by Oscar M. Cárdenas • IDRA Newsletter • August 1997

It is the first day of the 1997-1998 school year in the PickOne Independent School District in Somewhere, Texas. A monolingual English speaking teacher with 18 years of experience is assigned to teach a multi-ethnic class of 24 children in the third grade of the La Esperanza Elementary School. The teacher, Mrs. Educator, has a professional elementary certificate with a specialization in reading.

The class consists of 14 Hispanic, two African-American and three Asian-American students. The remaining five students are Anglo, or White, as coded in the state’s required reporting system. Since the teacher was transferred from another campus within the same school district for this school year, there has been little opportunity for her to review the academic and linguistic characteristics of her students.

As Mrs. Educator settles the class for structured learning, she quickly peruses each enrollment card. She notices rubber-stamped labels on each card. Silently, amidst the excitement and noise of a new school year, she reads one card, “regular,” then another, “limited-English-proficient/exempt” and “Level IV Spanish/Level I English/bilingual,” The third card reads “low socio-economic status/accelerated institute.” Other cards read “special education/limited-English-proficient” “attention deficit disorder,” “non-LEP/school lunch/accelerated instruction,” “ESL-Level III” and then another “regular.”

Yes, it is the first day of school and already Mrs. Educator is frustrated. “What in the world are all the labels for?” she ponders.

She finally decides: “My job is to teach these youngsters to meet the district, state and national goals. I can’t discriminate. I have to teach all of them to read. Someone else needs to work with them on any other problems they have.”

The bell rings. Mrs. Educator adjusts to her teaching mode, but first checks the attendance roll. “Jennifer,” “Pitra” for Petra, “Wakin” for Joaquin, “Jimmy” for Jaime, “Jacob” and so on. Most of the children raise their hands when told by other children to do so. “Okay, children,” Mrs. Educator continues, “Take out your readers and turn to Chapter One. Some of you will be working on these wonderful computers, but I haven’t gotten the list yet. So, just listen to the other children who will be reading for us.”

The first day of school for many of these children will be no different from other school days to follow – inappropriate, insensitive and incomprehensible.

This scenario is fictitious, but the events profiled are very real. They occur in classrooms with children of diverse backgrounds and special needs throughout Texas and the United States everyday. This scenario focuses on sincere attempts made by educators and school systems to literally give every child an equal opportunity by treating each child alike. These practices perpetuate the myth of equal opportunity. Day in and day out, children of diverse backgrounds are pushed into the U.S. mold for education, either by design or unintentionally. This is discriminatory by all accounts because children with special needs are far removed, or segregated, from appropriate and responsive services that can be provided by specially trained staff.

These days, “alternative education” is being heralded as the panacea to the challenges that these special populations pose. The concept of alternative education does have merit if it is instituted as an alternative method to educating students, and not as an alternative holding tank for students considered to be at-risk. For decades, a high percentage of minority children have been dumped in “special education” classes even though they do not have learning disabilities or handicapping conditions.

We must focus on equal benefits for every child and not equal access. We must dispel the erroneous concept of “compensatory education” and compensate for what the education system has not provided up until now. Special programs for students with special needs should be understood and implemented as enhancements for the regular program offerings. Above all, we must eradicate the pervasive notion that children come to schools with problems. They come to our schools with special needs that warrant special attention. Educational deprivation is not a characteristic of any segment of our pluralistic society. It is a by-product of an educational system that fails to recognize the needs of those to be served.

There are more than 1 million students with special needs in Texas public schools. Historically and invariably, these students are, or will become, the staggering statistics we continue to read about: academic failures, at-risk youth, truants, hard cores and dropouts. Let us hope that non-traditional approaches used to impact these students with excellence and equity will become a salient feature of our educational system before we reach the 21st century…just around the corner.

Oscar M. Cárdenas has served the field of education for more than three decades. He is a former manager in the US Office of Education and currently is with the Texas Education Agency (TEA). His opinions stated above do not necessarily reflect the opinions of TEA.

[©1997, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the August 1997 IDRA Newsletter by the Intercultural Development Research Association. Permission to reproduce this article is granted provided the article is reprinted in its entirety and proper credit is given to IDRA and the author.]