The Role of Special Education in a Democracy

Thank you to Tim Villegas and for the opportunity to originally post this at


Reflections on Ravitch’s Reign of Error from a Special Ed Teacher

The past few years I’ve been wondering when did being a teacher make me such an awful, greedy person in the eyes of our country? Thanks to being active on Twitter, I finally got a better understanding of what has been going on recently in education policy and how Obama’s Race to the Top has led to the proliferation of charters, even more high-stakes testing and the Common Core Learning Standards. It wasn’t just in my head; there was really something going on, a systematic pushback against public education. Diane Ravitch’s Reign of Error put all the current policy problems that educators face together in one place with research and solutions. For educators, it has always been important to be educated advocates for our students. For our students, we are models of what it means to be engaged citizens, in order to fulfill that role, we need works like Reign of Error to keep us informed.

The problems identified and solutions that Ravitch offers are not new, but it is refreshing to be reminded why education policy matters so much in this country. Our education system is the bedrock of our democratic society. There’s a reason why when the rest of the world seems to be erupting right now that we continue to have civil protests and dialogue; although Congress can’t seem to get along, we are not a nation that rushes to take up arms.

This year, in the race to improve my students’ performance and demonstrate that I truly am a highly effective teacher, I had forgotten why I had chosen to be a public school teacher in the first place. I’m grateful to Ravitch for the reminder of John Dewey’s work and that,

“The public schools have taught us how to be one society, not a collection of separate enclaves, divided by race, language and culture. They have contributed directly to the growth of a large middle class and a dynamic society. Our nation’s public schools have been a mighty engine of opportunity and equality. They still are.” (Ravitch, 2013, p.323)

As a teacher of students with multiple disabilities, I had a light bulb moment when I remembered school is not just about reading, math and showing that my students can access the Common Core, but about being citizens. Schools prepare contributors to society, not just academic scholars.

I’m sad to admit I had been sucked into the accountability vortex. With New York’s new teacher evaluation system in place, part of which uses the Danielson’s Framework, I was focused on using this framework to prove how meaningful my work is and that my students can learn.

You see, since most of my students are non-verbal, use wheelchairs, are dependent for all their care needs, and have health impairments, I am often asked, “well, what do you teach them?” Often the root of the question comes from the thinking that if they’re not learning academics, then why are we paying taxes for them to go to school? Wouldn’t these needy (and expensive) children best be served in a cheaper setting (ie. minus teacher salary), such as daycare or a hospital?

It makes me frustrated that people don’t naturally value the important place that children with multiple disabilities have in our society of diverse human beings. But instead of trying to explain that, my best answer in the past had been to explain how my students are learning, although it might not look like traditional learning, and that we are accessing the same general education curriculum that “typical” students are learning, but in a different way. We are focusing on the essential skills they need to learn, such as communication, choice-making, cause & effect, and joint attention.

But I have to admit that their question made me question what I knew was right. I became fixated on proving my students’ worth with data collection sheets and Common Core activities, which distracted me from the 1:1 instruction I knew my students needed in their individual, developmentally appropriate goals. (I say Common Core, because before this push I never felt such pressure to consistently show achievement that was aligned to the NY State Standards besides completing annual Alternate Assessments.)

So as I spend my summer days reflecting on my classroom last year and thinking about improvements for next year, it was a welcome reminder from Ravitch that I should stop running myself ragged just because my students aren’t valued by high-stakes tests and they don’t fit in a mold where I can have them pump out projects that show they understand the Common Core standards.

The reason my students deserve to be in school as much as traditional students who are learning to read, do algebra, and explain historic events, is because its not about the content, its about what all students are learning by doing these learning activities together in a common space. There is a reason we have public schools in this country.

“…they have enabled people from different walks of life to learn from one another, to study together, play together, plan together, and recognize their common humanity. More than any other institution in our society, the public schools enable the rising generation to exchange ideas, to debate, to disagree, and to take into account the view of others in making decisions.” (Ravitch, 2013, p.323)

This is what I teach my students. By working with them to communicate, interact with peers, identify their wants and needs, my goals are no different from a general education teacher.

“The essential mission of the public schools are not merely to prepare workers for the global workforce but to prepare citizens with the minds, hearts, and characters to sustain our democracy into the future.” (Ravitch, 2013, p.325)

In our drive to create college and career ready graduates, let us not forget that public schools were founded to create an educated citizenry, not just workers. Just because not all students will have a job one day or even be able to live independently does not mean that they are not an important part of our society.

Additionally, students with special needs bring diversity to schools that accurately reflect the world outside of schools. What better space than a classroom of students who have such a different experience of life than a “typical” child to help students learn “to take into account the view of others?”

“As communities grew, parents and concerned citizens realized that educating children was a shared public responsibility, not a private one…For many years, the public schools were known as common schools, because they were part of the public commons. Like parks, libraries, roads and the police, they were institutions that belonged to the whole people…But most people understood that paying for the education of the community’s children was a civic duty, an investment in the future, in citizens who would grow up and become voters and take their place in society.” (Ravitch, 2013, p.322)

At the end of the day, schools are in the business of making better people for a better world. Whether we teach math or communication, as educators we serve a valuable role in our democratic society. I know that a large part of my pride in our society comes from the strong public education that I received. So for this special educator, there is no more renewing feeling than realizing that my specialized teaching skill helps me and my students, support staff, and families become stronger, educated citizens of our American democratic society.

List of Works Cited

Ravitch, D. (2013). Reign of Error. New York, NY: Knopf.