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Why Chapter 1 Failed: Using Specialists as Teachers' Aides

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The shortcomings of this system have been ignored for decades, and we can assume that some agenda other than achievement has driven the expenditure of funds.

Why should anyone be surprised that Chapter 1 failed to close the learning gap? ("Chapter 1 Aid Failed To Close Learning Gap," April 2, 1997.) In more than 25 years of experience in working with children with special needs in public schools, I have rarely observed a Chapter 1/Title I program that was designed to close the learning gap. Instead, highly trained remedial specialists have generally been used as pricey teachers' aides in regular classes, with the goal of assisting students in completing daily assignments. The wasted opportunity in this common approach is like using surgeons as hospital orderlies. I have hoped over these years that my observations were the exception, but, alas, as I talk with others about the use of Title I teaching resources, I find more and more that the remedial teacher is hardly ever allowed to develop and teach with the objective of seeing that these needy children catch up with their peers. Administrators seem to have been happy to live with the illusion that assistance comes from just having another body in the regular classroom and that completing regular curriculum assignments will miraculously lead to progress. The obvious shortcomings of this system have been ignored for decades, and we can assume that some agenda other than achievement has driven the expenditure of these funds.

Now, the same ineffectual misuse of professional expertise in the regular classroom is infecting special education as well, in the guise of inclusion. The marriage of regular education and special-needs education (including Title I) is desirable and workable under conditions of clear role definition. But a re-examination of the contrasting goals of these regular and special-needs programs in relation to achievement is in order; there must be some way to make this marriage work.

A common goal of the regular classroom teacher is to finish the lesson and move on to the next lesson. The assumption is that skill is developed by completing tasks. Assistance for a particular child means getting through the material, completing the story, worksheet, or quiz by asking questions that lead to a right answer, or calling attention to items that need correction and monitoring to see that completion takes place. In this task-completion mode, an illusion of mastery is present that can disguise the fact that the student may be three years or more behind peers in particular skills--and yet the task is completed. The regular-classroom lesson may have little to do with "closing the gap," and in many instances can even be considered a displacement of time that would be better spent on the next developmental step in the sequence to mastery for this particular child.

If the regular-classroom lesson is on science or some content other than the basic skills of reading, writing, or arithmetic, the student should participate in the oral presentation and activities related to the lesson in order to receive the content. But closing the basic-skills gap is not the intent of the lesson; the intent is to move forward in content. Students are assumed to be "able" learners, able to follow directions and to self-instruct with occasional monitoring by the teacher. Slower students are often "un-able" to self-direct and are in need of direct instruction in specific skills.

The catch-up goal of the intervention specialist is to determine the baseline function of the student, identify error patterns, create individualized curricula that meet the specific needs of the student, provide direct instruction to skill mastery according to the learning characteristics of that student, monitor progress in the individualized curriculum, and assure continuous progress. Obviously, this individual curriculum may be several years behind that of the student's classroom peers. These basic skills should be taught at the level of the individual student's proficiency, with attention to preparation for the next step in the child's curriculum, not the regular classroom curriculum. With students who are unable to self-instruct or self-direct, the teacher must actually conduct a lesson on the content.

It is time to let Title I and other specially trained teachers do what they are passionately dedicated and trained to do.

When clearly defined in this way, the goal of the special teacher is to produce gains which proceed at rates far faster than those of students in regular education. If students learn at a rate of 150 percent that of their peers, for example, a child one year behind will catch up in two years; if he or she is two years behind, four years will be required to catch up. These special lessons are an investment in proficiency that should be expected to show results.

The student who is behind has two curricula, a regular education keep-up program and an individualized catch-up program. This situation is not an either/or condition; the student must have both curricula in order to have a complete program, and he or she must experience continuous and substantial progress in both before the school can claim success. Clearly, the goals of the regular classroom teacher and the special-needs teacher differ, and these differences are to be expected and celebrated on behalf of the individual student.

If legislators and administrators want effective intervention for the many students who are in need, there is no substitute for knowing the systems that operate in the schools:

  • The funding system is the first place to look for improvements. One of the most disturbing events I have ever read about regarding the ethics of educators was the report during the Chapter 1 legislative hearings three years ago that the legislation was being held hostage by rich districts requiring that some of the money flow to them even though relatively few of their students would qualify for Chapter 1 programs. This corrupt mentality should be profoundly offensive to us all. We would not tolerate it from other segments of society, so why should we tolerate it with public school officials? We expect competition for funding of schools, but the Title I funds should flow only to the most needy districts, period. Only legislators can clean up the currently compromised system of funding these programs. Just saying "we need money" is not a reason to rob poor children.
  • Another systemic problem is in the measurement and reporting of results. A special, bastardized, and incomprehensible statistical measure called the "normal curve equivalent," or NCE, is required for Title I reporting. The scores reported using the NCE use a scale unlike anything else in education or psychology, resulting in data that require special translation manipulations for even the simplest interpretations. The NCE appears to be a totally unnecessary obfuscation. Measures should be clear and meaningful to teachers, parents, and administrators.
  • Title I curriculum must be different from the regular classroom curriculum, and students must be individually assessed and monitored for continuous progress. Title I instruction time dedicated to catching up to peers must be allocated. Time for adequate individual assessment must also be provided in order to meet individual needs through identifying specific problems and supplying specific remediation.
  • When monitoring the effectiveness of programs, the effects for students above and below the 85 percent attendance level should be measured separately. Some schools or districts have extreme mobility problems, with up to half of the student body moving every year. Evaluation and curriculum folders should follow these students, some of whom move more than once during the year. Students with high mobility require a special system of monitoring and follow-up in order to assure some impact on achievement. School officials say it takes two years' attendance in a school before a student feels at home in the building. Always feeling like a newcomer disengages the student from efficient learning, so special approaches to making the student feel at home are needed.
  • With limited time and resources, we have time and energy for only the most effective approaches as demonstrated by research. The selection of effective curriculum and instruction must be based on either local demonstration of equivalence or superiority in comparison with comparably available curricula and/or published research. It is possible to combine effective approaches in order to compound positive effects. Research is clear on what produces results, and teachers have wonderfully effective tools to produce those results.

The question is, why are these tools not used? Some curricula and approaches are far superior to others, yet some dysfunctional and downright harmful programs continue to be employed because a teacher does not focus on results. A systematic review of program effectiveness and a systematic catalog of effective programs available would assist teachers in choosing success-oriented resources, even if this were provided only on a regional level.

  • When it is obvious that a student is not progressing within a few weeks of receiving this individualized curriculum and instruction, a referral to special education is in order so that more direct service can be provided. If a child has a learning disability, everyone is better off knowing about it sooner rather than later. More detailed and comprehensive evaluation and diagnosis should lead to an even more individualized approach and resulting progress.

If Title I is to focus on closing the learning gap, that goal must be systematically addressed at all levels by legislators, administrators, teachers, and parents. Catching up has been effectively demonstrated, but catching up is a different goal from the agenda of keeping up with the regular class.

It is time to let Title I and other specially trained teachers do what they are passionately dedicated and trained to do. Rather than continuing to use these teachers as terribly expensive teachers' aides, it is time create a system in which the power of their preparation and heroic dedication is allowed to produce students thriving on success.


Lyelle L. Palmer is a professor of special education at Winona State University in Winona, Minn., and the director of its office of accelerated learning. He is a member of the advisory board at Minneapolis' New Visions Charter School.

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