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October 1, 1992
Vol. 50
No. 2

A Scenario for Better—Not Separate—Special Education

Modified classifications, educational teaming, and program coordination are just three improvements envisioned for ending disjointedness in special education by the year 2000.

It has been estimated that more than 80 percent of all students could be classified as learning disabled by one or more definitions now in use (Ysseldyke et al. 1983). In fact, 1.97 million children were categorized as learning disabled in the academic year 1988–89, 48 percent of all children identified as handicapped.
These figures are startling when we consider that little reliable information exists to justify students' placement in many special, compensatory, or remedial education programs. Evidence on the effect of alternative programs is ambiguous at best.
Unreliable classifications and growing numbers of students in special education programs are just two of our concerns. We believe that a number of issues in special education require critical consideration, and we have created a scenario for the year 2000 to describe how educators might one day better serve all segments of the student population.

Unreliable Classifications

The placement of students in special education or compensatory programs can be justified only when student classification has validity and when the programs have distinctive qualities and show efficacy (Heller et al. 1982). Unfortunately, we seldom meet such standards.
For example, in a prominent review of efficacy research on the education of children classified as learning disabled, Keogh (1990) found that “based on the evidence to date, generalizations about effectiveness of these interventions for learning disabilities are limited” (p. 130). Similarly, 180 studies of instructional methods for the learning disabled, such as perceptual motor training, showed essentially no effect (Kavale 1987). Another broad review found that “there is an absence of a conclusive body of evidence which confirms that special education services appreciably enhance the academic and/or social accomplishments of handicapped children beyond what can be expected without special education” (Semmel et al. 1979, p. 267).
Many districts operate a learning disability program, a behavior disorders program, a Chapter 1 reading program, a program for educable mentally retarded students, and five other such “special” programs. Teachers are similarly categorized in their preparation, licensing, and employment. The typical state issues eight or nine different kinds of special education teaching certificates or licenses. And the number of students these teachers and programs serve is growing. Between the academic years 1976–77 and 1984–85, the number of U.S. students identified as learning disabled increased 127 percent (Danielson and Bellamy 1988).
What that increase actually reveals is uncertain. Students with identical characteristics may be classified and placed in any one of several special, compensatory, or remedial education programs, depending on the states or school districts in which they reside and on the particular criteria used by school staffs.
The hypothesis of neurological dysfunction is widely proposed as the basis for learning disabilities despite little evidence (Coles 1987). For children who do poorly in school and for their parents and teachers, the learning disabled classification offers an excuse. It lays the blame for failure on a glitch in a person's internal wiring. Such doubtful classifications displace effective diagnosis and remediation of inherently educational problems.
Another highly doubtful practice concerns the large number of children said to have attention deficit disorders. A student with this alleged disorder “often fails to finish things he or she starts; often doesn't seem to listen; has difficulty concentrating on school-work; often acts before thinking; and frequently calls out in class” (“Attention Disorders” 1985). Of course, many children exhibit these behaviors; therefore, they can hardly be regarded as definitive symptoms of pathology. In many cases, “even those who think such behavior is attributable to neurological dysfunctions agree that the syndrome is ill-defined and fails to discriminate between children with the alleged deficits and the merely fidgety” (“Attention Disorders” 1985).
And even if true differences among subgroups of learners could be determined, it is often appropriate to use similar instructional principles and methods to accommodate the variety of student needs (Gerber 1987). In a research review reported in 1986, Brophy concluded that most students with special needs require additional or better instruction, not a different kind.
Current practices in classification and placement take much of the time and energy of administrators and specialized professionals such as school psychologists and social workers. Complicated bureaucratic and legalistic procedures waste additional resources that should be devoted to enhancing student learning. Transportation systems for delivering children to special classrooms also consume resources that could be better used in enriching instruction in regular school programs.

