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The Promise of Restructuring For Special Ed.

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Copyright 1988 Despite the current emphasis on restructuring schools, most advocates of change continue to neglect the urgency of reform for special education.

Indeed, on the second anniversary of the U.S. Education Department's "regular education initiative," few educators outside the field realize the benefits that a restructuring of special education could bring to America's public schools.

According to the "white paper" issued in November 1986 by the department's office of special education and rehabilitative services, children with special needs could be best served if regular-classroom teachers worked with special educators to learn strategies for teaching all students.

One would think that local administrators would be clamoring to move beyond the expense--national costs run between $20 and 25 billion annually--and the cumbersome regulations of current special-education policy. But thus far attention to the initiative has been limited, for the most part, to dialogue among special-education professionals--generally centered on why the proposals cannot work.

The outlook on special education shared by most regular educators, policymakers, and the lay public locates learning handicaps within individual children. In fact, most states' special-education regulations call for determining the handicap before placing the child in special classes.

But as a careful study of the needs of the largest group of special-education students--children labeled "mildly handicapped" in reading--reveals, such an approach amounts to little more than an elaborately euphemistic means of addressing the shortcomings of the regular-education system.

By reframing special-education issues within the broader context of restructuring, schools can begin more appropriately to meet the needs of children with with learning difficulties.

At least four factors have hindered the progress of special-education reforms:

A powerful mystique surrounding special education inhibits the involvement of regular educators. A former state director of special education recently noted that since 1957, special educators have been telling classroom teachers about the uniqueness of special-education students--and now they expect teachers to drop that point of view.

As the experience of Seattle's Montlake Elementary School demonstrates", there are no financial incentives for schools to reduce their dependence on special education; schools moving in that direction instead face a reduction of funding for special services in their building.

Most special-education advocates think it is ludicrous to expect the regular-education system--which in their estimation failed "handicapped" students in the first place--to serve these children competently.

Only with carefully documented accountability would they accept the kinds of changes recommended by the initiative. But most schools have struggled with accountability for students' outcomes.

Few educators know the issues.

Comparing current practice in specific content areas with alternative approaches suggests the promise of restructuring special education.

Although the public imagines "handicapped" children to be crippled, deaf, blind, or retarded, 85 percent of these youngsters are in fact classified as only "mildly handicapped." Programs for such students generally require 50 to 70 percent of the handicapped-aids budget.

And roughly 80 percent of the individual educational plans for mildly handicapped students set objectives in the language-arts areas: In terms of both instructional time and sheer numbers, mildly handicapped students with reading or language problems make up by far the largest layer of special education.

Current research on reading instruction and suggestions for school restructuring together offer hope for improving the learning of students who are hard to teach.

One of the first requirements in learning to read is gaining fluency--the ability to decode words quickly and accurately. Yet research shows that many of the commercially successful whole-word basals give abstract and inconsistent references and lack sound pedagogical technique. Studies also suggest that teachers religiously follow the basal reading programs: When they first begin reading in the regular classroom, most low achievers receive this poorly designed instruction.

In fact, with insufficient modeling and feedback, the reading instruction these children receive is inferior to the teaching offered stronger students.

Rarely, for example, do teachers actually teach or model reading comprehension. Yet this type of instruction, research indicates, is precisely what "handicapped" students need.

The state of the testing that drives most commercial reading programs is also deplorable. As the results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress suggest, standardized testing programs expect little from students--and that is what they deliver.

For example, rather than ask students to process long texts and construct summaries, most tests use short passages and require students only to answer multiple-choice questions. Such low standards allow many nonhandicapped children to pass with hardly any intensive instruction.

And schools are not requiring enough time on reading for low-achieving students. Practice at reading improves reading ability; yet children with weak skills typically read less than five minutes per day.

Schools' dependence on commercial reading programs stems at least in part from the rigidity of the academic workday, which does not allow teachers time to become thinkers or problem solvers.

If working conditions were restructured to permit greater flexibility in scheduling, teachers in a given school could find time to work collaboratively toward solving the learning problems of "mildly handicapped" youngsters. And with smaller classes, they could devote more attention to individual students.

Reliance on faulty textbooks--and ineffective teaching--also results partly from weaknesses in teacher preparation. Many teachers do not "know" their subject areas according to the terms elaborated by Lee Shulman of Stanford University: They have not mastered a content-specific pedagogy. Staff-development procedures must be revised to strengthen teaching methods.

Rather than focusing on such physical pathologies as dyslexia, minimal brain damage, hyperactivity, and neurological impairment among poor readers, schools should examine closely these pedagogical and structural pathologies. A new emphasis on improving instruction could pay huge dividends in reducing dependence on special education.

Educators might begin to champion the regular-education initiative and more general restructuring in the following ways:

If educators are to overcome 30 years of conditioning on the uniqueness of special education, the major professional associations must embrace a vision that regular education can accommodate the needs of many special-education students.

State education policymakers working toward school improvement and consultants for mildly handicapped students must recognize the common goal of their missions. Together, they should promote school-site restructuring under the initiative's premise of flexibility.

Given that 93 percent of special-education costs are paid by states and districts, states and local boards need to develop plans enabling schools to recapture saved special-education dollars as incentives for further restructuring and improvement.

