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Researchers' Critique Escalates the Debate Over 'Regular Education' for All Students

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In an escalation of what has become the hottest debate in special education, a group of prominent researchers has published a collective critique of the so-called "regular-education initiative."

Their views, appearing in a series of articles published in the January issue of the Journal of Learning Disabilities, are considered to be the first major rebuttal to a growing movement in the field to have handicapped children taught entirely in regular classrooms, rather than in special programs.

Unlike mainstreaming, in which handicapped children are returned to the regular classroom only after they have been helped in separate "pull out" programs, the regular-education initiative calls for fundamental changes in the way handicapped children are educated.

It seeks to to avoid stigmatizing "labels" by keeping mildly handicapped students in regular school classrooms from the beginning.

The movement's advocates claim that such children could best be served if regular classroom teachers worked with special educators to learn strategies for teaching all students, all of the time.

Though a handful of researchers have advocated the regular-education concept for years, it has gained considerable momentum since November 1986, when Madeleine C. Will, the U.S. Education Department's assistant secretary for special education and rehabilitative services, issued a "white paper" advocating the idea. (See Education Week, Nov. 19, 1986.)

"It was only with the publication of Ms. Will's paper that it became a policy issue," said James D. McKinney, one of four researchers who coordinated and edited the journal articles.

"Before that," he said, "it was primarily a philosophical debate and a scientific one."

"The fear now," said Jean Schumaker, coordinator of research at the University of Kansas' Institute for Research in Learning Disabilities, is that endorsements such as Ms. Will's have induced states and school districts to "embrace the 'regular-education initiative' without thinking about it or evaluating it."

Criticisms and Concerns

Such concerns prompted the publication of last month's critique.

While not condemning the initiative per se, the researchers contributing to the Journal of Learning Disabilities series urged caution in adopting the approach.

"We do have problems in special education that need reform," said James M. Kauffman, a University of Virginia special-education professor and a guest editor for that issue of the journal.

"I don't think the answer is to abandon special education as we know it," he said.

In the articles, Mr. Kauffman and others raise questions about the initiative's most basic assumptions and the research data on which it is based.

A 'Revolution of Generals'

One primary question, Mr. Kauffman said, is how general educators--the teachers who would become responsible for both the handicapped and nonhandicapped children in their classes--will respond to such changes.

"It's sort of like a revolution being talked about by a few generals," he said. "Somebody should ask the front lines how they feel about it."

In an article written with two other special-education researchers, Michael M. Gerber and Melvyn I. Semmel, both of the University of California, Santa Barbara, Mr. Kauffman points to research indicating, for example, that teachers recognized as "effective" express less willingness to tolerate the placement of difficult-to-teach students in their classrooms.

They also note that teaching slow learners alongside high-achieving students may be incompatible with the education-reform movement's current stress on excellence.

"Good teachers can teach all of their students effectively some of the time," they conclude, drawing on the famous phrases of Abraham Lincoln, "and they can teach some of their students effectively all of the time, but they cannot teach all their students effectively all of the time."

In addition, three other researchers point out, the sheer heterogeneity of learning-disabled students and the differing strategies needed to help them learn will frustrate any attempt to teach them along with other students.

"It seems terribly unrealistic and unfair to expect classroom teachers to adequately provide for these children in the context of the regular classroom," states an article by Tanis Bryan, Mary Bay, and Mavis Donahue, all faculty members at the University of Illinois at Chicago's college of education.

The task could become even more difficult in high school and junior high school, note Ms. Schumaker and her co-author, Donald D. Deshler, director of the University of Kansas learning-disabilities institute.

In their article, they point out that secondary-school teachers must emphasize--to the detriment of learning-disabled students--what to learn and not how to do so.

"Learning-disabled kids not only need content but they need the skills that enable them to learn," Ms. Schumaker said.

The most pointed criticism in the series, however, comes from experts who contend that research on the new approach has so far been too weak to justify its widespread adoption.

Research Base Questioned

Five researchers--Mr. McKinney and Ms. Bryan, along with Daniel P. Hallahan, Clayton E. Keller, and John Wills Lloyd, all of the University of Virginia's Curry School of Education--reviewed the studies most often cited by proponents of the new initiative.

In particular, they looked at research on the Adaptive Learning Environments Model, an experimental program that has been cited as one successful way to serve handicapped children in the regular classroom. (See story on facing page.)

Such studies, they concluded, often have provided incomplete information or suffered from serious methodological flaws.

"When policy that could potentially affect large numbers of children is on the line," they said, "we believe the evidence favoring that policy should be scrutinized very carefully."

Countering 'One-Sided Attack'

In response to such criticism, Maynard Reynolds, one of the earliest proponents of the regular-classroom philosophy, said his colleagues were starting their arguments over research adequacy in "the wrong place."

"What I'm saying is there's not sufficient evidence for taking children out of the classroom in the first place and categorizing them," said Mr. Reynolds, a professor of special education at the University of Minnesota.

"The second-system approach does not work; the jury is in on that one," added Margaret Wang, a leading proponent of the initiative and the architect of the alem model.

"In the name of research, we demand some very stringent criteria for innovative practice that we don't demand for current standards," added Ms. Wang, a professor of educational psychology at Temple University and director of research at its Center for Research in Human Development and Education.

Ms. Wang called the critique a "one-sided attack" at a time when open debate is needed.

She and Mr. Reynolds, considered to be moderate voices for such reform, said they, too, believe more research is needed. But they have also suggested granting experimenting schools "waivers" to bypass federal or state special-education laws--an idea viewed with suspicion by advocacy groups that have fought for full implementation of the laws.

To Alan Gartner, a scholar who favors a more radical approach to implementing the regular-classroom concept, a moral issue is at stake.

"Separate is not equal," said Mr. Gartner, professor of educational psychology at the City University of New York and research director of its graduate center.

"I would prefer to go with what is morally right and appropriately right than advocate something that has a weaker research base regarding segregation," he said.

Mr. Gartner and a research colleague, Dorothy Kerzner Lipsky, argued in a widely discussed article published this winter in the Harvard Educational Review that the nation's special-education system must be abolished because "it is a system that is not now integrated."

In its place, they call for the establishment of a "merged or unitary system" that serves all students.

A Flawed System

Experts in both camps agree, however, that at the heart of the increasingly bitter debate over the regular-education initiative is a growing realization that in the 12 years since passage of the landmark Education for All Handicapped Children Act, pl 94-142, the special-education system has not worked as well as advocates had hoped it would.

They note that dropout rates among the mildly handicapped are as high as 70 percent in some states and that job prospects for such teen-agers are generally poor.

Moreover, the escalating number of children who are being classified as learning-disabled has produced widespread concern that some students are being unjustly labeled and stigmatized.

Those most concerned also agree that current school-reform efforts have largely ignored special education.

"What's shaping up," said Mr. Reynolds, "is something of a crisis, where we have to face up to the facts and do something about it."

In the meantime, supporters of the initiative point out, a number of states and advocacy groups, such as the National Coalition of Advocates for Students, are taking a more accepting stance toward their concept.

Pennsylvania's education department, for example, is working to serve handicapped and gifted students in regular classroom settings in at least one school in each of the 29 intermediate, special-education units around the state.

"Pretty soon, the researchers are not going to be able to face the demand for changes from the politicians, the practitioners, and the parents," Ms. Wang predicted.

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