Special Education in the Year 2000

We have considered what special education might be like in the year 2000 if educators improved in several of the areas cited above. These are not predictions; rather, they are descriptions of programs and practices that could better serve students with special needs.
Educational teams. In the year 2000, increasing numbers of special education teachers work directly with teams of teachers in various kinds of regular instructional environments. Regular education programs are far different from the one teacher/one class operations of the past. In general, special education teachers provide instruction to students showing the least progress through small groups or one-on-one teaching as part of the regular class operation. They also help to modify programs for those who learn most rapidly. They carry relatively heavy loads in pupil evaluation programs, reporting to and collaborating with parents, and they manage assistance for children who show special problems.
Effective instructional strategies. Students with special needs in the year 2000 benefit from application of effective educational practices. Few of the practices are new; they represent, in many instances, traditional—and even ancient—wisdom about effective education. Both regular and special needs students benefit from time spent in learning, parental involvement in the learning process, suitability of instruction for learning, and constructive classroom and school climates. Nonetheless, some practices are especially appropriate for children who fall behind their peers. These practices have one or more of the following features: they are based on student achievement needs, materials and procedures allow students to proceed at their own pace, progress is frequently assessed, additional time is available for students who need it, students have increased responsibility for monitoring and guiding their own learning, and students help one another and cooperate in achieving learning goals.
Child study and classification. Twenty-first century studies of children with special needs focus mainly on the necessary modification of instructional programs. Children are not labeled; rather, the programs are labeled. It is common, for example, for selected children in the primary grades to receive extended and intensive reading instruction. Others receive extended instruction in social and friendship skills. Children with poor vision are taught to read by Braille methods. Classification is strictly in terms of instructional needs; therefore, classifications may be relevant for only a brief time.
Monitoring of students. Schools of the future regularly monitor the progress of pupils showing the most and the least progress. What are the characteristics of these students? What programs appear to serve them well, and what might be improved? Students are identified in terms of their progress toward important school goals and objectives and are not labeled or classified in traditional special education style. High-achieving students are identified with similar procedures on the assumption that they too need school programs to permit them to proceed at high rates.
Providing for student diversity. Students formerly thought to be learning disabled progress in regular classrooms thanks to special tutoring through computer hookups at home and school. A reasonably priced home terminal and modem allow each child to be tutored by a sophisticated computer in the afternoons, evenings, and summers. Through the tutoring program, parents, teachers, and students can estimate learning progress in any school subject in less than eight minutes of testing time. The results can trigger automated tutoring in any area of weakness or special interest. While it is possible to do much schoolwork at home, most students prefer to do most of their work in school because they want the companionship of classmates and teachers.
Coordinated teacher preparation. In the year 2000, schools of education at universities have disbanded separate programs for preparation of teachers of learning disabled children. The schools offer teachers an enriched general program of basic literacy skills. University students who prepare for general teaching take courses that expand their resourcefulness as teachers of reading and arithmetic. Most trainees in the program are expected to be employed in regular classroom teaching. Others will join teams as specialized teachers and work to extend and enrich programs for students who need more help than usual in learning to read or to use other basic skills.
School coordination with welfare and health agencies. As was being done in 1992 in Fairfax County, Virginia, schools in the year 2000 coordinate all internal programs that were once considered separately (for example, special education, Chapter 1, and migrant education programs). Schools are linked with the county's Departments of Children Services, Mental Health, and Social Welfare. The school and county agencies have agreed to exchange information and create common service eligibility requirements. Counties place several professional workers at the school site to provide family and mental health services and to coordinate welfare services. County and state officials have granted necessary waivers to facilitate a coherent pattern of services both within the school and in the broader community.
Coordination of government offices and programs. Federal officials heading categorical programs meet regularly in the year 2000 to plan for improved coordination of programs and to consider requests from states for waivers to permit state and local coordination of programs at the school level. This results in more coherent programs in the schools to serve all students, including those whose situation in the schools is —al in various ways. Schools are not penalized in any way for their experimentation with programs. Members of Congress are updated on efforts to better coordinate programs and express readiness to support legislation that would provide for more coherent programs for students with special needs and their families.

