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Steady Rise in Learning-Disabled Spurs Review

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The Education for All Handicapped Children Act was passed "with a very clear mandate," wrote Laurence Lieberman in his 1984 book Preventing Special Education For Those Who Don't Need It. "When this mandate was given, a handicapped child was not handicapped because he was failing in school, but he was failing in school because he was handicapped."

But in the 10 years since the passage of the landmark law governing the educational rights of handicapped children, the line between those who fail in school and those who are handicapped is becoming increasingly blurred, stretching special-education funding and resources to their limits.

So steadily has the special-education population grown--and in particular, the "learning-disabled" group--that this 10th anniversary year of the law has seen one state exceed its federal per-pupil funding limit and others approach the 12 percent cap. And that circumstance has further fueled the professional debate of the last few years over the definition of learning disabilities and the degree to which P.L. 94-142 was intended to extend coverage to pupils with learning problems that do not have a clear neurological basis.

In their search for new ways to adapt the detailed prescriptions of the law to the current complexities surrounding the nation's $10-billion-plus investment in special education, researchers and practitioners are investigating several avenues of change:

They are analyzing the reasons for the growth in the special-education population and honing methods to identify--if possible--which students are actually learning-disabled and which are simply not performing up to their potential.

They are studying and experimenting with funding mechanisms to give districts more flexibility in serving all special-needs students, not just the learning-disabled.

And they are are trying to forge new links between mainstream and special-education teaching that will improve services for all students.

Growth in Population

About 4.1 million children were served by P.L. 94-142 last year, up more than 600,000 from a decade ago. The population has been increasing gradually since the law was passed, despite the overall decline in public-school enrollment during that time.

In the late 1970's, the Congress imposed a 2 percent cap on the number of students who could be served in any one learning-disability category, but that was lifted in 1979.

The number of students labeled as educable mentally retarded [emr] decreased from 969,547 in 1976-77 to 750,534 in 1983-84, but the total number of learning-disabled students increased from 797,213 to 1,811,489 in the same period. And although the rate of growth has decreased, such students now make up 42 percent of the total special-education population.

History of Term

According to a report, "Identifying Learning-Disabled Students," issued last year by the U.S. Education Department, the first national attempt to provide a common definition for learning disabilities came in a 1966 task-force report issued by a division of the National Institutes of Health.

"Since that time," wrote James C. Chalfant, professor in department of special education at the University of Arizona and the author of the Education Department report, "the literature has reflected over 50 terms to describe learning-disabled students."

According to Mr. Chalfant, who is now writing a policy paper for a special-education task force set up by Secretary of Education William J. Bennett, the definition of learning disability has been a source of disagreement "for many years." As early as 1973, he noted, 38 different definitions were reported.

Included in P.L. 94-142 is a federal definition, which reads:

"The term 'children with specific learning disabilities' means those children who have a disorder in one or more basic psychological processes involved in understanding or in using language spoken or written, which disorder may manifest itself in imperfect ability to listen, think, speak, read, write, spell, or do mathematical calculations. Such disorders include such conditions as perceptual handicaps, brain injury, minimal brain dysfunction, dyslexia, and developmental aphasia. Such term does not include children who have learning problems which are primarily the result of visual, hearing, or motor handicaps, of mental retardation, of emotional disturbance, or of environmental, cultural, or economic disadvantage."

Some 23 states and the District of Columbia use the federal definition verbatim, according to Mr. Chalfant; the remaining states use a modification of the definition or have created their own.

He and other researchers say, however, that definitions of learning disabilities vary from district to district, and even from school to school. Increasingly, they say, the term "learning-disabled" has been broadened to include all children whose achievement does not match their iq potential.

And since low-achievers can make up as much as 30 percent of an average school population--higher in urban inner-city schools--many believe the learning-disabled classification has become "a dumping ground," according to Anne Flemming, president of the Association for Children and Adults with Learning Disabilities. Educators too often say, "'If a child misbehaves, we'll send him into a learning-disabled class,"' Ms. Flemming said.

