Have We Over-Customized Education?

by: James Pearce

In America’s K-12 schools, we have a customization for everyone. If a student has the least tendency indicating something that is different, even if just slightly different from the masses, schools make modifications for that student. These modifications can be subtle and small (using individual differentiations within the classroom), medium (using a 504 Plan), or large (an Individualized Education Plan or IEP).

On the surface, these modifications seem justifiable. They also seem ethical. They are both justifiable and ethical. Society has chosen a path that allows people to be judged individually and their individual needs to be met. What makes this approach challenging is the costs created by these actions. For instance, each child identified as having special needs will have a special education teacher assigned to them. Each special education teacher will have 20 to 30 students assigned to them. If the average teacher’s salary is $50,000 and benefits worth $25,000, then each student costs their school system roughly $2,500 to $3,700.

At first, this doesn’t seem like much money. But tack on the costs of other personnel (classroom teachers with lower class sizes and special education administrators) and the cost jumps even more. And all of this could be fine — if we modified cost structures to accommodate those increases. These cost modifications have not been happening.

Instead what has really been happening is the decrease in funding of K-12 schools. Our government that represents us has determined that schools can do much more, sometimes exponentially more, with less money. The result of reductions in funding are larger class sizes and larger case loads for special education teachers. Each year, the number of children identified as special education students could rise and the funding would continue to fall, creating an even bigger gap between what is needed and what is actually available to fund it.

At the same time as these decreases in funding are occurring, the expectations have risen of what students should be able to do. These capabilities are measured on various standardized tests and these tests carry weight, sometimes being the ticket for student graduation or teacher contract continuance. It just doesn’t seem fair to me, but even more so doesn’t make any fiscal sense at all when we continue to reduce school funding while enhancing expectations. Everything has a cost and America needs to wake up soon before an entire generation of young people enters the workforce less than prepared. We can do better and all it takes is balancing the financials with the physical realities.

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