Any good teacher knows: You’ve got to do your homework. Fortunately, the Payson Unified School District seems to have done its homework carefully when it comes to improving its program for students with special needs.
The district has moved toward mainstreaming as many of its special education students as possible, reacting to studies showing many of those students do better when they’re not isolated from their peers.
Some years ago, many districts shifted to putting most students with disabilities in separate classes. That made sense on the surface.
A series of lawsuits had forced state and federal governments to begin providing the extra resources children with mental, emotional and learning disorders need to succeed. Schools increased the level of training required for special education teachers and took advantage of the extra funding to provide much smaller classes.
Logical. Right? Give those kids extra help and a secure, supportive setting with specially trained teachers. They should thrive? Right?
Well, not really.
Years after districts across the country moved to isolate special education students for their own good, researchers finally undertook the careful, long-term studies necessary to test whether that seemingly common sense approach actually worked.
Turns out, most special education students do better socially, emotionally and intellectually if they spend as much time as possible in regular classrooms with other students.
Test scores rise, the kids make more friends and participate in more school activities. Moreover, their peers in those classrooms often learn important lessons about tolerance and respect.
Payson schools have been moving toward a policy of “inclusion” for the past several years. Now about 40 percent of the district’s roughly 400 special needs students spend most of their time in regular classrooms, with support services like teacher’s aides and pull-out tutoring.
Of course, many students still face such daunting challenges that they can’t function in a normal classroom without placing an undue burden on the teacher and their fellow students. However, the district has the right idea in mainstreaming children with special needs whenever possible.
The move to apply the fruits of careful research represents a heartening exception to much of what passes for educational reform these days.
All too often, politicians have imposed rigid, ideological reforms on schools — largely ignoring the hard-won wisdom of classroom teachers and the telling results of careful studies.
The rush to judge all schools and teachers by standardized test scores provides the most recent case in point.
Such reforms started with the useful urge to track results through careful testing. But the stitched together concept got an electrical jolt of pure politics and has become a seemingly unstoppable educational Frankenstein.
The threat of that mindless obsession with standardized test scores in a few subjects, has ironically made the reform of special education programs crucial. The state’s new system grades each school based in substantial measure on test score gains for the weakest students.
Not surprisingly, that includes many special education students. If schools can’t find a way to help those students, they may face dire consequences. For instance, if a school like Rim Country Middle School gets a “D” three years running it could face a state or federal takeover.
That’s why we’re glad to see the district applying the research and helping students, despite the budget handicaps imposed on those schools by the Legislature.
We just wish all the educational reformers would also pay attention to the evidence — before they try to overhaul the system.
At the very least, they should do their homework.