It is increasingly clear that mankind is only beginning to understand how different we human beings — as individuals — actually are.
A 2002 study by UC Santa Barbara neuroscientist Michael Miller is a prime example. Intent on identifying the location in the human brain of verbal memory, Miller recruited 16 individuals to lie down in an fMRI brain scanner and be shown series of words. Whenever they recognized a word from a previous series, they were to press a button. At that point, the machine scanned the individual’s brain and created a digital “map” of its activity.
After all the participants were processed, Miller averaged together all the brain maps, as neuroscientists have long done, in order to generate a map of the “average brain” during a retrieval of verbal memory.
However, when the neuroscientist more closely examined the individual brain maps before him, he noticed that none of them actually resembled the composite, “average,” brain map. Moreover, the differences were not subtle, but extensive.
And when Miller brought back many of the original testees and subjected them again to the exact same procedures, the differences held up.
It turns out that such extensive differences between human brains aren’t limited to verbal memory, writes Todd Rose, director of the Mind, Brain & Education Program at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.
In his book, The End of Average: How We Succeed in a World That Values Sameness, Rose notes that similar individual differences have “also been found in studies of everything from face perception and mental imagery to procedural learning and emotion.”
“The implications are hard to ignore,” says Rose. “If you build a theory about thought, perception, or personality based on the Average Brain, then you have likely built a theory that applies to no one. The guiding assumption of decades of neuroscience research is unfounded. There is no such thing as an Average Brain,” he emphasizes.
Because of such discoveries, brain science today is undergoing a major paradigm shift. As recognition spreads about the actual diversity of human nervous systems, even what is seen as a disability is in flux. Autism, for example, though long seen as a disorder of behavior, is increasingly perceived by specialists — as well as individuals on the spectrum — as often not so much a disability as a distinct difference in the structure, functioning and processing of the human brain, with both advantages and disadvantages.
Given the prominence within the history of science of individuals clearly on the autistic spectrum (think, for example, of Henry Cavendish and Nikola Tesla), it is clear that the condition can not only take, but give as well.
One consequence of the “average brain” myth biting the dust is a better understanding of why America’s system of public schools — built and run on a one-size-fits-all industrial factory model — so frequently fails to meet the educational needs of large numbers of students, both neurodiverse and neurotypical.
While many parents have seen such failure close up within their own families, for the parents and guardians of special-needs children this is often doubly true.
Thus today, observes special-education attorney Sonja Kerr, “You have a strong core of parents of kids with autism who are looking at what schools are offering or not offering and saying, ‘That isn’t going to work for my kid.’”
Special education in public schools, Kerr notes, is an exception to the general rule that people who break the law and harm others face genuine penalties.
“But if you ruin a child’s life because you failed to provide the services that were needed at the appropriate time,” she says, “what happens at most is that the school is required to provide make-up services or a better program and pay some amount of attorney’s fees, which are usually covered by the district’s insurance.”
Because public school districts are largely under federal special-education law, they face few repercussions for failing seriously on multiple fronts.
“What we have structured in federal law does not account for changes in pedagogy or changes in medical knowledge or changes in human knowledge on how to address any one of the 13 disability categories,” says Greg Boris, a former public-school special education administrator and professor, and current Senior Leadership Development and Policy Specialist at the University of South Dakota Center for Disabilities.
“It doesn’t allow for changes,” he says. “It’s what we’re stuck with.”
Consequently, says Gina Green, exec director of Association of Professional Behavior Analysts, there’s rarely any “thoroughgoing commitment” in public schools “to using techniques that have proven effective in sound scientific studies and to hiring people who are trained and thoroughly qualified in those techniques and letting them have control of curricula and of personnel to implement them.
“There is often an issue with teacher contracts,” noted Green. “I can’t tell you how many behavior analysts I’ve talked to who had been hired by a school district as an ABA consultant but then were literally not allowed to train teachers and aides.
“That is,” she explains, “they were not allowed to provide them with real training by demonstrating what to do and then having them implement techniques with the behavior analyst providing feedback. That is not allowed by many contracts that say that the only people who can provide training and performance evaluations of school employees are the special education director or the principal.”
Such instances of direly needed innovations being sabotaged by indifferent government bureaucracies and/or rent-seeking special interests may seem all too familiar to the experienced parents of exceptional children.
