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December 1, 1994
Vol. 52
No. 4

Serving Students at the —s

Students at the margins may be at risk, learning disabled, low-achieving, or gifted and talented. By dispensing with labels and other traditional approaches, we can help them all.

The way to get a story together is not to head first and directly to the center of it, but to start somewhere at the edges or —s. So says journalist James Reston in his memoirs (1991). That may be the way to understand schools, too—to look to the —s, that is, to those students who have unusual needs and who challenge teachers to the limits of their commitments, insights, and skills. What can we do to help our increasingly diverse student population, particularly those in urban schools, achieve success?
At the margins of schools, one finds alienation, segregation, and rejection—and many highly reluctant learners. These students are, for whatever reason, struggling in their academic programs or in their social behavior; they are often at risk in their private lives and live in disordered communities. We refer, too, to students who are learning and adjusting to school life especially well, but receive far too little help; like other students, they need instruction that is adapted to their strengths.
A disproportionate number of students at the margins are members of racial and ethnic minorities. We seem to have made little progress in serving such students since the War on Poverty of the 1960s, or even since the Brown decision outlawing segregated schools in 1954. For example, two or three times as many African-American students as white students are labeled retarded or behaviorally disturbed. This is a calamitous situation that any analysis of education in America cannot ignore (Heller et al. 1982).
Clearly we must find ways to reform general and special education so that it is appropriate, meaningful, and the main resource for all students. Following are some suggestions for doing this. Undergirding most of them is one basic principle: Public schools should be inclusive and integrated. Separations by race, gender, language background, ability, or any other characteristic should be minimal and require a compelling rationale. As Librarian of Congress Emeritus Daniel J. Boorstin once said, “The menace to America today is in the emphasis on what separates us rather than on what brings us together.”
First, however, we will elaborate on the problems.

Separating Learners

Today's special education programs contribute to the severe disjointedness in schools. Programs are offered in eight or nine varieties, with children labeled for the special places they go to and the kinds of so-called disabilities they have. States award certificates to teachers qualified for each category.
State and federal subsidies for special education amount to about $20 billion per year. In some big-city school districts, a quarter of the budget goes for special education. Some cities maintain whole schools for special education programs and pay high prices to transport students there.
Both state and federal programs reflect distrust in local educators. Monitoring teams are sent in to make sure labels are in place and paperwork is in order. There is a growing, heavy load of rules and regulations, putting education programs largely out of local control. Norms for procedures outnumber norms for true substance or credible operations. The regulations set an essentially judicial model for efforts by parents and teachers to plan programs for individual children.
Federal programs are mainly narrowly framed categorical types. They tend to be organized around factors thought to predispose students to poor learning ability. And most operate and are funded on the basis of input variables, with little attention to outcomes. Students qualify based on certain characteristics, and as they enter the programs, their school districts immediately qualify for special subsidies. Whether programs do any good seems not to matter.

