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.