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What's So Special About Special Education?

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The answer to the question in the title is either "not very much" or "not enough," depending on one's politics. Only a cockeyed optimist would assert that all is well with special education today, more than 20 years after we made a national commitment to educating children with disabilities.

Much is wrong: phony "inclusion," a bloated bureaucracy, questionable classifications, an appalling dropout rate, and a near-total lack of accountability.

I say that after spending the better part of a year exploring the world of special education, preparing a Public Broadcasting Service documentary that's about to air. During the year, producer Karena O'Riordan and I interviewed hundreds of individuals in most of the states. We interviewed some of the first children to come under the 1975 legislation guaranteeing disabled children access to education, Washington insiders who drafted Public Law 94-142, the former president who wanted to veto the legislation, lawyers who are driving school boards crazy, and dozens of frustrated parents and teachers.

For me, the year was a reunion of sorts: I began my career as a reporter (for National Public Radio) just as the law was passed, and I remember well the revolutionary zeal, the high hopes, and the disgraceful conditions that passed for "education" in the old days.

Make no mistake about it: There were no good old days in special education. I remember a day in New Mexico in one of that state's schools for handicapped children: rows and rows of children and adults strapped to their chairs in a dimly lit room, a cacophony of moans and screams. Four or five attendants stood watch over what seemed to be about a hundred "students."

Burned into my memory is the image of one young man, a quadriplegic with cerebral palsy. Abandoned by his parents and labeled "retarded," he languished for years until one day a sympathetic nurse saw in his eyes the glimmer of a fierce intelligence. "He could move his head, and he could make his eyes shine or get bigger, and I realized he was trying to talk to me," she told me.

Determined to give him a chance to communicate, that wonderful woman made what must have been one of the first letter/word boards (this was in 1975). It was nothing more than a tray with letters, numbers, and common words on it. Then she fastened a small light to a hat and taught the young man to direct the light to words and letters.

I "interviewed" him that day, for my National Public Radio program. He told me about his mother, asked questions about my family, and asked me if I believed in God. I cried then, tears of joy for his indomitable spirit, but also tears for the loss of thousands and thousands of lives wasted ... back in those "good old days."

Today, disabled students are about to have another turn in the national spotlight, and the glare is likely to be unflattering. But before we dismantle what has taken 20 years to create, let's take a careful look.

The Education for All Handicapped Children Act of 1975 promised disabled students access to a "free and appropriate public education," access they have achieved--5 million disabled students now attend public schools. Whether access equals education, however, is another story.

It's worth recalling that prior to the passage of the law now known as the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act, or IDEA, disabled children were often deemed "uneducable" and sent to institutions like that one in New Mexico, or kept at home. In the District of Columbia, eight of the 10 buildings in use for handicapped children had officially been condemned for use by nonhandicapped children!

The law was controversial in 1975, and President Gerald R. Ford and his advisers wanted to veto it. Mr. Ford told us that he had prepared a veto message, based on his conviction that the law would cost too much and give "Washington bureaucrats" too much power. Knowing that the Congress would override his veto, he eventually signed the bill, but without fanfare. No official photograph of the signing ceremony exists, a sure sign of presidential displeasure.

Back then, interest groups played a major role in the actual writing of the legislation. Fred Weintraub, then as now a leader of the Council for Exceptional Children, recalled how he and Lisa Walker, a top Senate aide, sat for hours in a Washington restaurant one afternoon, talking about an "ideal" law. "At one point, I took out my pen," Mr. Weintraub told us, "but neither of us had any blank paper. So we grabbed a handful of paper napkins and basically wrote the first draft of the law, on those napkins. Lisa took the napkins back to the office, and the rest is history."

While napkins probably won't play a pivotal role this time around, interest groups already are. With the law up for reauthorization, the Congress has been under heavy pressure, with school boards lobbying for relief from burgeoning legal costs, teachers' unions seeking protection from supposedly violent students with disabilities, and other interest groups seeking to protect their advantages. (See Education Week, May 1, 1996.)

Most of the 5 million children with disabilities now in public schools are described as being "included," meaning they spend their days in regular classrooms. But we found that "inclusion," once called "mainstreaming," often results in dumping. Too often the classroom teacher has no special training and little additional support. Too often the disabled student is ignored in the corner--until he or she discovers that the best way to get an adult's attention is to misbehave. The results are predictable, and nobody learns much of anything.

We spend an additional $30 billion a year nationally on disabled students, 22 cents of every education dollar in New York City, and--in some extreme cases--more than $100,000 per child.

