An earlier version of this essay appeared in educational Horizons 81,1 (Fall 2002) pp.10 - 12

Special Education: misgivings and reconsiderations

by Wade A. Carpenter, Ph. D.

edited 2/13/18

Job . . . or job?

Historically, Job was a Biblical character whose history was marked by loss, suffering, good intentions, questionable advice, and uncertain justice. Ultimately, Job and his friends were humbled, and hence, everybody won. Currently, special education is a secular job, the history of which is marked by loss, suffering, good intentions, questionable advice, and uncertain justice. Maybe this time, the job and its friends will humble ourselves, so that everybody can win again.

Handicapped kids and those who care for them have pretty consistently ended up losers in the public schools. Neglect didn’t work. Special education didn’t work, either. Will our efforts to fully include special children in regular classes do any better, given our insatiable desire to raise achievement and measure it by test scores? Frankly, I doubt it. Working with less-fortunate kids in academic classes might help the “included” kids a bit, and it will undoubtedly make the “including” kids better people. But let’s also admit that it will take time away from kids’ test preparation, and we all know damn well what really counts.

Teachers all know what suffering we create when we neglect the needy. But we should also consider the grief that follows when overzealous service is provided. For instance, in the bad old days before the laws discussed in Merriel Bullock’s article (see pp. 21–26 in educational HORIZONS 81,1) were taken seriously, my high school normally had thirty kids per teacher in special education classes— kids whose “disabilities” included everything from dyslexia to economic hardship (by far the most frequent diagnosis). While it was noble to provide them all special services, it was misguided: what chance did a truly dyslexic kid have of getting adequate help in such an environment? Of course, now we have class-size limitations . . . but I keep hearing unsettling stories of number fudging by using permanent substitutes who may have only high school diplomas, or subject-area teachers during their planning periods, or even coaches (presumably, those with unfortunate won-lost records) to sit in the class with the regular teacher. I hope these practices are not common, but.... The suggestions in this issue of educational HORIZONS center on aggressively identifying every possible disability so we can get extra funding and personnel and put specialists into regular schools and classes: a step in the right direction, perhaps, but there may be yet a better idea.

Educators have good intentions. But how often do we all wail about how nobody else gives a flip for the kids? Well, we’re wrong: most folks have good intentions. Just as nobody was against Job, nobody is against kids, least of all the unfortunate ones. But they aren’t number one for anybody, at least not on this mortal coil; so like Job, we get lots of questionable advice.

The literature on divine justice is immense, ranging from Ecclesiastes to Aquinas to Kierkegaard to, most recently, Alan Dershowitz.1 And it is always troubling and unresolved. The literature on special education injustice is also immense, but is troubling . . . precisely because we think schools can resolve the whole problem. The fact is, we can’t, so justice is again uncertain.

Respectfully, I have to challenge three premises that underlie this issue’s feature articles.


Most everywhere in the world, simplistic progressivism died after Verdun and the Holocaust.2 But in education literature we find statements that, taken at face value—which I presume was not intended by the authors in this issue—could lead the hurried reader in some regrettable directions.

Change Is Good

Well, maybe it is and maybe it isn’t. Education writers generally agree with Robert Kennedy: “Some people see things as they are and ask why; I see things that never were and ask,‘Why not?’” It might be useful to know that Kennedy’s statement was cribbed from a Bernard Shaw play, Back to Methuselah.3 It was spoken by the serpent to Eve.

The Status Quo Is Bad

Maybe it is. But to uncritically accept the progressivist mistake is worse. Roy Maynard Seitsinger and David Aloyzy Zera, in this issue’s “Administrative Systems and Their Responses to Special Education,” optimistically remark that an administrator is often able to effect “change within the system and all its subsystems—whether it is progression to a higher order, regression to a previous state, or maintenance.” Of course, one could add “deterioration through ill-conceived change.” Decay is what happens when dead ideas make progress.

Going Back to Old Ways Is Terrible

Maybe. First, though, we need to distinguish dead ideas from living ones that just happen to be old. Don’t ever let anyone get by with the old nonsense that “You can’t turn back the clock.” Of course you can. What was the Renaissance if it wasn’t turning back the clock—correcting faulty translations of classical thought, analyzing it, synthesizing it with contemporary conditions, and evaluating the results?


Several statements in a couple of articles could be imperialistic if taken to extremes:

(a) “Another option . . . is facing the possibility of change, welcoming it with open arms....” Not so. In education, change should be met not with open arms, but with sharpened pencils. Analyze it. Try to predict outcomes. Project the costs. Try to predict what could possibly go wrong, and assume that it will. Then be prepared when it does. And we should definitely fear the complex. Ask any administrator: when you’re trying to maintain order in the midst of 2,000 barbarians, plus all their children, more complexity is almost always a bad thing.

