An important debate currently is under way that may ultimately define the fate of special education in this country. Although once a school psychologist, I come to this debate today as a parent; I am a consumer of special education services. Not only have I had a taste of my own medicine, in the form of psychological evaluations and placement recommendations, but I have also had the chance to experience what happens in special education after the “diagnosis” is made. It is from this viewpoint that I would like to address the question: Should special education be “reformed”?
I cannot speak for all parents, for we—like our children—are a diverse lot. Special education means entirely different things to different parents. Parents of a blind child, for example, have a very different idea about special education than parents whose child is experiencing school learning problems. The special education I am talking about is the one that addresses the educational needs of the so-called learning-disabled child. This special education represents half of all special education programs in this nation, involves millions of children, and absorbs billions of tax dollars.
Since I have actually experienced the reality of special education, I don’t need an array of research studies to understand what is wrong with special education or what to do about it. However, for anyone who needs such a grounding, I refer him or her to a seminal article that eloquently describes the failures of special education as I and other parents have experienced them. “Beyond Special Education: Toward a Quality System for All Students” appeared more than half a decade ago in the Harvard Education Review (Vol. 57, No. 4, November 1987). Among the many telling points made by the authors of this article, Alan Gartner and Dorothy Kerzner Lipsky, is the simple fact that the billions of dollars spent annually on special education are not tied to learning outcomes. Indeed, as the authors learned, most agencies (federal, state, and local) do not collect such data. The logic of this reality is as obvious as it is pervasive. Expectations for special education students are so low that no one bothers to find out whether these children are learning.
The reason expectations are low is that the price of admission into these special education programs is acceptance of a demeaning label that communicates low social value and lifelong limits. These labels are the fallout of the “medical model,” which emphasizes pathological causes for learning problems. For me, the medical model is really a metaphor that explains the political reality of our schools—namely that those with the least power are the ones first blamed when the system doesn’t work. As Gerald Coles explains in his book The Learning Mystique, the medical model provides a rationale for a system that blames the learner for not learning.
Blaming the learner, however, is not a serendipitous process. It is a carefully honed procedure, with striking similarities to an actual trial. The student is accused and is brought, in absentia, before a panel of judges. The mechanism for this process is called the Individual Education Plan. In this setting, the parents, as friends of the accused, face as many as half a dozen professional educators. The key expert on this panel is the school psychologist, who, armed with results from a battery of tests (of questionable validity), issues the sentence, on which there is usually unanimous agreement. The reason there is unanimity is that the outcome of these trials is almost always preordained. The sentence is removal from regular education, and it is most likely to be lifelong. Few children return from special education.
Yet, among knowledgeable scientists, it is commonly agreed that special education programs for children identified as “learning disabled” are based on bogus assumptions about mysterious things gone wrong inside a child’s head. Proof that there is something wrong with children who don’t learn is elusive at best—essentially, nonexistent. Still, professional educators, aided by psychologists, continue to pursue this line of logic, despite decades of fruitless efforts to substantiate their assumptions. I have come to suspect an unholy alliance between educators and psychologists, in which psychologists provide a welcome and convenient excuse for failures in the education system.
Without question, reform of special education is overdue. But who will do the reforming? Do special educators have what it takes to overhaul the system? Hardly. It is unlikely that they will disassemble their billion-dollar enterprise. Real reform, if it takes place at all, will flow from the bottom up. What would such reform look like if it were put in the hands of the families who receive special education services?
We would begin the process of reform with some simple questions: Why is special education necessary? What causes special education? In answering these questions, we would focus attention on non-pathological differences in children (learning styles, for example), the curriculum, and how it is delivered. We might end up agreeing that special education is a symptom not of invisible forces inside a child’s head but of something entirely visible: the absence of appropriate instruction. Anyone who wants to explore this fertile area is encouraged to read A Place Called School, John Goodlad’s superb portrayal of the stifling atmosphere of today’s classrooms. Whatever the cause, in our hands, the search for the answer to these questions would never result in the separate educational system that exists today.
Second, we would stop separating children who need appropriate instruction from others. Since the only effective intervention for such children seems to be what we would call “good teaching,” we would have this intervention take place in the regular classroom.
Third, we would eliminate the labeling of children. Like bullets shot from a carelessly aimed gun in a drive-by shooting, these labels strike and injure their victims by irrevocably removing, with a single word or two, their right to be considered normal. This thoughtless and disgraceful practice is a cruel and indefensible exercise that serves only the needs of the professionals who invent the labels. Not only are these labels pejorative, but they also are of little value in terms of any intervention. How can they be? They lack scientific validity and are so imprecise that their application borders on whimsy.
Sadly, many parents confuse these labels with a solution for the failures associated with school learning. They accept and even welcome the label as the remedy for poorly understood problems. For these children and parents, the label provides a kind of long-awaited refuge from the frustrations of the classroom. They innocently accept their stigma and may even wear it as a badge of honor, as a way of salvaging some small residual of dignity. This process has reached the pinnacle of absurdity with the campaign to glorify learning disabilities by linking them to famous figures, such as Albert Einstein.
Finally, we would introduce the “A” word into special education; we would require accountability. We would put special education through what many American businesses have experienced over the past decade, which has been to survive by meeting their customers’ needs. What would this look like? It is not complicated. We would tie funding to results. Special education programs that get results, that are worth the investment of time and money, would be funded. Those that do not would go away.
Some believe the call for change in special education is part of the conservative political agenda, but they are misinformed about the real origin of reform. The energy is coming from parents, children, and educators who have come to realize that special education translates into second-class citizenship.
I will spare the reader a recounting of the many indignities that parents and their children must endure in the real world of special education. However, I invite readers to acquaint themselves with this world by reading Lori and Bill Granger’s The Magic Feather, a deeply moving book that reveals special education and its labyrinth of services as an Orwellian ordeal.
The move toward full inclusion has its roots not in some hidden agenda of either wing of our political spectrum. Rather, it springs from the civil rights movement, with its familiar refrain: separate is not equal. This is not a move backward, as some would have us believe. It is a step forward toward full citizenship, with all the dignity and all the rights that such membership implies.
A version of this article appeared in the October 31, 1984 edition of Education Week as Not So Special