Philadelphia To Study Classification of Learning-Disabled Pupils

By Vernon Loeb — April 25, 1984 6 min read

Philadelphia--Well into her second year in office, Superintendent of Schools Constance E. Clayton has announced that she is ready to take on the task of reforming the city’s special-education program, a vast administrative maze that few school officials here claim to fully understand.

The Philadelphia School District now spends close to $100 million a year on instruction for more than 27,000 special-education students in full-day and part-time classes, more than the total number of students in any other school district in Pennsylvania except Pittsburgh.

And Ms. Clayton is the first to admit that she does not know whether that money is being well spent serving a special population that has steadily grown in recent years while the district’s overall enrollment has steadily declined.

But by far the largest source of concern is an explosion in the district’s number of learning-disabled students over the past seven years. In 1977-78, the system had 1,113 learning-disabled students enrolled in full-time classes; now it has 6,640, a 496% increase, and that total does not include another 5,402 learning-disabled students enrolled in part-time programs.

‘Questionable’ Increases

Ms. Clayton said in a recent interview that such rapid increases in the number of children being identified as learning-dis-abled were “questionable.” And there is a growing sense among school officials and special-education advocates outside the system that a significant number of Philadelphia schoolchildren have been improperly identified as learning-disabled for a variety of reasons and placed in costly programs for the handicapped.

“I want to be very sure that children are not being placed in learning-disabled classes simply because they ‘act out,”’ Ms. Clayton said. “And I don’t want children la-beled as learning-disabled for the rest of their lives.”

Among the questions that need to be answered as part of Ms. Clayton’s special-education investigation, according to the officials and advocates, are:

Why there has been a 496-percent increase in the district’s learning-disabled population over the past seven years while the number of children identified as “educably mentally retarded” has decreased by 70 percent over the same period, from 4,488 in 1977-78 to the current 2,650.

Why so many children have been entering classes for the learning-disabled while very few have been leaving those rooms and returning to the mainstream after periods of instruction long enough to effectively deal with their disabilities.

Whether the increase in the learning-disabled population is related to a 60-percent reduction the district made for financial reasons five years ago in its alternative programs, many of which were designed to provide a different setting in the regular education program for students who were not succeeding in traditional classrooms.

Identification and Services

The district--the nation’s fifth largest, with more than 201,000 students--is required by state and federal law, in addition to two federal-court decrees, to identify and evaluate all handicapped children; to design individualized education programs for them; and to re-evaluate each child and revise the education program if necessary every two years.

There are 14 different classifications of handicapped children that must be provided with special-education instruction, from severely and profoundly retarded, to learning-disabled, which is by far the largest category.

Some learning disabilities, like dyslexia, have identifiable symptoms, such as the transposition of letters and figures. Others, however, may surface only in a student’s inability to learn to read.

The process that must be followed to educate the handicapped is both elaborate and expensive--it cost the district an average of $5,092 a year to educate each full-time special-education student, more than twice the $2,300 per-pupil cost for regular students.

And the administrative machinery created from the ground up in less than a decade to provide that education has been highly problematic.

In recent years alone, the district has found itself in federal court and before state special-education officials for failing to provide the speech, hearing, and physical therapy called for in students’ individual education programs; for failing to promptly evaluate and re-evaluate thousands of handicapped students; and for failing to open adequate numbers of classrooms for the learning-disabled.

Indeed, at least some of the substantial growth in the enrollment of learning-disabled children in full-day classes has resulted from the opening of additional classrooms for learning-disabled students awaiting services--not from an actual increase in the number of students.

But as one district official put it, the number should not have grown as much as it has--"unless there’s something in our drinking water.’'

Special Help

Few in Philadelphia dispute that the district’s 12,042 students in full-day and part-time classes for the learning-disabled are in special need of help.

The question, Ms. Clayton said, is whether labeling--and possibly stigmatizing--many of them as learning-disabled “is the best way to help the child.” In other words, Ms. Clayton said, she does not think classrooms for the learning-disabled should necessarily be used as alternatives for children just because they are not succeeding in regular classrooms.

Under state law, learning-disabled students are defined as those who are not retarded, emotionally disturbed, or physically handicapped, but still have “a deficiency in the acquisition of basic learning skills.”

And in that phrase lies one possible explanation for why the district’s learning-disabled population has grown so dramatically. When Associate Superintendent Bernard F. Rafferty first read the state’s definition of a learning-disabled child in the mid-1970’s, he recalled in a recent interview, “it looked like half the city could fall into that category.”

From Two Directions

And the growth in the learning-disabled enrollment, according to school officials and special-education advocates, comes from above and below.

From above, they say, students without real learning disabilities are being classified as learning-disabled because they are not performing adequately in regular class-rooms. And from below, they add, students who really should be classified as “educably mentally retarded” are being identified as learning-disabled because their parents in many cases find that category much easier to accept.

That preference on the part of parents could well explain why increases in the district’s learning-disabled population have been mirrored by decreases in the educably-mentally-retarded enrollment.

When a child is on the borderline between the two classifications, according to one school official, the members of the Child Study Evaluation Team (cset) will often give the child the benefit of the doubt. “For the matter of five iq points, they make that child ld [learning-disabled],” the official said. “They want to be nice. Nobody wants to tell that mother that a child is retarded.”

At the same time, officials say, there is also the tendency on the part of cset members to try to do something to help an otherwise normal child who is not succeeding in school. “The members of the cset are human beings, too,” said one special-education advocate. “A kid is not making it in the regular class--and they aren’t going to just send them back there.”

This desire to help, the advocate said, is often coupled by a lack of knowledge on the part of cset members about alternatives in the regular education program that do exist for problem students. And even if cset members are aware of alternatives in regular education, the number of such programs has been significantly reduced over the past five years.

“You really do get over-identification,” the advocate said. “I have no statistics on it, but I would think that when teachers know there are alternatives, they become much more discriminating about whom they recommend for special education.”

A version of this article appeared in the April 25, 1984 edition of Education Week as Philadelphia To Study Classification of Learning-Disabled Pupils