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Five Reasons Why Presuming Competence is ALWAYS a Good Idea

I think all teachers have had students who led them to that “ah-ha” experience that helped them realize why they got into teaching in the first place. The students were eager, curious, funny, stubborn, persistent, or just plain nice kids. It happened for me back in 1992. I was doing some school reform and inclusive education work with a newly built high school in southern New Hampshire. On my first day at the school, I met two incoming 9th graders, both of whom had pretty significant disabilities. Let’s call them John and Rob. John looked terrified as he made his way down the busy hallways. He didn’t use his voice to communicate, but cobbled together some gestures and signs to try to make himself understood. He seemed unable to read and his most recent three-year re-evaluation revealed an I.Q. of 42. He had some compulsive behaviors and was very anxious most of the time. He was shy and withdrawn, clumsy and overweight.

The second student I met that day couldn’t have been more different. Rob appeared to be thriving in 9th grade, giving high-5’s to just about everyone he met as he walked through the busy hallways between classes. He seemed cooperative and was a real jokester. He had recently learned to use a communication board and was a whiz at spelling, although he, too, did not use his voice to communicate. In fact, I heard a classmate tell him “Hey, slow down, slow down, I can’t keep up with you!” I learned that he was an assistant manager of the football team and he wore his team jersey proudly.

When I looked through John’s cumulative file, I saw a pretty typical educational history for a student with his “developmental disability” profile. He had been in all self-contained classes through 8th grade except for art and physical education. His IEP goals focused on pre-academic skills (e.g., matching, 1:1 correspondence, letter identification); as well as on self-care, vocational, and life-skills. He spent most of every day with other students who had significant disabilities and he participated in Special Olympics.

Rob’s educational program was quite different. He was included in all general education classes. His IEP contained goals and objectives that reflected the essential elements of the general education curriculum, as well as objectives related to reading, managing his belongings, participating in extracurricular activities, and communication skills.

In speaking with John and Rob’s parents, I saw starkly different future expectations for these young men. John’s parents thought he would live in a group home, work in a sheltered workshop, and spend most of his time with other people who had significant disabilities. Rob’s parents expected him to eventually live away from home, perhaps with roommates who might get free rent in order to provide some support to him. They thought Rob might work in the family pizza business or perhaps in a fitness facility because he liked sports and was so gregarious. They hoped that the friendships he had developed in school would continue on into adult life and that those friends who stayed in the area would hang out together doing what other 20-somethings do in their spare time.

When I talk about these two students in workshops, I ask people to come up with a hypothesis about why their educational programs and futures looked so different. Several people always say “Well, it looks like John is a lot lower functioning than Rob.” And there it is. Across the U.S. , only 16% of students who are labelled as having an intellectual disability are included in general education classes for most of their school day. Over 50% of students taking alternate assessments do not have the assistive technology (including augmentative communication) that they need in order to demonstrate what they really know. Our judgments about students’ intellectual capacities affect every decision we make about their educational programs, their communication systems and supports, the social activities we support them to participate in, and the futures we imagine.

OK, time to fess up. There actually weren’t two students at the high school. Just one and his name was Amro Diab. Amro had been in self-contained classes his whole life before moving into 9th grade. A key special education teacher who served in the role of Inclusion Facilitator at his new high school, together with some folks from the Institute on Disability at the University of New Hampshire, developed Amro’s educational program based on the idea of presuming his competence. They believed that with the right supports, Amro could learn the essential elements of the general education curriculum, communicate effectively, have a full social life based on shared interests with his classmates, and graduate to an inclusive adult life in the community. With these supports, he went from being like “John” to being like “Rob.”  Who changed more?  The student or the assumptions held by those around him?

This notion of presuming competence tends to be a deeply held belief and those who hold it don’t need I.Q. or other test scores to back them up. For them, and for me, it’s the “least dangerous assumption” I can make about any student or any person. As I’ve thought more deeply about this idea over the last 30 years – and yes, there have been students who’ve challenged my beliefs – I’ve identified five reasons why presuming competence will always guide my work.

First, people’s expectations matter. When teachers expect students to do well, they do even better than expected. 

Second, I.Q. and other tests that purport to measure human capacity are terribly flawed. They usually tell us what students can’t do rather than what they might do if they had good instruction and high quality supports. Basing a student’s whole educational career and future on a test score just seems fraught with potential harm.

Third, a growing body of research shows “unexpected” abilities in people who had been identified as intellectually disabled until they were provided with a means to communicate. Think Hellen Keller or Larry Bissonnette.

Fourth, to presume incompetence could cause irreparable harm to our students if we are wrong.

And finally, even if we are wrong about presuming a student’s ability to learn and to communicate in ways that are on par with his classmates without disabilities, being wrong about that isn’t as dangerous as the alternative.

- Cheryl Jorgensen

I am an inclusive education consultant who works with schools and families to support students' welcomed membership, reciprocal social relationships, full participation, and authentic learning of the general education curriculum within general education instruction in the general education classroom.