Labeling Learners: Who's Who

The Learning Disabled and the Mentally Retarded. Two of the largest categories of special education are for children who are learning disabled (LD) and mentally retarded (MR). The latter category is for students who score low on IQ tests and, therefore, are not expected to do well in school. The LD category is for the surprises—those students who have slightly higher IQs and should do well but are not achieving in basic subjects such as reading. (Many specialists think the term suggests underlying perceptual or neurological problems, even though these problems have not been diagnosed as such.)
Almost two decades ago, Featherstone observed that “schools that carelessly mislabel poor children are very likely going to mislabel middle-class children as dyslexic or hyperkinetic” (1975, p. 14). The 1990s' terms are learning disabled and attention-deficit disordered. The term learning disabled was relatively new in 1975. Today, it is borne by more than half of the students in categorical special education programs. The vast increase in the number of students in this category is an embarrassment to American educators.
There is no separate knowledge base for teaching children classified as mildly retarded or learning disabled, as there is for students who are blind or deaf, have speech problems, or are severely disabled. In many school districts, psychologists see these children, but all they do is administer tests, calculate discrepancies in scores, issue expectations, and send the children off to separate places with demeaning labels—all at high cost.
The Chapter 1 Children. The federal Chapter 1 program was started in the mid-1960s as Title I, a program to help poor, low-achieving children. At a cost of about $6 billion per year, the program serves some 5 million students, mainly through pull-out procedures. Fragmented and uncoordinated, Chapter 1 adds to the disjointedness of schools.
Students who are targeted in Chapter 1 are nearly identical to those in learning disabled programs (Jenkins et al. 1988); they are both low achievers. In fact, in a study more than a decade ago, a National Academy of Science panel saw no educational justification for maintaining separate programs for Chapter 1, learning disabilities, and mild mental retardation (Heller et al. 1982). President Clinton has proposed integrating Chapter 1 with the Limited-English Proficiency (LEP) program.
In 1992, the independent Commission on Chapter 1 called for remaking entire schools that serve poor children. Instead of focusing narrowly on skills training, commission members said, the remedy should be a broad curricular approach and greater integration with general education (Commission on Chapter 1, 1992). The commission's strategy, however, neglected other categorical programs. Chapter 1, while large among federal education programs, is relatively small at the school level. Why not proceed in a broader fashion in concert with other categorical programs and general education (Wang et al. 1993)?
The Non-English Proficient. Immigrant children and youth who enroll in public schools (more than 2 million in the 1980s) account for many of the students who are termed non-English proficient (NEP) or limited-English proficient (LEP), particularly in such large cities as Chicago, Los Angeles, Miami, and New York (McDonnell and Hill 1993). A second large group live in homes where languages other than English are spoken.
The evidence on program outcomes for these children is finite and controversial. On the one hand, bilingual instruction that takes into account specific cultural and language differences sometimes appears to be successful (Moll and Diaz 1987). On the other hand, some observers, such as Schlesinger, believe that ... bilingual education retards rather than expedites the movement of Hispanic children into the English-speaking world and promotes segregation more than it does integration” (1992, p. 108).
The Suspended and the Expelled. A large group that overlaps the above categories includes those students who are suspended and expelled from schools. As Frankel noted: these are often the same kids who've enrolled in less challenging classes or the `soft areas' of special education; who don't come to school regularly and who—to no one's surprise—drag down the group averages on the standardized achievement test results (1988, p. 2).
  • 69 percent of those suspended were male,
  • 36 percent of African-American students were suspended at least once, and
  • 30 percent of special education students were suspended at least once.
In a large urban school district in the South, African-American males accounted for 43 percent of the school population in 1986–87, but 58 percent of nonpromotions, 65 percent of suspensions, 80 percent of expulsions, and 45 percent of dropouts. Nonpromotion is clearly a factor associated with dropouts, attendance problems, and suspensions (Garibaldi 1992). Disruption is often the precipitating behavior for suspensions, and such behavior increases with the grade level.
The High Achievers. The most capable students—particularly the few resilient students in the inner city who succeed against all odds—are no less burdened than are low-achieving students by poor identification. And even when they are properly identified, we have few well-confirmed and valid tools to serve them.

Clamoring for Change

Lay people are beginning to ask why so many students are set aside in categorical programs. In fact, a broad consensus is emerging among educators that these narrowly framed programs have produced too few benefits. One remarkable sign of the times: Between 1988 and 1990, the number of teachers employed in cross-categorical programs increased by 131 percent!
Leaders in regular education and others have advanced a cascade of reform initiatives. Already there is a strong movement to abandon the categorical approach for mildly disabled children. And a recent report by the Rand Corporation makes a strong case for attending to the unique needs of NEP and LEP students within the regular education framework (McDonnell and Hill 1993).

