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Special Education Audience Wants Changes

Though vast and important improvements in special education have been made since Congress passed the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act 25 years ago, nagging problems still exist and need to be addressed, according to the more than 100 policymakers, researchers, lawyers, and administrators who attended a conference here last week.

Preliminary drafts of 18 papers were presented during the Nov. 13-14 conference, which was co-sponsored by the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation and the Progressive Policy Institute, research organizations that are both based in Washington. Among the papers were profiles of school-based special education programs and studies of the ways in which special education services fit into different school improvement models.

"There's been very little looking at how this [law] is really working," said Chester E. Finn Jr., the president of the Fordham Foundation and a former assistant secretary of education under President Reagan.

Fordham plans to publish final versions of the papers next year, in time for members of Congress to consider the issues raised in them before beginning the process of reauthorizing the IDEA.

As the percentage of children in the "specific learning disabilities" classification has dramatically increased over the past quarter-century, according to the Department of Education, problems have arisen in the way that children are identified as needing special education services.

Sheldon Berman, the superintendent of the 2,600-student Hudson, Mass., district, told conference participants that parents in his state were advocating so aggressively for their children to get special services that students were being misidentified as needing special education, thus raising the percentages of special education children. Massachusetts is among the states with the highest proportions of students in special education.

But others questioned the reasons behind the percentage increase nationally. One participant pointed out that eligibility requirements differ from state to state.

G. Reid Lyon

And G. Reid Lyon, the chief of the child-development and behavior branch of the National Institutes of Health, maintained that the increase can be attributed to poor teaching in general education classrooms.

"We are talking about special education without talking about the deficiencies in regular education that give rise to those conditions in the first place," he said.

Mr. Lyon contends, in a paper he wrote for the conference, that the learning-disabilities classification is invalid because a vast majority of the children so designated have conditions that can be prevented with effective teaching strategies.

Participants here also discussed the ways in which charter school administrators accommodate special education students.

Michael Rodi, an analyst for the American Institutes of Research, a Washington research group, noted in a paper that the quality of special education in charter schools varies, just as the quality of general education varies from school to school.

"Some are creative, energetic, and successful," he said of charter schools. Others, meanwhile, are overburdened by the regulations and paperwork that go into administering the services, he added.

Charter school administrators, who are freed from many of the requirements with which regular public schools must comply, told Mr. Rodi that the rules and regulations for special education had hampered their efforts to institute innovative curricula.

Administrators at charter schools designed to prepare students for college found it difficult to include severely mentally handicapped students in the general education curriculum, the researcher found."They felt they could not apply the same model," said Mr. Rodi, who recommended that charter schools be given more direct funding and freedom from some special education regulations.

—Michelle Galley

Vol. 20, Issue 12, Page 6

Published in Print: November 22, 2000, as Reporter's Notebook
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