Special Education: Equity versus Equality

november wood, my back yardPushing through the brambles of “special” education vocabulary, I realize that  I don’t care for the use of this word–SPECIAL.  Do we tell our children they are in special education because they are “special”?  Does this also mean that if you are NOT in special education, you are NOT special?  It’s an issue of equity versus equality. If everyone came to the table with the same skill-set, then treating everyone equally would indeed be “fair”.  The reality is that we all have different abilities, some things come easier to some people, depending on the domain. Treating everyone “equally” when they are not all at the same starting point is anything but “fair”; it’s unfair. Providing more scaffolding for those beginning at a lower level allows those students an equitable opportunity to reach the same potential as all other students; this is fair.  But extra scaffolding, extra help, extra education, this doesn’t sound “fair” if we are only giving it to the “special” children, according to naive parents of neurotypical children.  Would anyone  oppose calling it Equitable Education instead of Special Education?


12 thoughts on “Special Education: Equity versus Equality

  1. A friend was offended by this post, and I apologize if I was unclear. I have two children, a 15 year old in his second semester at college, and a 9 year old who spends most of her school day in pull-out classrooms with special education teachers. My friend writes:

    “I understand the point you are making. Although you don’t mean it to be offensive, it is to some people. I know that everyone is born with different backgrounds,IQs;etc. but not everyone was born with the same potential. Some people don’t have the cognitive abilities to overcome these obstacles and will never be called “gifted’, so why not let them be “special”

    My response:
    They are special, but every kid is special, because every kid is unique. In special education, “Special” has become a euphemism for “different “, “delayed”, “slow”, or other derogatory terms. If you want to celebrate a kid’s talents or qualities, don’t just say she is special, focus on her specific qualities. Why is she special? Is she loving? Friendly? A great singer? A hard worker? Brains are just another part of the body, and everyone’s brain developed differently, thus we have neuro-diversity. Some one might be quick with math, but be bad at dancing. Some have speech impediments but are amazing artists. There is always something to celebrate. I’m more offended if someone calls my daughter “special” because she can’t read and write as well as her peers, “special”, because she has problems with language and a poor memory, “special” because her talents are not celebrated in the academically-centered public school system. These are not her defining qualities, yet it’s by these very qualities that her entire person is judged.

    Regardless, my point was not about calling the child special, it was about calling the education special, as if it is doled out as something extra, like a dollop of whipped cream on hot chocolate. Neuro-typical kids and their parents see this extra attention, and say “that’s not fair!” Why doesn’t my kid get whipped cream, a tutor, summer school, etc. Calling the education “special” creates division, the haves and the have nots. All the yellow-bellied Sneeches want stars upon Thars! Calling it special education delineates and emphasizes that the kids are not being treated equally. But, EQUAL is not what we want, we want EQUITABLE. So every kid can be the best they can be, no matter where they started. Not every student will need as much help, but every kid deserves the right to reach there full potential, where ever they fall on the neuro-diversity spectrum. I think every kid should have an IEP.

    • I think your idea of starting every-child with an IEP is an excellent idea. This way education is catered to the needs of every child in an inclusive teaching environment. No longer the stigma of “special education” will apply if a youngster has a learning disability in math but can hold his/or her own in math; no longer a youngster with AD/HD who excels in tactile types of activities will no longer have the stigma of being placed in the ED classroom.

      • I think your idea of starting every-child with an IEP is an excellent idea. This way education is catered to the needs of every child in an inclusive teaching environment. No longer the stigma of “special education” will apply if a youngster has a learning disability in math but can hold his/or her own in reading; no longer a youngster with AD/HD who excels in tactile types of activities will no longer have the stigma of being placed in the ED classroom.

    • First let me start by saying that I have a a child in Special Education and a child that is in advanced levels. Let us first remember that Special Education is just that it is Specialized, it needs to be and I am thankful for it everyday. My son struggles and if he did not have his Special Ed teachers he would be lost. I have absolutely no problem with it being called Special Ed and I have not met a single parent whether they be a parent of a special needs child or not that considers it unfair that the child with difficulties is given extra help. We are putting far to much in the hands or our educators. It is the parents responsibility to make a child feel special about all of their unique personal qualities. It is the schools responsibility to develop specialized curriculums for the students that need the extra help to meet their academic potential. My daughter is made to feel special everyday in school because she is commended for her good grades and the way she strives to do so well in class. So her education isn’t called special, does she care? Not in the least. My son is in Special Education classes and he also is made to feel special every day by the work he does. So his education is called Special, does he care? Nope. He is just glad that he can find ways to keep up with the other kids. The unfortunate reality is that life is not fair and that is not going to change. I will continue to stand by the fact that it is our responsibility as parents to make our child feel special about themselves and not worry so much about labels.

      • Thank you Jessica, you make a good point; special education is specialized education. The education delivered is custom built to fit the specific educational needs of every child within its framework. But, shouldn’t this be true for the educational needs of every child?

