Education Opinion

The Promise of Restructuring For Special Ed.

By Randy Schenkat — November 16, 1988 7 min read

The movement to reform schools by “restructuring” them provides a context for examining why, after two years of debate, the U.S. Education Department’s ''regular-education initiative” has done little to change the placement and type of schooling provided for the majority of handicapped children.

According to the initiative, set forth in a departmental “white paper” in November 1986, children with special needs could be best served if regular-classroom teachers worked with special educators to learn strategies for teaching both handicapped and nonhandicapped students.

The sheer expense of special education-amounting to some $20 billion to $25 billion annually on a national scale as well as its cumbersome regulations would seem sufficient inducements for local educators to embrace the regular-education initiative. But thus far the attention it has garnered has been limited, for the most part, to discussions among special-education professionals--discussions generally centered on why the proposals cannot work.

Most regular educators and policymakers share with the public in general a view of special education that locates learning handicaps within the child. The very regulations governing special education call in most states for determining the handicap before placing the child in special classes.

But a careful study of the largest group of special-education students-children labeled “mildly handicapped” in reading-shows that such an approach amounts to little more than an elaborately euphemistic means of addressing shortcomings in the regular-education system.

Perhaps by reframing special-education issues within the broader context of restructuring, schools can begin to better meet the needs of children with learning difficulties. In my view, four factors have hindered the progress of special- education reforms:

• There is a powerful mystique surrounding special education that inhibits the involvement ofregular educators. As a former state director of special education recently noted, since 1957, special educators have been telling classroom teachers about the “uniqueness” of their students. They cannot now expect the teachers to drop that point of view.

• There are no financial incentives for schools to reduce their dependence on special education, as the experience of Seattle’s Montlake Elementary School demonstrates. (See Education Week, April 13, 1988.) Schools moving in that direction face instead a reduction of funding for special services in their building.

• Most special-education advocates do not trust the regular- education system-which in their estimation failed handicapped students in the first place-to serve these children competently.

Only with carefully documented accountability would they accept the kinds of changes recommended in the initiative. But most schools have struggled with accountability for students’ outcomes.

• Few educators know the issues.

Comparing the current practice in some specific content areas with possible alternative approaches offers a glimpse of how special education might be restructured.

Although the public imagines “handicapped” children to be crippled, deaf, blind, or retarded, for example, 85 percent of these youngsters are classified as only “mildly handicapped.” Programs for such students generally make up 50 to 70 percent of a district’s budget for special-education services.

And roughly 80 percent of the individual educational plans for these mildly handicapped students set objectives in the language-arts areas: In terms of both instructional time and sheer numbers, mildly handicapped students with reading or language problems make up by far the largest layer of special education.

Combining current research on reading instruction with school restructuring might offer hope for improving the learning of these hard-to-teach students.

One of the first requirements in learning to read is gaining fluency-the ability to decode words quickly and accurately. Yet research shows that many of the commercially successful whole-word basal readers give abstract and inconsistent references and lack sound pedagogical technique. Studies also suggest that teachers religiously follow the basal reading programs.

Thus, when most low achievers first begin reading in the regular classroom, they are receiving this poorly designed instruction. With insufficient modeling and feedback, the reading instruction they receive is inferior to what is offered stronger students.

Rarely, for example, do teachers actually teach or model reading comprehension. Yet research indicates that this type of instruction is precisely what “handicapped” students need.

The state of the testing that drives most commercial reading programs is also deplorable. As the results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress suggest, standardized testing programs expect little from students-and that is what they deliver.

For example, rather than have students process long texts and construct summaries, most tests use short passages from which students are only required to answer multiple-choice questions. Such low standards allow many nonhandicapped children to pass with hardly any intensive instruction.

Schools are also failing to provide enough time on reading for low-achieving students. Practice improves reading ability; yet children with weak skills typically read less than five minutes per day.

Schools’ dependence on commercial reading programs stems at least in part from the rigidity of the academic workday, which does not allow teachers time to become thinkers or problem solvers.

If working conditions were restructured to permit greater flexibility in scheduling, teachers in a given school could find time to work collaboratively toward solving the learning problems of the “mildly handicapped” youngsters. And with smaller classes, they could devote more attention to individual students.

Reliance on faulty textbooks-and ineffective teaching also results partly from weaknesses in teacher preparation. Many teachers do not “know” their subject areas according to the terms elaborated by the Stanford University professor Lee Shulman: They have not mastered a content-specific pedagogy. Staff-development procedures must be revised to strengthen teaching methods.

Rather than focusing on such physical pathologies as dyslexia, minimal brain damage, hyperactivity, and neurological impairment among poor readers, schools should examine closely these pedagogical and structural pathologies. A new emphasis on improving instruction could pay huge dividends in reducing the dependence on special education.

Educators might begin to champion the regular-education initiative and more general school restructuring in the following ways:

• To overcome 30 years of teacher conditioning on the uniqueness of special education, the major professional associations must advance a vision that holds that regular education can accommodate the needs of many special-education students.

• State education policymakers working toward school improvement and consultants for mildly handicapped students must recognize the common goal of their missions. Together, they should promote school-site restructuring under the initiative’s premise of flexibility.

Given that 93 percent of special-education costs are paid by states and districts, state and local boards need to develop, as incentives for further restructuring and improvement, plans that enable schools to recapture the special-education dollars they may save through such improvements.

• As they encourage innovation, policymakers must understand that it may take several years to realize the improvements possible through restructuring. Together with educators, they must move beyond the one-year, quick-fix grant mentality.

At the same time, however, plans for the future can take advantage of the reduced need for a costly special-education infrastructure. When no longer needed in special-resource rooms, for example, special-education teachers can transfer their talents to regular classrooms.

• Restructuring proposals sponsored jointly by regular and special educators may be needed to guarantee that schools continue to receive the dollars currently appropriated for special education. Reports increasingly point to disarray within the field, signaled in such statistics as a 50 percent graduation rate for special-education students after costly remediation and in the gross disparities among systems of referral and placement. This questionable performance could place special-education funding in jeopardy.

Not only the needs of mildly handicapped learners but also those of other special-education populations must be re-evaluated. Evidence emerging from such programs as Vermont’s Homecoming Model suggests that thoughtful, problem-solving approaches can promote unified systems including even the most challenging of special-education students.

The movement to restructure America’s schools could provide the resources to make effective education for all children a reality.

A version of this article appeared in the November 16, 1988 edition of Education Week