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Reform All Categorical Programs

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Kudos to David Hornbeck and members of the Commission on Chapter 1 for bold plans to improve the learning of economically disadvantaged students. We think, however, the independent commission framed its work too narrowly. There is every reason--political, economic, scientific, and professional--in 1993 to work for broad reformation of all categorical school programs. We believe the panel made a major mistake by excluding from its proposals categorical programs other than Chapter 1, such as programs for migrant workers' children, handicapped children, neglected and delinquent children, limited-English-proficient children, and Native American children. (See Education Week, Dec. 16, 1992.)

Narrowly framed categorical programs designated to serve only specific categories of students cause the disjointedness and inefficiency that plague schools as they attempt to meet legislative mandates. This problem is particularly serious in urban schools with high concentrations of economically disadvantaged students. Although the Chapter 1 commission recognized that the "school is the primary unit in need of change and improvement,'' panel members chose not to say how Chapter 1 reform, as they envision it, will be carried out in isolation from other categorical programs.

Categorical programs have become very large and expensive--and an administrative nightmare for school administrators and teachers. It is not unusual to find schools in which over 50 percent of students are separated in "pullout'' programs from the mainstream and from one another. Classrooms become something like Grand Central Station and teachers turn into dispatchers. According to one report, 25 percent of New York City public school expenditures were tied to special education. Add the costs of other categorical programs and we're dealing with what the late Sen. Everett M. Dirksen of Illinois called "real money.''

On the scientific side, a study of placement practices in the schools by a panel created by the National Academy of Sciences is of great importance. The panel reported that there is little empirical justification for categorical labeling that differentiates mildly mentally retarded children from other children with academic difficulties; and, perhaps more importantly, it said that similar instructional processes appear to be effective with educable mentally retarded, learning-disabled, and compensatory-educational populations, including Chapter 1.

It is noteworthy that so-called "learning disabled'' children, a special-education category, now constitute more than half of the special-education population in the nation's public schools. The researcher Joe Jenkins at the University of Washington reports a virtually total "overlap'' in characteristics of Chapter 1 and learning-disabled student populations. Richard Allington at the State University of New York at Albany reports that students in categorical programs actually receive less instruction in special support programs designed to provide intensive instructional support, such as Chapter 1 and learning-disabled, or L.D., programs. In what we have called the "Matthew effect,'' these students tend to fall further and further behind students in the mainstream.

School psychologists in many school districts are very heavily occupied in psychometrics just to allocate children to categorical programs. This often involves waiting until discrepancies between "expectations'' and actual achievements of students are large enough to warrant a given categorical label for placement and/or services. Such pseudoscientific procedures involve calculating "points'' generated out of test results to suggest that a child needs intensive help. All of this "micromanaging on the input side'' of meaningless boundaries is wasteful and unjustified. Indeed, much of it may be harmful in that it involves delays in providing help to children at early stages of their studies. It preoccupies school staff members with the tasks of justifying eligibility for services and precludes broader professional services, which they could provide. In fact, the preoccupation with eligibility certification precludes the delivery of a broader vision of improvement.

It is true, of course, that legislators can make provisions in law and in funding systems in almost any fashion. But it is the job of educators to help frame the concerns of public policymakers so that we don't have disarrayed programs at the school level.

Research and practical experience indicate that categorical school programs as they are currently implemented in schools are in disorder. They cause extreme disjointedness in schools. Further aggravation is provided by state and federal monitoring activities that are more oriented to processes than to the substance of teaching and learning. Literally, monitors seem more interested in what they find in filing cabinets (Did the parents approve, in writing, before the testing of their child began?) than in what goes on in classrooms.

By noting these problems, we suggest that the strategies for making schools work for children in poverty proposed by the independent commission will, in fact, continue to cause the kinds of disjointedness that have failed to serve the many children presently in all kinds of categorical programs, including Chapter 1. We agree with Mr. Hornbeck and other commission members that aggressive teaching, higher expectations, and broader curricular approaches are needed by many students presently being served by Chapter 1 programs and, we add, by other specially designed entitlement programs.

In thinking about a solution, the quite simple proposal by Carl Bereiter at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education may be useful. He stated: "For any sort of learning, from swimming to reading, some children learn with almost no help and other children need a great deal of help. Children whom we have labeled educationally disadvantaged are typically children who need more than ordinary amounts of help with academic learning. Why they need help is open to all sorts of explanations. But suppose that, instead of reopening that issue, we simply accept the fact that youngsters vary greatly in how much help they need and why.''

In addition, the problem of Chapter 1 must be viewed in the context of proposed radical reforms in educational organization. The worrisome difficulties of Chapter 1 identified by the commission and further elaborated here may be part of a larger problem--"intergovernmentalism''--making more levels and parts of government responsible for domestic affairs, although common sense says that when all are nominally responsible, none is truly responsible. On this subject, John Kincaid of the University of Washington concluded: "Virtually all of the factors most associated with academically effective education are school- and neighborhood-based. Yet, we have shifted more control and financing of education to state and national institutions.'' Our own reviews of research literature certainly confirm this view.

The commission links its ideas for revision in Chapter 1 to the integration of schools with other public agencies, such as health and welfare. We agree that such broader integration approaches are desirable. But schools cannot lead in these broad services unless and until the services are integrated in the schools' own internal operations.

In sum, we believe it is a mistake to prepare revised legislation and complex accountability procedures in just the Chapter 1 framework alone. There are no remaining rewards in school practices that make categorical distinctions that have no merit. It is time to make organizational and curricular changes that reform all categorical programs in ways that involve the regular or general education programs as well. We believe that reframing the entire set of categorical programs, all the way from legislative and regulatory levels down to classrooms and individual students, is long overdue.

Perhaps the Commission on Chapter 1's report can be taken as the first step toward broader deliberation and reform. We are among those ready to join in such an effort.

Margaret C. Wang is director of the Center for Research in Human Development at Temple University and director of the National Center on Education in the Inner Cities. Maynard C. Reynolds is a professor emeritus of educational psychology at the University of Minnesota and a senior research associate at the Temple University center. Herbert J. Walberg is a research professor of education at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

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