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Special Education Impact 'Subtle But Significant'

To the Editor:

In the Commentary section of your May 8, 1996, edition, John Merrow proposes the rhetorical question, "What's So Special About Special Education?" As a teacher, an administrator with 30 years in the field, and a parent of both typical and "special needs" children, I have seen this question posed many times over the past three decades, from Lloyd Dunn's Special Education: Is Much of it Justifiable? to Ellen Willard's Redesigning Schools to Make Inclusion Work. Special educators have openly challenged themselves and their colleagues to improve their practice. Special education has become a high-stakes game with entitled participants controlling ever-increasing percentages of school budgets protected by due process and standards like "maximum feasible benefit."

Have the hundreds of billions of dollars spent in the name of special education had the de minimus effect suggested by Mr. Merrow, or have there been subtle but significant changes on the educational landscape brought about by this radical reform that do more than just "succeed with some children ... with severe and profound disabilities"?

The reality is that most of these billions are being spent on children with mild disabilities, and Mr. Merrow suggests that, in this area, we are failing miserably. He proposes four "giant steps": (1) accountability, (2) dismantling bureaucracies, (3) deregulation, and (4) prevention. I would like to suggest to Mr. Merrow that special education programs that embrace these "giant steps" and, in fact, go well beyond these basics and enjoy broad-based community support, exist and thrive in this country.

I can speak specifically about the special education programs in the Cambridge, Mass., public schools, where inclusive preschools, a systematic program of early intervention and primary review, 85 percent of special education students served in regular classrooms, transdisciplinary assessments and treatment plans, extensive inclusionary support, a high level of parental and political satisfaction, specific and measurable accountability for student progress, a bureaucracy that has two full-time administrators supervising over 220 full-time professional staff members, supporting 2,150 students with individualized education plans (students who represent 26 percent of our very diverse urban student population), consuming 18 percent of the total school budget for the 1996-97 school year might just address the rhetorical question with a resounding "Quite a lot, frankly."

Instead of playing to an increasingly conservative audience by continuing to blame the victim, Mr. Merrow should come to Cambridge and see that everything he proposes to accomplish and so much more is already in place, being continuously improved, and accessible to anyone seriously seeking an answer to the question posed in his Commentary's title.

Daniel G. McCarthy
Director, Pupil Services
Cambridge School Department
Cambridge, Mass.

Choice Critic Confuses Quality, Equality Issues

To the Editor:

In the May 15, 1996, issue, you published a letter in response to Karl Borden and Edward A. Rauchut's Commentary ("Choice: Making Good Schools Even Better," April 17, 1996) under the heading "Do Free Markets Always Lead to Better Quality?" The answer for Eric A. Johnson, the author of the letter, appeared to be negative.

The critical issue is: As compared to what other system? Mr. Johnson expressed dissatisfaction with the quality of cheap telephones he purchased in the market. Does he believe that he would have been better off if the government (a) taxed him and used the revenues to buy a telephone for him, or (b) had a monopoly on the production of telephones?

Yes, it is true that wealthy families would purchase better-quality education in a free market system, but they already purchase better quality in the current system through residential choice or private schools. Rather than "abandoning the poor to the market," to use the author's words, most of the proposals on the table would simply make more choices available to poor families. Mr. Johnson needs to explain why giving a poor family more choices would make them worse off.

Michael Podgursky
Professor of Economics
University of Missouri
Columbia, Mo.

To the Editor:

Both the headline and the content of Eric A. Johnson's letter seem to blur the important distinction between "quality" and "equality." Mr. Johnson concedes the "dizzying array of choices" in the consumer market. Then, regarding education, he raises the legitimate question of what he calls the "issue of quality within a competitive market."

But then he addresses a completely different question, that of "equality." He distracts himself from examining the quality question by asking whether telephones are "all of the same quality." He momentarily reverts to quality by sharing his dissatisfaction with the sound quality of an inexpensive phone. But this is the last time quality is mentioned. Next he informs us that cars are unequal: "I think anyone would be hard pressed to believe that the quality of an $8,000 car is equal to that of a $50,000 car."

