What No One Tells You About the U.S. Public Education System
Last week at work, I was conducting a psycho-educational assessment for a first grader who demonstrates many characteristics of giftedness. His estimated IQ is below 120, and he has been diagnosed with autism. From what I can gather, it appears he also has severe dysgraphia, which is a learning disability that affects writing.
He was referred to me primarily because of behavior concerns. Quite frankly, the school wants to send him somewhere else so someone else can deal with his behavior. The way I see it, this boy is bored out of his mind with the material, is tormented by his writing challenges, and lacks the necessary coping skills to manage his frustrations within the classroom.
In an ideal world, this student would come to my office 3-4 times a week and we would work together on developing the social-emotional skills he is struggling with. In two to three months, I could do magic. This child would be able to focus on his talents and enjoy learning without having daily meltdowns in the classroom. His self-esteem and confidence would grow, and he would thrive and enjoy coming to school. This is what school psychologists are trained to do and what I truly love doing.
Unfortunately, in real life, there is very little time for this. Some school psychologists are in charge of up to five or more schools, each school with an endless line of students waiting to be assessed to determine if they are eligible for special education services. Who gets in that line is not necessarily a reflection of who struggles the most.
One of the problems is that schools should have school-wide supports and pre-referral systems in place. These systems would ensure that all children receive the appropriate level of interventions and supports, and only those children with true special education needs get in that assessment line in order to receive intensive, individualized supports.
This is the idea behind Response to Intervention (RTI), which is mandated in many states. Even if it is not federally mandated, an RTI framework is part of best practices. Whether RTI is being implemented effectively in public schools today is a whole different story.
Response to Intervention (RTI) Framework
But, let’s go back to the first grader for a moment. Halfway through our assessment, he shot down, went under the table, cried, and refused to complete a writing task. I gave him some time to be upset and let his frustration out. When I asked him about his reaction, he said to me crying, “It’s too difficult, I’m not good enough.”
After hearing this heart-breaking expression from this 6-year-old boy, I sat down on the floor with him. I knew the only way to connect with him would be to share my own story. I wanted to show him that we all feel that way sometimes. I told him I understood how he felt about writing because that is the same way I feel about numbers. When I shared some embarrassing details about my learning disability in math, he finally looked me in the eye and started listening to what I had to say.
I told this boy I believed in him and his abilities. He listened attentively. I demonstrated how bright he is by pointing out his performance in other areas, and compared to other kids his same age. He smiled and seemed proud of himself. It seemed he had never heard something positive about his abilities. It seemed that for a moment, he no longer believed he was not good enough.
It made my day when I got him to complete the writing task to the best of his ability, and he walked out of my office happy and ready to go back to his classroom as if his meltdown had never happened.
The reason I’m writing about this boy today is that I have a bittersweet feeling in the back of my throat. Writing about this is a very cathartic process for me right now. He may be the last child I get to help within the system. I submitted my resignation letter two weeks ago. I’m conflicted because I know many children in the system will continue to struggle while their needs are unaddressed. On the other hand, as I finished my last day as a school psychologist working for the U.S. public education system, I also felt a sense of overwhelming relief, ease, and calm. I haven’t felt like this in many years.
Since my first year in the field, about eight years ago, I started to experience intense feelings of distress, dread, anxiety, and even panic. Yes, school psychology pushed me to the brink. I began suffering from panic attacks for the first time in my life. My amygdala went into overdrive. I was mentally, emotionally, and physically exhausted.
Many days, I would come home crying and wanting to turn off all the lights, get under my covers, and do nothing else for the rest of the day. I felt defeated, depleted, and miserable. I knew this was not right. This could not possibly be a way to live. The sad part is that I know many school psychologists across the country with similar experiences.
Part of the problem in the public education system is that everyone is expected to give more than what is humanly possible. There is a mismatch of high expectations with absolutely no support. Everyone is continuously stressed, under high pressure, and on edge. It is a very toxic environment. This is the same environment where children are supposed to learn and flourish. How could this be possible?
