Confronting “Alternative Facts” in Special Education

Recent events at the national level have exposed the mainstream public to the over-the-top misrepresentations that some public servants make. I’ve been witnessing the unbelievable spin jobs carried out by such individuals within the public education system for over 25 years, so none of this is new to me.

In truth, I’m glad the rest of the American public finally now understands what I’ve been dealing with this whole time. It used to be that when I’d explain what I do for a living and the behaviors I’d encounter on the part of some public education agency personnel and their contractors, people would think I was melodramatically making it all up. Honestly, as creative as I may be, I couldn’t make up stuff like that if I wanted to; no sane person’s imagination is that rich. Now, I can point to the White House saying, “It’s like that,” and people finally get it.

What the current administration has done for us is provide us with a new vocabulary used by its staffs who are utterly divorced from the truth, and that language helps us navigate their communicative intent. It’s language that they, themselves, have most usefully described as “alternative facts.” For the purpose of this post and future posts in which references to “alternative facts” are made, I am operationally defining “alternative facts” as untruths that are preferred by their speakers to the truth.

The pervasiveness of “alternative facts” in special education is so widespread and diverse that no single post could possibly capture our analyses thus far of their use. Because these governmental abuses of authority are woven so deeply into the fabric of public education, including special education, it is worthy of significant discourse.

Trying to have this conversation before the current administration was unproductive because the average person was pretty skeptical that people in public office could actually get away with such poor behavior. “But, they can’t do that. That’s against the law!” they would say, as though the law is magic and prevents people from acting contrary to it. And, I’d be, like, “Yeah, I know. That’s my point. They’re breaking the law.”

Now, we have an executive branch railing against the judiciary for finding that it was breaking the law to the detriment of hundreds of thousands of people with its travel ban, and in such an outrageous manner that people literally stopped what they were doing and drove to their airports to protest. Lawyers by the droves sat on airport floors with their laptops cranking out legal documents, many overnight, to protect the rights of international travelers affected by the executive branch’s unlawful conduct, achieving late-night court decisions from federal judges that protected decent people from the illegal over-reach of the White House. Now, when I point out egregious violations of special education and related law that put people in harm’s way, particularly systemic violations that impact many individuals, I don’t seem Quixotic.

We have always had extremists in public office breaking the law and only being held accountable if matters go to court. People on the outside of special education disputes have not historically understood why due process sometimes becomes necessary. People have historically  understood even less the inter-agency cronyism that can reach to the State level to shield public schools from accountability, even in litigation.

Due process hearings are State-level legal proceedings that are meant to enforce special education law. For a State to receive federal special education dollars, it must ensure that special education law is followed, which means enforcing it all the way down to the school district level and into the classroom. States have the authority to take over failing school districts, but it’s less expensive and much easier for States to simply report that the law is not being broken than it is to enforce it, and those federal dollars will still keep coming.

This is where “alternative facts” become the center of special education disputes. They can be presented in many ways:

  • Assessment reports that leave out critical measures or otherwise misrepresent the data
  • IEP goals that contain seemingly measurable terms but aren’t actually measurable
  • IEPs that fail to capture all the agreements verbally reached by their IEP teams
  • School district representatives who mischaracterize the regulations to less informed parents
  • Policies that keep teachers and specialists in the dark regarding best practices in education and the law such that they fail to offer or provide educationally necessary services
  • Hiring practices that place a greater emphasis on cronyism than instructional efficacy, resulting in misinformation being spread and necessary services being denied
  • Over-reliance on “paint-by-numbers” forms and procedures with little to no opportunity for actual problem-solving, resulting in faulty analyses that produce incomplete and/or inaccurate results
  • Internal political turf wars and in-fighting between departments and/or district offices and their individual school site administrators that obstruct the free flow of information and offers of appropriate interventions
  • Administrators retaliating against teachers who dare to speak up on behalf of their students such that teachers withhold information and/or lie to keep their jobs
  • Teacher and specialist unions that place a higher priority on keeping someone employed than educating children, resulting in information being withheld that is relevant to effective instruction and child welfare
  • Administrators receiving six-figure incomes in exchange for telling parents there’s not enough money to properly educate their children, then being hailed as prudent stewards of their districts’ resources by their colleagues for having done so

I could go on. The point is that there has always been an “alt-right” agenda within public education to undermine special education. Prior to Congress enacting the Education of All Handicapped Children’s Act in 1975, which later became the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), these individuals simply refused to enroll children with disabilities into their schools. Once the law forced them to open their doors to students with disabilities, all many schools would offer was something akin to glorified daycare, if not flat-out warehousing, with little to no educational benefits being conferred upon these students.  There have always been people fighting against special education from within the public education system. Those are the people I’ve been dealing with for the last 25+ years.