"If you went around saying all cats are animals, therefore all animals are cats, people would call you crazy," said James Gallagher, Kenan professor of education at the University of North Carolina and director of the university's Frank Porter Graham Center for child-development studies. "But if you say kids who are learning-disabled have trouble in school, and therefore all kids who have trouble in school are learning-disabled, you get a hearing."

Reasons for Growth

Part of the growth in the learning-disabled population can be traced to a semantic shift, Mr. Chalfant noted. Many children who would previously have been classified as emr or emotionally disturbed are being classified as learning-disabled because that term is less stigmatizing, he said.

The number of minority students in learning-disabled classes has grown rapidly in recent years, in part because the parents of such children were among those to complain about the use of the emr classification.

Between 1978 and 1982, according to federal statistics, the number of black students classified as learning-disabled swelled from 2 percent of the total student population to 4 percent. White and Hispanic learning-disabled students each also constituted about 4 percent of the total population in 1982. Minority students are thus "overrepresented" in the learning-disabled group, suggests the Education Department's 1985 report, "The Condition of Education."

Experts point out, however, that another explanation for the rising numbers is that services for learning-disabled pupils, available largely at the elementary-school level during the early years of the law, have gradually been expanded to the secondary-school level.

But a more important factor in the growth of the learning-disabled population, the experts say, has been funding cuts in other programs, such as Chapter 1, which serves disadvantaged students, bilingual education, and other programs aimed at special populations. Those cuts, they say, have left very few other support services for students with learning problems.

The issue, they argue, largely boils down to funding and where it is available.

State Systems Vary

Every state uses a different system for allocating money for special education. General estimates show that it costs two to three times more to educate a special-education student than a nonhandicapped student, but the cost varies according to handicapping condition.

According to a Congressional commission's report on special-education finances, in 1981 the average total expenditure per handicapped child was $3,500, with about $250 of that provided by the federal government, about $900 provided by the state, and the balance provided by local funds.

More money is also spent on children in "self contained" classrooms than on those who are in regular classrooms but also use "resource rooms" for special studies during the day. According to federal figures, in 1982-83, 68 percent of all handicapped children received most of their education in regular classes, while another 25 percent were in separate classrooms. A small proportion of all special-education students were educated in facilities for the handicapped.

'Bounty Hunting System'?

These funding mechanisms encourage the overidentification of students as needing services, some critics suggest--"a bounty hunting system," as James E. Ysseldyke, professor of educational psychology at the University of Minnesota, puts it.

"We have created financial incentives for finding and labeling children as handicapped," he said.

But many argue that the overidentification problem is not the result of greed on the part of school officials seeking extra funds, but is a function of the fact that for children with learning problems special education is often "the only show in town," in the words of Martha J. Irvin, state director of special education for Maryland.

"I think there is a concerted effort on the part of the average teacher and principal to honestly try various approaches," said Wendy Cullar, state director of special education in Florida and former director of the U.S. Education Department's office of special education. "They understand the seriousness of labeling a child handicapped."

Ms. Irvin pointed out that in Maryland, which uses a "neutral" funding formula, "even without the financial incentive at the school4building level, we've had an increase in the learning-disabled population."

Said Vivian Link, the mother of a learning-disabled child and the deputy associate superintendent for the office of exceptional children in Kentucky: "Parents do not want the learning-disabled identification if there are services in the regular program. But if I've got a child who is not making it in your system, I'll take the services where they're available."

"Are there kids who are learning-disabled? Yes," said Frederick J. Weintraub, the Council for Exceptional Children's assistant executive director for governmental relations and a former special-education teacher. "Are there kids who have learning problems who are not learning-disabled? Yes. Now the question comes, what do we do about those kids? The reason they are having a problem is that the education they are receiving is not meeting their needs."

"The tendency is to find help for those kids," he continued. "I've got a resource teacher who helps kids learn to read who don't know how to read. What do I do? What I do is, I make the kid learning-disabled, or put some label on his head to get him help. Is that what I ought to do? Of course not. But while I'm fixing the future, what I'm going to do is find ways to get the kid help."

