Friday, August 13, 2010

But What If They Can?

Our kids can't do that.

I hear that phrase a lot lately, when the topic turns to standardized testing, or Common Core State Standards, or inclusion run rampant. Not just from educators and IEP team members, though there's certainly enough eye-rolling and shoulder-shrugging from that quarter over the possibility of students with special needs doing what everybody else is doing. I suppose that's where we learn.

It's parents I hear championing low expectations, and sometimes the voice is mine. I mean, come on. Have you seen these standards they're proposing? Suddenly the magic wand of governmental interest swishes by, and kids who've spent years failing to master one plus one are going to be doing polynomial equations with their age-peers? And don't get me started on standardized tests that put "our kids" through hours of stress to assess them on material they have never been taught. Inclusion's a nice dream, but without trained teachers and a district's deep devotion to getting it right, it's just warehousing. Learn what the others are learning? Concentrate like they're concentrating? Socialize like they're socializing? Study like any old student?

Our kids can't do that.

A month or so ago, I was having one of those conversations with the moms of a couple of friends of my son. Great consternation was expressed over the fact that some government dreamer in some ivory tower somewhere was expecting our kids to learn multiplication. Multiplication! Our kids can't do that! I was about to join in the righteous indignation as I have so many times before, when I remembered ... well, um, my son can. I mentioned as much and was swatted down with what in any other context, in any other world but the one we parents of children with special needs inhabit, would have been a compliment and not a brush-off: "Well, he's high-functioning." Burn!

He does, in fact, do well with numbers. If you tell him when you bought your car and what the mileage is, he'll figure out how much you drive a year, right there, in his head. If you tell him what year you were born, he'll tell you your age, loud enough for everybody to hear. He learned his times tables by being a captive audience at the dinner table when his big sister was drilled on hers. Of course, in the classroom, his high functioning in this regard is often knocked down a few pegs by his low functioning in attention, focus, fine-motor skills, visual perception, and interest in things without an immediate practical application.

To his friends' moms, he's an anomaly. But is multiplication really such a fantastical feat that only the high-functioning and the splinter-skilled can accomplish it? Is it really such a pie-in-the-sky hope that children with intellectual disabilities might learn what two times two is -- nay, four times four -- if you found a way to tailor the instruction to their abilities and interests? They can't figure out that two pieces of pizza is twice as much as one?

Our kids can't do that.

Certainly, they've never been asked. When you set up a system of education to depend upon the accomplishment of measured goals, you remove any incentive for those goals to be ambitious. It's a cruel kind of bait-and-switch to a generation of special-education teachers to say, "No, never mind those carefully calibrated goals you've been encouraged to set for years, the ones that prioritize self-esteem and experiences of success! Now your students have to meet goals that actually bear some resemblance to grade-level work! Hey, good luck with that!"

In that conversation a while back, I asked one of the moms of non-multiplyers whether, if you started at the very beginning, in kindergarten, in preschool, using the right methods, you couldn't teach challenged children the basic information that the core standards suggest. If everyone, parents, teachers, administrators, kids, clapped our hands and said, "I believe," could it be done?

'Cause that's always seemed like a reasonable proposition to me. That's the sort of measured, thoughtful plan we're accustomed to. Start early. Start with modest goals. Provide intensive remediation. Keep your fingers crossed. It could happen. Just the lower multiplication tables, you know. Up to sixes, maybe. Twelves, no, because we're realists. But nines, nines could happen. With the right funding.

It's the older kids we mourn for, the ones who've been in a failed system for so long their brain cells have left the building, the ones who have no strong foundation to build upon. To say to them now, in seventh or eighth or ninth or tenth grade, "Put down the crayons! Time to go learn with everyone else!" is all kinds of cruel. I've championed that point of view in the past. I've sang the praises of protected classrooms where our kids have trusted peers on their own level and can have feelings of success away from the stress and the pressure of the mainstream.

Our kids can't do that.

