What is Special Education?
Two landmark civil rights acts forever altered the educational experiences of individuals with disabilities in the United States. The first, the Education of All Handicapped Children Act of 1975 (PL 94-142), now known as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), entitles pupils with disabilities to a "free appropriate" public school education in the "least restrictive environment." The second, the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA), an even stronger civil rights statement, assures citizens with disabilities full participation in nearly all segments of U.S. society. These two legislative acts create a strong legal entitlement for educating pupils with disabilities in their neighborhood schools with placement in regular classrooms that provide special services and necessary adaptations in furniture, equipment, and curriculum.
Although the U.S. Department of Education has taken a strong stance supporting inclusive education, the courts and the U.S. Office of Civil Rights have been even more forceful in asserting the rights of pupils with disabilities to an inclusive education in a neighborhood school. Currently, the way schools include or exclude pupils with disabilities from the mainstream education process widely varies. In some states, few pupils with disabilities are educated outside their neighborhood schools or in segregated classroom settings. In other states, most pupils with disabilities are educated away from neighborhood schools and in separate classrooms for all or part of the day. If there is any single predictable trend in the education of struggling learners and pupils with disabilities, it is the continuing press to adapt classrooms to better serve all children (Goodlad & Lovitt, 1993).
Inclusion and Collaboration
The Regular Education Initiative, which launched inclusive education, began when Madeline Will (1986), then undersecretary of education, wrote that the burgeoning enrollments in special education were alarming and, perhaps, indicated that regular education programs were reneging on their responsibility to educate all children. Others noted the extensive fragmentation of school experiences that many low-achieving students, including students with disabilities, encountered as they moved from the classroom program to a special program and back (Allington & McGill-Franzen, 1989). Will called for closer collaboration between regular education and special education staff and for renewed efforts to adapt regular education programs to the needs of children who varied, often minimally, from normal achievement or behavior.
Rising special education enrollments seemed linked, however, to increasing accountability pressures placed on schools rather than to any real increase in the numbers of children who were, indeed, handicapped in the traditional sense. For instance, in New York state, the numbers of young children identified as pupils with disabilities significantly increased as the stakes attached to statewide testing rose. Once school performance became public record and was published annually in local papers, more and more children were identified as handicapped before the administration of the first statewide assessment in third grade. The reason seemed clear. At that time, scores of children identified as handicapped were excluded from these reports. In fact, in six schools reporting substantially improved achievement on the statewide assessments, the rise in scores was almost wholly attributable to increased numbers of low-achieving children identified as handicapped and excluded from testing. Some school administrators admitted using the classification process to improve reported achievement (McGill-Franzen & Allington, 1992). Then, the IDEA of 1997 required the inclusion of pupils with disabilities on all district, state, and federal assessments of academic achievement. It also required that the academic progress of pupils with disabilities be measured against their attainment of the new state academic standards (McGill-Franzen & Goatley, 2001). The NCLB Act of 2001 goes further, requiring that schools demonstrate that their regular and special education instructional efforts produce evidence of comparable academic growth for pupils with disabilities.
The evidence available suggests that not only does inclusive and collaborative education work to produce improved academic performances of pupils with disabilities (with no negative effects on peers), but better social relations between pupils with disabilities and other children also result (Allington & McGill-Franzen, 1996; Epps & Tindal, 1987; Gelzheiser, Meyers, & Pruzek, 1992). But creating a school where all children are educated together is not necessarily an easy task, especially when accountability standards offer little recognition of the extraordinary efforts needed to educate some children. When public displays of a school's student performance are posted or published in the local paper, it is not surprising that teachers become less willing to voluntarily accept low-achieving children as their responsibility.
Achieving inclusion may be easier than achieving collaborative teaching. For a long time both classroom and special education teachers have simply done their own thing. It was a rare school district that set achieving the regular education curriculum goals as the standard for special education students, but that is now the mandated benchmark. The most common curriculum was a watered-down version of the regular curriculum, emphasizing isolated skills development and, often, nonacademic skills and self-esteem. Special education teachers were often unfamiliar with the regular curriculum and rarely used regular curriculum materials. Few special education programs set goals for "declassifying" students. Few special education teachers expected accelerated learning and a return to the regular classroom with no need for additional assistance. As one administrator put it, "Special education is for a lifetime."
This scenario is changing, however, as a result of the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Shannon Carter v. Florence County (McGill-Franzen, 1994). Shannon had been diagnosed as having a learning disability with an attention deficit disorder, resulting in substantial underachievement. At issue in this case was whether Shannon's parents could be reimbursed for enrolling her in a private, non-special-education school when dissatisfied with the individualized educational plan (IEP) developed by the public school district. That IEP called for Shannon to achieve only four months' academic growth each school year in reading and math. The Court held in favor of the family, noting that Congress intended students with disabilities to benefit academically from the special education services to be provided, and the IEP was "inappropriate" because it held no benefit for Shannon, who would only continue to fall farther behind her peers given the IEP goals established. Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, writing for the majority, noted that:
Public educational authorities who want to avoid reimbursing parents for private education of a disabled child can do one of two things: give the child a free appropriate education in a public setting, or place the child in an appropriate private setting.
This is the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act's mandate, and school officials who conform to it need not worry.
Although the legal issue of focus was whether parents could unilaterally reject an IEP, enroll the child in a private school of their choice, and then be reimbursed for the costs of a non-special-education private school, the opinion of the Court seems to redefine an "appropriate" education for students with disabilities. "Appropriate" special education services are to accelerate learning so that pupils with disabilities will have their achievement normalized as Shannon did while at the private school. In fact, in weighing the decision, the Court decision emphasized the academic benefits Shannon received from the private school placement. The Shannon Carter case stimulated the return of all pupils with disabilities to public accountability rolls.
One problem not fully resolved concerns the appropriateness of various test "accommodations" for pupils with disabilities. The National Academy of Education report (Heubert & Hauser, 1999), High Stakes, devoted a complete chapter to this topic. The researchers recommended a variety of test accommodations including breaking assessment sessions into smaller segments, large-print versions, and use of adaptive technologies where possible. But they also advised that no accommodation that fundamentally alters the nature of the assessment be allowed. The example they offered of an inappropriate accommodation was reading a reading achievement test aloud to a pupil with learning disability. Such an "accommodation" would render test results meaningless and violate the intent of Congress that parents of pupils with disabilities and the public should be presented information on the current standing of pupils with disabilities in relation to state academic standards. However, they noted that reading math story problems to the same student would not violate the intent—to assess mathematical reasoning and problem solving.
As a result of these shifts in federal special education policies, the "appropriateness" of educational programs provided for pupils with disabilities is now evaluated against evidence of accelerated achievement. The expectation that achievement gaps will be closed is quite explicit along with targeting a date when achievement will be normalized.
But special education programs cannot achieve such results alone. The only strategy for developing programs that accelerate the learning of pupils with disabilities is one in which classroom teachers play a central role. Shifting judgments about the adequacy of efforts to educate students with disabilities from analyzing inputs (e.g., smaller classes, individualized lessons, specially certified teachers) to evaluating outcomes (e.g., academic gains, as measured by AYP), is identical to the shift that has occurred in the federal Title 1 remedial program. Where does a school begin to address this shift in focus?
© ______ 2007, Allyn & Bacon, an imprint of Pearson Education Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved. The reproduction, duplication, or distribution of this material by any means including but not limited to email and blogs is strictly prohibited without the explicit permission of the publisher.
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