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The Ethics of Special Education

reviewed by David J. Connor - November 30, 2018

coverTitle: The Ethics of Special Education
Author(s): Kenneth R. Howe, Amy L. Boelé, & Ofelia M. Miramontes
Publisher: Teachers College Press, New York
ISBN: 0807758957, Pages: 168, Year: 2018
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The first edition of this book was published in 1992, serving as an ethical guide to daily situations, challenges, and dilemmas within the field of special education. In the Foreword of that edition, republished here, James Kauffman provided a rationale for its existence, writing Neither we who work in higher education nor our students nor professionals providing direct services to children and youth have had an accessible guide to ethical deliberation in special education (p. xvii). Over a quarter of a century later, much has changed within the field of special education. For the second edition, Alfredo Artiles wrote the new Foreword, signifying a symbolic shift, a passing of the baton if you will, as the field grapples with its own identity.

These two prominent researchers symbolize traditionalist versus progressive perspectives. While Kauffman argues that a medical knowledge base alone should inform the field of special education, eschewing full inclusion, Artiles, on the other hand, advocates for a socio-cultural grounding of knowledge as schools include a greater diversity of students than ever before. Artiles writes that the book covers a wide range of ethical issues ranging from the abstract to personal ethical puzzles and fills a critical gap in the preparation of educators at a time when ethics are increasingly ignored, subverted, or eroded in public and professional arenas (p. xi).

Indeed, the scholarly field of special education itself has long been known for its questionable practices of resisting diversity and related issues by viewing disability as an essentialized category, unwilling to look at issues of race, gender, and social class, among other aspects of identity, as they intersect with disability. Most recently, the field of special education has embraced the work of a few scholars who claim students of color are underrepresented in disability categories, flying in the face of 50 years of research findings to the contrary. I bring up this difference in the field as the authors of The Ethics of Special Education see the world, captured in realistic case studies, as multiple, often conflicting perspectives that all deserve consideration when engaging in discussions about complex situations.

After a brief introduction, the authors commence with The Nature of Ethical Deliberation, a chapter that by nature is theoretical and abstract. Considering laws and ethics, facts and values, together with philosophical ethics, the authors ask the reader to explore landmark legal cases such as Amy Rowley v. Board of Education and Endrew F. v. Douglas County School District, before weighing the pros and cons of utilizing consequentialism, non-consequentialism, and virtue-based ethics in decision making. At this point, the reader is aware of the sources of complexity and uncertainty in ethical deliberation (p. 23) and has some tools for guidance in analyzing problematic situations.

In the subsequent chapter, Public Policy and the Mission of Special Education, the authors utilize the view from nowhere, an impartial, principle-based view of ethics designed to critically evaluate legal and ethical principles applied to institutional regulations. For example, the authors focus on due process, the distribution of educational resources, and the bureaucratic-therapeutic structure of special education. At the same time, they trouble the neat and tidy application of policies without a meaningful understanding of the context in which they are applied. Furthermore, the authors acknowledge changing laws and policies that impact (special) education, which make professionals feel as if the landscape is always shifting. For example, The Every Student Succeeds Act of 2015 removed the provision of highly qualified teachers that had been in place since The No Child Left Behind policy was established in 2001, raising questions not only about the longevity of reforms but the inevitability of pendulum swings.  

The balance of the chapter introduces us to the bedrock of this book: seven realistic case studies that foreground assessment instruments and their interpretation; logistics of what placements and resources are available; frequent non-recognition of race, class, and gender; and issues of how, where, why, and by whom students become identified as disabled. In brief, the authors provide examples of typical scenarios found in schools, including details that make for no quick and easy resolution. After each case, the authors discuss in depth necessary considerations and multiple angles before making suggestions as to the best proposed resolution. In doing so, they present tensions through evidence that is often contradictory, or which at least sows deep doubts. For example, while outlining the possible benefits of dissolving a two-tier special/general education system, the authors write, Adopting a somewhat cynical attitude (but one that is supported by history), they [critics] fear that special needs students would be denied extra resources and simply would be thrown into general education and allowed to sink or swim (p. 51).

The next chapter, Pragmatic Ethical Theory, contrasts the view from nowhere with a pragmatic or practical approach to addressing the kinds of ethical dilemmas that arise every day for a special educator. As anyone who has worked in education knows, many resolutions to problematic situations are often forged in moderate measures, seeking middle ground consensus, providing satisfaction, at least to some degree, on all sides. Returning to the cases of Amy Rowley and Endrew F., the authors explore the central importance of compromise, namely, taking into account the views of other people involved in a situation in order to determine the best way forward for all parties. They also address related topics such as religion and ethical deliberation, along with professional ethical codes and ethical deliberation, culminating with critical observations about the Council for Exceptional Childrens (CEC) 12-point Code of Ethics that is obviously well-intentioned yet comes with no guidelines or examples and is subject to wide interpretation.