Recommendations for Reform

  1. [[[[[ **** LIST ITEM IGNORED **** ]]]]]
  2. Organize public schools into smaller units—mini-schools, charters, or houses—in which groups of students and teachers remain together for several years of study. Schools should employ site-based management; allow extensive choice by students, teachers, and parents—including what school to join; and design major innovations in curriculum and instruction. School staff and categorical program personnel should work collaboratively.Smaller schools should free teams of teachers, students, and parents to create innovative programs. They would be ideal settings in which to implement research findings on student resilience—especially those relating to the benefits of continuing contacts between students and caring adults, and the encouragement of self-efficacy. A major goal: a reduction in the sense of alienation and estrangement from teachers, classmates, and schools that so many youngsters at the margins feel. (For the most severely alienated, for example, school districts might create street academies that employ proven behavioral principles.) Finally, in our view, programs for students at the margins should be organized around directly assessed instructional needs (Wang et al. 1993–94).
  3. Step up research on “—al” students to provide a growing knowledge base and credible evaluation system. There are, for example, promising practices to reduce suspension rates (Wager 1992–93). At present, tests and large national databases often ignore pupils and programs at the margins of schools (McGrew et al. 1993), a practice that invites educators to inflate findings on average pupil achievement. When there are no data, it is too easy to conclude that there are no problems, or to describe problems with vague generalities.Research should address strengths, resilience, and similar positive factors, as well as limitations and deficiencies. We need to study changing assumptions about the capacity for all children to learn. A case can be made for disaggregating research data for subgroups such as race and gender. This would not imply physical separation of students within the schools, but only show, for example, how various racial, ethnic, and gender groups are advancing in their learning under various conditions.To promote innovative research and improved student outcomes, the U.S. Department of Education should be given broad authority to grant states and local school districts time-limited waivers of rules and regulations, particularly those that now govern categorical programs.
  4. Implement new approaches based on what is known about teaching in schools with a high concentration of students with special needs. We need aggressive teaching, with high learning expectations for all students. The curriculum should not only include literacy basics, but also complex topics that involve problem solving and communication—two necessities in today's world.This is in contrast to categorical program approaches, which typically involve a limited curriculum and a simple problem-minimizing instructional mode (Scardamalia and Bereiter 1989). Our emphasis traditionally has been on negatives—maintaining order, decreasing referrals to the principal's office, getting through the work sheets, and teaching simple skills.In addition, we desperately need to extend and improve early education programs and to develop all promising approaches to preventing learning problems. And we also must make systematic efforts to staff all schools with the most competent teachers available, especially urban schools with many students who need more educational support than usual.
  5. Shift the use of labels from students to programs. Of course, putting labels on programs may still lead to assigning labels informally to students, but this would be an improvement over current direct child-labeling procedures. Children will be better served if educators use diagnostic procedures emphasizing variables that can be manipulated to improve learning. Then programs might bear labels such as Basic Skills, Intensive Reading, Braille Reading, Social Skills, Reading Recovery, English as a Second Language, and so on. As an initial step, educators should identify students who need extra help. Most students now classified as disabled need such individualized education rather than a different kind of education.
  6. Expand programs for the most able students. There are many ways to advance and enrich programs at earlier levels, but they require expert instruction that is adapted to students' strengths—instruction that is typically only present in areas such as athletics and music. To facilitate the transition to college, we need to implement the advanced placement program and kindred procedures for accelerating the curriculum.Equally important, we need to offer beginning programs in important subject areas in which all students participate, and in which we make strenuous efforts to give students with disadvantaged backgrounds opportunities to show their potential for accelerated learning. Once they do, we should adapt challenging programs for them. Exceptional students should be permitted to engage in educational activities in the community— the all-city orchestra, for example, or a math program at a local university.
  7. Integrate the most current findings in general education, special education, and special language learning areas into education for educators. For new forms of schools to work, both general education teachers and specialists must be retrained for altered roles. We need to introduce newly emerging forms of education, such as mini-schools, when training teachers, school administrators, school psychologists, and other school staff. We also need a strong and continuing staff development program for all teachers and school personnel.
  8. Apply concepts of inclusion and integration to the bureaucratic structure of government, professional organizations, and advocacy groups. Before educational programs can be made more coherent and integrated, the public and professional structures that uphold them must pull together. This means integrating federal and state agencies and funding across all categorical programs, and revising their monitoring and reporting systems to emphasize teamwork and coordination. It also means coordinating the work of such professional organizations as the Council for Exceptional Children, the Association for the Severely Handicapped, the National Education Association, and the American Federation of Teachers. And it applies, too, to the coordination of the emerging school-community agencies designed to provide a range of services to children and families with special needs.
  9. Challenge federal and state authorities to create broad, cross-departmental “empowerment zones” for delivering coordinated, comprehensive child and family services. Various government departments often undertake separate, uncoordinated programs aimed at helping inner cities. Enterprise zones, for example, are mainly related to business and job opportunities, but are rarely supported by coordinated efforts in education, human services, transportation, corrections, and other fields. Empowerment zones would be the educational equivalent of enterprise zones, but would link improved educational opportunities and all these other areas to community and business development.
  10. Encourage public dialogue about education. We need to educate the public on the need for school reforms to ensure equity in educational outcomes for all children.Working through these problems will be difficult. Some who are rewarded by current practices will resist. And some of those who fought hard to create programs to further opportunities for various groups may now defend these programs even though they now, ironically, stand as barriers to opportunity for those very groups. It will take much courage to lead the way to new, more coherent, and genuinely useful programs at the margins of the schools, and to bring the schools into broader collaborative efforts for community betterment.