After these examples of free market "inequality," he states the obvious about a theoretical free market school system: "Those who can afford the best will buy the best." This subtle appeal to envy is followed by a powerful metaphor that the rest of the consumers "will have to settle for whatever the market dumps on them." How many of us resent the free market for "dumping" a Chevrolet, Toyota, or Volkswagen on us when we couldn't afford a Cadillac, Lexus, or Mercedes?

In one more pejorative metaphor, he asks if people like me are "willing to abandon the poor for a free market," and challenges us to "be brave enough to say this up front." Let me try to be brave with three points:

(1) I believe the important task ahead of us is to improve the quality of education for all children in America, especially the poor. Equality is not a goal of mine; high quality is. I believe that striving for equality will harm education for all because it prevents the voluntary pedagogic experiments of people like Marva Collins, Jaime Escalante, Maria Montessori, John Holt, A.S. Neill, and Rudolf Steiner. After all, if any of them produced a breakthrough, the children under their tutelage received "unequal," albeit better, education.

(2) To find out if you prefer high quality or equality, try this thought experiment. Once upon a time, a wise and decent king discovered his country's schools varied in quality from 2 to 4 on a scale of 1 to 10, with an even distribution roughly correlating with income. Education advisers prepared two plans with similar costs and likelihood of success. Plan A would improve schools to a range of 3 to 4, and plan B would move them to a range of 4 to 8. In essence, plan A would improve quality slightly and increase equality considerably. On the other hand, plan B would greatly improve quality, but not increase equality.

Would you advise the king to choose plan A or plan B?

(3) Finally, as to "abandoning the poor," I believe that there exists sufficient evidence to prudently predict that the poor and the lower middle class will enjoy great improvement in their educational opportunities when Americans separate schooling from the state. By that, I mean ending government involvement with the funding of education, the operation and accrediting of schools, the compelling of attendance, and the stipulating of curriculum and standards.

Anyone wishing to see this evidence and weigh the separation idea or its merits is welcome to visit this Web site: (, or request an information kit from my organization at 4578 N. First, No. 310, Fresno, Calif. 93726.

Marshall Fritz
Separation of School & State Alliance
Fresno, Calif.

California Basic-Skills Test Is Fulfilling Its Purpose

To the Editor:

During the past several years, I have taught a number of noncredentialed teachers who were unable to pass the reading portion of the California Basic Educational Skills Test ("Taking on the Test," On Assignment, May 8, 1996).

The majority of these adult students could read well enough to access most of the words in passages written at the senior-high or junior-college level of difficulty, but often were only projecting an illusion of literacy. While they could read, most had not read for pleasure during their early school years; nor had they read anything of a substantial nature--fiction or nonfiction--since they closed their college texts.

Because they were essentially nonreaders, they brought so little to the passages being read on the CBEST that they spent an inordinate amount of time trying to process new and/or challenging vocabulary, language usage, content material, and ideas. This, in turn, left them with inadequate time to deal with the questions and complete the test.

If it is every teacher's role to enrich written curriculum by carrying each question as far as it will go, then in screening out the semi-literate, the reading portion of the CBEST is doing exactly what it is designed to do.

Edward O. Vail
Integrative Learning Systems Inc.
San Diego, Calif.

Bleich Essay Recommended For Answers on Reform

To the Editor:

At present, the great debate on American education is about school reform. And for a great many educators, the issue has become "To do, or not to do." In this context, I found "Revisionism and Reform," by Maxine Bleich (Commentary, April 24, 1996), to be quite outstanding. It answered many of the questions being debated about the form and content of school reform, including to do or not to do and why or why not. I highly recommend it to anyone seeking answers that go beyond rhetoric.

