What does success mean in special education?


Blog Series on Special Education Teacher Burnout Part 2

A problem that I had in teaching special education was knowing what success looked like. Standardized test scores didn’t give me information about my kids. I did my own assessments but they only told me where a kid was—not whether she had made enough growth. The challenge is that every kid with a disability is unique. One kids might just have a little bit of difficulty with short term memory while another kid has major difficulties with short term memory, long term memory, and processing auditory information.  It is going to be a lot easier for the first kid to catch up to grade level than for the second kid—the second kid has a few more hurdles to jump to get there. So how was I supposed to know if a kid had made enough growth? How was I supposed to know if I was pushing that kid enough?

People will tell you that the child needs to meet her IEP goals for the year. But those goals are written by us, by teachers and parents, and how do we know how high to set the bar? Kids don’t learn the same and there is a fine line between not pushing a kid far enough and pushing them to the point of frustration. My friend has a son with Down syndrome. He had three years of teachers who told her that he would learn in his own time, when he was ready. The fourth year he had a teacher who told her that her son was going to learn it now, on the teacher’s timeline. Her son learned more that one year than in the previous three years combined.

We know we need to set the bar high but in practice it is really challenging to know how high to set it. One of the oddest things about visiting different special education classrooms is seeing how differently the bars are set. In one room the teacher has every student working on life skills while in another every student is working on reading—and the disabilities seem the same between the two rooms. We don’t have clear guidelines on where to set the bar and that causes a lot of confusion for teachers and frustration for families.

More broadly, we don’t have good vision of what success means in the long run. Some people talk about gaining independence while others talk about making people college and career ready while others discuss improving outcomes. Are we aiming to get our kids into college? To get them living on their own? To get them to be successful socially? Obviously the answer is going to vary based on the individual children but we need more discussions about our broad vision for our students. If we want better outcomes for our students and less frustration for teachers, we need to start talking about what we are aiming for and then work backwards to what we need to be doing right now in the classroom.