Beautiful Minds

Musings on the many paths to greatness.

The Need to Believe in the Ability of Disability

Our society has clear expectations regarding students who don’t fit the norm.

[This article was co-authored with Kevin McGrew]

Our society has clear expectations regarding students who don’t fit the norm. In a 2004 national survey reported in Education Week, 84% of 800 surveyed special and general education teachers did not believe that students in special education should be expected to meet the same set of academic standards articulated for students without disabilities. These beliefs are important, as they guide policies that either encourage or hinder students with disabilities from receiving the same opportunities to flourish as everyone else.

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The diversity among those receiving disability-related educational services is enormous. But regardless of this diversity, the majority of these students often share one common experience: their classification involves the use of an IQ test. To be sure, even the harshest critics of IQ testing acknowledge that IQ scores are related to academic achievement. On average, IQ test scores account for 40% to 50% of academic achievement—which is very high in psychological and educational research. This also means that 50% to 60% of student achievement is related to within-child factors beyond IQ, such as specific abilities, creativity, grit, motivation, emotional and cognitive self-regulation, passion and inspiration, as well as external variables such as community, school, and instructional characteristics. 

Unfortunately, all too often educational policies and systems reward those with a high IQ, and limit those who, for a number of potential reasons, don’t perform well on IQ tests. Many believe that a person’s intelligence is a genetically determined, largely fixed, global, and enduring trait that explains most of a student’s success or failure in school. The reality is this: intelligence is not fixed, it takes many different forms, and IQ test scores are not sufficient metrics by which to form pinpoint accurate expectations about any particular individual’s likelihood of future academic success. They can only provide a range of possible levels of expected achievement.

This is captured in a measurement statistic called the Standard Error of the Estimate. As reported in a 2004 National Center on Educational Outcomes (NCEO) report, for any given IQ test score, half of the students will attain standardized achievement test scores below or equal to their IQ score. Equally important, and frequently unrecognized—for any IQ test score, half of the students will obtain achievement scores at or above their IQ score. This holds at all levels of intelligence. So what tips the scale of achievement one direction or the other for different students?

We believe that expectations play a much larger role than most people realize. Educational psychology research first labeled this as the “Pygmallian Effect.” More recently Elisha Babad found that teachers’ expectations can have systematic effects on their grading, as well as students’ performance on standardized achievement tests. Similarly, Kathleen Cotton reported that teacher expectations affect students’ achievement and attitudes, including offering fewer opportunities to learn new material, insincere praise, providing less stimulating and lower-level cognitive questions, and providing less effective but time consuming instructional methods. Peer expectations also play an important role, as children with disabilities are very sensitive to the overt and covert signals they are receiving from their friends.

Despite a teacher’s best effort to suppress their expectations, communication “leakage” often still comes through loud and clear. Jan Pieter Van Oudenhoven and Frans Siero reported that even though teachers gave students thought to be learning disabled twice as much verbal praise, they also displayed more negative nonverbal feedback such as discouraging head movements. Implicit signals can have a big impact on intellectual performance, and this is reflected in the brain. In a recent study, Kenneth Kishida and his colleagues had people take an IQ test alone and then in a group setting. In the group situation, the participants received their score and were told their rank in the group. In this situation, in which implicit signals of social status were broadcast to everyone in the group, everyone performed worse. Those who suffered the most though were those who were told they were the "low performers". Not only was their IQ score lower than their earlier performance, but they also showed brain changes in areas associated with fear and working memory (amygdala, dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, and nucleus acumbens) suggesting that such lowered expectations brought about anxiety which prevented them from showing their true colors. Low expectations literally shut down their brain.

Just how prevalent are expectancy effects? Researchers have reported that of all students treated with high expectations, about 10% demonstrated substantial improvement. Any other large-scale social program that could move 10% of the below average students into higher achievement levels would be heralded as a success. Examples of social policy decisions that have been made based on roughly the same strength include the reduction of the risk of dying from a heart attack by taking aspirin and the impact of chemotherapy on breast cancer survival.

We acknowledge that expectancy effects will vary by individuals and some children with severe disabilities need alternative strategies to meet goals and standards. But many children with disabilities are being denied the right to appropriate and demanding expectations. Stereotyping students with disabilities on the basis of a disability label or standardized test score is not supported by the best evidence from the field of psychological and educational measurement.

Since educational policies are part of the current presidential discourse, we believe it is crucial that local, state and national achievement goals not be at the expense of the education of students with disabilities. Many so-called “disabilities” can be strengths in the right context, and many people with disabilities have a wide array of abilities. Less focus on “how smart is this child” to “how is this child smart” is a movement in the right direction that recognizes the only proven law in psychology—the law of individual differences (i.e., there is no one-size-fits all learning method). All children have a need—a need to achieve. The bigotry, or blind testism of having low expectations for individual students with disabilities or unique needs must be recognized, understood, and minimized, if all children are not to be left behind and the diversity of our nations brain power is to be increased to compete in the new global economy.

Scott Barry Kaufman is a cognitive psychologist who specializes in the development of intelligence, creativity, and personality. He is an Adjunct Assistant Professor of Psychology at New York University, Co-founder of The Creativity Post, and Chief Science Officer of The Future Project. Follow him on Twitter and G+.

Kevin McGrew is an educational psychologist who is a coauthor of a frequently used battery of IQ and achievement tests and is also a Visiting Professor in Educational Psychology at the University of Minnesota. Follow him on Twitter.

Scott Barry Kaufman, Ph.D. is a cognitive psychologist at NYU interested in intelligence and creativity development. He is the author of forthcoming Ungifted: Intelligence Redefined.

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