Special Education at the other end of the spectrum

The world is so full of mediocrity. Have you ever had a student at the “other” end of the special ed spectrum? You know…. the end that also requires extra teacher input and attention; where it is just as challenging to keep this student engaged as it is the lower achieving student? Why is the term “special needs student” only used at one end of the spectrum?

I once sat in on a public discussion meeting where a high-achieving group was challenging a scheduling change. I was shocked when I heard one of the presenters say….

We’re not here to teach the elite. We’re here to teach the masses.

Think about that.

It is as though we’re all about not leaving a child behind, but also about not letting anyone get ahead either. At the lower end of the proficiency spectrum we have organized “special” education with additional class rooms and facilities, employing both certified and classified staff. We develop IEP’s (Individualized Education Plan) for about 12% of our public school student body (Institute of Education Sciences) and require all building teachers to accommodate each of those individual needs.

But what about the 6% of Gifted & Talented student(s), at the high end of the spectrum; those who ace the test, ruin the curve and yet still do all the extra credit — just because it is there? For them, there are no additional class rooms and facilities, specially trained staff and IEP’s. The easiest thing to do is re-assign them as “mentors” or “tutors” so that we can pull everyone into the mediocre middle. That is the educationally correct thing to do, but who does it help …. and does it also hinder? We teach to the middle and use the achievers to help. We love the star quarterback but not the star student.

Yes, let’s do all we can to help every student, but let’s help every student. Compare the long term benefits of our lopsided investment for both students and society. When you hear about the top technology and other highly skilled jobs going to students from overseas, where do you think those countries are investing? As we correctly strive to leave no child behind, may we also more aggressively assist the academic achievers?

There are teachers who recognize the high achievers and provide individual challenges. We do have “AP” (Advanced Placement) classes designed to better prepare students for college….. but which colleges?

As you listen to or read about politicians, lawyers or surgeons focus, on the schools they attended. Are state schools bad? That’s not what I’m saying, but many of them are teaching “to the masses”. I went to both a large, inner-city public high school and a super-sized state university. I sat in freshmen writing and lecture classes with 200+ students in a lecture hall with a graduate assistant on a microphone who would never know my name. One of my sons, while a doctoral candidate at an Ivy League university, taught a freshman writing class with 15 students…. and of the three classes he taught, that was his largest. Am I claiming that not all colleges are created equal? YES!

School systems celebrate when test scores are slightly above the state “averages”. What is average? Mediocre? So, we’re all about being slightly above mediocre?

I’m tired of being the geek. I’m tired of ruining the curve. I’m tired of making people mad because I do the extra credit anyway. I want to go to a school where I can be normal, where it is okay to be an achiever.

I heard this quote when I was asking a high school senior about the choice of college. When the principal learned about his Valedictorian’s college choice, he shared his opinion:

Why not go to [XU], it is the biggest state school…..everybody goes there. It is affordable. Why out of state at such an expensive school?

I know because I talk to both students and parents, that the experience of the student quoted above is not unique.

Low achievers are helped. High achievers are heckled.

My parental experience raising two high achieving academic students is that:

…for us the system worked, but we had to work the system.

With the attitude and determination evidenced by the geek quote, David chose Duke. His SAT score was slightly above the “average” there. He went in as one of nearly 500 high school valedictorians and graduated in the top 1%, but that was okay there, where he was expected to achieve and encouraged to excel. Unlike public high schools, which must take everybody and do the best they can to educate all…..there are schools, both high school and college, that specialize. Here is a paragraph from one such school’s admissions brochure(emphasis mine):

    We want to find the ambitious and the curious, students who want to tackle issues head-on and are open to change. Ours is a community of talented learners, and we look for people who have unique qualities, who can challenge us as much as we challenge them. We want some bumps. We want some students who are well-rounded, some with sharp edges. We want people who are not afraid to undertake things that are messy, complex, and extremely difficult to do well—because they love it. We like students who already know what it means to succeed and those who know what it means to reach and not succeed and reach again. We like students who make intelligent and interesting mistakes, students who understand that only in risking failure do we become stronger, better, and smarter.

Let me be clear. We could not have afforded to pay the $58,000 sticker price of a [“top tier”] University education. As I was balking at the “early decision contract” on the admissions office table, they responded to my financial panic with:

If we decide we want him, we will get him here.

And they did. They didn’t make it cheap and they didn’t make it easy, but they DID make it possible for us to pay less than what we would have paid for an in state public university. Our total contribution for eight years of college for two was about $32,000. Our total contribution for eight years of college for two was about $32,000. That’s $2,000 per semester. Where can you go to a school for a price like that?

All education should be “special”, right?

Thanks for reading,

ps Every time I’ve written about variations of this topic, I get blasted with negative feedback. The goal is not arrogance or elitism, but to encourage those who ARE achievers, or who want to be by pointing out that there are solutions for you too. And….to dispel the myths that college is all about who can afford what. Here are my bullet points:

  • Don’t choose the cheapest school based on $$$
  • Good Grades Do Pay
  • Be proactive vs reactive; make it happen, don’t just let it happen. Plan it, don’t wing it.
    • Plan Academically
    • Plan Financially
    • Plan to be Well-Rounded
    • Plan to Know before you GO

Following are responses to this post from the LinkedIn site:

Sharon Saunders BSc (Hons), MAAT, DipMgmt

Lunchtime pupil support, qualified in TA & ASD , PTLLS parent of ASD academic teenagers, Autism…

What if your student is on the gifted and talented register, but is also newly diagnosed with ASD/Aasperger’s. Are they taught in lessons as a G&T or SEN student? What fumding will the school/college get to ensure the student has the correct support for their needs?


