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Monday, August 26, 1991 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Article On Special Education Was Uninformed, Unfair

DR. RALPH DeBruler's attack on special education (The Times, Aug. 12) is unjust to teachers and students alike. He fails to show an understanding of educational disabilities, the special classroom, and the role of mainstreaming.

Regular-education teachers do not refer the most "worrisome" child to special education. Each category of special education has specific criteria, and the worst troublemakers are usually not eligible. Referrals are made on the basis of the student's need, not the teacher's.

Regular-education teachers are well aware that more money is spent on special-needs students than on students in the general population, but they recognize that more difficult tasks often cost more to perform.

Omitting any discussion of what happens in a special-education classroom, DeBruler simply states that if those students were left in the regular classroom, they "could be taught in a constructive and encouraging manner." His statement implies that this is all they need to succeed, and that they are not going to get this in a special-education classroom. Both assumptions are false.

Special-education students have well-defined disabilities to be treated in specific ways. Regular teachers are not trained in these methods, and the size of regular classes makes that sort of teaching impossible, anyway. That is why special classes are smaller: Special needs demand more personal attention.

And there is nothing unconstructive or discouraging about a special classroom. The teachers I know in this field are among the most caring, sensitive, creative educators I have ever met.

Special students are not "isolated from their peers," nor are they in an abnormal situation. They are in classes with other students who share their problem, and they do not constantly feel stupid because they cannot do what their classmates can. In all classes where their disability does not affect their performance, they are with regular students.

It is abnormal and degrading to force young people into positions where they are in over their heads, frustrated, and feel like failures. This is no more right than it would be to order a 100-pound football player to line up against 200-pounders.

DeBruler accuses special education of failing to bring students "up to grade," but that is not the point. Most students learn much more than they did in the regular classroom. This is demonstrable statistically, whatever DeBruler may say.

Mainstreaming means returning students to regular classes, following an improvement in their academic performance after a period of time in special education.

Mainstreaming occurs anytime from three months to several years after initial special-education placement, and only after consultation among professionals, the parents, and the student. It is in no sense an admission that the initial placement was in error; it is a recognition that special education has helped the student succeed in regular classes.

I agree with DeBruler that large classes make everything worse, including the regular-classroom teacher's ability to deal with marginal special students. Special-education needs have risen in recent years, and increasing regular-class size contributes to the problem.

If regular-class sizes were reduced below 20, special materials provided, and teachers given special training, many current students could survive in regular classes. But given our Legislature's inability to fund education at adequate levels, this is not likely to happen.

At the end, DeBruler admits that special education is "a blessing" for those students who need it; but he believes that "academic problems" do not begin in special education. He does not define "academic problems," but presumably that covers everything but physical impairments and behavioral disorders.

How would he assist a learning-disabled 15-year-old reading at a second-grade level? What would he do with the student who simply lacks the mental ability to do mathematics beyond simple addition? Forcing such students into regular classrooms does them no service.

DeBruler may not know of the regular state audits of special programs.

-- The school district must prove, first, that each special-education student was correctly assessed and shown to have the disability for which he or she is being treated.

-- Second, the district must demonstrate that every alternative to special education was tried and it failed. Special education is truly a last resort.

-- Third, the district must show that each special student has an individual plan, written and implemented to meet the student's deficits.

-- Fourth, students are regularly reassessed to see that they still need special education.

-- Furthermore, the district must prove that special-education money is spent on special students, in accordance with state regulation and appropriations, and according to the plan for each student. This is a rigorous procedure that safeguards the public money.

Special education is not "tracking." There are many concerns about tracking, but that is a different subject. For a student to receive special education, she or he must be diagnosed with a specific disability, for which a specific treatment is prescribed. Simply being "worrisome" or academically slow is not enough.

There are many problems in Washington's schools, but abuse of special education is not among them. DeBruler's attack diverts attention from the school system's far more substantive ills - primarily anemic financial support, which leaves teachers with too few resources and too many students.

Let him devote his attention to fixing those problems.

Dan Lindsay is a counselor entering his 30th year in the Kent School District. He has worked with teachers and students in both regular and special education.

Copyright (c) 1991 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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