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New Special-Education Official Seeking To 'Identify the Gaps'

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Madeleine C. Will is the U.S. Education Department's assistant secretary for special education and rehabilitative services. She was nominated for the post in April and assumed her duties as the head of the department's office of special education, Rehabilitative Services Administration, and National Institute of Handicapped Research in July. She succeeded Jean Tufts, who died earlier this year after a lengthy illness.

For the past 11 years, Ms. Will has been a volunteer for several advocacy groups for the handicapped. In 1981, she chaired the governmental affairs committee of the Maryland Association for Retarded Citizens and that same year, served as a member of the governmental affairs committee of the National Association for Retarded Citizens.

Between 1974 and 1976, she helped develop and operate a program designed to integrate handicapped preschoolers in two nursery schools in Montgomery County, Md. She and her husband, the nationally syndicated columnist George Will, have a retarded child.

Ms. Will spoke recently with Staff Writer Susan G. Foster about her new role and her views on the federal and local policies that affect the education of the handicapped.


QHow do you view your role as the assistant secretary? What is your job as you see it?


AFirst, I see a need for someone in this position to be forthright and as strong a leader as possible in directing national attention to problems that relate to the special-education and vocational and rehabilitation communities. Second, I think there is an important need to manage the office well. There is a need to present the Administration's programs and positions well and to see them in a legislative form which will then enable us to give practical application to the Administration's ideas.


QHaving been an advocate for the rights of the handicapped, what kind of changes have you seen as a result of P.L. 94-142?


AI think it's had a powerful, revolutionary effect on the development of programs and services for handicapped children and on the likelihood of kids developing to their fullest potential, which is really the purpose of the statute. We have a nationwide service-delivery system for all handicapped children that is a very good one. It is providing a very important service for disabled Americans.


QIn recent years, the state legislatures have intervened in special-education disputes or the courts have ruled on who is to cover certain kinds of costs. Most often, the education agencies have had to shoulder the heaviest costs under the law and some have claimed that that has meant less money for regular education.


AI don't think there is any proof anywhere that can be produced to support the view that because our nation decided to provide improved services to all handicapped kids in the least restrictive environment--which is basically what P.L. 94-142 was about--in so doing, funds were diverted from regular education. I just don't see any proof of that whatsoever. You know, we spend more dollars on athletics in this country than we do on special education. In terms of the billion-dollar federal investment, it is probably one of the best investments our society has ever made because it increases the prospect of disabled kids becoming productive and independent.


QThere are individual efforts to bridge a recognized gap between non-special-education and special-education programs, particularly those within regular schools. How can that be encouraged on a larger scale?


ALet me say that I concur that it needs to be done better. There is a great need to train and interest teachers and other professionals in regular education to provide services to handicapped kids who can't be integrated, who don't need special-education services the entire day, or those who do require support services. There is some evidence to suggest that more and more kids are being identified as requiring special-education services. It may be the case that they need some extra or special support services. But whether they are truly disabled, truly handicapped, remains in doubt.

I see a great problem with misclassification of youngsters in the special-education system because that is the only place where special services can be provided. This is a larger responsibility and the ultimate solution should not be the misclassification of the child. It should be the provision of better services in the regular school.


QAre you saying that in some cases educators attempt to use special education as a compensatory-education program?


AI don't say there were kids receiving those services who were not eligible or who did not require those services. I'm questioning whether all of the children who are being identified in the child count as handicapped are in fact handicapped and whether they need to be served in special education. Maybe that's the case because there is no other alternative. But perhaps we ought to start thinking whether there should be an alternative.


QDo you have something in mind?


ANo. I think we have to look at the kind of services we're providing in the regular schools. My point is that special education cannot do this without the involvement and interest of the regular world of education. We educated millions of immigrant kids flooding into our nation at the turn of the century without any concept of special education. And we did a pretty good job of it. I question a different solution that takes children who are unusual or different or kids who just require more and places them ipso facto in special education.

There's still a stigma attached to being identified with a label; learning-disabled, which is one label most frequently used, is not as onerous as some of the others. But it is not an [asset] to be identified as a learning-disabled child because it does trap kids and put them on a permanent course. Perhaps we oughtn't make those decisions for kids if they are not truly disabled.

I do not want to deny services to kids who are really disabled. We need to provide services to those kids. But it seems to me that there is a need now to try to upgrade services to kids who aren't really disabled in terms of our definition, but who need some kind of special support.


QWhen you spoke of misclassification, were you thinking specifically of the learning-disabled category?


AI wasn't really, but that's where the primary problem is. That child count continues to grow and grow, and so many of our other categories are actually decreasing. I don't think we want an educational system in which every child who is different or unusual, or requires more work or maybe has a problem in some way or is culturally disadvantaged ends up in special education. In some countries, a quarter of the population is identified as handicapped. I question the validity of that approach.


QWhat can, and should, the federal government do to further the goals of P.L. 94-142 without canceling the beneficial effects?


AIf the action taken does not further the goals, then it automatically cancels the beneficial effects of the law, in my view. But if you're asking what can be done to further the objectives of the statute, I think we have to go back to perhaps a distinction that I draw between what was being accomplished in the early years--from the time of the passage of the statute in 1975 to perhaps a year or so ago.

In the early stages, the effort [centered on] the procedural implementation of the statute. Now the focus has shifted--and should shift--from implementation to upgrading the quality of programs and the comprehensiveness of programs. We're in the second stage and that's what we're about: identifying gaps and services and looking at ways to develop those needed services.


QDoes that mean more money?


ANo. I know from my experience at the state level that money is the problem. We have to have adequate resources. The question is: Are those funds available in the system? And the answer to that is yes. The funds definitely are available.


QAt the state level?


