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Special Educators in Quandary Over Role in Standards-Setting

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WASHINGTON--Special educators sought to clarify their role in the movement to restructure schools during a three-day national conference here last week.

Questions that dominated discussion on the first day of the conference, which was sponsored by the U.S. Education Department, included: How can disabled students be fully included in classrooms? Where does special education fit in the national movement to set high academic standards? And, perhaps the most crucial question of all, do those two educational visions conflict?

"We need to be cognizant of how the standards-setting effort can backfire for the whole role of inclusion of disabled students,'' Margaret McLaughlin, the director of the University of Maryland's Center for Policy Options, told the group.

The conference, sponsored each year by the department's office of special-education programs, draws together state special-education administrators, leading researchers, and policymakers to talk about current issues in the field.

Special educators at this year's conference said they are becoming increasingly concerned that the national movement to set rigorous student-achievement standards is excluding disabled children.

Standards for All?

Efforts are now under way at the national level to set standards for what students should know and be able to do in 10 subjects. The federal government is supporting standards-setting efforts in seven of those disciplines: the arts, civics, English, foreign languages, geography, history, and science.

Proponents of those efforts maintain their standards are intended for everyone.

As Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley reiterated in remarks to the special educators' group last week, "When we say all, we do mean all.''

But, as James E. Ysseldyke, the director of the University of Minnesota's National Center on Educational Outcomes, pointed out, most of the subject-matter standards are being developed with little or no input from representatives of students with disabilities.

Special educators, Mr. Ysseldyke said, are concerned that "standards challenging enough for gifted students may exclude students with disabilities.''

Part of the problem, he added, is that special educators have sent mixed signals to standard-setters.

"There's a lot of confusion coming from the disability community on standards,'' he said. "Do we believe there should be separate standards for kids with disabilities, or are 'world class' standards for everybody?''

"Would we want to have a concept of personal best'' or base standards on goals in students' individualized education plans? he asked.

Similar Debate

There is a similar lack of agreement about the movement to fully integrate disabled pupils in classrooms, other speakers said.

"We have people who really believe we have to restructure special education to make it more inclusive,'' Ms. McLaughlin said. "At the same time, we have people saying those [regular-education] classrooms do not have the capacity to do this.''

Participants at the meeting heard about both sides of the issue.

Dennis Kane, a state education administrator from Vermont, described how changes in that state's funding formula for special education led to big reductions in the number of students identified as disabled. The changes, he added, also contributed to the elimination of 80 percent of the state's regional programs for such students, which tend to be offered in more segregated settings.

Douglas Fuchs, a professor of special education at Vanderbilt University, offered what he called a more "cautionary tale'' on the topic.

Mr. Fuchs said he and his colleagues conducted a test to see if an instructional strategy known as "classwide peer tutoring'' would work in teaching reading in classrooms with both disabled and nondisabled 6th graders.

At first, the researchers believed the test showed that the approach produced large gains in reading proficiency and comprehension for the entire group of 500 students.

However, Mr. Fuchs continued, when they tracked individual students' week-to-week progress, they found the approach did not work equally well for everyone. About 20 percent of the learning-disabled students in those classes did less well or only equally as well as students in a control group.

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