This is not to say that the change shouldn’t be undertaken, but that it should be considered with more care than enthusiasm. There are lots of people out there who don’t like educators experimenting with their children, and I am one of them. Interestingly, President Bush seems to be another: his “No Child Left Behind” Act may set a trend away from our current obsession with the experimental. Whether or not his prescribed “research-backed” methods are backed by real research, and not just more of the same old stuff, but from the Right this time, remains to be seen. In fairness to my left-wing friends, I note that Education Secretary Paige’s recent report on teacher education does not bode well.4

(b) Seitsinger and Zera suggest: “The very first thing [an administrator] should ask is ‘What does the child need to succeed?’ The second question one should pose is ‘How can we supply what the child needs?’ Only then should there be an examination of what assets are available and what additional resources are needed.”

While this is an intelligent approach to solving kids’problems, it may be based on a debatable assumption: the school has to meet every kid’s every need every time. Well, I’m sorry, but it can’t, it shouldn’t, and it mustn’t.

It can’t. I’ve known some superb educators and fine schools, but none of them are that good.

It shouldn’t. Schools may not be the best agencies to meet some needs, and maybe we should try to limit ourselves to what we can do well . . . literacy, numeracy, and (to think really retro) “the life of the mind.” Just to do these things well in the regular classroom would take the energy and resources of nearly everyone. We need not fear that “[i]f the needs of the child are not specifically addressed, one can assume that growth will be either small or nonexistent.” If the authors are referring to the growth of the child, children grow and mature even if their needs are not being met. It happens every day. We don’t have to meet every kid’s every need every time. If the authors are referring to growth of the school system, the history of American public education shows that the system will grow whether the needs of children are being met or not. In a similar context, consider this statement:

Of course,when a subsystem has become activated, the other subcomponents of the system must have their needs met as well so that the entire system can grow, change, and adapt to become another, successful higher-order system.

This prescription could, in the hands of the enthusiastic, justify radical ’ectomies when minor ’otomies are really needed. We do not need to change everything in order to change anything.

Finally, it mustn’t. While heroic efforts by teachers are admirable, they may also be self-destructive, or even destructive of those they are designed to help. Nowadays, new obligations seldom broaden teachers; they usually just flatten us.

That brings us to the kid.


Once again, I wish some of the contributors were right, but . . .

Seitsinger and Zera write:

a) “How do administrators within a nested sociopolitical system move freely in their advocacy of students?” With regret I have to respond: they don’t. Further, the authors mention “. . . the extent to which [administrators are] willing to stand up for the rights of the individual.”

Again, they don’t. The fact is that school administrators are employed to keep the school going, and administrators know that the rights of a kid often must take second place to the rights of all the other kids. That suggests one of the best arguments for teacher and administrator education, as opposed to mere training. As Plato argued, one of the most important functions of education is to minimize the frequency of such conflicts in a world that still has dark places (Republic, Books VII–X).

b) “No matter the circumstances, it is the child who should always receive the system’s highest benefits.” Yes, the child should. But that will not often happen in a system designed to meet the needs of 65 million kids, and heaven-knows-how-many other legitimate stakeholders.

The public school is not there to serve the interests of private individuals; it is there to serve the public.5 Alas, the administrator’s duties toward the individual child are, at best, secondary. Which brings us to what may be a better idea. Maybe it’s time for us to learn from Job and his friends, and “humble up.”Let’s admit that public schools, teachers, and administrators may never solve a lot of the problems discussed in this issue, precisely because they are public, schools, teachers, and administrators.

Certainly we must obey the law and provide an adequate, free, public education for every child in as “normal” an environment as is appropriate. But perhaps society has been signaling us that we don’t have to do everything in regular schools and classrooms. And it is signaling that it prefers more achievement for students over jobs for specialists, and will be cautious toward Brenda Smith Myles and Richard L. Simpson’s advocacy of “newly identified clinical conditions” (p. 43) and greater demand for specialists unless we present exacting evidence of legitimate need. The “No Child Left Behind” Act legitimizes the use of alternative, private, even religion-based experts when public providers are not satisfactory. Maybe it’s time to explore such alternatives more aggressively ...but with more care than enthusiasm.


1. Alan Dershowitz’s The Genesis of Justice: 10 Stories of Biblical Injustice That Led to the 10 Commandments and Modern Morality and Law (New York: Warner, 2001) is a splendid critique of divine justice. I don’t agree with very much of it, but it is one of the most thought-provoking books for the lay reader I’ve seen in awhile.

2.Christopher Lasch, The True and Only Heaven: Progress and Its Critics. New York:W.W. Norton,1991.

3. (1922; I, 1)

4. U.S. Department of Education, Office of Postsecondary Education, Office of Policy Planning and Innovation, Meeting the Highly Qualified Teachers Challenge: The Secretary’s Annual Report on Teacher Quality, Washington, D.C., 2002. < OPE/News/teacherprep/index.html>

5. Joel Spring, American Education: An Introduction to Social and Political Aspects. 5th ed. (New York: Longman, 1991), p. 5.