      • Special Education is a service NOT a place. The law is very clear about this!

        So, a “child IN special education” is a misnomer. We provide services that are delivered by specialists that provide access to, participation and progress in the general education curriculum. All children are general education students … some need interventions and remedial instruction, which is clearly thought out (based on data about the child’s strengths and the weaknesses that negatively impact her/his academic success) and articulated in an Individualized Education Plan (IEP).

        The state of Michigan (and probably others) are looking at mandating success plans (of sorts) for all children, by the way.

  2. Pingback: Special Education: Equity versus Equality (via Birdie Champ’s Blog) « A Teacher's Portfolio by Layne C. Smith

  3. Pingback: Special Education: Equity versus Equality (via Birdie Champ’s Blog) « A Teacher's Portfolio by Layne C. Smith

    • These are wonderful posts. My daughter is in special education. She is 5. But I really do dislike the word “special.” It’s worn out word with negative stereotypes.

      I also dislike her being pulled out of the GE classroom and missing out on opportunities. I want her speech and language, motor, and social goals to be applied to the work she is completing in the GE classroom and typical school activities. Special education is not a place; it’s a method, right?

      I love the idea of all children having an IEP and their education being about what is right for them (not a cookie cutter plan for every child). Every child should get what they need to be successful in school and life; it’s plain and simple! If children are not labeled as “special” or “gifted” they can easily fall through the cracks.

      The public schools do not devote individualized attention to ensure these kids excel to meet their potential. My 18 year-old son fell through the cracks in just this way. He was told by his high school counselor to pursue a vocational career (like auto mechanics) and said he could not go to college because he had a D in one semester of his Spanish and Geography classes. I was livid with anger. Nothing against vocational education, but I wanted my son to go to a 4-year college or transfer to one from a community college. My son was not interested in fixing cars. He wants to major in music. He is a talented guitarist. The only time the counselor spoke to my son/us during his 2 years at this particular high school was to tell him/us this. There was no mentoring or guidance along the way.

      May I suggest that parents look into the Big Picture Learning Schools? http://www.bigpicture.org. They customize the education plan to the student and their strengths, talents, and interests. Each child has an advisor/mentor that they see and talk to every single day, and the child –not the teachers– plan out the path they will take to graduate. They also aggressively plan for college and have ways to allow kids with a D or F to make up the credits and still get into a 4 year university. No options were presented to my son at the public school to repeat a class due to summer school budget cuts.

      Birdie, I applaud this blog. Things must change so that all children can be successful and special education kids can stop being labeled in a negative way. I see that the word “special” may not bother some parents, but it bothers me and many special education kids too.

  4. Thank you Angela! I have a 16 y.o son whom we pulled out of school in 7th grade–it just wasn’t working for him. He just finished his last semester in community college, doing laps around the older students, 5 classes, 5 A’s and 1 B-. We are very proud! It’s not that he is a super genius, it’s that we wanted him to have some autonomy. He has big plans to go to MIT–I think he’ll have a good shot at it if he applies in 2 years, already having an associate’s degree in computer engineering. I’m so sorry about your son!! My husband teaches classical guitar, and works with students who are “labeled” as difficult—it’s infuriating because these kids are brilliant!! Just not in the way the school judges them. The school slowly cuts away at their self confidence–that’s what we saw happening to our son. I’m working right now on a curriculum to tie the arts to science and math, the STEM classes should be STEAM, with the A for Art. This would bring music (your son and his guitar) into math and science class. As for Geography and spanish, I would be furious too! A good teacher would hook your son, by tracing the roots of Flamenco guitar as it traveled through Morocco and up into Spain–a good reason to learn Spanish! Plan a trip to Madrid! The world is his oyster now. We are thinking of putting together a trip for my husband’s guitar students to travel in Spain for this very reason–interested? Here is his website:

    As for vocational schools, I love them!! I think all schools should be vocational; everything should be taught hands-on. Your son is luckier than most, now that he knows how to work with cars–this will help him in college for sure–and I’m sure he could get into a community college and then transfer. Don’t worry too much about him–He will be fine with an awesome mom like you!

  5. Bringing music (and Art) into any subject would definitely make for a nice experience. Birdie, how funny, you should mention classical guitar. My son loves it and tries to teach himself songs all of the time. He has three guitars and a uke. My son attended the Big Picture Learning School for junior and senior year. One interesting aspect of this school is that kids get real world experience in something they are interested in. Every Tues/Thurs he had an internship translating very old manuscripts into digital music for a lute songbook. So he earned credits for music theory and learned to read music at the same time. His mentor said he will get to have his name included in the songbook when it is published. Another cool thing…he also got to take American Sign Language at a community college to satisfy his foreign language credits since he blew it with Spanish. Very cool. Not only did he earn high school credit but college credit at the same time. So the latter part of his high school experience was a positive one. I’m so thankful for that program. The Spain trip would be fab. I’ll check out the website. Thanks!

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