I don’t want to generalize. It’s possible there are some rare public schools that implement appropriate practices and are equipped with adequate staff and resources. I’ve worked for five different school districts and charter schools across the country. Same story, different characters.
There are people with good hearts and good intentions in the public education system. Hardworking individuals who give their lives away to a broken system, who put the needs of all children before their needs, and who are trying their best so that all children succeed. But no matter how hard we try, we are swimming against the stream.
Being a school psychologist is an intense job because we are the advocates of children inside a system that seems to be working against us. We bring the inconvenient truths to light. The majority of those in administrative positions with the power to do something about it have their priorities all wrong. It’s extremely frustrating!
There needs to be a shift in the way schools provide psychological services to our children, and part of that shift should include funding and support for school psychologists to do what we were trained to do. We are not testing machines and even if we were, that would not solve the issues with the special education system. We have been trained to do so much more. We have immense potential to impact students’ lives positively, but we are spread so thin and have no time for the things that can truly make a difference.
When I decided to become a school psychologist, I was excited about all the great things I could do for children and all the ways I could help them develop their strengths and unlock their full potential. In reality, everyday testing caseloads become larger and larger because RTI is not being implemented appropriately. In fact, some schools provide no interventions at all!
In addition, neither our evaluation reports nor our participation in the process of IEP development guarantees that the needs of children will be met after their IEPs are signed. School psychologists spend hours and hours writing long comprehensive psycho-educational reports and tailored recommendations that no one in the school ever follows through on.
Sadly, for those children who are not eligible for special education services nothing really changes. They will likely continue to struggle within the general education setting until they either drop out of school, or their parents seek outside help to advocate for their rights.
There are so many questionable policies and practices in the public school system I could write about it for days, but I rather focus my energy on something more positive.
My turning point came when I finally looked at the evidence pointing to the ways the system was affecting my health. After years of accumulated stress and purposeless work, I developed hypothyroidism, and my endocrine system began doing crazy things in efforts to keep up with the extreme demands and overwhelming frustrations. This helped me realize that the public school system was not allowing me to make a real impact on children’s lives. The environment is not aligned with my talents, values, beliefs, or philosophy on education. The system was sapping my creative energy and underutilizing my potential.
While I regret how much time it took me to gather the courage to walk away, I believe I needed to be in the public education system for as long as I did. I needed to feel the pain of parents and what they go through every day in attempts to advocate for their children with special education needs.
Now that I can see the bigger picture after many years, I want to educate families about the impact of stress and trauma on our minds and bodies. Just like the boy who feels he is not enough because his writing is not as strong as his other abilities, many children in schools are experiencing significant stress on a daily basis and becoming traumatized by the ridiculous mismatch of increasingly high expectations with lack of appropriate support.
I want to transform my experiences within the public education system into something more positive. I’m excited for this new period of my professional life. It is time to share my strengths on my terms. I’d love to share my knowledge with those who have no idea what goes on inside public schools where children are supposed to thrive.
I want to empower families to equip themselves with tools and resources to advocate for their children’s educational needs. In particular, I’d love to collaborate with families of children who are gifted and twice-exceptional (2e), like the first grader I described here. I know my future work with children like him will make a much more significant impact. My mental, emotional, and creative energy will be used more effectively outside of the system, and I will live a more purposeful life.
So long public education!!!!! I will not be missing you!
Day Sanchez is a bilingual school psychologist, education specialist, and social and emotional intelligence coach. She has over eight years of experience working with gifted and twice-exceptional (2e) children in public, charter, and private schools in California, Florida, and New Jersey. Her approach draws on social and emotional learning, positive psychology, neuroscience, and cognitive behavioral techniques. In 2017, Day left the public education system to help 2e families advocate for their children’s rights. Shortly after that, she founded 2e Minds to provide guidance, support, and resources for 2e children and their families.