Except ... except. Last year, when my son was a sophomore in high school, we decided to let him dip his toe in that mainstream by taking math in the resource room instead of self-contained. We had a nice cozy Math 10 class all picked out, Math 10 having the loosest connection available to any sort of rigorous mathematical curriculum. And then, over the summer, some airheads in high places decided that everybody at our high school should be going to college, so there was no need for any regular-education levels below College Prep. So instead of general-ed Math 10, my son was now in college-prep Algebra 1.

Algebra 1! It is to laugh! As one of his speech therapists said to me with a shake of the head, "Where's the functionality?" What would a kid like mine, with "potential" like his, possibly need algebra for? Our kids don't do algebra. Our kids don't do pre-algebra. Our kids get math goals picked out of an IEP computer program. Our kids need concrete life skills, not an understanding of variables. My son could make it through a long division problem if you narrated every step in slow and careful detail, and gave him graph paper to do it on, and maybe a snack halfway through. But Algebra 1? Let the eye-rolling and shoulder-shrugging begin.

As it turned out, though, he didn't do half bad. Nobody's going to make an inspirational motion picture about his triumph over higher math, but he wasn't steamrolled by it, either. I watched him do his homework, and I could see that the basic operations, he understood, my high-functioning multiplication wunderkind. The mastering of bunches of steps -- the patience and focus required to follow the thread through much shifting of xs and ys from side to side -- was harder to come by, but not because it was far outside the realm of his ability. It was on the outer wall of his ability, teetering at the top of a parapet, but it was within bounds.

There's no way we ever would have known that unless he tried it, and no way he ever would have tried it if we'd known what he was enrolling in. Even after his really gratifying success in algebra, his case manager expressed shock that I wanted to keep him in resource room next year, for geometry. "Geometry's hard!" she cried. The impulse to say "Our kids can't do that" is still so strong, the impulse to scurry to safety. Geometry is hard. Multiplication is hard. Hope is hard. But like so many things, worth trying.

Can we do that?


Terri Mauro blogs at Parenting Special Needs and Parenting Isn't Pretty. She has two terrific kids, a 20-year-old with learning and language disabilities and a 17-year-old with FASD, both adopted from Russia in 1994.


  1. This reminds me of Robert Rummel-Hudson's post about "over-believing" in his daughter, Schuyler. You're exactly right here...we've got to challenge all the assumptions about what our kids can and cannot do and we've got to give them a chance to show us themselves. Thanks for the reminder and the reality check - and just in time for the next school year. My guy is only starting kindergarten, so this was a perfect post for me to read at this time.

  2. The important thing is don't feed the children on negativity. Maybe they can do that if they really try. I am just saying to let them find their own limitations.

  3. This was a wonderful article to read today. I have been pondering Professor Jennifer Wishart's research from the early 90s about how children with Down syndrome develop "counterproductive learning behaviors" that partly(?) "... may stem from crucial differences in the psychological environment in which children with DS grow and learn." Ouch!
    Too often I have discovered that my son 'can' do something - something that according to all evaluations he should not be able to do - only after he does it due to some fluke of opportunity or ambition that was a surprise in itself.
    But what if they can? It's something to ponder, isn't it?
    Professor Wishart's article,
    Cognitive Development in Young Children
    with Down Syndrome: Developmental Strengths,
    Developmental Weaknesses
    can be found at The Riverbend DS website:

  4. Thanks for the comments, everyone. It will be really interesting to see what happens with these core state standards, which are quite forthright in saying that kids with intellectual disabilities should be in mainstream classes doing the same thing as everybody else, with appropriately differentiated instruction. That is wildly different from what I heard when my kids were starting out in school, and I was getting the living hope beat out of me in IEP meetings.
    It would be fun to be where you are, Hetha, starting with a kindergartner, listening to all those discouraging evaluations and "let's be real" spiels, and saying, "That's very nice, but it's the position of the federal government that my child CAN learn with everybody else, and it's your responsibility to make it happen. Whatcha got?"
    Even if states don't adopt the standards, it's going to be very hard for schools to hold the old hopeless line when parents can point not to their own delusions but to public policy.