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N. Dakota Plan For Individualized Instruction Stirs Criticism

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North Dakota Superintendent of Public Instruction Joseph Crawford's plan to provide the majority of the state's public-school pupils with individualized education programs by 1984 "is not only irresponsible, but borders on irrational," according to the president of the North Dakota School Boards Association (ndsba).

In a letter to Gov. Alan G. Olson dated March 23, ndsba President Barbara H. Nordby said that she was "appalled that Mr. Crawford would dictate" individualized instruction for the state's children "at a time when [he] has asked school districts across the state to reduce spending this year and curtail budgets for the next year because of a shortfall in state revenues."

State officials recently announced that decreasing levels of oil production in North Dakota, resulting in lower oil-extraction tax revenues than previously expected, could force a $50-million to $60-million reduction in state aid to schools during the current biennium.

Annual Testing

Under the plan proposed by Mr. Crawford, all public-school students in the state would be tested and assessed annually in much the same manner that handicapped children are. (Currently, the only public-school students in the nation who are required to have such individualized treatment are those who are covered by the federal Education for All Handicapped Children Act, commonly known as P.L. 94-142.)

After the testing, parents would meet with teachers and principals to agree upon the most appropriate educational program for their children.

The individualized instruction program would be field-tested in approximately 20 districts in the upcoming school year and put into full operation during the 1983-84 school year, Mr. Crawford said.

Officials representing the ndsba, the North Dakota Council of School Administrators (ndcsa), and the North Dakota Education Association all said they were concerned about the cost and paperwork that would accompany the proposed program, which they first learned about from a February 24 account in Education Week.

"I have never read anything put out by the state department of education about this plan, nor have I or any of our officers been consulted about it," said Lowell L. Jensen, executive director of the state school administrator's council. "Mr. Crawford failed to touch base with the persons in the local school districts who will eventually implement it."

Richard Ott, executive director of the ndsba, added that many of his organization's members have expressed "serious concerns about the plan because they do not understand it."

"The burden for implementation of this plan comes back to the local officials, and they have never been given a chance to get involved in its development," Mr. Ott explained.

"Right now, the only individualized education plans that they're familiar with are those required for handicapped students, and they are quite aware of the large amount of time and money that has to be spent on each of these youngsters," he continued. "Providing that kind of service to all of the state's public-school students is a laudable goal. But saying that you want to do it within two years, especially in light of the state's financial difficulties, is like say-ing you plan to cure cancer given those same constraints. Sure, you want to see it happen, but realistically, can it be done?"

Mr. Crawford, however, continues to defend the proposal and the manner in which it has been developed.

The cost of implementation will be minimal, he said in an interview last week, because a number of the state's smallest school districts have informally offered individualized instruction for their pupils for years.

'Additional Time'

"The only additional cost to the state department [of education] will be related to consulting work, and we're already figuring out ways of allowing for that under our current budget," he said. "The only cost to the local school districts will be some additional time."

Mr. Crawford also said school administrators, principals, teachers, and parents were given ample opportunity to react to the proposal at a series of state education department-sponsored conferences that have been held since January. He said that people attending those meetings were "overwhelmingly supportive" of the proposal.

Mr. Crawford added, however, that state education "lobbyists" were not invited to the conferences, pointing out that they and their organizations are his most vociferous critics.

"Some school officials have been whistling the same old song to the public for a long time now: 'Give us the money, then leave us alone,"' he said. "I say that's whistling your way to the cemetery. Parents and taxpayers want accountability from their elected officials, and that's precisely what this program provides."

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