Commission on Chapter 1. (1992). Making Schools Work for Children of Poverty. Washington, D. C.: American Association for Higher Education.

Featherstone, J. (March 29, 1975). “Children Out of School: The Expendables.” The New Republic: 13–16.

Frankel, S. (April 1988). “Systems-Oriented Evaluation: A Better Approach to Improving the Achievement of Minority Students.” Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association, New Orleans, La.

Garibaldi, A. M. (1992). “Educating and Motivating African-American Males to Succeed.” Journal of Negro Education 61, 1: 4–11.

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

Jenkins, J. R., C. G. Pious, and D. C. Peterson. (1988). “Categorical Programs for Remedial and Handicapped Students.” Exceptional Children 55, 2: 147–158.

McDonnell, L. M., and P. T. Hill. (1993). Newcomers in American Schools. Santa Monica, Calif.: Rand.

McGrew, K. S., M. L. Thurlow, and A. N. Spiegel. (1993). “An Investigation of the Exclusion of Students with Disabilities in the National Data Collection Programs.” Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis 15: 339–352.

Moll, L. C., and S. Diaz. (1987). “Changes are the Goal of Educational Research.” Anthropology and Education Quarterly 8: 300–311.

Reston, J. (1991). Deadline. New York: Random House.

Scardamalia, M., and C. Bereiter. (1989). “Conceptions of Teaching and Approaches to Core Problems.” In Knowledge Base for the Beginning Teacher, edited by M. C. Reynolds, pp. 37–46. Oxford, England: Pergamon Press.

Schlesinger, A. M., Jr. (1992). The Disuniting of America. New York: Norton.

Wager, B. R. (December 1992/January 1993). “No More Suspension: Creating a Shared Ethical Culture.” Educational Leadership 50, 4: 34–37.

Wang, M. C., M. C. Reynolds, and H. J. Walberg. (March 24, 1993). “Reform All Categorical Programs.” Education Week: 6.

Wang, M. C., M.C. Reynolds, and H. J. Walberg, eds. (1993). Epilogue: A Summary of Recommendations. Philadelphia: Temple University Center for Research in Human Development and Education.

Wang, M. C., M. C. Reynolds, and H. J. Walberg. (December 1993/January 1994). “What Helps Students Learn?” Educational Leadership 51, 4: 74–79.

End Notes

1 The research was supported by the Temple University Center for Research in Human Development and Education and by the Office of Educational Research and Improvement of the U.S. Department of Education. The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect the positions of the supporting agencies.

2 Our term “students at the —s” could include “students at risk,” “exceptional students,” “disadvantaged students,” and “gifted and talented students.” Each term lacks full clarity; each has its critics.

3 For a sampling of the voices among educators, see R. L. Allington and P. Johnston, (1986), “The Coordination Among Regular Classroom Reading Programs and Targeted Support Programs,” 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), pp. 3–40; S. Epps and G. Tindal, (1987), “The Effectiveness of Differential Programming in Serving Students with Mild Handicaps: Placement Options and Instructional Programming,” 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), pp. 213–248; B. K. Keogh, (1988), “Learning Disability: Diversity in Search of Order,” in Handbook of Special Education: Research and Practice, Vol. 2: Mildly Handicapped Conditions, edited by M. C. Wang, M. C. Reynolds, and H. J. Walberg (Oxford, England: Pergamon Press), pp. 225–251, as well as references listed below.

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

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