Monday, September 4, 2017

Book Review: "The Quest for Meaningful Special Education" by Amy Ballin

Let me begin with unequivocal praise: Amy Ballin’s , “The Quest for Meaningful Special Education” (Rowman and Littlefield, 2017) is well written, robustly researched, as often heart-warming as it is heart-wrenching, and laser focused on equity and excellence in our schools—equity and excellence for all students.

The book is divided into three sections:

1)      A deep dive into the history of special education, and the attendant problems with definitions, exclusion, racism, and access. We begin to follow nine families who, through luck and privilege, are able to get their children into the Kelsey School (not the real name of a very real school), a private special education program where these children thrive.
2)      A description of the structure and culture of the Kelsey School. We meet teachers, administrators, and counselors. We come to understand how these nine children get their needs met, in ways that public schools have not yet reliably provided for such students.
3)      A realistic set of goals and practices that all schools can consider to provide a meaningful education for every child.

From the first pages, Ballin fearlessly jumps into the issue that children who are labeled as having special needs can be excluded by that label (sent from the room, sent to out-of-district placements, made to feel “other”) and included by that label into caring, well-structured school communities where they can find success.  From interviews with the nine children and their parents, Ballin extracts scores of stories and quotes that make the simultaneous exclusion and inclusion memorable. Among my favorites: Raya is in her first year at the Kelsey School, with many emotional scars from her struggles in the public setting with dyslexia. Her class is heading to the library at Kelsey, and she bursts into tears. When asked why she is crying, she sobs, “I can’t read; why would I want to go to the library.” A fellow student says to her, “What’s the problem? None of us can read. Let’s go!”

Ballin challenges us with an optimistic, ethical, and ultimately well-documented standard, one she richly describes, happening now at the Kelsey School and in similar programs around the country: all children can learn; all schools can include; all parents can be well informed and supported; all teachers can work within settings that enable them to focus on the success of every child.


Ballin is no fool—she knows that American schools have never been funded, structured, resourced, or charged to be so inclusive and successful. The Kelsey School exists because our public schools have chronically neglected, if not harmed, atypical learners. There was no national Golden Age of Education for us to look back upon, when everyone succeeded; as recently as the 1960’s 40% of students did not complete high school , and still today 20% of students do not earn a high school diploma, a disproportionate number of them labeled with special needs. Ballin’s courageous nine families, her robust research, and the Kelsey School tell us in no uncertain terms that we can do better—her book emotionally and intellectually is unequivocal in making the case for that expectation.

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