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How special education is a prime example of our unhealthy ‘obsession with conformity’

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We need only look at schooling in America to see how engrained our disdain for diversity actually is.

That is part of the post below about diversity in education — or rather what the author says is the lack of it and what she calls only surface attempts to achieve it in schools, with a prime example seen in special education programs.

This was written by Soyoung Park, an assistant professor in Equity & Diversity in Special Education at the University of Texas at Austin and a Public Voices Fellow of the Op-Ed Project, an effort to increase the range of voices and quality of ideas in the public square.

By Soyoung Park

The Supreme Court has lifted injunctions blocking a Trump policy preventing transgender people from serving in the military. The decision grants the Pentagon permission to ban transgender people from joining the military, or in some cases even staying in the military. President Trump has been pushing for this ban since 2017, even though studies indicate that inclusion of transgender individuals would have minimal impact on the military.

The Trump administration’s active discrimination of people outside of the dominant culture is likely not surprising to the American people. President Trump, however, is not the source of systemic oppression; he is simply capitalizing on and perpetuating injustice. Fear of “the other” is something deeply embedded in our nation’s DNA. We need only look at schooling in America to see how ingrained our disdain for diversity actually is.

Our education system is an enterprise designed to “fix” children who do not fit the norms of school. These norms are based on a white, middle class, able-bodied culture. Children learn from a very young age that if they are different — in their behavior, way of thinking, language, etc. — they will fail.

We see this in the prevalence of preschool black boys in disciplinary procedures, the low graduation rates among English learners, and the high rates of interaction with the criminal justice system among youth with disabilities.

The field of special education is a prime example of our obsession with conformity. Special education is largely driven by the medical model of disability, which pathologizes disability and treats it like a disease. Behaviorism is the dominant approach to instruction and intervention for children with disabilities. This approach has the intent of reducing “undesirable” behaviors and replacing them with more “desirable” ones. Teachers and clinicians will condition disabled children to demonstrate desirable behaviors using reward systems. If a child points when you ask them to point, they receive a reward that can be anything from praise to stickers to food.

In my own work with schools, I have been astonished by how pervasive behaviorism is, not just in special education contexts. Children are constantly trained to sit still, raise their hand to speak, solve problems using specific procedures, read texts the “correct” way, and speak using a narrowly defined version of academic English. Students who adhere to these norms are praised and rewarded, while those who do not face consequences that can have a dire impact on their educational trajectories (e.g., disciplinary practices, tracking, special education evaluation).

A few years ago, I spent a full academic year observing a kindergarten student for a research project. This boy was an energetic, playful child. He did not like to sit still in his assigned spot on the rug during lessons (which sometimes required the children to sit for as long as twenty minutes). He was also enthusiastic to share his thinking and often shouted out his ideas without raising his hand.

Because the other kindergartners in his class had internalized the expectation that children sit still and quietly in school, this child’s behavior stood out among his peers. Within the first couple of weeks of school, teachers determined that he must have attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder. He was quickly referred to a special education evaluation, which showed no evidence of a disability.

However, because the teachers were insistent that he could not participate in the general education curriculum, the student was identified as eligible for special education. From then on, he was consistently pulled for special education services, missing hours of academic learning with his general education peers each week. The services he received focused on getting him to sit still and wait his turn.

Rather than try to figure out how they might change the child’s learning environment to accommodate his need for movement and his energy, the teachers and administrators at his school tried to change him. By the end of the year, this student was no longer the energetic, playful child that he was when he started kindergarten.

Of course, schools all over the country claim to embrace diversity. Private schools and colleges engage in active diversity recruitment, public schools celebrate a number of heritage and history months, and curricula in some areas are shifting to include more diverse people groups.

These surface-level diversity efforts, however, mask the reality that schools are designed for conformity. Our education system is comfortable with diversity as long as the expectations for student outcomes do not change. Even the Common Core State Standards, which were originally meant to level the playing field, actually contribute to the erasure of diversity. All children are supposed to meet the same standards, perform in the same ways, and think uniformly. In such an education system, difference is stigmatized. Nonstandard is not really allowed. Children can maybe look different from each other, but they have to behave and think exactly the same and in ways that align with the dominant culture.

Given that we teach our children from the youngest of ages that being different is actually bad, it’s no wonder that as adults they create societies of exclusion and oppression. The Trump ban on transgender inclusion in the military is just one example of how we breed an “otherizing” society that is afraid to embrace diversity. If we keep training kids to fear difference, we will always be a country that builds walls and institutes bans on human variation.