Friday, June 29, 2018

On "Choice" - Who Makes It and Who Pays the Price?

"I often advocate that we look at many sides of an issue. walk in someone else's shoes and identify and reject false choices."  Kamala Harris

I'm hoping the title to this post and the quote above piqued your attention.  If so, good!  Let's begin with a little context to set the stage for

In my seven years as a Director of Special Education/Student Services, one of my least favorite responsibilities was to participate in what I can only describe as the more "turbulent" side of special education.  Highly complex and legal, special education is built upon a mile-thick foundation of intricate laws, rules, regulations, policies and procedures.  At times it can become a virtual maze, where everyone navigating it (parents and educators alike) are unsure which path to take next.  And, as with any formal legal process, there are bound to be occasional disputes over just about anything and everything one can imagine.

One such dispute involved a disagreement between my District and a parent, over what was to be the most appropriate (i.e. "least restrictive") placement for their child with special needs.  I'll not go into all the details, but let's just say it was a difficult, emotional and contentious situation for all involved, with the parent wanting a program and placement our experienced team of educators believed would not help the student and might instead actually cause harm.  The case went to mediation and when that proved unsuccessful, a full-blown hearing.  The hearing lasted several days, with witnesses on the stand for many hours being grilled by attorneys over every imaginable detail.  The District's evidence and testimony were compelling, based on a massive amount of data, research and decades of expertise on the part of the professionals who testified.  But the parent's case was also compelling.  The parent was not an educator, had zero experience in education, no credentials or advanced degrees. Still, this was the parent of the child and the parent believed that even if the placement had a minuscule chance of being successful, it was still worth a try.

That's pretty hard to argue, isn't it?  Even if we could accurately assign odds to the situation, say, a thousand to one, there's that one in a thousand chance the parent's preferred program would work.  Still, the district team felt it had strong evidence to show the parent's choice was most likely to result in the exchange of a short-term benefit for a much more harsh, difficult and costly (to the student and parent) road ahead.

Oral arguments were made, evidence was presented, and the hearing officer ultimately told everyone that a decision would later be sent to the parties.  The hearing wrapped-up and everyone was exhausted - we all just wanted to go home. No one, including me, felt good about any of it.  Regardless of the eventual outcome, in these situation there really are no "winners."

In the parking lot I saw my car was next to the hearing officer's and he was walking toward it.  We exchanged some small talk.  I shared my observation that this had been a really difficult case.  As he got into his car he looked at me and softly said, "A parent has the ultimate right to destroy their own child."

Those words took me by surprise, leaving me speechless and incredibly sad.  I've never forgotten that comment and it has haunted me many times since.  Outside the very rare (and brutally pathological) situations we occasionally hear about in the news, I believe none of us, ever, would want to harm much less "destroy" our children.  It's simply incomprehensible and unthinkable.  Yet in this case I was being told what I've always known as a professional educator but preferred to ignore; we parents, even with the best of intentions, have the power to make educational choices for which our children may flourish, flounder or anything in-between.  These choices have long-term consequences for our children and for us.

This is not, as you may have guessed by now, a post about special education, the maze of complex laws surrounding it or the outcome of a legal dispute.  It is a post about the educational choices we are faced with making on behalf of the children we teach, learn from and love.  "Choice" in education is all the rage these days and as a result, there are now many options made available to us.  Having options is a good thing, right?  Maybe so, or maybe not ... it all depends on what each option can ultimately deliver, our expectations of our children and our accurate understanding of the long-term price tag associated with the options we choose.  As a parent I know there are many seemingly fine "choices" being presented to me through slick advertising, targeted social media campaigns and even personal contacts with others who have made one choice or another for their own children.  As an experienced educator I know that not all choices are what they profess to be and while they may not "destroy" my child, some of these "choices" are the educational equivalent of a payday loan (i.e. instant short-term gratification in exchange for a long-term payback ... with interest).

"So," you may ask, "how do I know which educational 'choice' is best for my child?"

Sadly there is no magic simple answer to that question and a more in-depth exploration (teaser alert!) will have to wait for a future post.  In the meantime, you may want to ponder a quote we've all probably heard before and is apropos to many of the choices we face, including those involving the education of our children ... "If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is."  The challenge, of course, is recognizing the difference between reality and the false choice hiding behind what sounds too good to be true.