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Will on Classification: 'A Really Complex, Somewhat Gray Area'

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Madeleine C. Will, an advocate for the rights of the handicapped and the mother of a handicapped child, was named the U.S. Education Department's assistant secretary for the office of special education and rehabilitative services in 1983. Last week, she spoke with Staff Writers Alina Tugend and James Hertling about her views on the growth in the learning-disabled population and aspects of the federal role in special education.


QWhat, in your view, explains the rise in the number of learning-disabled students under P.L. 94-142, and does the federal government have a role in stemming that?


AFirst, let me correct the premise of your question. That particular category of kids certainly has grown tremendously since P.L. 94-142 was passed. But the rate of growth has been declining in the past few years. That doesn't mean we don't want to look at the growth in that category and investigate issues related to it, but it is noteworthy that the rate of growth is decreasing.

There is a lot of concern on the part of people at the state level with respect to the ld category and a lot of activity going on there to look at the criteria that have been developed for identification and to examine the referral and placement process. That may or may not have had an impact on the rate of increase. At this point, we aren't able to suggest a direct correlation.


QCan you cite some of the reasons for the growth?


AIt's a relatively new disorder. It's not something people talked about 50 years ago. The passage of P.L. 94-142 gave some impetus to the identification of children with learning disorders. There was a recognition of children who suffered from learning disorders, and these had to be identified and addressed. And so we're identifying these kids who probably have been doing poorly in the classroom for a period of time. We had better diagnostic tools and procedures available in the late 60's and 70's. That's certainly one reason.

There's been tremendous pressure coming from all points on the spectrum--special education, regular education, and parents--that some kind of improved program option had to be developed for a child who's clearly floundering in the classroom. You just don't sit still and watch your child unhappy, doing poorly in school, and filled with a sense of failure, and the only option up to this point has been special education.


QShould limiting the growth in the learning-disabled category be a goal now for special education?


AI don't know if I have that as a goal--in fact, I know I don't. That's not an intelligent way to address policy. You don't decide arbitrarily that because the count is growing, there must be too many kids moving into the ld category.

The question has been whether there's a problem of misclassification. Now, we don't have any information to suggest that this is the basis for the growth in the child count. But there have been, in some instances, kids who've been misclassified, and that tells us of weakness in assessment and in the batteries of tests that are offered to children.

One of the studies that was released a while ago indicated that when teachers were asked to review the records of children who were nonhandicapped--they were not ld--and kids who were truly ld, they could make no distinction, they had a very difficult time making a distinction between the two populations. It's a really complex and somewhat gray area.

The federal role has to be one of raising the issue, the concern people have at the federal and state level, about whether or not these children are being best served following the process we've followed in the past 10 years.


QAre you satisfied that links between special educators and regular educators are being developed?


AI'm not sure I can answer that. I think there's discussion about closer coordination between special education and regular education. There are questions about impediments that may exist in terms of federal regulations, as well as state regulations. We just don't have the answers yet. We don't know where the barriers are, if they're real barriers or imagined. Sometimes it's just the perception that affects policymaking.


QHas the learning-disabled category become a "dumping ground" for low-achieving students?


AThat's too harsh a statement to make. Remember, what motivates people is the best interest of the child. If there's no other option in general education, you canvass the possibilities, and special education is a real possibility. I just wouldn't use that kind of terminology. I don't think general educators dump students. I don't think special educators dump students. They're well-intentioned people.

General educators may feel terribly frustrated, not knowing quite how to develop a solid program for particular youngsters. And, in fact, [the notion] has been reinforced over the past decade that this may not have been their responsibility, that this was something that should have been left to special educators. That's one of the notions that we want to correct.


QEven if the intent is well-meaning, could the effect be misclassification?


AYou may misclassify kids. Moving kids into special education isn't dumping them. That's really beneficial to many kids. But there can be some tradeoffs you don't want to make. Do you really want to remove a child from a regular classroom, from a regular school? I believe there's some very strong good that a child derives from being in the universe of kids, and that you want to think very carefully how to bring the services to the kids.


QWhat about new criteria for identifying the learning-disabled?


AWe're just not at a point where we can talk to an issue like that. We know there's activity at the state level, and that's healthy and productive. Our role would not be to develop new criteria; we would want to identify what the states had done that was good and highlight that and disseminate information about that.

When we do things at the federal level that indicate there's only way to do it right, we create lots of problems for people. It reinforces the rigidity in these categorical programs. You can separate the programs, but lots of children don't fit neatly into those categorical distinctions, which is what the ld problem is really about.


QWhat do you think of the idea of "waiving" the distinctions among categorical programs such as Chapter 1,ual education, andl education to address the issue?


AI think that's an interesting idea. I like the demonstrations. I like waivers when they're small controlled projects that you can evaluate properly. It's the way we conduct research to determine whether our hypotheses are correct.

QIs there going to be a federal project?


AThat depends on [Secretary of Education William J. Bennett's special-education task force] and its recommendations. So far, the meetings have been very general and exploratory.


QHas P.L. 94-142's success come at the cost of a too-great investment in compliance rather than services?


AI think there's a lot of emphasis on compliance because of the sheer volume of compliance. There are an awful lot of requirements in P.L. 94-142, but as you know those regulations have been frozen by the Congress. We are not thinking of changes to P.L. 94-142.

A good system is one in which you have an emphasis on both enforcement and technical assistance. Simply because of the circumstances surrounding the passage of the law, and the very rapid implementation that had to take place, there were key requirements that had to be implemented almost immediately, and the emphasis was originally on compliance.

Now, we're discussing more the quality of education, and that is not something that is so easily dictated.


QYou've emphasized during your tenure here the need for early childhood and transitional services. Is there a possibility you would propose raising the cap on the number of special-education students eligible for federal aid to cover those ages 3 to 21, or to equal the provisions of a state's own special-education law?


AI think that's an important issue, and one that needs to be addressed, and a subject that Congress will be attending to. Since we're going to be going through the reauthorization process, I would be greatly surprised if they ignored this issue.


QIs that something you would advocate?


ANo. At this point, we are enforcing the law, which does not allow states to go above the 12 percent count. We've used the same formula for 10 years, and I think it's been a fair process. But if Congress wants us to look at it, we'll be happy to do that.

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