Dennis C. Johnson Jr.
M.C. Terrell Elementary School
Washington, D.C.

Multiage Dissension

To the Editor:

While the debate over mixed-age-level classrooms was extensively documented from both sides in your recent article ("Mixed Blessings," Research, May 8, 1996), absolutely no reference was made to perhaps the most successful--and certainly the most long-standing--implementation of multiage groupings in schools: Montessori education.

I find it unfortunate that a "research" article on this concept failed to include vital and historical information on one of the oldest and most well-known educational methods to use this approach in the classroom. Maria Montessori was an innovator, as well as an important and strong proponent of multiage grouping.

At the beginning of this century, Ms. Montessori began her work with underprivileged children in Rome, developing what has become known as the Montessori method. Through scientific observation, she came to see how children interacted with one another, learned through the use of materials she provided, and went through very specific age-related phases of development. As a result of these observations, and in collaboration with her background in psychology, classrooms were designed to accommodate a three-year age mix, allowing for both individual and social development.

In a Montessori school, you will therefore find multiage classrooms with children divided into three-year learning cycles: birth to 3 years, 3 to 6 years, 6 to 9 years, and 9 to 12 years. Each class has a balanced age mixture with the same number of younger, older, and mid-age children of both genders. This allows the older children in each class the opportunity to assist younger children in their work, and also to act as role models. Ms. Montessori observed that "there is a communication and harmony between the two that one seldom finds between the adult and small child. ... It is hard to believe how deep this atmosphere of protection and admiration becomes in practice."

In the same book, she wrote that "[p]eople sometimes fear that if a child of 5 gives lessons, this will hold him back in his own progress. But, in the first place, he does not teach all the time and his freedom is respected. Secondly, teaching helps him to understand what he knows even better than before. He has to analyze and rearrange his little store of knowledge before he can pass it on. So his sacrifice does not go unrewarded." Both passages appeared in The Absorbent Mind, first published in 1949.

Virginia McHugh
Executive Director
Association Montessori International-United States of America
Rochester, N.Y.

To the Editor:

As a retired elementary school principal and regular reader, I take exception to your statement that "[i]t wasn't until the 1980s, however, that educators began to think about ungraded classes." Shame on you. In the same article, you make reference to Robert Anderson. He co-authored the first book on nongraded schools in 1959.

I worked with teachers in developing a nongraded primary school in 1956. Mr. Anderson worked to get "nongradedness" on the first American Association of School Administrators panel discussion about 1960. So much for Educational History 101.

Richard Gale
Hebron, Conn.

To the Editor:

Today I came across two separate articles on the effects of multiage classrooms, one of them in your May 8, 1996, edition, the other in the April 12, 1996, Atlanta Journal and Constitution. The latter described research done in Georgia showing that multiage classrooms did not improve reading skills. That study, it would appear from the article, was done by a researcher who had set out to prove that multiage classrooms are advantageous and who was herself quite surprised by the results.

After reading this first article, my curiosity was piqued by your article on multiage classrooms. The headline pronounced that "[h]ard data are emerging that support the value of multiage classrooms in primary schools," and the article went on to say that the dissension from parents and teachers against multiage comes "at a time when research is building a stronger case in support of the practice."

Aside from the possibility that you may not be aware of the Georgia study, it is clear from your article that you had a point to make and were going to give short shrift to any contradictory evidence. The evidence that showed no advantage to multiage education in a 12-country study done by Dutch researchers was certainly valid enough to warrant more than its swift dismissal (and no rebuttal) by an American researcher. Most important, you do your readers--many of whom probably do not bother to read the entire article--a great disservice when you choose headlines that do not accurately reflect the facts, or even the article itself.

This poor choice of headlines and nonacademic approach to presenting a controversial topic are all too prevalent in the education arena. I have no ax to grind for or against multiage classrooms. I just want to be accurately informed.

Kate Walsh
Program Officer for Education
The Abell Foundation
Baltimore, Md.

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