As a student with a disability, the majority of my memories of elementary and high school are of teachers. They supported me, worked hard to figure out what I needed to succeed, and celebrated with me when I moved on to each new step in my life. In a recent Education Week blog post by Stephen Frank and Karen Hawley Miles, special education was characterized as “the mythical Pandora’s box, best left unopened and unexamined” for most district leaders nationwide. Just as my teachers did for me, there are special education teachers moving mountains for over 106,000 students with disabilities in Tennessee. Those teachers deserve to be a part of the conversation as Tennessee moves to become the fastest improving state in the nation.

When we talk about special education as a country, the dialogue often becomes complicated and deeply personal—just like being a student with a disability can be. But as my teachers taught me, it’s sometimes essential to do difficult things: it’s time that we talk frankly about special education. Like Frank and Miles, I really believe that “schools have an obligation to maximize the effectiveness of their spending on students with disabilities, just as they do for general education students.” So what does that mean as we start this conversation in Tennessee?

These four recommendations will optimize special education, helping it become more effective and efficient:

  • Stop using special education as the catchall program for students who fall behind academically or are disruptive.
  • Place students in more inclusive settings.
  • Reduce unwanted teacher turnover among teachers of students with disabilities.
  • Focus more on instructional quality and less on its quantity.

As mentioned by Frank and Miles, these recommendations are just a starting point; what they represent is the first push towards looking critically at our special education system as a state and as a country. Not all of these recommendations will work for every state, district, school, or student. The amazing thing about special education as a field is the capacity to see everyone as an individual. There’s no reason that we can’t look at special education reform in the same way.

What’s most exciting to me in thinking about these recommendations is what it might mean for the future. What if the distinctions between special education and general education were blurred? What if all teachers were experts in differentiated instruction and everyone collaborated constantly and effectively? Special education, then, would be less about labels and more about progress and achievement for everyone. Teaching special education would mean making progress for all children.

This new vision mirrors the way that I have been taught to see myself: not as a special education student, but as a student with a disability who has different degrees of strengths and weaknesses just like everyone else. Every student in Tennessee deserves to think of themselves in the same way, and every teacher deserves the support to help their students get there.