Judge in Landmark Handicapped Case Sees Urgent Need for Skilled Teachers

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Philadelphia--Asserting that "these kids can't wait," the federal judge who presided over a special-education case that influenced the development of the federal handicapped-students law charged last week that educators are failing to provide severely handicapped students with the one thing they most need: specially trained teachers.

U.S. Circuit Court Judge Edward R. Becker said in a speech here that for the past several years he has felt like "Cassandra," the daughter of the king of Troy who was endowed with the gift of prophecy but fated by Apollo never to be believed.

As the judge who supervised the implementation of the precedent-setting Pennsylvania Association for Retarded Children v. The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania (known as parc), Judge Becker said, he has had considerable national influence in the development of programs for the severely handicapped. But despite that influence, the judge added, he has not been able to convince education officials of "one simple fact": For those programs to succeed, teachers must be trained specifically to work with severely handicapped students.

Affirmed Public Responsibility

The parc suit, resulted in 1972 in the first consent decree by a federal court affirming the right of handicapped children to a publicly financed education. The decree, which ordered school officials in the state to provide procedural safeguards for handicapped students and their parents, later served as a model for a number of state laws protecting the rights of handicapped children and the federal statute, P.L. 94-142, the Education for All Handicapped Children Act of 1975.4 Judge Becker was assigned to the case in 1977 as a U.S. District Court judge. He now sits on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit and is no longer directly involved in the parc case.

But when he was invited to address an education conference at Temple University here, he said he took the opportunity, "one last time," to urge the state of Pennsylvania to upgrade certification requirements for special-education teachers and accreditation standards for the state's teacher colleges--a controversial proposal later rejected during the conference by the head of Pennsylvania's special-education department.

'The Middle Ages'

"Under the present system with the present certification procedures," said Judge Becker, "it's possible for someone to be assigned in Pennsylvania in a class teaching the severely and profoundly impaired without the kind of knowledge [needed to teach those students]. And in my opinion that is nothing less than an outrage. And the citizens of Pennsylvania and the special-education community and the severely and profoundly impaired community are entitled to more."

In Pennsylvania, teachers certified in the category "mentally and/or physically handicapped" are authorized to teach everything from classes for the learning-disabled to those for the severely and profoundly impaired. The certification requirements for that category have not changed since 1969, years before severely handicapped students were admitted to public schools as a result of the parc case, according to the judge. It is "the middle ages, as far as special-education is concerned," Judge Becker said.

He also asserted that, with few ex6ceptions, colleges had not changed their curricula to keep up with what he called the "revolution" in special education. According to Judge Becker, most Pennsylvania colleges are still offering an academic curriculum in special education but, he said, a completely different, largely nonacademic set of skills is needed to teach the severely handicapped student.

"This very special population must be taught to dress, to toilet, to eat, to walk, to communicate, to exist independently in the community," said Judge Becker. "To teach these children, teachers must know nonverbal communication techniques; they've got to know positioning and handling; they've got to learn about adaptive equipment--braces and hearing aids; they've got to know emergency procedures and first aid; they've got to learn how to involve parents."

"I have seen all too many programs where all teachers know how to teach these kids is how to put the pegs in the holes," he continued. "That's not teaching them how to live independently."

Inservice Not Enough

Judge Becker said that he noticed the problem of inadequately prepared teachers during implementation proceedings in the parc case, and, as a result, ordered inservice training for special-education teachers in Pennsylvania. But, Judge Becker said, inservice training is "frightfully expensive."

In Philadelphia, for example, it costs the school district $18.58 per teacher for every hour of inservice training, and the training is voluntary, he noted.

"Inservice is not the solution, " said Judge Becker. "It is much easier to train teachers, and it is much less costly to train them, while they are still in college."

While Judge Becker addressed his comments specifically to Pennsylvania, he said the problem exists in other states, too. "This is not just a Pennsylvania problem," he said. "It's a national problem."

Standards Defended

Becker's remarks, however, failed to persuade Gary Makuch, Pennsylvania's special-education director, who was invited to the conference to respond to the judge. Mr. Makuch defended the state's certification and accreditation requirements with a number of arguments:

He said the best education that teachers receive is on-the-job training and the best addition to programs for special-education teachers would be more student teaching rather than instruction in nonverbal communication, positioning and handling, and the other areas Judge Becker had suggested.

The field of education for the severely handicapped is too new to point to any particluar course of study as the correct one, argued Mr. Makuch.

He said that the severely handicapped should not be stereotyped as unable to learn or benefit from an academic curriuclum.

Mr. Makuch asserted that teachers should not be "pigeonholed," into a course of study and certification that is too specific. Special-education teachers often end up teaching more mildly handicapped students after just a few years and are better served by the general offerings at most state teachers' colleges.

"I must say that I'm distressed," Judge Becker responded, "that there are those who, on the basis of the evidence, don't think it's an urgent problem and are just willing to let it languish for two years, three years. These kids can't wait."

Vol. 03, Issue 29

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