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Labels 2.0

In last week's post I opened a conversation about labels, particularly those that we use and apply in the field of public education. In examining the first two of my pet peeve labels, I asked my readers to view my perspective through a thoughtful lens of empathy toward the very students these labels are designed to describe, and with the notion of equity in the front of their minds. The labels discussed were Special Education and Talented and Gifted. My post attempted to argue that I worry that the use of this descriptive language is suggestive and may be potentially, though unintentionally, harmful.

Aren't all students "special?" Why, then, should the educational experience of a select population of students be termed in this way. Special. "What about me? I'm special, too!" And, the students to which this label is applied, based on countless conversations, would much rather fit in with their peers and be considered normal. Not oddly special.

Similarly, I believe that all students have talents and that they all have gifts. Yet, we adhere to a legislative suggestion that we peel off the "most talented" and the "most gifted" students, based on a criteria that frequently relies on a standardized assessment, to offer some students enhanced opportunities; opportunities that would benefit all kids, but unreasonably are reserved for a few. (Please refer to last week's post, Labels, for context and a connection to this article.)

Is this educational equity at it's finest? I think we can be more thoughtful and do better.

Sadly, unfortunate and inaccurate labeling is not limited to these two. Here's another one. We have a growing population of students who are English Language Learners (ELL) who are learning English as a Second Language (ESL). The labels are accurate, on their face. These kids face tremendous challenges learning the cultural realties of their new home while racing to keep up with their native peers in a fast-paced education environment. It's like they are treading water in a fast moving stream. Yet, the last thing they need is a label that calls attention to their challenges.

Let's consider this reality. Every student sitting American classrooms is expected to learn the structures, uses and nuances of English as our nation's language. That makes every one of these students, all of them, English language learners. Yet, there is an implied stigma of deficiency when we focus this label on a discreet group of students. We also admire bilingualism in our contemporary society and we actively encourage students to develop proficiency in a language beyond their native tongue. We don't attach to students a label of "French as a Second Language" or "Mandarin as a Second Language." Instead, the prevailing attitude is congratulatory and celebrated. "You're studying Arabic? Good for you!" Unfortunately, our ESL students frequently do not hear, or perceive, that level of praise for their effort learning English as their second language. It's sad. All students are language learners and we hope they will eventually become adept at two (or more). Which two, and a documentation (labeling) of the sequence of their learning isn't necessary, and may, I fear, even hold some hidden harm.

Here's another one. Our American educational system, one that spins on standardization, is designed to accommodate the needs of "round pegs" and in supporting their effective fitting in to round holes. In a perfect scenario, the more similar the round pegs are in size, the better for the overall system. But, once in a while we encounter some students that don't neatly fit. They need something different from the rest. They hold different interests. They are motivated by things outside the norm. These students may not even be round, but square, and we know how well square pegs fit into round holes. The acknowledgment of these kids forces school systems to address the unique qualities of these students by offering them something different. And we call it Alternative Education. Talk about a loaded label! Equity?! This one is so over the top and so laden with landmines that it deserves its own post. You guessed it . . . that will be the theme for next week.

Here's the problem with these labels when viewed through the lens of equity. They categorize people. They put children in boxes, boxes that may adversely effect their educational experience. If a student fits the norm, we put them in a big box labeled "Regular Education." But, if he or she has some processing difficulties or presents some physical or cognitive challenges, we put them in a box called "Special." Heaven forbid that a student be a recent immigrant and need support in developing language skills to compete in American society. For them we create a box labeled "ELL." If they're especially bright, they go into the "TAG" box. And, if their interests do not conform to those held, or tolerated, by the mainstream, we create a box for them and label it "Alternative." All of this leaves students the right to ask "Which box do I belong to? What if I fit in more than one? Who am I if the boxes don't support or describe me, or if I don't fit into any of them?"

This is not a model of equity.

Equity, by its simplest textbook definition, is about affording fairness, justice and impartiality. In the world of education, it also implies the assurance that all students; the round pegs, the square ones, the misshapen ones, receive what they need to be successful. Labeled boxes may be one convenient way to approach this challenge. However, I would argue that this promise must come through a system that assures the dignity and the worth of each child, a system that honors, celebrates and holds up the unique potential of each and every one. An equitable experience is one where barriers are removed. Labeling children, often to the point of shame or embarrassment for many, is counterproductive in achieving this outcome for America's students.

Let's get serious about providing The Education Kids Deserve.

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