But Michael Moe, an internationally celebrated expert on the future of markets and social change, says everyone should expect big-time change to be arriving soon in the special-education world.
“If you consider Uber and Airbnb,” says Moe, “you see that change is inevitable.” For while the taxi and hotel industries were big, he argues, the demand and the need for change were more comparable to the force of gravity.
“The opponents are fighting against something that is inevitable,” he told authors of a recent book on special education. “So you have $100 billion spent on the entrenched status quo of special education, and against it you have this army of advocates and passionate people determined to get the best education and treatments for children with special needs.”
In effect, Moe — who led Merrill Lynch’s global-growth initiatives and now heads the international merchant bank GSV — has laid out a strategy through which special-needs parents in Nevada and other states can disrupt the status quo and drive important changes forward.
Since parents’ chief obstacle has turned out to be politicians who think they must serve the establishment special interests that helped them get elected, Moe argues parents should unite via social media and deploy transparency and information to change the politicians’ minds.
So, how would that work — in Nevada, for example? What kind of transparency and information are we talking about?
Well, one important piece of information that all should know is that the legislative leaders of the party that currently controls the Nevada Legislature are way out of step with the broad base of their own party.
Everyday Nevada Democrats, for example, support multiple forms of school-choice legislation by big margins. Their party leaders, on the other hand, regularly ashcan proposals that would let kids escape the state’s big, always-failing school district monopolies and instead receive personally customized quality instruction.
In 2015, a scientific opinion survey asked Nevada voters this question:
An “education savings account” — often called an “ESA” — allows parents to take their child out of a public district or charter school, and receive a payment into a government-authorized savings account with restricted, but multiple uses. Parents can then use these funds to pay for private school tuition, virtual education programs, private tutoring or saving for future college expenses.
In general, do you favor or oppose this kind of “savings account system”?
That survey found that 53 percent of Democratic voters favored such Education Savings Accounts, which the state legislature had passed into law that very same year.
Nevertheless, the party’s legislative leaders fought the proposal all the way through the session, and then, in 2017, when they reclaimed the majority, wouldn’t appropriate a dime for the program.
In many ways, this attitude went directly against the people who make up the base of the Silver State’s Democratic Party.
Hispanic voters strongly favored ESAs by a 74 to 17 percent margin, the survey found. Black voters backed ESAs by a 57 to 39 margin, and folks with a household income under $40,000 backed them by a 67 to 26 percent margin.
Young people — many of whom had recently experienced the Clark and Washoe County school districts — backed the ESAs by the highest percentages of all: 72 to 23 percent. Perhaps most important of all, school parents backed the proposal by a 65 to 27 percent margin.
Everyone knows that some politicians just unthinkingly take their marching orders on ESAs from teacher-union bosses. Some more reflective legislators, however, appear to fear that Nevada’s huge metropolitan school districts will be injured if parents have the option — as do parents in Arizona and Florida — to withdraw their child and use their share of tax money to provide him or her with a completely individualized education.
What the record of the last several decades suggests, however, is actually the opposite: that when either special-needs or regular children have the option of ESAs, the traditional public schools improve!
Such has been the finding of multiple scholarly studies. But Michael Moe puts it quite clearly by citing what has been everyone’s personal experience:
I’m not saying everything should be free market and that nothing should be provided for by the government, not at all.
But I think the government is better when there are alternatives.
When there is no competition across the street, what you typically get is inefficient, expensive, and of mediocre quality, which in the case of education has pretty disastrous consequences.
And that, as the Nevada Journal series has fully documented, is unfortunately the situation that the parents of exceptional children know they will continue — unless organizing in behalf of their children, they ensure that it does not.
Earlier in the series:
Called ‘a recipe for financial disaster’ by unhappy
9th Circuit signals lack of patience with ploys
school districts have used to suppress costs
Los Angeles, Texas, New York exemplify
Revealed: Records tampering, state and
federal law violations, illegal IEP changes
Apparent shift in district’s strategy follows:
Fight until jury trial looms, then settle with parents
Leaves school administrators stuck within
a system-corrupting dilemma: kids vs costs
Foot-dragging school districts face future of increasingly costly settlements
School-choice programs for special-needs kids:Popular with parents, save states money
Steven Miller is the managing editor of Nevada Journal and a senior vice president at the Nevada Policy Research Institute.