With Institutional Demands and Constraints, the following chapter, the book shifts focus from theory to practice, and the spaces between the view from nowhere to the view from here (p. 69). The authors note that special educators have role-related obligations and are frequently required to act as a broker, intermediary, student/disability advocate, clarifier of laws and regulations, provider of specialized services, and so on, in relation to parents, students, and other professionals. Because of the inclusive movement, they now work more closely than ever with general educators facing a variety of challenges, including the degree of institutional responsiveness to the provision of special education as a whole, playing multiple roles, including functioning as the professional lynchpin ensuring students with Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) are being served. Each case study featured in this chapter zooms in on commonplace situations pertaining to the special educators role and responsibilities, and is followed by a rich discussion of what information to weigh in seeking to resolve a dilemma, whether it relates to the accuracy of disability labels or, alternatively, the concerns of general educators who actively resist the inclusion of students with disabilities.

In the final chapter, Obligations of Schools to Students and Their Families, the authors squarely look at the view from here, largely focusing on students and parents perspectives. Traditional differences between parents and teachers about whats best or right for students are often based in a difference of perception. Parents view their child primarily in a holistic way, while teachers see the child in a primarily academic way. These understandable differences in disposition give rise to a variety of issues that can include cultural differences in academic expectations and methods of discipline, parent desires versus professional judgement, issues of confidentiality, ways to instruct and assess students with disabilities, and consideration for the boundaries of parent-professional relationships. Again, compelling cases are foregrounded, each pulling the reader into authentic situations that they will likely recognize, followed by a reasoned discussion designed to provide multiple viewpoints that must be factored into what are often difficult decisions. Appendix A contains another 13 examples that serve to broaden the dialogue(s) even further, and Appendix B rounds off the book by listing CECs code of ethics  

This is an ambitious and important second edition. In it, the authors provide a framework for thinking through a myriad of issues that are as pertinent, if not more so, that they were with the first edition. Why more so? First, the role of the special educator has changed significantly over the last 25 years; in the past, students with disabilities were largely placed in segregated settings (special classrooms and/or special schools). Today, the overwhelming majority of students spent all, much, or part of their day in general education classes, being educated alongside their non-disabled peers. Second, the diversity of children and youth in schools according to dis/ability has grown to approximately one in five. Increasingly, a unidimensional understanding of disability has given rise to an intersectional understanding, as it should be, with considerations for race, ethnicity, social class, and other markers of identity. Third, the growth of disability studies in education as a discipline has broadened understandings of the paired concepts of disability and education without automatically defaulting to special education, offering teachers and teacher educators different ways to navigate the ethics of special education. These are three among many reasons why a revision of this book was needed. Indeed, these reasons are manifest in many case studies, reflecting that the landscape of special education is always subject to the push and pull of what is right.

The authors have not shied away from engaging in the messiness of real life in schools. They accurately portray the complex and shifting role of the special educator, along with the moral and ethical dilemmas that are pertinent to us all. By placing typical, everyday scenarios on the table and providing a tool through which to contemplate the options, the authors make an earnest attempt to engage pre-service and in-service educators in being thoughtful, contemplative professionals in a variety of potentially challenging situations. On a final note, I appreciated the care, candor, and balanced approach of this slim volume. While alluded to by including the two Forewords of James Kauffman and Alfredo Artiles, more information could have been explicitly shared by Howe, Boelé, and Miramontes about the field of special educations own historical and contemporary ethical debates among researchers and theorists, thereby providing a more full context for their own valuable work. That said, I commend the authors for incorporating a broad range of diverse issues and perspectives on disability that accurately reflect the daily challenges of special educators.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: November 30, 2018
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 22582, Date Accessed: 1/20/2022 12:13:00 AM

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About the Author
  • David Connor
    Hunter College
    E-mail Author
    DAVID J. CONNOR, Ed.D., is a professor in the School of Education at Hunter College, City University of New York. He has published numerous articles on inclusive education, learning disabilities, and disability studies in education. His most recent book is an autoethngraphic memoir titled Contemplating Dis/Ability in Schools and Society: A Life in Education (2018, Lexington Books).
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