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The Dumbing of Special Education

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In a recent Commentary ("Reform All Categorial Programs,'' March 24, 1993), Margaret C. Wang, Maynard C. Reynolds, and Herbert J. Walberg make a pitch to policymakers to reform all categorical programs, especially those involving children with "mild'' disabilities. Their assertions remind us of the proclamations of Thomas Szasz, who, in the 1960's, claimed there was no such thing as mental illness. His thinking helped fuel the deinstitutionalization movement, which has resulted in the seemingly intractable problems of the homeless, chronically mentally ill.

We disagree with the claims of Ms. Wang and her co-authors that "there is every reason--political, scientific, and professional--in 1993'' to get rid of "disjointed'' categorical programs. These programs are based on the concept of offering a rich cascade of services to allow children with disabilities the possibility of functioning in the least restrictive environment. The success of the cascade model is dependent on accurate, ongoing assessment, diagnosis (categorization of disabilities), and treatment/remediation strategies.

  • Political Issues: Ms. Wang, Mr. Reynolds, and Mr. Walberg are distinguished professors, who were recipients of generous research funding from the U.S. Education Department during the Reagan and Bush administrations. They appear to be locked into the rhetoric of their supporters from a bygone era. Their assertions were quite popular during a time when conservative politicians and their word-spinning philologists convinced many that "reform'' meant to return or to go back, rather than to improve by change.

Throughout the 80's, the Far Right promoted a host of "reforms'' to improve education. Consistent with conservative ideology, their concept of reformed education was a return to the "good old days.'' One of the major features of the good old days was the lack of adequate resources and mandated due process for children with disabilities. Because of lack of adequate diagnosis there was a tendency to punish, rather than help many children with mild learning and behavioral problems.

Surveys indicate that the majority of school psychologists favor returning children with disabilities to regular education. However, there is great suspicion regarding the political motives of proponents. Policymakers fail to detail the source of adequate funding and resources which will be made available to the children with disabilities and their regular education teachers. Like others, after viewing the disaster of deinstitutionalization, we suspect that attempts to dismantle the present special-education service-delivery system really represent an excuse for politicians to save money. This can be done by eliminating special-education classes, teachers, and support personnel.

Homogenization of disabilities will diffuse the political efforts of special-interest groups which are organized by category of disability. Currently, these groups form powerful lobbies to assure that sufficient monies are spent to meet the needs of each. If monies are pooled into the regular budget, monitoring of special programs will become difficult, if not impossible to maintain.

  • Scientific Issues: A centerpiece of the Reagan/Bush era educational reform was the so-called regular-education initiative. Ms. Wang's Adaptive Learning Environment Model, or ALEM, was developed to prove that children with mild disabilities could function full time in the regular classroom. Large-scale, policy-driven studies in education such as ALEM are not often followed by appropriate scientific skepticism and challenging replications. This is frequently due to a lack of funding. Also, many university professors, who are dependent on continuing government funding to support their research, are reluctant to challenge policy-driven, large-scale educational studies promoted by government officials.

Douglas Fuchs and Lynn Fuchs, and other researchers, point out that the research base for ALEM is much too weak to use it as a model for change. They are among the researchers attempting to improve the present system.

Ms. Wang, Mr. Reynolds, and Mr. Walberg fail to mention critiques of research on ALEM. Classes and teachers are not usually randomly assigned; methods used are not always described; the same data has been republished many times making it appear that many studies were done; the actual nature of the disabilities of the children in the program is not clear and there are no data on attrition from the program. Children with behavioral problems may be dropped from the program, since they don't appear to be included in the research data. Anecdotal information suggests that they are removed from ALEM classes.

Some of Ms. Wang's own research indicates the superiority of special education over ALEM for children with learning disabilities and those classified as "mixed.''

The current system, while not perfect, assures that many of the individual needs of classified children are met by low student-teacher ratios and educators who want to work with exceptional children. Research and practical experience indicate that teachers who use more effective instructional procedures are least tolerant of students with certain disabilities. These teachers are often the ones who accurately select children in need of assessment. Other studies show that children with disabilities may suffer emotional damage as a result of the stresses of being in a regular class. Further, if appropriate resources are not provided, the time required to attend to the needs of children with mild disabilities may result in limited progress of other students.

  • Professional Issues: It is appropriate to question the current, flawed system of categorical placement, but it is also important to understand it. It is grounded in a "medical model'' which emphasizes (1) identification of the presenting problem, (2) diagnosis, and (3) remediation/treatment of both the symptoms and underlying causes. It is dependent on advances in the behavioral and medical sciences and on sufficient quality and quantity of well-trained scientist-practitioners, most often school psychologists.

School psychologists are frequently and unwillingly cast as gatekeepers, only to find themselves and their role attacked. Yet, most school psychologists agree that categories such as emotionally disturbed, learning disabled, and communication disordered are merely generic terms devised by educational bureaucrats in order to simplify placement. These terms are far removed from current medical/psychological nosology and research in diagnosis and treatment/remediation.

Frequently, school psychologists are not allowed adequate time and resources to act as effective gatekeepers and consultants to teachers, parents, and administrators. This is especially true in large urban schools where high-quality diagnosis and treatment are most needed.

Ms. Wang and her co-authors denigrate the medical model in education and its reliance on diagnosis, without acknowledging the real problem. Attempts to simplify, or even eliminate comprehensive, accurate, and ongoing diagnosis and assessment have resulted in a dumbing down of the whole system. This resulted from substituting meaningless categories for accurate diagnosis.

In the February 1993 issue of the journal Exceptional Children, Mr. Reynolds and Ms. Wang are co-authors of an article that suggests a really simplistic approach to solving the problem of expensive gatekeepers. In a study partly funded by the U.S. Education Department, they prescribe using the results of achievement or reading tests to automatically service the upper 20 percent and the lower 20 percent of all school children. This solution completely ignores the complex and often subtle individual differences in school children that dictate successful treatment/remediation programs. It also ignores the importance of understanding etiology and complex interactions between emotional, developmental, physical, family, school, and community factors.

A major weakness in the present categorical model is rarely addressed. In a previous "reform,'' another group of professors recommended eliminating specialty certificates for working with various disability groups. While burgeoning knowledge in the medical/psychological fields has resulted in increasing need for specialty training, special education continues to use a generic approach to credentialling. In the topsy-turvy world of reform, we are told that less is more and more is less.

Like many educators and psychologists, we philosophically favor the egalitarian concepts of the move towards inclusion of children with disabilities in regular education. For eight years, the senior writer has consulted for an independent school which accepts students with mild disabilities. Students' past psychological evaluations, diagnoses, and/or classifications are frequently unknown. Past grades, a standardized achievement test, and an interview are the major bases for acceptance into the school. For the basic academic program to function effectively, the per-student costs are two to three times those for public school children. Until legislatures are ready to sustain these levels of services and expenses for all school districts, it would be disaster to send children with mild disabilities back into the settings where many of their problems were created.

Irwin A. Hyman is professor of school psychology at Temple University and director of the National Center for the Study of Corporal Punishment and Alternatives. Richard Roeder is a psychological consultant to Children and Youth Services in Delaware County, Pa. and a doctoral student in school psychology at Temple.

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