Specializing Education to Meet Students’ Needs

May 15th, 2000 | By | Category: 11-4: All Our Children Are Special, Editor's Essay
By Marjane Ambler

Kindergartners in a general education classroom at Wyoming Indian Elementary School in Wyoming. Photo by Mike McClure

When we were growing up in the 1950s, my brother learned to hate school. We never knew exactly what killed his eagerness and turned school into torture for him. It didn’t help that his two older sisters were “A” students with more standard learning styles. The school system ignored his special talents and attributes, and teachers thought, “Why aren’t you like your sisters?” No doubt he had a teacher or two who empathized with him, but at that time, there were no institutionalized mechanisms for dealing with students who were different. My mother would drive the streets of our middle class, suburban neighborhood to find him, crying in the bushes.

As I worked on this issue on special education, I thought of my brother as I read Dr. Paul Dauphinais’s article about the Turtle Mountain Reservation schools. A school psychologist and a member of the Turtle Mountain Ojibwe Band, Dauphinais discusses children who arrive excited to learn and asks, “What happens to that excitement? How do schools extinguish the love of learning?”

Unfortunately, my brother never encountered a teacher like Kay McCord. She learned from her students how to re-ignite their natural curiosity and creativity. She and her students worked cooperatively together, relying upon educational methods that were more natural to the American Indian students in her classroom and which, in fact, she would have preferred in her own non-Indian schooling. In her article in this issue, she describes James, a third grader on the Northern Cheyenne Reservation who refused to pick up a pencil. After they began using computers to integrate the children’s interests and culture, his attitude completely changed. He became one of the most creative children in the class, writing and recording stories, recording the pronunciation of his Indian name. His stories reveal his enthusiasm: “I like to do work, play, do book reports. I like to color and play hide and go seek. I like going to school. I am going to write a book of dinosaur tales.”

Today, children like my brother are more likely to be assessed and to get the attention they need. This is a good thing. However, special education evaluation and referrals are not a neutral, objective process. They are being overused, and they sometimes seem arbitrary, according to Paul Dauphinais and to scholars quoted in the Resource Guide in this issue. The disproportionate number of minority children in special education has become a civil rights concern. Children like James often are referred to special education when they need something—or someone–else. On the Turtle Mountain Reservation, an astounding 25-33 percent of the students were placed in special education in 1998-1999. Yet Dauphinais’s study group found that the test scores of Ojibwe children identified as learning disabled differed very little from the other children in their schools.

When standardized tests are used to evaluate children, American Indian children and other children of color often fare poorly. Their verbal skills and their lifestyles are very different. A woman who taught on the Wind River Reservation in Wyoming reported her students’ blank expressions when a test asked them to rank several indicators of wealth—a diamond, a mansion, and a yacht. She had to explain what a mansion and a yacht were, and the students understandably had no idea which was the most valuable. When she asked them to define wealth, they said, “Having enough to eat. Having a house to live in.” Students use their local dialects rather than the mainstream dialect of English. Dauphinais reports that students there use colloquial terms such as “oven” for the whole stove or descriptors such as “pokey plant” for cactus.

Even when teachers want to help, the system is set up to put children into special education if they are not performing at their grade level, according to Dauphinais. Special education was intended to provide a “safety net” for students with disabilities who might otherwise fall through the cracks of the school system. However, scholars such as Thomas Skrtic believe that the special education system instead serves as a “safety valve” for schools that don’t know how to adequately serve diverse students. He believes most K-12 administrators have been trained to run a school as a rationally organized machine. Labeling certain students and removing them from the classroom helps maintain order, according to Skrtic’s article in the Harvard Educational Review, which is quoted in the Resource Guide in this issue. Special education becomes a dumping ground for behavior problems.

If it’s not done right, special education creates more problems, according to Dr. Elden Lawrence, president of Sisseton Wahpeton Community College in South Dakota. Children can be cruel, as we all know. No matter what the instructors call it, the students inevitably start calling the special education resource room the “Retard Room” and labeling those students for life. He has seen the system fail too many children.

What is the answer? No one suggests we should dispense with special education. Some children need special help, and unfortunately, reservations like other impoverished communities often have more children who need help. On some reservations, many children suffer from Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS) and Fetal Alcohol Effects (FAE). Teachers also see children whose learning is altered by their parents’ drug use, which may or not be fetal effects. An estimated 21 percent of the children born on the Rosebud Indian Reservation in South Dakota during one period suffered from FAS or FAE, according to an article by Kris Reed and Lowell Amiotte (TCJ, Vol. VII, N. 2). This is not a universal problem, however. On the Fond du Lac Reservation in Minnesota, the tribe eliminated FAS births entirely through its prevention program, according to Linda Miller Cleary and Thomas D. Peacock in their book, Collected Wisdom: American Indian Education.

The answers lie in individual and in collective action. Kay McCord, a non-Indian with 19 years experience teaching Indian children, describes what the individual teacher can do in her article in this issue. McCord now shares her expertise through the Haskell Indian Nations University Elementary Teacher Education Program. She involved the parents and community and emphasized individual strengths, making the students feel as if they mattered and that someone cared. She learned about the community she lived in. While this might seem like an obvious approach, non-Indian teachers often hesitate to participate or feel excluded from the community. Some think that teaching should be a one way street, with the student learning mainstream vocabulary, culture, and values. As a result, they often misunderstand and misdiagnose their students.

Dauphinais’s study group offers a systematic approach that given time, might work. After working together for several months, they arrived at several principles that personalized the assessment process. So far, they have not reduced the number of students referred to special education. It is difficult to change systems, especially when most of the teachers and administrators are products of teacher education programs that taught these systems.

We understand why teachers and administrators feel overwhelmed sometimes by the needs of their students. With crumbling buildings and limited books and computers at some schools, administrators feel lucky if they can offer special education as an option, much less individualized plans. We understand why teachers cling to assessment and referral methods that seem to bring order to chaos.

Every teacher who cares about her students and who has high expectations will change lives. But to change systems takes time and financial resources that are often short at schools serving Indian students.

Some reformers believe that hope for the reservation communities’ future lies with tribal colleges. This might seem surprising since responsibility for special education lies with K-12 schools. However, meaningful reforms require systemic change, which is taking root in some of the teacher education and paraprofessional training programs described in this issue. Gradually, tribal colleges and universities are increasing the number of Indian and non-Indian teachers who understand Indian students’ backgrounds, families, and vocabularies. These teachers are prepared to take students like my brother and like James by the hand and help them reach their dreams.

Marjane Ambler is editor of the Tribal College Journal. Jim Green of the Alliance Project for Tribal Colleges helped recruit, edit, and write articles for this issue. Thanks also to Dr. Elden Lawrence, president of Sisseton Wahpeton Community College, and Dr. Carty Monette, president of Turtle Mountain Community College, whose thoughts contributed to this essay.

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