A 'Promising Approach' For Reforming Spec. Ed.

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The desire to address the requirements of students with special learning needs has driven the nationwide development of a "second system'' of programs designed to serve young people who do not prosper in the regular education system.

These programs--including special, compensatory (Chapter 1), and migrant education--have brought serious attention to students who once floundered on the fringes of the mainstream in our schools.

But now the second-system solution, though well intentioned, has itself become a major problem. And if we fail to find new solutions, these programs are likely to grow as demographics change over the next decade.

The so-called "regular-education initiative'' in special education offers a promising approach to reform. This concept suggests that children with special needs could be best served if regular-classroom teachers worked with special educators to learn strategies for teaching all students, all of the time.

Under the current system, an estimated 15,000 children across the nation are referred each week for special assessment, usually because of problems with social behavior or poor progress in basic literacy skills. Most are classified by school psychologists and other staff members as learning-disabled, educable mentally retarded, or socially and emotionally disturbed. But these classifications are highly unreliable and unrelated in any differential way to instruction.

As many as one out of every five or six teachers in a district may be a specialist in a second-system field. Developed at various times to meet narrow, categorized needs, typical programs are coordinated neither with one another nor, for the most part, with regular school operations.

Most of them employ "pull out'' procedures: Categorized students move part time from their regular classes to "special'' classes, where they are taught by teachers who bear the same labels as the children. As large numbers of students shuttle between classrooms, regular lessons are disrupted; schools become needlessly complicated, anonymous, and bureaucratic; and children are treated as problems rather than individuals.

Even more worrisome are the scientifically invalid procedures by which students are classified. For example, James Ysseldyke of the University of Minnesota reports research showing that 80 percent of the nation's schoolchildren could be categorized as "learning disabled'' by one or more of the methods now in use.

Indeed, some experts argue that the placement system actually impedes efforts to help children.

Examining the disproportionate numbers of minority children and males receiving invidious classifications, the National Academy of Sciences recommended in 1982 that placement teams demonstrate a relation between any differential label used and distinctive educational strategies leading to improved outcomes. But present practices fall woefully short of that standard.

Should educators go on classifying children and operating the existing second-system programs, when the categorical distinctions are in most cases mere frostwork? And should colleges assume important differences exist and prepare teachers separately for such programs, when virtually all reviews of the situation show that such "differences'' are illusory?

Must we not challenge an approach that pulls students from regular classrooms and segregates them in classes providing watered-down curricula and, as researchers have noted, less rather that more instructional time?

Efforts to address these problems have intensified in recent years. In a "white paper'' issued in November 1986, Madeleine C. Will, the U.S. Education Department's assistant secretary for special education and rehabilitative services, called for "shared responsibility'' among all educators. And a joint memorandum by Ms. Will and Mary Jean LeTendre, the department's director of compensatory-education programs, last July reiterated the officials' support for the regular-education concept.

Two fellow researchers with whom I have worked closely--Maynard C. Reynolds of the University of Minnesota and Herbert J. Walberg of the University of Illinois at Chicago--have joined me in strongly supporting the initiative as an approach to reform. All of the the education community's research and evaluation capacity should be enlisted to work with schools in developing and refining policies to advance this approach.

The regular-education concept is not at odds with the principles that special educators have worked so hard to implement since passage in 1975 of the Education for All Handicapped Children Act (PL 94-142). The initiative postulates that, to the greatest degree possible, special services should be provided in regular classrooms as students require them--rather than in segregated settings after failure has already occurred.

A substantial research base--along with practical wisdom--shows that regular schooling can meet the learning needs of most students currently served in the second-system programs.

Such instruction should draw on the best of what is known from both special and general education. Indeed, the success of this approach depends on the coordination of present mainstream and second-system programs. To achieve that end, regular and special teachers and other staff members with relevant expertise (such as psychologists, speech therapists, and reading specialists) must share the responsibility for marshaling all available resources.

One of the most common criticisms of the initiative is that it would eliminate special services and fail to differentiate among learning needs of students in the various categories. But in fact, it calls for the continued provision of special services--in coordination with demonstrably effective core programs of instruction in regular classrooms.

The initiative's backers recognize the need for protecting resources to serve children for whom regular schooling is not working well. Educators and policymakers must take great care, however, in selecting the programs to be safeguarded. Protection must not be accorded a second system that is in disrepair--or the entrenched establishment that runs it--just because the system already exists.

Not all educators working in second-system programs agree with the initiative's "shared responsibility'' concept. And recent efforts toward reform in general education have unwisely neglected the existing system in special education. Regular and special educators alike must assume leadership in motivating a push for necessary changes.

Rather than raise endless questions before we proceed, we should focus the resources of special, compensatory, and regular education on the most promising ideas for improving instruction. We don't need more research to tell us that the current classification system for special-education services is scientifically questionable and morally unjustifiable, and that it requires correction.

The excellent programs based on the regular-education concept that are currently being implemented in many schools can contribute greatly to the knowledge base about the efficacy of an integrated approach to special education. The number of such sites remains small, however; expansion and evaluation of alternative procedures must continue.

But if this concept can be implemented in even a single school, then the question of whether we are ready for such alternatives is answered.

The challenge is to find ways of replicating this vision in other schools while respecting their widely varying resources and needs. School-centered experimentation with research-based, innovative practices is what the initiative is all about.

As schools struggle with the challenge of accommodating increasing numbers of academically disadvantaged children, we can no longer afford to prolong the sanctity of a system that, more often than not, banishes "special'' students to intellectually dull and instructionally ineffective programs.

The regular-education initiative provides the impetus for improvement. Working together to overcome the uncertainties and fears associated with change, we must make the moral commitment to provide every student with the opportunity to succeed.

Vol. 7, Issue 32, Page 36

Published in Print: May 4, 1988, as A 'Promising Approach' For Reforming Spec. Ed.
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