Barb's Blog

That's a Fact, In my Opinion

In education today policy makers and practitioners place much emphasis on analysis of data. The Elementary and Secondary Education Act requires educational practices to be “scientifically-based” or at least “peer reviewed.”  The Federal government is sending boatloads of money to the States to improve their educational data collection systems.  State and local systems are expected to be able to report the individual progress of their students as well as the outcomes of schools, districts, and States overall.  New Federal proposals would even have teachers, principals, and teacher training programs evaluated based on student progress.  

As an analytical person, I think it’s great to look at facts, figures, and measures.  We should be using objective tools to make educational decisions for our kids.  We need to examine our methods and outcomes to make sure we are using the most successful approaches.  Our kids need for us to provide them with the most efficient pathways to success.  Decisions made by gut-instinct or by habit or just because no one thought to do things differently can pretty risky to our children’s educational future.

So I’m all for data driven, scientific, factual analyses of educational decisions.

Except . . . how data driven are they?

Let’s look at some decisions that have been made in deaf education.

Early intervention systems favor providing services to infants and toddlers in the home and generally do not provide them in center based programs, such as schools for the deaf.  There is no evidence that services provided in the home are superior.  In fact, children learn language, such as American Sign Language, from native users of the language, therefore the evidence supports programs that bring together a critical mass of deaf children and their parents.  So why aren’t more deaf children being provided early intervention services in deaf schools?        

Most deaf school age children are served in their local public schools, receiving mediated instruction through a sign language interpreter.  In fact, there is no research that demonstrates the efficacy of this approach.  Quite the contrary.  One recent study shows that approximately 60% of the educational interpreters evaluated had inadequate skills to provide full access.  The study’s author concludes “many deaf and hard-of-hearing students receive interpreting services that will seriously hinder reasonable access to the classroom curriculum and social interaction” (Schick 2006).  So why are most deaf children receiving their education through an interpreter?

Today many families are choosing cochlear implants for their deaf child.  Often families who choose an implant research the topic thoroughly, talk to other parents, educators, and medical personnel, and do everything they can to ensure they receive the information they need to make the right decision.  Much of the research concludes that cochlear implants are superior to hearing aids in allowing children to access spoken language.  But the medical research also shows that sound isn’t everything.  It shows that the kids who do best with implants are the kids who started out with language, either spoken language (if they could hear earlier) or sign language.  So why aren’t medical practitioners encouraging parents to sign with their children before they receive an implant?  

Tom Hehir, former Director of the Office of Special Education Programs in the U.S. Department of Education and current Professor in the Harvard Graduate School of Education, has written about the topic of “ableism,” “a pervasive system of discrimination and exclusion that oppresses people who have mental, emotional and physical disabilities . . .”* 

He says:

"Deeply rooted beliefs about health, productivity, beauty, and the value of human life, perpetuated by the public and private media, combine to create an environment that is often hostile to those whose physical, mental, cognitive, and sensory abilities . . . fall out of the scope of what is currently defined as socially acceptable." 

. . .

"From an ableist perspective, the devaluation of disability results in societal attitudes that uncritically assert that it is better for a child to walk than roll, speak than sign, read print than read Braille, spell independently than use a spell-check, and hang out with nondisabled kids as opposed to other disabled kids, etc.  In short, in the eyes of many educators and society, it is preferable for disabled students to do things in the same manner as nondisabled kids."

. . .

He concludes:

". . . [N]egative cultural assumptions about disability continue to have a negative influence on the education of children with disabilities. The pervasiveness of ableist assumptions in the education of these children not only reinforces prevailing prejudices against disability but may very well contribute to low levels of educational attainment and employment.  School time spent devoted to activities associated with changing disability may take away from the time needed to learn academic material. In addition, the ingrained prejudice against performing activities in ways that might be more efficient for disabled people but that are different from how nondisabled perform them, such as reading Braille or using sign language, may add to educational deficits.  There is considerable emerging evidence that unquestioned ableist assumptions are handicapping disabled children and are a cause of educational inequities."

In law school budding lawyers are taught that you win a case by defining the question.  Let’s look at two questions:

Is educational decision making for deaf children based on research?

Is educational decision making for deaf children based on incorrect information and assumptions?  

You decide.

*Although I do not necessarily see deafness as a disability, many in our society do, and for this reason Tom’s argument applies.

Copyright 2010.  Do not reproduce without permission.


Schick et al. (2006).  Look Who's Being Left Behind: Educational Interpreters and Access to Education for Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing Students.  J. Deaf Stud. Deaf Educ. (Winter 2006) 11 (1): 3-20.

Hehir, T.  (2002). “Eliminating Ableism in Education.” Harvard Educational Review 72:1–

© Barbara Raimondo 2015