I've been a special education teacher for 15 years now, and its been very rewarding. Discouraging at times of course, but on the whole it's been both challenging and fun. And I'm proud of the work special educators do, but not just because we work with challenging students, but because of the philosophy behind our work.
The thing we do right, I think, is to spend very little time comparing students to each other. Once you've witnessed the differences in children and their development, saying someone is "behind" starts to seem a little silly. Kind of a "duh" observation. After all, we're all lagging behind someone, and at the same time we're racing ahead of others.
Most of the children I work with have "learning disabilities." A child is determined to have a learning disability if his achievement (what he demonstrates he can do) lags behind his ability (what he should be able to do) as measured by a standard IQ test. The achievement test then serves as our baseline. With this as our starting point, we write an "Individualized Education Program" with annual and short-term goals in each area of weakness. Instruction is designed specifically for the student to improve his performance in the areas where he is weakest.
We stop and measure progress, both formally and informally, along the way. Often we express scores from standardized tests (Kaufman, Brigance, WIAT) as "grade equivalencies." This converts the standard score into something a little easier for parents to understand since nearly all of us have been brought up in age segregated classrooms. "Timmy's reading comprehension is at a grade equivalency ( G.E.) of 3.4." This means Timmy reads at a level expected of a student in the fourth month of third grade. Parents will view this as great if Timmy is in second grade, but not so hot if he's about to graduate from high school.
Special education teachers don't look at it that way. We compare Timmy's current score with his previous score. If he was reading at a G.E. of 1.6 a year ago, we've made nearly two years of progress in just one year. Now there's something to celebrate.
I think the way we in special education test achievement and stress individual growth might serve as a more democratic model to replace the curriculum-centered approach of NCLB. I believe Utah suggested just such an approach. The reply from the Feds was along the line of, "Fine, as long as the growth measured is growth towards the standards set by NCLB."
This is the heart of NCLB; control over the curriculum. The curriculum is the end all and be all. Attainment of the one right and glorious curriculum as defined and enforced by NCLB and state-authored achievement tests is the only growth that matters.
My wife came home from school a few weeks ago (she is a special education teacher as well) and showed me the latest directive from the state. The goals we write for our students in the IEP each year must now be referenced to the "grade-level content expectations" as outlined in the general curriculum. No student is to be deprived of their right(?) to participate in the general curriculum.
Well there's good news. Nobody's "right" to have state-authored drivel crammed down his throat shall be denied. Let the retching begin.