Identification Issues

P.L. 94-142's requirement that educators evaluate and classify students identified as needing that extra help is now the focus of much debate, not only because the costs of doing so are high but because there is so little agreement on how to define learning disabilities.

A study of special education in the state of Colorado found that in 1978-79, of the $1,204 the state spent on each learning-disabled child, an average of $505 was spent on identification.

"Unless children are identified, schools do not legitimately have a claim to get support," said Margaret Wang, professor and senior scientist at the Learning Research and Development Center at the University of Pittsburgh. "Identification has thus become a major enterprise."

Even before the passage of P.L. 94-142, a 1973 study by Samuel A. Kirk and John Elkins, professors in the department of special education at the University of Arizona, found that only one-third of the children included in about 21 state projects set up to serve the learning-disabled could truly be considered children with learning disabilities. "The others were children who were moderately underachieving in academic subjects," the researchers wrote.

Experts agree that those proportions probably still hold true today. But they divide into two distinct schools of thought on the problem of identification: those who say it cannot be done, and those who say it can.

'Search for Pathology'

Mr. Ysseldyke, who conducted a six-year, federally funded study on the issue, is of the first school.

His study, completed in 1983, determined that learning disabilities cannot be defined scientifically.

The major determinant of whether a child will be placed in special education is "the decision by the regular classroom teacher to refer a student for assessment," he said.

He found that 3 to 6 percent of the school-age population was referred each year for a special-education evaluation. Of those, 92 percent were tested, and of the 92 percent tested, 73 percent were declared eligible for special-education services.

"While one explanation for the large numbers of students declared eligible for services is that teachers are extremely accurate in their referrals, it is more likely that this finding highlights the overidentification of students as handicapped," Mr. Ysseldyke argued.

The researcher went on to note that once a student was identified, a process he termed a "search for pathology" ensued. The more mildly a child was handicapped, the more tests were administered.

Mr. Ysseldyke also found that placement decisions made by teams of individuals had "very little to do with the data collected on the student." Rather, the classification decision became a function of a number of other factors, such as "teacher squeak"--how much a teacher wanted a child out of the classroom--as well as the sex, race, socioeconomic status, and physical appearance of the child. Evaluators given identical data nonetheless made differing decisions based on these characteristics, he reported.

His research also found that under the 17 criteria most commonly used by schools to identify learning-disabled students, over 80 percent of "normal" students could be classified as learning-disabled by one or more definitions.

"There currently is no defensible system for declaring students eligible for ld services," Mr. Ysseldyke concluded.

Clarifying Definitions

Other experts agree that all too often, students are classified as learn-ing-disabled in the manner Mr. Ysseldyke's study suggests, but say that researchers are working on more reliable and valid identification methods.

Research by James D. McKinney, professor of education at the University of North Carolina, found that there are characteristics unique to the learning-disabled student.

Mr. McKinney's six-year study, completed in 1983, divided learning-disabled students into subgroups that included problems with language development, with the cognitive process--processing of information--and behavior, or "adaptive functioning."

"I think that further research will clarify the definition," Mr. McKinney said. "I'm just not one to say it can't be done. I think if you make up your mind that it can't be, it won't."

Mr. McKinney noted that "from a scientific point of view, Mr. Ysseldyke's work is only a beginning attempt to differentiate the handicaps. I think it's a little too preliminary to say they can't be identified."

But even if researchers develop more accurate identification methods, some educators caution, there will still be many children with learning problems who will not be served.

"We call it 'policy bumping,"' said Mary-Beth Fafard, assistant to the chief administrator for special education in New York City. "If we tighten one category, we'll simply push the problem into someone else's closet."

'Waivers': Promising Idea?

The answer, some say, is that it is time to find creative alternatives to help those who need help, regardless of the label.

A position paper distributed in April by the National Association of School Psychologists advocated "a new national initiative to meet the educational needs of all children."

"It is not a benign action to label as 'handicapped' children who are low achievers but are not, in fact, handicapped, even when this is done in order to provide them with services unavailable in general education," the paper noted.

