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Group Seeks Discourse on Special Education

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Arlington, Va--The professionals who work to teach children with "special needs" present the last, best chance of truly reforming education, a University of Kansas theoretician said last week.

"If you're talking about both equity and excellence in education reform, special educators are the only group that has the right values to do it," said Thomas Skrtic, associate professor of special education.

Mr. Skrtic's words sounded a provocative keynote as The National Inquiry Into the Future of Education for Students with Special Needs4opened its first forum on special-education reform here.

Made up of educators, parents, advocates, and prominent thinkers and researchers in the field, The National Inquiry was formed earlier this year to stimulate an independent discourse on future directions for the teaching of handicapped students and those with learning problems.

Though the new organization's effort has been endorsed by the Council on Exceptional Children, the National Association of State Directors of Special Education, and the National Education Association, the group receives no funding from any professional group, its organizers say.

"We're not trying to promote any particular ideology," said Mr. Skrtic, who is also chairman of the group. "We're just trying to network and get a debate going because we feel there's no simple, straight-line solution to the future of special education."

The meeting included discussions on the Holmes Group, a consortium of research universities working to reform teacher-education programs, and the "regular-education initiative" proposed by Madeleine Will, an assistant secretary in the U.S. Education Department. Her plan would promote serving children with learning problems in the regular classroom, rather than pulling them out for help in special classes.

Prominent researchers with strong opinions on all sides of those issues debated the topics and raised other questions in an atmosphere described by one special educator as "healthy dissension."

Fomenting 'Revolution'

"The question is: Is this enough confusion to create revolution?" said Mr. Skrtic following the day-long session. He asserted that widespread chaos in the field could result in radical reform throughout education.

Such changes can be brought about, he said, by restructuring both schools and colleges of education.

"Part of the problem is that we don't recognize school organization as part of the problem," he said.

Mr. Skrtic argued that the highly compartmentalized organization of schools hinders coordination among special educators, classroom teachers, administrators, and other education professionals. And the regulations promulgated by special-education laws, he said, add to the bureaucracy and inhibit teachers from using their professional discretion in the classroom.

"Special education is a nonrational and uncoordinated system of service that serves the interests of school organizations," Mr. Skrtic contended.

As a result, he said, educators must "pigeonhole" students into specific programs, rather than gearing the programs to the students. That practice, Mr. Skrtic added, "creates" disabilities in the children who do not fit into the prescribed programs.

The solution, he said, is to organize schools as an "adhocracy"--an organization of professionals who use their professional judgment freely but also work in close coordination with one another to tailor their programs to the individual student.

"Where you find successful mainstream programs and effective schools, someone in the organization has dragged the bureaucracy to an adhocracy," he said.

Support for Mainstreaming

Researchers Maynard Reynolds of the University of Minnesota and Margaret Wang of Temple University and groups such as the National Association of School Psychologists advocated their own form of revolution in special education: the regular-education initiative.

"Not only have we categorized and separated the children, we've also separated their teachers, the college-preparation programs for teachers, the literature relevant to work in the several fields and even our own sense of history--to the point of major fault," said Mr. Reynolds, who is a professor of special education at the Minnesota school.

"The call is for efforts to help create mainstream situations that are strong and able to serve children with diverse needs."

But such views were hotly criticized by other prominent researchers and professional and advocacy groups who urged caution and careful study before any moves to dismantle current special-education practices that make use of "resource rooms" to tutor handicapped students.

"I'm concerned about the wholesale, public-relations approach to sell it," said Edwin Martin, a predecessor to Ms. Will in the federal office of special education and rehabilitative services. "I think your rhetoric goes beyond a call for more research," he told Mr. Reynolds.

On the topic of the Holmes Group, Percy Bates, a professor of education at the University of Michigan, said he was concerned that its members were ignoring the preparation of special educators in their effort to reform teacher education.

"I don't want special education to be left behind," said Mr. Bates, who sits on one of the Holmes Group's regional commissions.

The National Inquiry also plans to form study groups throughout the country to more closely examine these and other topics. Their final reports, said Judy Smith-Davis, the coordinator of the program, will be reviewed and disseminated throughout the field.

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