Being responsible to ourselves and our neighbors is not a left-wing extremist idea. It’s a psychologically healthy idea that has nothing to do with partisan politics. I only point out partisan politics, here, because we now have a Republican administration and Congress behaving in much the same way as the self-serving conservatives within public education, and I think it’s useful for people unfamiliar with the troubles of special education to have a comparable reference to help them frame their understanding.

Rather than partisan politics, what I want to focus on is the ubiquitousness of “alternative facts” in public education as a behavior, particularly with respect to special education, and what to do about it. The use of “alternative facts” serves a purpose for those who promulgate them. If looking at this from a behavior analytic standpoint, the function of any behavior is to either access/obtain or escape/avoid.

In my experience, “alternative facts” crop up in special education when school districts don’t want to pay for services. In those instances, it’s effectively an escape/avoidance strategy. However, it’s maintained by positive social attention when the perpetrators go back to their cronies and cackle together over how they’ve gotten away with something.

The problem is that somebody has to get screwed over in order for these cronies to get away with anything, and, in these cases, the screwed-over party is always a child with disabilities, which is entirely unacceptable. The consequence experienced by the child has no impact on those who engage in the behavior and serves as no deterrent. Allowing a child to suffer by an adult so he/she can seek accolades and tax dollars to line his/her pockets is indicative of egocentric thought on the part of the adult, which means that those who are perpetrating these “alternative facts” in order to get away with something are developmentally delayed with respect to their social-emotional functioning.

Egocentric thought is age-typical up until around the age of 7, but once joint attention (the ability to share attention on a common object with another person and interact with each other about it) becomes solid, egocentrism usually gives way to the understanding that other people have other thoughts, ideas, feelings, and needs than oneself. But, intelligence is not the same thing as empathy. Because development occurs across so many domains, it is entirely possible for an individual to reach adult age with reasonably developed intelligence but still be emotionally 5-years-old. Our current executive branch is teaching the general public that lesson, right now.

Basically, the inability to care about other people who are markedly different from oneself, or even to appreciate why it’s important to the survival of our species to care about each other regardless of our differences, is a sign of developmental delay. It is a lack of capacity that can be the result of a failure to be exposed to the right developmental opportunities growing up.

We see the research now showing how spoiling kids and never expecting them to do any chores, as well as telling them how special they are but not praising their efforts to work hard at anything, actually turns them into adults who have no idea how to take care of themselves. We similarly have to teach our children the value of nurture and looking out for everybody else in addition to themselves to see them achieve social-emotional developmental maturity in adulthood.

Except when it is the consequence of a handicapping condition, egocentric thought in adults is the consequence of not having learned important concepts due to deprivation of developmentally appropriate learning opportunities throughout childhood. It isn’t learned behavior so much as it is a reflection of a lack of learning. When an individual who is affected in such a way nonetheless becomes employed within our government, it is unrealistic to expect such a person to make responsible decisions that take into account the needs of everyone who will be impacted – like their constituents.

People like this are drawn to positions of power because they only perceive the opportunity to reap rewards and have no concept of the responsibilities that go along with the job. Constituents become a means to a self-serving end, not the reason for having the job in the first place, which has been humanity’s chief complaint about politicians and governmental abuses of authority for as long as any of us can remember.

As is being demonstrated on a national level in a variety of ways, science and law lie at the heart of most solutions to “alternative facts.” Both science and law, when properly carried out, rely on evidence, facts, and rules. People who make things up don’t do well in circumstances where success depends upon applying the rules to the facts, particularly when the facts are well documented. As advocates, our job is always to eliminate arguments and make the record, so, going forward, science and law must play a pivotal role in the methods employed by all of us seeking to protect the educational and civil rights of children with disabilities.

Time permitting, I will be adding more posts that look at specific types of “alternative facts” in special education and how to confront them. Please follow our blog to get those posts when they come out. You can follow us via email or on our social media, if you prefer. Please also donate to our non-profit organization so that we can continue to confront “alternative facts” on behalf of families with low incomes who cannot otherwise afford to hire someone qualified to represent them. As always, we appreciate your support and look forward to providing new information.

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