Achieving Change

Our scenario emerged from a broad review of research and current practice, but much remains to be investigated, understood, and improved.
Several political and economic obstacles stand in the way of revising child classification systems. Advocacy groups are organized by categories, as are exceptional children and their teachers. Much money is involved, and it is distributed in well-established tracks. Often, the greater the number of students who are classified, the more money and administrative complexity that are brought into a school. It will not be easy to change these operations.
We also find difficulties in the fact that many schools in the past have authorized and implemented one program after another, often on the assumption that each program would have no interaction with other programs. That assumption has proved to be false. This disjointedness has spread to college preparation programs and government offices. In colleges, for example, it is not uncommon to find two—or even three—separate programs for teaching teachers about reading instruction.
One way to seek improvements would be to use a “waiver for performance” strategy (Wang et al. 1988). Selected school districts would be allowed to experiment with enriched regular school programs and in broad noncategorical or cross-categorical programs. In return, the schools would be required to furnish data showing pupils' outcomes. States and the federal government would protect these schools from financial disincentives for trying new approaches. A period of experimentation and evaluation, along with careful deliberations about policy issues, would provide a basis for revising the current system.
Challenges will continue, but it is appropriate to note where gaps in knowledge exist, where services are less than optimal, and where programs are disjointed and inefficient. We can then move on to still better inquiries and program improvements based on what we know works. The true challenge is to continue to improve current practice using the best of what we currently know.

“Attention Disorders Need Better Measures and Theory.” (January 1985). APA Monitor 16, 1: 16.

Brophy, J. B. (1986). “Research Linking Teacher Behavior to Student Achievement: Potential Implications for Instruction of Chapter 1 Students.” In Designs for Compensatory Education: Conference Proceedings and Papers, edited by B. I. Williams, P. A. Richmond, and B. J. Mason. Washington, D.C.: Research and Evaluation Associates

Coles, G. (1987). The Learning Mystique: A Critical Look at “Learning Disabilities.” New York: Pantheon.

Danielson, L. C., and G. T. Bellamy. (1988). State Variation in Placement of Children with Handicaps in Segregated Environments. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services.

Gerber, M. M. (1987). “Application of Cognitive-Behavioral Training Methods to Teaching Basic Skills to Mildly Handicapped Elementary School Students.” In Handbook of Special Education: Research and Practice: Vol. 1. Learner Characteristics and Adaptive Education, edited by M. C. Wang, M. C. Reynolds, and H. J. Walberg. Oxford, England: Pergamon Press.

Heller, K. A., W. H. Holtzman, and S. Messick, eds. (1982). Placing Children in Special Education: A Strategy for Equity. Washington, D.C.: National Academy of Science Press.

Kavale, K. A. (1987). “Introduction: Effectiveness of Differential Programming in Serving Handicapped Students.” In Handbook of Special Education: Research and Practice: Vol. 1. Learner Characteristics and Adaptive Education, edited by M. C. Wang, M. C. Reynolds, and H. J. Walberg. Oxford, England: Pergamon Press.

Keogh, B. K. (1990). “Learning Disability.” In Special Education: Research and Practice: Synthesis of Findings, edited by M. C. Wang, M. C. Reynolds, and H. J. Walberg. Oxford, England: Pergamon Press.

Semmel, M. I., J. Gottlieb, and N. M. Robinson. (1979). “Mainstreaming: Perspectives on Educating Handicapped Children in the Public Schools.” In Review of Research in Education, Vol. 7, edited by D. Berliner. Washington, D.C.: American Educational Research Association.

Wang, M. C., M. C. Reynolds, and H. J. Walberg. (1988). “Integrating the Children of the Second System.” Phi Delta Kappan 70, 3: 248–251.

Ysseldyke, J., M. Thurlow, J. Graden, C. Wesson, S. Deno, and B. Algozzine. (1983). “Generalizations from Five Years of Research on Assessment and Decision Making.” Exceptional Educational Quarterly 4, 1: 75–93.

Margaret C. Wang has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

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