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Mainstreaming The Debate Goes On

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Although Olivia Norman's experience clearly illustrates the advantages of mainstreaming, the debate over where to educate special-needs children is anything but settled.

In fact, the controversy is nearly as old as the field of special education itself. Even the 14-yearold Education For All Handicapped Children Act--the landmark federal law that entitled disabled children to a public education--is purposely vague on the subject. The law stipulates only that schools must provide handicapped students with a "free, appropriate'' education in the "least restrictive'' educational environment. The interpretation of that language is left to state and local school officials.

In general, educators and policymakers have sought to comply with the law by creating special education programs for specialneeds students. Most handicapped children attend regular schools but are removed from their classrooms during the day for intensive instruction and assistance in a special education "resource room.''

But a growing number of educators condemn this practice, particularly for students who are mildly handicapped. The majority of them are proponents of what has come to be known as the Regular Education Initiative. These educators argue that the practice of pulling children out of the regular classroom for even part of the school day stigmatizes students and, more often than not, fails to improve their academic performance. They point to dropout rates among these students as high as 70 percent in some states. Supporters of REI say the regular classroom should be restructured so that mildly handicapped children could be taught alongside their nonhandicapped peers.

They also claim that many students are mistakenly classified as "learning disabled'' and placed in special education programs because of behavior problems or learning difficulties. About 15,000 students are referred for testing and evaluation each week. And studies have shown that if all of the nation's schoolchildren were subjected to some of the same evaluations and methods of classification, as many as 80 percent could be categorized as learning disabled.

For REI advocates, Olivia's experience approaches the ideal:

  • A handicapped child is placed in a regular classroom right from the start;
  • The regular classroom teacher works closely with special educators in the regular classroom to provide special services;
  • The regular and special education teachers consult closely over the proper teaching strategy for the handicapped child.

REI proponents acknowledge that careful planning and adequate support are essential if handicapped students are to make the transition to regular education successfully. A district may need to provide special training to help the regular classroom teacher meet the needs of students with a wide range of abilities. Team-teaching approaches might have to be incorporated. The "mainstream'' teacher and the special educator may need time to meet and discuss a child's educational needs, and to work individually with that child.

When the transition happens too haphazardly, or a district fails to provide the money or the properly trained personnel to make the program work, the result may be a world away from the philosophical ideal.

Educators in Washington State discovered this when it became one of a handful of states to first embrace the initiative. In 1984, Washington launched five pilot programs under the banner of the regular education philosophy. For the most part, those programs were successful, according to teachers familiar with them. A final report on the projects found that nearly 67 percent of the classroom teachers and 88 percent of the special educators who participated said the new model was actually better for helping mildly handicapped students and children with learning problems.

The problems arose when some school administrators decided to employ the REI approach without the care and planning used in the pilot projects. Patricia Steinberg, a speech therapist who has observed more than 20 such projects in the state for the Washington Education Association, says that many administrators saw the concept as a way to save money or at least "get by with what they had.'' They used the initiative as an excuse to move most of their handicapped students into the regular classroom, regardless of the severity of their handicap. And the result of some of those efforts taking place outside of the state's purview, was, in her words, "a travesty.''

In one Seattle suburb, large numbers of handicapped high school students were put in regular classrooms. Frieda Takamura, an English teacher at the school, says the result was frustration for both teachers and students.

The problem, according to Takamura, was that the "mainstream'' teachers had no input into the process and received no special training to prepare them for their new students. Moreover, school administrators made no attempt to decrease the size of the regular classes to compensate for the presence of the handicapped students.

As a result, many of the students, frustrated at their inability to keep up with the nonhandicapped students, began to misbehave in class. Others stopped coming or failed academically.

"It was the kids who ended up suffering,'' she says. "If what you end up with is a class of 30, and you have five or six special education kids, then you're just not going to be able to reach those kids at all.''

She adds, "I believe in the philosophy of mainstreaming, but, if the support is not there, you can just screw the philosophy.''

In other school districts, Steinberg says, special education "resource rooms'' were simply shut down. Special education students in one district were given only 20 minutes a day of special help in "study skills,'' regardless of their handicap. And special educators struggled to keep up with a widely dispersed case load of students.

"If you are a special education teacher and you have a pull-out program and you have 50 students come to you in groups, that's not unusual,'' says Steinberg. "You schedule it in such a way that you have a decent-sized group each period.

"But, if you switch to inclassroom teaching, it's impossible to hit 50 students scattered in all different directions,'' she says. "Some teachers were concerned because students were being missed.''

Despite such problems--and the criticism they fueled--the regular education initiative picked up momentum in 1986 when Madeline Will, then assistant secretary in charge of the U.S. Education Department's office of special education and rehabilitative services, convened a task force on REI. The panel issued a ``white paper'' urging states and school districts to adopt the REI approach. The paper launched a spate of state and federal funding programs for schools that experimented with it.

As the movement gained national prominence, its critics' became more vocal. At its worst, they feared, the REI movement could lead to a dismantling of the nation's special education system.

One such critic is Michael Gerber, who heads a special education program at the University of California at Santa Barbara. Gerber puts his criticism of the movement this way: ``While the regular education initiative appears to be reaching for the greater good, in reality it leads to the same slippery slope always threatening to upend public resolve for helping the handicapped.''

Gerber claims that regular classroom teachers are ``conspicuously absent'' from the roster of REI supporters. The reason: ``Children we choose to call handicapped are very difficult to teach successfully. To achieve at a level comparable to that of their peers, they require much more intensive instruction....rarely possible in a regular classroom.''

Some experts, concerned that the debate over REI is generating more heat than light, contend that the real issue is not whether all handicapped students should be integrated or whether they should be totally segregated. School districts, they insist, should work to make available a full continuum of services to every child with special needs. That might mean complete mainstreaming into regular classrooms for a child who is mildly learning disabled, or a separate school for the child who is suddenly blinded and must learn special skills before returning to the mainstream. The choice would depend on the needs of the individual child.

"Somewhere in the federal law, it says that a child's program has to be individualized, and I think we need to keep that in mind,'' says Susan Black, an audiologist who has worked in both special education classrooms and regular classrooms in Pennsylvania. ``And sometimes I think we've got to balance opportunities to be in a regular setting with a student's right to develop to his fullest potential."--D.V.

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