As they encourage innovation, policymakers must understand that it may take several years to realize the improvements restructuring could bring.

Educators and policymakers alike must move beyond the one-year, quick-fix grant mentality.

At the same time, plans for the future can take advantage of the reduced need for a costly special-education infrastructure. When no longer needed for special-resource rooms, for example, special-education teachers can transfer their talents to regular classrooms.

Proposals for restructuring sponsored jointly by regular and special educators may be necessary to guarantee that schools continue to receive the dollars currently appropriated for special education. Reports on special education increasingly point to disarray within the field--only a 50 percent graduation rate for special-education students after costly remediation, gross disparities in systems of referral and placement, and so on. This questionable performance could place special-education funding in jeopardy.

Not only the needs of "mildly handicapped" learners but also those of other special-education populations must be re-evaluated. Evidence emerging from such programs as Vermont's Homecoming Model suggests that thoughtful, problem-solving approaches can promote unified systems including even the most challenging of special-education students.

The movement to restructure America's schools could provide the resources to make effective education for all children a reality.

Randy Schenkat is a special-needs educational consultant in Winona, Minn.

Allocating Resources for Children

Education Week
Volume 8, Issue 11, November 16, 1988, p 26

Copyright 1988, Editorial Projects in Education, Inc.

Allocating Resources for Children

By Victor R. Fuchs

During the 1988 Presidential campaign, Vice President George Bush and Gov. Michael S. Dukakis of Massachusetts seemed to agree on one thing: America's children are in trouble and need help. Not all children, of course, but serious problems are evident in all regions of the country and among all ethnic and socioeconomic groups.

Compared with those of the previous generation, today's children are more than twice as likely to commit suicide, perform worse in school, and use much more alcohol and drugs; they are twice as likely to be obese, and show other signs of increased physical and emotional distress. The poverty rate among children (under age 18) is almost double the rate for adults--a situation without precedent in American history.

The proposed solutions include broader access to prenatal care, more and better-quality day care, and increased funding for education, counseling services, and supervised recreation. Such programs might deter youngsters from self-destructive paths and bring them to adulthood better equipped for work and family life.

Virtually all these solutions have one thing in common: They require resources, including trained personnel, equipment, time, and energy. Where can these resources come from?

One popular answer--"the government"--is misleading. The government, through its power to tax and spend, can reallocate resources, but it cannot create them. Only the people can do that.

Another popular answer--"business"--is also based on an illusion. For instance, the phrase "employer-provided child care" leaves the impression that the needed resources will be provided by some nameless, faceless, high-paid executive. That is unrealistic.

If employers provide child-care subsidies or other child-related benefits, most often the costs will be borne by American households in the form of higher prices for the firm's products and/or lower wages for its workers. Employers, like the government, can only allocate resources among individuals and families.

If the allocation is to be toward children, there are only two possible solutions.

First, the adults in households that have children can shift resources away from themselves toward their children. This means spending more time with their children and spending a larger portion of the household's budget to meet their needs.

Most parents already have considerably less leisure time than other adults of comparable age and education, and they are more squeezed financially. Moreover, there seems to be very little that public policy can do to force such a reallocation of resources within individual households. It depends almost entirely on the willingness and ability of the parents.

The second possible solution is for the government to transfer resources from households that do not have children to those that do. Such a reallocation could occur in two ways.

First, if income were distributed more equally in the United States, children would be the main beneficiaries even if there were no new explicitly child-centered programs. A more egalitarian distribution of income would help children because they are overrepresented in low-income households and underrepresented in more affluent ones.

When households are ranked by income per person, the ratio of children to adults rises steadily as income falls. The highest 10th percentile consists almost entirely of adults--only 6 percent of the individuals in those households are children. By contrast, children account for 50 percent of those in the lowest income households. The increase in income inequality that the United States experienced in the 1980's undoubtedly contributed to the worsening position of children.

The second way of transferring resources from childless households to those with children is through taxes on all households to fund child-centered programs. Consider, for instance, that among the approximately 40 million households that are headed by someone between the ages of 25 and 44, about 14 million have only adult members. These adults are, on the average, better educated and are more affluent than the adults in households that have children, primarily because each household has fewer persons to feed, clothe, and shelter.

Any program that directed resources toward children--whether for child care, education, or health--that was financed by broad-based general taxes would in effect be transferring resources from the childless households. Such a policy is undoubtedly highly controversial.

Those who oppose such transfers can argue that adults who choose to have children do so knowing the financial and other implications of parenthood. Why, then, should those who are unwilling or unable to have children share in those costs?

The answer is that children are, to some extent, a public good, and that the entire society has a stake in the potential of the next generation. If Americans do not have enough children (the fertility rate has been below replacement level since 1973) and if children do not become healthy, well-educated adults, the country's future is bleak, regardless of progress with other issues.

We will face many difficult choices in the coming decade, but none more difficult than meeting the needs of the next generation. It is easy for candidates to promise to help children; it is far more difficult for all of us, parents and nonparents alike, to make the tangible commitments to ensure that help is really on the way.

Victor R. Fuchs, professor of economics at Stanford University, is the author of Women's Quest for Economic Equality. This essay originally appeared in The Los Angeles Times.

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