Set up to fail

Both intellectually disabled students and their instructors are set up to fail, writes Anonymous, a professor at a commuter college, in an essay in Inside Higher Ed.

For the first assignment, Anonymous asked students to summarize the first three chapters of Girl, Interrupted in a few sentences. Jacob filled nearly half the page:

“There was a girl. A girl wrote this. A girl says what she did. The girl was stupid.”

The professor gave no credit and asked Jacob to see him during office hours. He didn’t show up. The next two papers received no credit.

Jacob was registered with the Office for Students with Disabilities. His counselor had recommended “special provisions and supplementary resources.”

The list of accommodations to which he was entitled was extensive: designated volunteer note-taker to be secured by instructor, extended time — up to double — for exams and in-class assignments, ability to complete tests and written work in a distraction-reduced separate location, transcriptions of all audio and video and materials, alternatives to oral presentations, preferential seating near the front of the room, permission to record lectures, and tardiness leniency.

The professor did everything required, but wondered if he should do more. He believed Jacob “lacked the intellectual capacity to either benefit from or pass the course” and sensed that Jacob’s “limitations prevented him from fully understanding his situation.”

He phoned Jacob’s counselor, who had no advice to offer.

I did not want confirmation that the work I had asked him to do was beyond his abilities. I did not want to know that he was, most likely, unable to average his grades or grasp their significance. I did not want to hear that he was a senior and scheduled to graduate in December. I did not want to listen to her say ,”The only thing I can tell you is that you should hold him to the same standards as his peers.” I did not want learn that both Jacob and I had been set up for failure.

Professors are able to talk about student preparedness and ability, even when it involves “such thorny matters as race, ethnicity, class, and gender,” he writes. “But we seldom mention one of the fastest-growing groups on campus: students with disabilities.”

Roughly 11 percent of first-year college students identify as having a disability of some sort. What responsibilities do instructors have to our students? Anonymous wonders. Among his other questions:

  • Is it possible to hold a student to “the same expectations as his peers” while, at the same time, making substantive modifications and adjustments to grading structures and assignments?
  • How can admissions criteria and course expectations be modified so that we remove barriers to learning for those who are qualified, while simultaneously maintaining academic rigor?

More broadly:  “Is it realistic, or even desirable, to make the attainment of a college degree a requirement for full membership and recognition in society?”

It’s time to start talking about these issues, Anonymous writes.

Anonymous marked Jacob’s papers and exams according to the guidelines set for the class as a whole, with words of encouragement, when possible. On the eve of the final, Jacob was certain to fail.

POSTED BY Joanne Jacobs ON January 30, 2012

Comments & Trackbacks (3) | Post a Comment


You were. Since the K-12 administration cannot be brutally honest with students and parents, we leave it up to you to do so.

I’m certainly not happy about this, but with the “college first” mentality it is a logical progression.

And yes, we hear this about students without disabilities but are poorly schooled.

Christina Lordeman

I didn’t see a place to leave comments on the original article, so I thought I’d comment here. What seems to be missing from this piece is any sort of conversation with other instructors who have taught Jacob. If Jacob was a senior on track to graduate, he had obviously taken other classes and received passing grades. It would have been interesting to know how his other instructors addressed the situation.

Overall, I agree with the author of this article that we are not going to be able to avoid this subject much longer.

Autif Kamal

“Is it possible to hold a student to “the same expectations as his peers” while, at the same time, making substantive modifications and adjustments to grading structures and assignments?”

I’m guessing that only some intellectually disabled students can be held to the same standards. Some of them have disabilities that affect them in the same ways (i.e. Focusing, reading ability, speech ability, physical ability etc.), but others may have disabilities that are of a completely different sort. That’s why I’m guessing that some, but not all intellectually disabled students can be held to the same standards.

At the same time, don’t intellectually disabled students also go through matriculation before they enroll in classes. Undeniably, they cannot be excluded from classes because of intellectual disabilities. However, they shouldn’t be excluded so long as they also have the prerequisite knowledge to take the classes that they are interested in. It’s pointless to allow any student, disabled or not, to enroll in classes which they lack the prerequisite knowledge to learn about.

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