'Separate Is Not Equal’

Letter From a Special-Education Parent

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The series of articles and letters appearing in Education Week in the past few months, including a delightful letter from Gerald Coles debunking the attention- deficit-disorder myth (Letters, May 19, 1993), were a feast for starved readers like me. They also offered a welcome opportunity to revisit an important debate that may ultimately define the fate of special education in this country. The outcome of this debate will affect millions of children and has received far too little attention in the media.

The article that sparked this letter was the reply to the Commentary by Margaret C. Wang, Maynard C. Reynolds, and Herbert J. Walberg, "Reform All Categorical Programs" (Commentary, March 24, 1993). In their response, "The Dumbing of Special Education" (Commentary, May 26, 1993), Irwin A. Hyman and Richard Roeder disagreed with Ms. Wang and her co-authors by asserting that special education programs offer "a rich cascade of services ... [that] allow children with disabilities the possibility of functioning in the least restrictive environment." As a former student of Professor Hyman, and graduate of the school psychology program of which he is affiliated, I too once believed in the truth of his statement. I no longer do.

Unlike the writers above, I am not a researcher or an academic (and I am no longer a school psychologist). My role in this debate is as a parent. I am a consumer of the special-education services portrayed in these articles. Not only have I had a taste of my own medicine, in the form of psychological evaluations and placement recommendations, 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, it is as true for parents as it is for their children, that we 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 as a recipient of its services. 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 them 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 collect evidence that these children are learning, or not.

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 life-long limits. These labels are the fallout, if you will, of the medical model defended by Mr. Hyman and Mr. Roeder. 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 The Learning Mystique, the medical model provides a rationale for a system that blames the learner for not learning.

However, blaming the learner 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 likely to be a lifelong sentence. As Mr. Gartner and Ms. Lipsky learned, 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 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 education.

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, I ask your readers, would such reform look like if it were put in the hands of the recipients of special-education services, people such as myself and other parents?

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 nonpathological 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 John Goodlad's portrayal of the stifling atmosphere of today's classrooms, in his superb book, A Place Called School. 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.

Secondly, we would stop separating children who need appropriate instruction from other children. Since, as Gerald Coles informs us in his well considered and thoroughly researched book, 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, they are of little value in terms of any intervention. How can they be? They lack scientific validity and are so imprecise, 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, or not, 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, those that are worth the investment of time and money, would be funded. Those that do not, would go away.

By attributing Ms. Wang's call for changes in special education to a conservative political agenda, Mr. Hyman and Mr. Roeder misjudge and misinform about the real origin for reform. The energy for change is coming from parents, children, and educators who have come to realize that classification in special education, via the medical model, translate into second-class citizenship.

Entry into the world of special education is no ticket to a better education. I will spare the reader a recounting of the remarkable indignities that special-education parents and children endure as they learn the ropes in the real world of special education. However, I invite the reader, as well as Professor Hyman and his student, Richard Roeder, to acquaint themselves with this world by reading a book called The Magic Feather, by Lori and Bill Granger. This is a deeply moving book that reveals special education and its "cascade of services" as an Orwellian ordeal.

The move toward full inclusion, the regular-education initiative, whatever it is called, has its roots not in some hidden political agenda of either wing of our political spectrum. It springs from the civil-rights movement, with its familiar refrain--separate is not equal. This is not, as Mr. Hyman and Mr. Roeder would have us believe, a move backwards. It is a step forward toward full citizenship, with all the dignity and all the rights that such membership implies.

Vol. 12, Issue 39, Pages 38, 40

Published in Print: June 23, 1993, as 'Separate Is Not Equal’
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