Education

‘All students matter’ should not become education’s mantra

In 1975, Congress passed the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) which promised full funding for special education — a pledge that has never been met. This month, the Senate punted down the road an historic opportunity to move us closer to fulfilling that promise, choosing to try and finalize a new budget in the next two and a half months.

This continual trend of sidelining students with learning disabilities is encapsulated in a simple mantra that’s been spreading: “All students matter.”

“All students matter” has been shouted on the streets and tweeted as a rallying cry for “fairness.” Even more concerning, I’ve heard of learning disabilities nonprofits changing their names because of reluctance from philanthropic and school partners. When I first heard someone say the phrase, I thought of the white people who said “All lives matter” in response to the surge of the “Black Lives Matter” movement.

“All lives matter” sounds nice, but it’s a not-so-subtle refutation of the movement to bring justice, healing and freedom to Black people. “All students matter” similarly obscures or denies that a specific group of people has been culturally and institutionally marginalized. Our education system works quite well for people with certain abilities, but those who think and learn differently — students who struggle with tasks like reading, spelling or focusing but often possess unusual, valuable gifts — are often sidelined.

As a white man with dyslexia and ADHD, my race and gender give me privileges, but my disability still leaves me disenfranchised. If you’re low-income or a student of color, it’s much worse. Approximately 35 percent of African American, Hispanic and Native American students with disabilities left high school without a regular diploma in 2014-2015, compared to less than 25 percent of Asian and white students.

We won’t improve our education system by proclaiming that “All students matter” and then giving every student the same attention and experiences. If we want equality in our education system, we have to start customizing instruction to bring out the best in individual students. The one in five students with learning disabilities need more and different opportunities and tools. They also need teachers who appreciate them and understand that they’re dealing with systemic ableism. But most importantly, they need their voices to be heard.

With most schools having returned to in-person instruction, we have the opportunity to make learning environments more equitable and uplifting. If we want to be successful, adults in positions of power must listen to students who have been consigned to the margins of our education system. And then they need to give these students far more of what they need in order to learn. We call this “scaling up proximate knowledge” in boardrooms, and while it sounds simple enough to achieve, our country has never been great at it.

It’s difficult to change the balance — or scale up the proximate knowledge of folks on the margins — because doing so requires people to give up power. No one wants to give up the microphone, but in reality, there are voices that don’t need to be amplified and others that desperately need to be heard. Those who’ve been marginalized need to be heard the most.

Education doesn’t properly support students who learn differently because the system was designed without their input. That’s why it’s not mandatory for teachers to undergo training on how to work with students with learning disabilities. The learning disabilities community is incredibly diverse. Their experiences with learning have helped them gain greater self-knowledge and empathy. Why, then, are Individualized Education Plans (IEPs) developed without the input of the students they purport to help? 

It is evident: If true change is to be achieved, students who learn differently or have a learning disability need to be major players in talks about education reforms.

I know they can make an impact because I work with them nearly every day through Eye to Eye, a national nonprofit I founded for students with learning differences. We should listen to the students who wrote an open letter to the Biden administration calling for, among a list of requests, improved early intervention. We should listen to students like high school junior Carlye Raabe who grew up feeling like an outsider because of her ADHD. After finding the support system of the Eye to Eye network, she realized “normalcy” wasn’t her path. She now advocates for creating kinder, more welcoming environments in the classroom.

Students with learning disabilities have the talent, knowledge and ambition to root out ableism and help change our education system for the better. We need to give them a seat at the table if our leaders won’t step up to change the equation. After struggling through the pandemic, they’re more fired up than ever and ready to lead. Their voices will change the tapestry of our world, along with the education system we all need. If we just listen.

David Flink is the founder and chief empowerment officer of Eye to Eye. He was a Top 10 finalist for CNN Heroes.