One of the more dramatic proposals to address the problem, advocated by some researchers and administrators, is "waivers" involving such categorical programs as bilingual-education, Chapter 1, and similar programs.

Under the waiver plan, the amount of funding a school receives would not be based on categories, but on the needs a child has--such as for help in reading. But a school would be guaranteed that if it "lost" a percentage of its special-education population in consequence, it would not also lose the accompanying funding.

"The way we categorize simply isn't useful anymore," said Maynard Reynolds, professor of special education at the University of Minnesota. "We have created narrowly framed categorical programs that don't always make sense from an instructional viewpoint."

"A lot of these programs have been quite important and interesting in establishing accountability in schools, he added. "If we look back over the last 10 years, schools have been good at including students, but we have to look back at the quality of the programs."

Others have suggested that the waiver concept could also be applied within special education alone, to curtail the extensive categorization of pupils that now occurs.

Mr. Chalfant agreed that limited waivers may be an option for the future, both within special education and across the range of federal and state categorial programs. He said he hoped there would be a "federal push" to allow flexibility with money given to states and local school districts through waivers.

"If we're going to serve all the students with learning problems, this cannot be done with the money given to special education," he said. States and districts "need permis-sion to develop experimental alternatives with the resources we have."

However, parents of special-education children may not necessarily back the idea.

Nancy LaCount, the mother of a learning-disabled child, noted that such a move would cause grave concern among parents that "money will not be directed toward special education." She also noted that services provided under special education are far more intense than remediation efforts, and "we want special educators that are familiar with the needs of the students."

Mr. Chalfant and others cautioned that the waiver idea is not intended to lead to total block-grant funding for schools, which could divert funds from special education without providing help to those children who really need it.

"If we do that, there could be blood on the streets," Mr. Reynolds said. "But I think we could block for carefully selected schools with great accountability."

Other Solutions

Another alternative some educators suggest is a "one-shot" push by the federal government for remediation efforts outside of special education.

Stanley Bristol, superintendent of Chicago's northern special-education districts, said such an effort, which has already been started on the state level in Illinois, would help low-achieving students without labeling them.

He predicted that once the remediation programs were in place, special-education counts would go down--and "then we can take the money saved under P.L. 94-142 and direct it into these resource programs."

Those involved in assessing special education also say that even without plunging into the maze of federally funded programs, other steps could be taken to lower the special-education count without letting students drop through the cracks.

Last month's meeting of the National Association of State Directors, for example, focused on innovative efforts to create special-education/mainstream-classroom partnerships.

One such innovation is the "teacher-assistance team," an idea developed by Mr. Chalfant, based on providing help by and for regular-education teachers.

In this program, a teacher who is having problems with a student submits a short summary of observations about the student to a team of three elected teachers within the school. The team, joined by the referring teacher, discusses the problem and tries to develop solutions. Sometimes others, including parents, students, and specialists, also participate.

The program has been tried in a number of states over the past 13 years, according to Mr. Chalfant. A recent study of 45 teams in Illinois, Maryland, and Nebraska, found, he said, that through the team system, referral rates to special education dropped dramatically.

Rich Environments

More programs, such as the teacher-team efforts, need to be promoted in regular education, observers say.

"One of the wonderful outcomes of P.L. 94-142 is that it showed that schools can be very rich environments, which can handle many different kinds of students--far more than they thought they could," said the New York schools' Ms. Fafard, a former special-education teacher. "School systems have to look about for creative alternatives."

For example, in California, one of a number of states focusing on alternatives to special education, student-study teams, made up of psychologists, principals, and others, help identify a student's needs, "rather than identifying the student as a special-education case, then identifying his needs," said Elizabeth Richland, California's acting director of special education.

Others say that early intervention through preschool education and services--with a strong initiative at the federal level--could head off some learning problems that later become much more serious.

"We're going to continue to see students who need more help than a traditional classroom setting can provide," said Ms. Irvin, "and unless we make accommodations in our system, more children will continue to be labeled learning-disabled than any of us think is sensible."

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