Best Questions: Special Needs
Despite the rumors, school improvement is hard. It's not about a single passionate leader. It's not about "fixing" teachers and teaching or parents and parenting. It's not about poverty. It's not about money. And it's not about standards. It's about all of them. And more.
In this column, I'll take on the real deal of school improvement—for all schools, not just certain kinds. And for all kids. Because it's not about quick fixes or checking off the instant strategy of the moment. It's about saying, "Yes, and..." not "Yes, but..." no matter what our circumstances are. It's about asking ourselves the best questions.
I am a word snob. I confess. I think words are powerful and beautiful and that word choice matters every day. My dad used to hand out buckets of praise at the dinner table when one of us used "SAT vocabulary." And I loved it.
But sometimes it's the simplest words that matter most. Like "each." As in, "each child, in each school, in each community deserves to be healthy, safe, engaged, supported, and challenged." Too often in education and politics we use a word like "all" and actually mean "some." Or "most." Or "kids like mine." You can't get away with that with a beautiful little word like "each."
Each means looking into a single set of eyes many times over and asking if she is healthy. Each means wondering what it will take for that school to see the child before it and refusing to be satisfied by some sort of cookie-cutter answer often camouflaged in terms of "replicating best practices." How do you know if it is a best practice for this child, this school, this community? Does it meet the needs of each, or just some? Just those kinds of kids, but not these.
Each takes away excuses. We don't change the whole child tenets when we are talking about children with special needs, or nonnative English language speakers, or kids who live in challenging circumstances. We just change the way we get there. Think about this question from our indicators of a whole child approach:
Does each teacher use a range of diagnostic, formative, and summative assessment tasks to monitor student progress, provide timely feedback, and adjust teaching-learning activities to maximize student progress?
What does that look like in practice for a student with a severe cognitive disability? What does that look like in practice for a child who has just entered the country? What does it look like for a 5th grader reading on a college level? It cannot possibly be the same set of assessments, the same timeline of benchmarks, but it must be the same process to ensure that each of those children is supported and challenged.
How about this one:
Does each student in our school have access to a range of options and choices for a wide array of extracurricular and cocurricular activities that reflect student interests, goals, and learning profiles?
It takes a concerted effort to really use each there. Not just the same kids over and over in leadership roles in sports, music, student government, etc. Each is hard.
Perhaps the most important question any school or community must ask itself is:
Does each of our students feel valued, respected, and cared for and is motivated to learn?
Our partner organizations GLSEN, Special Olympics, Council for Exceptional Children, and others will tell you that the statistics say few communities can truly say yes to that one. In this case, too often powerful words are used to express disapproval, fear, and self-righteous pity toward those who are not like "us." I am a word snob. I believe in treasuring words like "each" and banishing words of hate and ridicule. What would happen if "each" of us did that?