I've been thinking a lot lately about labels, particularly those that are applied with regularity in the field of education. We have a human need to describe things, to clarify perspectives or intentions through our language. I understand that. Too often though, we overlook that the words we use matter. Sadly, the language we apply frequently has an unintended consequence (I'm being generous and optimistic here) of creating a stigma, an unfortunate attitude or perception regarding the very thing we are attempting to describe. As professionals, particularly professionals charged with informing and shaping the lives of children, we must be mindful of the labels we use and the hidden messages they may contain. Again, words matter.
Here, I want to briefly discuss two of four labels I have concerns about that are commonly used in contemporary American school houses. (The other two will be the focus of next week's post.) Three of the four are frequently viewed through a lens of deficiency, an implied suggestion that something is lacking, while the fourth label is often accepted with a frequent sense of entitlement; maybe even arrogance. All four are loaded, easily misunderstood, and potentially damaging to the very subjects they are attempting to describe - kids and their peers. I ask my readers to consider these with empathy and through thoughtful attention to equity. What if I (you) was the person being described? Is it what I uniquely need? How would I feel?
Special Education (SpEd). This one is definitely loaded and speaks specifically to varying degrees of deficiency. Children who are identified as needing "specialized instruction" come to that designation through the recognition that their abilities, their anticipated performance and eventual outcomes are informed by them being different, "special." We afford these children individualized instruction, personalized attention and a contract that guarantees that their specific educational needs will be met. This sounds pretty good, doesn't it? Perhaps. Except for one thing. Along with the label of Special Education comes the frequently unwanted stigma of "the little bus," having to be in the "special class": notions that these students may not find particularly "special" at all compared to the experiences of their peers. I have had conversations with so many students who qualify for these interventions. While they appreciate the support that they receive as needed and designed to support them, these same students frequently express that they would rather have their needs be invisible. And, you know what? They may be right.
If you subscribe at all to the notion that all children are unique, that they are each special, then the notion of "special education" for a specific population of students who meet a specific definition of eligibility criteria might/should seem a bit odd. Aren't all students deserving of an educational experience that is tailored to their unique characteristics, needs and abilities? Maybe we have an obligation to issue a contract of support and accomplishment for every student in our system. Isn't that the foundational expectation of an equitable education; one that addresses and satisfies the needs of the individual; meeting them where they are? "Special education" should be re-labeled: "appropriate education," or perhaps no label at all as we acknowledge, and believe out loud, that all children are unique and they require different experiences and strategies to thrive.
Talented and Gifted (TAG). I chafe at this label. I certainly don't have any negative feelings for the students who qualify for this intervention. What I dislike is the perceived interpretation that select students, based on their innate intellect and/or ability, or their environmental opportunities, are entitled to something special, something that is "above and beyond." I may have a great brain. I may enjoy irrefutable advantages if my family can provide opportunities of international travel or interest-based intensive experiences. If opportunity equals "giftedness," does that suggest or guarantee an upgraded experience? Cognitive and/or experiential advantages frequently translate to observable preferential treatment with regard to curriculum, the applications of the curriculum and the advantages that these applications afford. Being smart and capable is wonderful. It should be recognized and celebrated. But, should it suggest special treatment in the broad field of education? We need to look at this carefully if we apply the lens of equity.
If I am at all accurate in my understanding of the term "equity" as it is applied to education, it is the suggestion that a student will receive the services and interventions he/she needs. That each will benefit from the allocation of resources (time, personnel, inventory) in the recognition of their unique needs and the system's focused efforts to satisfy their instructional needs in support of the success of all children. In shorthand language: "Give them what they need, simply because they need it." Period. Hard stop. Rather that applying unnecessary labels, why don't we simply and actively embrace the powerful implications, and the leveled playing field, that come with a focus on instructional equity. We needn't ever label a specific group of students "special." All children are special! To suggest that only some students are regarded as "talented" or that they are "gifted" overlooks and underestimates the unique talents and gifts of all students. What is the message we are sending? I wonder and I worry.
I know that my views will not be universally well received, particularly among teachers who work within the definitions of these entitlement programs. I would only ask, again, that we all step back and consider this with empathy, in an abiding concern for the overall well-being of the children we serve.
Labels have power. They posses the power to define. They also have the power to divide and the power to hurt. Neither of these should be an objective of a truly equitable education.