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Special-Education Effort in New York Needs a Major 'Overhaul,' Says Panel

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Special education in New York City's public-school system is "too often special in name only" and needs a complete overhaul, according to the report of a mayoral commission.

The mayoral panel's findings--which point to serious problems in student classification and placement, program management, and teacher training--echoed charges that have also been leveled at special-education efforts in other large urban school systems, including Chicago and Philadelphia. And they follow a series of allegations by state and local officials in recent years that the New York City system was mismanaging its special-education program.

The city's 116,300 special-education students constitute one of the largest such populations in the country. Those pupils make up 12.5 percent of the total public-school enrollment in the city, but the special-education budget represents approximately 23 percent of the school's more than $3.5-billion annual budget--one of the factors that led Mayor Edward I. Koch to convene the special study panel.

Its report, "Special Education: A Call for Quality," grew out of a one-year study by the 11-member commission. It is based on interviews with more than 300 individuals, two days of public hearings, and reviews of documents, research studies, and laws relating to special education in New York and eight other states.

Although the commission expressed admiration for the efforts of the city and its board of education in the "face of the awesome difficulty of accomplishing their goals," it argued that special-education students "deserve a more appropriate and better education than they now receive."

Both the programs and the students they serve are poorly integrated into the school system as a whole, the commission found, resulting in the isolation of students who would otherwise be capable of joining the mainstream at least part of the time.

James Regan, president of the New York City Board of Education, and Charles I. Schonhaut, deputy schools chancellor, said last week that they agreed with many of the recommendations in the report and that the study was carried out in a "highly professional manner."

They noted that "such important recommendations as those made by the commission may require major policy decisions that must be brought up in discussion with the concerned bodies" but added that the board has already begun efforts to implement other recommendations.

The mayoral panel found that a significant number of the city's special-education students were placed in special programs "not necessarily because they are handicapped but because they need services unavailable in regular education and because the special-education assessment process fails to differentiate between children who have handicapping conditions and those who do not."

At the same time, the panel's report notes, there may be students who are eligible for but are not receiving special-education services.

Little Information Available

The report contends that there is little quantitative information on improper placement, which it terms "perhaps the most important question facing special education in New York public schools." It notes that while there is "substantial agreement" that children with severe handicaps belong in special education, there is no consensus on the placement of emotionally handicapped and learning-disabled students, the fastest-growing category of special-education pupils nationwide.

To minimize the number of improper placements, the panel recommends that school officials improve the screening process for special education and improve such support services as preschool programs, remedial-reading classes, and counseling for students in regular classes.

It also argues that "the enormous amount of time and money spent on the evaluation and placement process is simply not commensurate with its usefulness."

"An average of nine tests--far too many--are administered in the evaluation process, and the number and type of tests used appear to have no relationship to the reason a child is referred," according to the report. "Too little time is spent analyzing why and how children are performing academically or behaving in the classroom."

The commission suggests that officials reduce the number of tests given, set guidelines on the number and types of tests used, and emphasize instead an analysis of classroom performance.

School-board officials agreed in their response to the report that it was "on target" regarding the need for more flexible guidelines on the number and types of assessment tests for potential special-education students.

Least Restrictive Environment

The panel also contended that the school system falls short of its obligation to educate students in the "least restrictive environment," as mandated by P.L. 94-142,, the Education for All Handicapped Children Act of 1975. About 70 percent of the children in special education are in separate classrooms, a percentage "considerably higher than in other cities," the report notes.

In part, the panel attributes the low proportion of mainstreamed students to New York State's school-aid policies, which do not provide funds for certain types of special support for mainstreamed students with mild handicaps.

The state should pay for a program to maintain such handicapped students in regular classrooms on a pilot basis with instructional and support services, the commission suggests.

The board responded that it was beginning a pilot mainstreaming project in city schools.

Self-Contained Classrooms

In the self-contained classrooms that serve most of the city's special-education students, the quality of education is not sufficient to allow most to return to regular classes, the commission found. Despite mandates requiring that moderately handicapped students receive instruction in all the basic academic subjects, the panel found wide variations in the curricula offered in self-contained classrooms.

In the 1983-84 school year, only 2 percent of special-education students re-entered regular education, the report notes.

It suggests that the board establish systemwide curriculum guidelines for each self-contained program in the 1st through 8th grades, to be organized sequentially and parallel to the regular education curriculum "to the extent appropriate."

Shortage of Teachers

The panel also expressed concern about the lack of qualified special-education teachers, stating that "the critical shortage of qualified teachers in New York city combined with the enormous growth in the special-education population since 1979 has, by and large, created the anomalous situation in which minimally qualified teachers educate students with the greatest difficulties."

More than a quarter of the special-education teachers currently in the school system and all newly hired teachers have not yet met state certification requirements and have not yet obtained a license from the board of examiners, the panel found.

Decentralize Programs

Finally, the report suggests that more responsibility for special-education programs be placed in the hands of principals and superintendents of elementary and junior high schools.

Most educational services for mildly and moderately handicapped students are administered through the city's central board of education, rather than through community school boards, which control regular-education programs.

"As a result of this structure, special education is, in a sense, a tenant of the regular-education system," the study says. "The lack of a coordinated approach to the education of all children in elementary and junior high schools adversely affects all students and teachers."

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