallels the notion of a “superiority complex” that Chua and Rubenfeld refer to. However, I don’t feel that the latter terminology is the most productive. When considered from the vantage of Admiral Jim Stockdale, it wasn’t necessarily a feeling of being better than others that enabled him to survive and thrive in horrific circumstances—it was that he had an unwavering faith that he would prevail. This may seem like equivocation, but I feel there is a subtle distinction between an unearned sense of superiority and a disciplined determination and will. Someone who believes they are superior or exceptional are not likely to confront the brutal facts of their reality for any sustained period of time. Yet someone who believes they will prevail against all odds—even as they confront the brutal reality of their existence—can continue to endure far beyond even their own expectations.

The Hedgehog Concept and the Superiority Complex

Another concept Collins explores in Good to Great that aligns with this unfortunately named “superiority complex” is the “Hedgehog Concept.” A common quality of successful organizations that Collins studied was that they had a strong and clear understanding of what they were best at, and they took action based on this understanding with a relentless focus.

This is again why I think using a term like “superiority complex” is unfortunate. There are certainly people who are masters of their craft who act like they have a superiority complex. Yet if they are truly masters, they most likely have a fairly accurate picture of their weaknesses and strengths in their particular domain. As Annie Murphy Paul writes in “The Myth of Practice Makes Perfect“:

“Deliberate practice,” Ericsson declares sternly, “requires effort and is not inherently enjoyable.” Having given us fair warning, he reveals the secret of deliberate practice: relentlessly focusing on our weaknesses and inventing new ways to root them out. Results are carefully monitored, ideally with the help of a coach or teacher, and become grist for the next round of ruthless self-evaluation (Bold added).

Again, we can see the focus on confronting the brutal facts of reality. Someone who does have a superior skill or expertise in a domain has gained that superiority through a relentless focus on their weaknesses.

Similarly, in the top functioning organizations, a Hedgehog Concept is brought into fruition via a commitment to hard work and investment based on the understanding of what it can be best at. Collins writes that “The Hedgehog Concept requires a severe standard of excellence. It’s not just about building on strength and competence, but about understanding what your organization truly has the potential to be the very best at and sticking to it.”

Impulse Control and A Culture of Discipline

A final correlation between Chua and Rubenfeld’s explication of “What Drives Success?” and Collins’ Good to Great is the skill of “impulse control” and “a culture of discipline.” I’m not going to spend much time on this, as I think this one is more self-evident, especially given the increased focus in education and other realms on self-control and grit. Suffice it to say that what ties together a relentless focus on excellence and an uncompromising openness to negative feedback is discipline.

As Collins’ neatly frames it, “A culture of discipline is not just about action. It is about getting disciplined people who engage in disciplined thought and who then take disciplined action.”

So what drives success?

It’s interesting to compare Chua and Rubenfeld’s cultural traits of success against Collins’ framework of organizational success, because it enables us to recognize that both any given group of people or organization will rise or fall based upon the culture that is established via thoughts and action. Furthermore, the traits and patterns of successful groups and organizations can be studied and emulated.

So the question for your homework this week is: how does a school establish a culture steeped in such traits of success?

Only One Road to Mastery

Statue of Bruce Lee | Chintunglee

A blog I recommend putting into your Feedly or NewsBlur lists (or sign up for the newsletter) is Barking Up the Wrong Tree. Eric Barker provides insights gleaned from research and experts on productivity, leadership, and life fulfillment that are often relevant to the classroom.

In an interview with author Cal Newport about how to become an expert, for example, I found this particular passage interesting, especially in its relation to education:

I think when people want to get better at something the biggest mistake they make is seeking flow. It’s a very enjoyable state. It’s where you’re lost in what you’re doing, you’re applying your skills seamlessly and fluidly, and you feel like you have control. 
But we know from research on how people actually gain expert levels of performance that the actual state in which you’re getting better is one of strain, and that’s different than flow. It’s a state where you actually feel like you’re being stretched. It’s uncomfortable. You’re doing things beyond your current abilities. It’s not fluid. You’re not necessarily lost. Your mind might be saying, “This is terrible. This is terrible. Check your e-mail. This is terrible. What if there is something on Facebook?“ 
We avoid that for the most part, but we know that if you just keep doing what you know how to do already, you’ll hit a plateau almost immediately. So I think the avoidance of strain is the biggest mistake people make in trying to get better.

In terms of education, another way of saying this is that learning, with an eye towards mastery, is not always fun. It requires hard work and going beyond one’s comfort zone.

This is something I’ve written about before in relation to constructivism and the current edu babble about digital natives and 21st century skills. Teachers are under great pressure to magically instill mastery of rigorous academic content in students who may lack essential foundational skills, or don’t yet see any value in education. In general conversations about public education, we all too often infantilize students to the point of subtracting any burden for learning from their shoulders, thereby placing the burden entire on that of their parents or teachers when they fail.

The reality is that in order to go beyond superficial exposure to knowledge and edge towards applicable mastery, students must work hard. And they must not merely work hard in the confines of the classroom, but put in work on their own time.

A simple example of this is mastery of the utterly essential yet hugely complex ability to read. Students might read while in school, but some consider reading a burdensome task that they are unwilling to engage in when not “forced” to. Instead, they opt for activities that require little mental strain, such as Facebook, button mashing video games, facile Hollywood movies, and TV sitcoms. But to become more than a barely proficient reader, in order to become a masterful reader, with an understanding of the world beyond one’s own neighborhood, one must read constantly, one must devour books, sit focused for hours in place, immersed in the struggle with a narrative or informational structure that will, over time and across multiple books, cumulatively, broaden and challenge complacent interpretations and shallow stereotypes of the world.

A great teacher is a gateway to such expansion and challenge, but they cannot substitute for the effort and work which must ultimately come from the student themselves. There is no mastery without hard work.

Right now in the edu sphere there is much talk of instilling “grit” and providing students with the opportunity to learn to “fail.” Indeed. Yet parallel to this conversation, there hovers a mirage of innovative edtech gamification: this idea that if we design the perfect learning experience, students will learn without even knowing that they are learning. They will be fooled by gadgetry and wonder into learning, despite themselves.

Yet all that glitters is not gold. There is only one path to knowledge and mastery — and that is through hard work.

Disagree with me? Great! Provide your rebuttal in the comments, or write your own blog post and post the link! I’m always game for a good debate.