AAt every level of government. But I'm now talking in terms of funds at the federal level. It's a question of redirecting funds, especially in this area where you have so many agencies and departments that have responsibility for providing services from birth through death for certain portions of the disabled population. What you have as a result is a patchwork delivery system with many gaps. But there are funds available. The question is whether those funds can be redirected to the kinds of services we want to see developed.


QThere are instances of interagency battles in some states over who should provide funding or related services. Should that responsibility be up to the education department in most instances, or should there be more interagency cooperation?


AYes, there certainly should be [more interagency cooperation]. The question of jurisdiction, with so many agencies involved, is probably one of the single most pressing problems that has to be addressed. I think there needs to be coordination of services. There needs to be sharing, and I don'tdeleine Will Seeks To 'Identify the Gaps' in Special Education think it's possible to say this particular agency should have jurisdiction over a whole range of programs, some of which it has never been involved in implementing before.

At the state level, we certainly know that where there is a formalized agreement among agencies that deal with policy relating to the disabled, the state has a much better service-delivery system. So, at the federal level we want very much to encourage that kind of coordination and collaboration.


QHow do you encourage interagency cooperation without legislating it outright?

AWell, I think that we've already seen a good bit of this happening in states without legislation. So there are model agreements we can point toward. It's a willingness to identify the problem, identify the population, identify funds available, and identify responsibility for managing the delivery of service. If there's a serious commitment on the part of the state agencies, it can be done.


QHave you set any program priorities?


AI have several. It is important for people at the federal level to express clearly that disabled Americans exist from birth to death and that a continuum of services needs to be provided. Obviously, in the Education Department we have a responsibility for a segment of those services. I have identified early-intervention and early-childhood services as one priority; and also the development of community-based special-education programs that integrate handicapped kids.

The third priority is the development of services to adolescents who have graduated or are about to graduate and go off into the world of work. Those kids need to be provided with vocational training and job preparation a lot sooner than we are doing, so that they end up being employed. And that's not happening in significant enough numbers. It's a major concern.


QHow do you plan to go about promoting these ideas?

AFirst, we want to look across osers [the Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services] at ways of integrating the components that overlap. We have vocational rehabilitative services, special education, and the National Institute of Handicapped Research. Each program has various authorities. There are a number of existing model demonstrations that are addressing the needs that I've identified. But more needs to be done; we need systemwide models.

In some districts, we find model educational programs that integrate handicapped children or identify youngsters at very early ages and provide early-intervention services. But we need to see that expanded. Statewide delivery systems are really critically important to eliminate the great variance in the kinds of services that you see delivered.


QDoes the federal government have a responsibility to help districts that don't have the resources?


ANo. I don't see the federal government having a role in identifying a district and coming to its assistance. We have a responsibility to see the expansion of quality services across the nation through the active involvement of state and local agencies and through the kind of collaboration and coordinated efforts I mentioned earlier. You find that they are much better qualified and able to resolve the question of who has what at the state level.


QDo you think that colleges and universities will play a major part in helping to improve services through the training of teachers?

AYes. In terms of our need to provide transitional services for kids from school to work. A significant number of handicapped kids will look toward colleges and universities for assistance. We have a postsecondary authority which has provided a great deal of assistance to youngsters who are deaf. We now want to see the categories expanded to include many other handicapped kids.

It's absolutely imperative that we also have qualified teachers and professionals in the system who will work in delivering services that are going to bring these kids from school to work. So anything that can be done to stimulate interest in specializing in the field must be done.


QWhen you mentioned your three priority areas, did you mean that you will be looking for proposals for demonstration grants and teacher-training grants that address those particular areas?


AI'm not doing that exclusively, but that is very important. We have about 300,000 handicapped kids who graduate every year and who could be working or could be in some kind of higher-education program but are not actually moving into those areas now.


QWhy is that?


ABecause there's an assumption that perhaps this will happen without the greater involvement of the school systems and others. That's certainly one aspect of the problem. Another is the marketplace, which has to be prepared to accept these youngsters. So we need to look at why these youngsters fail to get work or remain on the job, and find ways in which the educational programs can correct the deficiencies. It's a very real problem.


QDo handicapped students have particular difficulty in making the transition from special programs into vocational-training programs in the schools? Is there a need to strengthen both programs in that area?

AThat's certainly one area that needs to be looked into. What we have to focus on is outcome. Perhaps we need a new concept of work. Not all handicapped or severely handicapped children can work. I think all of the agencies involved in providing these kinds of services need to re-evaluate what they are doing because the outcome is what is important. Our services are inadequate unless we see that the kids are employed and provided greater opportunity for success in the workplace.


QHow do the recommendations of the National Commission on Excellence in Education relate to programs for the handicapped?


AMost of the areas identified by the commission as in need of strengthening or greater emphasis are those that the parents and professionals in special education have been convinced of for a long time: individual education and concrete instructional objectives as in the iep [individual education program] and low teacher-student ratios. I see the commission's report as a great vindication of the concept that is embodied in P.L. 94-142. Many of the specific recommendations are not applicable across the board, but we certainly agree with the idea of allowing a student to develop to his utmost potential. That is the main point of the commission's report.


QIs it possible then under your leadership that there might be an education summit conference, like the one Secretary Bell is planning, to bring in the various disciplines to discuss the problem?

AWe haven't talked about it in terms of the Department of Education. But since the President created the White House "working group on handicapped concerns" there has been a good deal of discussion as to how all the agencies that are involved in providing vocational and employment services to the disabled could examine their mission and re-evaluate their services. That is underway but it hasn't been completed. But the idea is one that is worth considering.


QCan we expect any announcements on new programs or initiatives from the office of special education and rehabilitative services?


AWe don't have anything that I can talk about now.

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