What does the money buy? Personnel, equipment, and transportation--but beyond that no one can say for sure. My impression is that educators rarely even ask the question. Most disabled students live in a kind of educational limbo, because nobody in the system keeps track of how much, or if, they're learning. In educationese, it means they are "out of accountability." Most states in the United States do not include disabled students in regular assessments of academic success or standardized tests. It's as if they don't count. Only two states, Kentucky and Maryland, require that all their disabled students be regularly tested.

From day one, federal law has required that each disabled student have what is known as an IEP, for individualized education program. But the IEP has come to mean hours and hours of paperwork instead of an accurate plan for the achievement of the student. The IEP-writing process has become so riddled with procedures that the sometimes 40- to 50-page documents can take months to prepare, time that could be spent educating the student. These plans almost never identify outcomes ("Gloria will learn to read") but instead focus on process ("Gloria will receive eight hours of small-group instruction per week").

We found that many special-education teachers spend much of their time creating paper trails and anticipating lawsuits from disgruntled parents. Many school districts have seen their legal costs balloon. For example, legal costs for Connecticut's public schools tripled between 1991 and 1994. Greenwich, Conn., which boasts one of the state's best public school systems, is paying tuition for several dozen students whose parents threatened to take legal action over the system's alleged failures with their "learning disabled" children. "It's cheaper and easier to pay than to fight," one Greenwich official told me.

For many students special education is the equivalent of "Hotel California," about which the Eagles sang, "You can check out any time you want but you can never leave." That is, students who get the "special education" label never lose it; once in, always in. Moreover, only 44 percent of special-education students earn high school diplomas.

That failure rate is even more appalling when one considers that today most of those in special education--52 percent--are categorized as "learning disabled." Perhaps because the criteria are largely subjective, LD, as the learning-disabled category is known, has been and continues to be a growth industry in special education. We heard stories of parents actually seeking out the label because they felt that it was the only way for their child to receive individual attention.

How dubious a diagnosis is learning-disabled? Consider that Massachusetts finds that 11 percent of its students are LD, while only 2 percent of Georgia's students are so afflicted. Is this sloppy classification? Something in the water, perhaps? And can a Massachusetts family cure its child's learning disability by moving south?

Process turns out to be the system's strong point, a backhanded compliment if ever there was one. Process requires people, and special education has plenty of them. In 20 years, the disabled-student population has increased by only 40 percent, but the number of adults employed in special education has grown by 80 percent. But more staff may not mean more help for students. In fact, more and more of those employed in special education work in nonclassroom settings.

Do regular and special education work together to benefit children? Do they mesh? Brian McNulty, Colorado's director of special education, describes the situation as "our own worst nightmare. We've created two separate systems of education--one for typical children and one for children with disabilities. And by and large those two systems do not interact very well."

The nightmare is about to get worse. Dr. Sally Shaywitz of Yale University has been tracking the progress of reading-disabled students in Connecticut. Of those identified with a disability in 3rd grade and given special-education services through 9th grade, only 26 percent made significant progress. The other 74 percent were still receiving special education, but had shown no signs of improvement.

Is a 74 percent failure rate acceptable in any other line of work? If I ran an auto-repair shop and 74 percent of the cars I worked on still didn't run, I'd be out of business in a few weeks.

Unless, of course, nobody checked to see whether the cars I worked on actually ran.

What we call "special education," then, is not particularly special. But I hope we'll agree that it is worth saving.

Saving it requires at least four giant steps. First, we must have accountability. Disabled students must be expected to learn, be tested, and be helped when they fail. The individualized education programs must specify what each student is expected to learn--not the processes, but the anticipated results. But accountability means more than test scores; it means asking: "Are children passing? Are they graduating, getting jobs, and finding social acceptance? Are they satisfied?" All of these are measurable, and we ought to be measuring those outcomes.

Second, dismantle special-education bureaucracies. Special educators must work with children and with regular-classroom teachers, or hit the road. All that money should be spent helping real children, and their regularclassroom teachers.

Third, deregulate in ways that will end the legal morass and systemwide distrust.

Prevention is the most important step of all, beginning with learning disabilities. LD students have no recognizable mental or physical disorders but have difficulty learning initial reading or math. With proper intervention, all but the severely disabled can learn to compensate for difficulties and can keep from falling behind in class. Early intervention, before the 3rd grade, is the key: doing whatever it takes to ensure that each child learns to read and compute. Only when (and if) our best efforts as teachers fall short should we begin affixing the label "special education" on children.

And never forget that the system is succeeding with some children. As Fred Weintraub of the CEC says, "We're taking children with severe and profound disabilities, kids who were previously thrown on the junk pile of American society, and we're turning out productive citizens." That is, the models are there for us to copy.

In 1975, our nation made a promise to children with disabilities. It's a promise worth keeping, and the time is now.

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