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Recent Calls for Change Lead to 'Slippery Slope'

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The growth of special-education programs over the past decade has coincided with increased criticism of schools and numerous calls for reform. In the current debate, the principles of equity and excellence often appear at odds, and passionate argument about handicapped children has erupted once more.

Into the fray has stepped a small group of education professionals and policymakers advocating the so-called "regular-education initiative''--a series of proposals calling on regular and special educators to reapportion responsibility for students whose identifying characteristic is their severe learning problems.

In fact, this movement amounts not so much to an "initiative'' as a loose set of public--or publicized--statements urging that regular teachers assume a larger role in educating students presently identified, or at risk for being classified, as handicapped.

While the initiative appears to be reaching for a greater good, in reality it leads to the same slippery slope always threatening to upend public resolve for helping the handicapped.

Debate over these proposals--generating more heat than light--has turned on the arguable validity of the initiative's three major assumptions.

First, proponents argue that special-education policy is a runaway train. Lax, technically indefensible, and fiscally irresponsible classification practices have caused uncontrollable over-identification of students as learning-handicapped, they allege.

Supporters of the initiative also claim that special education has failed to demonstrate its efficacy in educating learning-handicapped students, and that, in any case, special education really amounts to no more than "good'' teaching.

Third, they assert that we now possess sufficient knowledge concerning techniques of "good instruction'' that regular-classroom teachers can and should take on many responsibilities formerly assigned to special educators.

The debate is not merely academic. The future of schooling for more than 2 million students now receiving special education is at stake. Several million other children--including many minority students--for whom learning failure remains unexplained also share an interest in the outcome.

Whatever objectives may guide it, the regular-education initiative ultimately raises the old question of what civilized society should do for those who are very different.

But the initiative doesn't address this larger issue--perhaps because it is neither a product of regular education nor an initiative. In fact, many of its most outspoken proponents have long associations with special education. Leaders from regular education and classroom teachers in particular are conspicuously absent from the roster of the initiative's supporters.

Officials of Chapter 1 compensatory-education programs, who might be expected to be vocal allies, have responded with passivity, if not active resistance, to the notion of commingling "handicapped'' with "disadvantaged'' students.

And state and local policymakers, who are fond of tinkering with formulas for disbursing federal funds, have shown little interest in financing a net increase in local contributions to the proposed expansion of regular education's responsibilities.

The initiative is also fundamentally reactive, not proactive, in its response to the complaints of states and districts about their high share of the cost of special education. Local investment in special education was instigated primarily by the civil-rights thrust of federal legislation, not by a morally evolved public. Yet local communities bear more than half of the expense of such programs. While dutifully complying with the letter of the law, they have been less than enthusiastic about financing equal educational opportunity in a meaningful way.

So fragile is this commitment that opponents of the initiative fear the current push will invite a general retreat from simple compliance with special-education mandates. In its proposed patchwork of alterations and repairs to the existing system, the initiative provides no strong evidence to the contrary.

And most important, it offers no new vision of the future. The initiative fails to demonstrate that public schools will have incentives to maintain, let alone expand, their commitment to handicapped and nonhandicapped students who fail to learn.

The historical flow of difficult students out of regular-education classrooms into special education has occurred for reasons that are as compelling now as they ever were. Children we choose to call handicapped are very difficult to teach successfully. To achieve at a level comparable to that of their peers, they require much more intensive instruction. This kind of effort is rarely possible in a regular classroom.

With the typical levels of support they are allocated, regular teachers are not so much unwilling as unmotivated to try to work with these students. Beyond the fiscal effect of federal mandates, there have been few locally developed incentives encouraging inclusion of difficult students. Teachers will not be more successful simply because they are exhorted to be. Nor will reclassifying students change the fundamental difficulties they face in regular classrooms.

In light of these realities, the demand that special education defend itself by proving its efficacy is preposterous. To place current practice in a fairer perspective, we must distinguish policy from treatment. Special-education policy exists only because regular education in this country has repeatedly demonstrated its inability to meet the requirements of children with special needs--not because special education necessarily possesses more potent techniques or technology.

Special education serves as a safety valve, mitigating the disregard--and even antipathy--social institutions historically have shown for people who are different. It is not a "cure'' in any sense. While a case can be made for its practical benefits, more important is the fact that special-education policy represents the American public's clearest commitment to educate all of its children.

A true initiative would portray special education as the most appropriate center for research and development on problems concerning public education and individual differences. Federal and state policymakers would be urged to reduce the financial burden carried by local districts, so that special education need no longer compete with each community's other priorities.

And as part of such an initiative, efforts would be mounted to create a professional career ladder on which the status of special-education teacher--an expert at teaching difficult students--would indicate professional merit.

Most important, a true initiative ought clearly to assert the joint goals of equity and excellence: Communities should not be asked to choose between their highest and lowest achievers.

It must be said that opponents of the regular-education initiative have shown little initiative of their own. Instead, many have inclined toward a knee-jerk defense of the status quo in special education.

This stance is seen--not incorrectly--as self-serving, and ultimately it will prove counterproductive. Indeed, those who are now reduced to a defensive posture should have been the ones all along urging development of new resources and curricula for accommodating individual differences.

Rather than simply mounting opposition to obviously ill-conceived proposals, everyone concerned with special education should be working to forge a vision of schooling for the 21st century--one that will regard each child as an individual and will reclaim human beings society might otherwise throw away.

Vol. 7, Issue 32, Page 36

Published in Print: May 4, 1988, as Recent Calls for Change Lead to 'Slippery Slope'
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