One of These Things Is Just Not the Same: Lumping Kids With Different Needs Together

Being a teacher right now is tough work. Your funding is being cut, your classroom sizes are going up, the bureaucracy is breathing down your back, the general public hates you because you’re a public employee, and you’re being reminded at every turn that you, personally, are what’s wrong with the youth in this country today. You’re being burdened with a lot of things, many of which aren’t your responsibility or your fault, but someone is certainly eager to make it seem that way in order to deflect from the real issues. Meanwhile, you’re trying to do something you’re passionate about: teach children, raise the next generation, build a community of learners and seekers and leaders who could go on to do great things.

One issue that a lot of teachers of my acquaintance have been discussing more and more lately is the tendency to lump children with wildly different needs together in the same classroom, creating a situation where the teacher is struggling with competing requirements and all the kids lose out. This tends to happen to disabled students, ESL students, and students with ‘behavioural issues’ in low-income schools in particular, and it does a huge disservice to both children and educators. Unfortunately, there’s not a lot of traction on doing something about it.

Talking to an ESL teacher recently, I was horrified to learn that while her classes primarily include ESL students, as they should, they also include some learning disabled students who were shunted into her classes because they had language difficulties. The problems that kids have with disabilities like autism, though, are not the same as those experienced by ESL students. If you have, say, an auditory processing disorder, being placed in an ESL class is not going to help you. Conversely, of course, an ESL student wouldn’t do well in a special education environment because that student doesn’t need an IEP and a disability-focused curriculum.

For her ESL students, having disabled students in the class is a disruption. Not necessarily for behavioural reasons, although that can be an issue, but because the teacher needs to adjust her style to accommodate those students and make sure they get a fighting chance to learn. Instead of focusing on ESL subjects and making sure her students improve their English skills so they can progress into the mainstream classroom, she’s having to balance the needs of the two student populations. The teacher must consider how and where to direct her attention to get the best return, while balancing a large class size and external pressures like demands for her students to test well.

Meanwhile, the disabled students aren’t having a great time in that setting either. ESL teachers are not given disability-specific training and lack the skills and experience necessary to work with disabled students, which means they might not be able to deliver the best education possible to their disabled students. Instead, they’re struggling to mentor their students as best they can, cobbling together experience, any extra training they’ve been able to get, advice from other teachers, and help from aides and other support staff. While some techniques used in ESL instruction might be helpful for disabled students, that’s not unilaterally the case, and it doesn’t address disability-specific issues that may need to be resolved so those students can mainstream, which is the ultimate goal.

In that environment, those students may not progress, not through any fault of the teacher, but through the fault of an administration that hears ‘language difficulties’ and thinks ‘ESL,’ assuming that all these students can be shunted together in a single classroom and it will work out. This is obviously not going to be effective, yet it’s the teacher who will be blamed for poor student performance under metrics that focus on ‘teacher accountability’ rather than looking holistically at the classroom environment, the school, the administration, and all the other factors that can go into student success. A teacher is only one part of the puzzle, and needs the support of a larger system to do the best job possible.

Needs can vary between disabled students themselves, which is one reason special education can be so fraught. If you stick all the disabled students in one classroom, some of them are going to do well because the teacher’s style and the environment works for them. Others are going to do poorly because their learning style doesn’t mesh with the classroom experience, because underlying issues aren’t being identified and addressed, because other students bully them, and for any number of other reasons. Just like students in mainstream classrooms experience variable performance depending on who they are as people.

There’s a strong desire to standardise education in the United States, to make it one-size-fits-all, to promote a single unified theory of educational experience and methodology, and it just doesn’t work. Different student needs are not a bad thing, something to be punished, something to medicate students for in order to force them to conform. They’re just needs, and they need to be identified and addressed rather than shoved under the table and ignored. In a school system truly focused on improving opportunities for students and addressing educational disparities, we wouldn’t be glomming students in large, amorphous groups and then being surprised when many of them don’t perform well.

Individual attention costs more money, requires more staff and space and a fundamental rethinking of how education works and who should be in charge. These aren’t necessarily bad things; the US doesn’t spend enough on schools, and it keeps slashing school budgets as though this will somehow solve our huge educational problems. What a different world we could live in if education were truly prioritised, and if all students had their needs met in inclusive schools and classroom environments dedicated to students, not to enforcing factorylike conformity.