John Gardner

HS/College Teacher, Sm Business Owner and Sales Professional at VirtualMusicOffice.com and…

The school where I teach does not currently have a G&T register. We do have access to different types of test results that can help us identify those “special” students. I teach instrumental music and we do encounter, on a regular basis, exceptionally proficient musicians. One of them is student-conducting a piece on our Spring Concert. Others solo in the Jazz Ensemble. They get specialized individual help for solo festival and several study privately in addition to the “big band” class. We also have an advanced ensemble to enable more proficient musicians to perform more difficult music. In the time I have been at this school, I have worked with at least two diagnosed with Aasperger’s, and I suspect others not diagnosed. Some are identified for teachers on lists from the Special Ed Department. My experience has been that they function and even excel in an instrumental ensemble. We also have several in our ensembles with IEP’s. When it comes to written or playing tests, we alter and accommodate. Otherwise, they are held to the same performance expectations as everyone else. Both students and parents have told us how much they appreciate that.


John Gardner

HS/College Teacher, Sm Business Owner and Sales Professional at VirtualMusicOffice.com and…

We never want to overlook, ignore or shortchange any special needs student. I hope that was not implied in what I wrote. My angle is from the perspective of the G&T students getting ignored or shortchanged by the system — and that is wrong.


Kathryn Berry

Senior Technical Writer, CMO’s Office at First Nations Health Authority

Thank you for providing this perspective. We should be providing extra support for gifted students to help them nurture their gifts.


John Rylance


Would you have been shocked if they had said ” we are not here just to teach the elite we are here to teach everyone” Think about it. Everyone is entitled to the education best suited to them. Fight for your child to be taught as befits their needs, but remember schools have teach to benefit everyone. Some might say that that’s a thankless task.


John Gardner

HS/College Teacher, Sm Business Owner and Sales Professional at VirtualMusicOffice.com and…

Thanks for the input. No, I would not have been shocked if they had said they were here to teach everyone. That would have been the correct and best answer. What they were doing was reducing and eliminating offerings to the gifted/talented spectrum and that response was to the parents trying to keep those programs in place. Yes, sometimes you have to fight…. And yes, schools should teach to benefit everyone. Unfortunately that is not always the case.


Kevin P. Crosby, LPC

Counselor, Educator, Innkeeper

It’s important for parents and educators to advocate for their bright and gifted students, in part because NCLB has created pressure on school administrators to bring the bottom up, and that’s where the bulk of the resources go. Personalized or advanced learning plans are essential to ensure students are not spinning their wheels in classes where they have already mastered


John Gardner

HS/College Teacher, Sm Business Owner and Sales Professional at VirtualMusicOffice.com and…

I love your answer. I’m fine with bringing the bottom up as long as it does not also involve bringing the top down — which is what my argument is all about.



Abigail (Abby) Symonds

Passionate Facilitator. Skilled developer. Connects Soft Skills to hard problems. Dachshund herder.…

Personally I think this is great. It really hit home as I have one child who has literally been on BOTH sides of the spectrum. He began with an IEP due to speech and motor skill delays. He was in a special ed pre-K program for ages 3 and 4. At the end of that last year, the director knew we were moving to another school district and advised me to “lose the paperwork.” I did and in 4th grade he tested in the gifted program. Losing the paperwork was one of the smartest things I ever did. My younger sister had a speech delay and received services through the school district. My two younger siblings were then magically identified as having a delay too although in hindsight my mom realizes the delay wasn’t there like it was with my sister. But students in these programs generate federal funding. The advice the director gave me only confirmed suspicions mom and I had had for decades. My son is now 16, in advanced classes and colleges are seeking him out. But I also view it as education and learning begin and end at home. His early success in special education (and yes he literally rode the short bus) was not just because of the services he received, but also due to the services and support he received at home. At the other end of the spectrum, he receives the same level of support. As all children should. Yes, schools teach to the masses, but the mistake is often believing that is the only place they can receive education.


John Gardner

HS/College Teacher, Sm Business Owner and Sales Professional at VirtualMusicOffice.com and…

I love your “lose the paperwork” story. It goes to show how labelling and tagging students, designed to help them, can stay with them much longer than necessary and can actually become a hinderance. Glad that worked out for you.


Roshan Niwunhella – SHRM

Human Resources Officer at Guardian RAK

Not only this article gives an insight to the mediocrity, it is also motivating to look around & see if you are living the life you want. I Liked your PS notes most

17 yrs experience as a high school band director. 14 yrs as college adjunct faculty. 30+ yrs in the fundraising industry and 24 yrs as a small business owner. (Don't add all those up.). Experience in both the fundraising sales and education worlds give me a unique combination of perspectives in both. I love working with the youthful enthusiasm of today's teenage achievers and with those who work with them. Also 4yrs as proprietor of VirtualMusicOffice.com, which offers a wide variety of virtual services including web/blog design/hosting/managing, social media management (scheduling posts/tweets for maximum impact and brand enhancement) and small business consulting - specializing in school product fundraising.

Tagged with:

Please share your thoughts.