The Pitfalls and Promises of Special Education Practice

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* Cultural, racial, and economic diversity are realities in American schools. Unfortunately, academic achievement is correlated with this diversity, meaning that, on the average, some ethnic groups continue to experience low achievement. For example, African-American, American Indian, and Hispanic children tend not to experience high achievement. Some educators have tried to address the problem, but their efforts over the years have been notoriously unsuccessful. As we continue to try to provide remedial services for the student who gets behind and special education services for students with disabilities, we should follow the admonition sometimes heard in the medical profession, "When you are deciding about a treatment for a sick patient, first do no harm." Our children are in need of high-quality teaching; in some cases, they need special education or remedial services. As we seek to provide these, we must first do no harm. Either our special services must have the high probability of being successful or there is no need for such services at all.


At this point in the history of the United States, we do not have a system of education that matches, in quality, the economic and political position of the most powerful nation in the world (though our position here, too, is slipping). Embarrassing reports appear regularly in various media to remind us that the United States ranks near the bottom of industrialized nations in the academic achievement of its young people. Allowing for bias in assessment instruments and weaknesses in evaluation practices, we still must search hard to find evidence of real power in U.S. education systems generally. Real pedagogical power means that all children reach a high level of achievement on criterion-based standards. It means that children who may have disabilities receive sophisticated, valid services that cause them to do better than they would have done if they had not received special services at all.

Many of us are familiar with the statistics that support this conclusion, but few of us seem to have confronted the profound implications of that conclusion. A nation so situated academically-- and being challenged by economic forces from around the world--would certainly seem to be a nation that would give urgent, compelling attention to education for the masses, the engine of its future success.

In addition, that nation ought to be concerned about the quality of life of all citizens, which means that education for employment is only a part of the problem. For example, locating, evaluating, using, and contributing information for one's personal use is a goal for the masses of our people. We are far behind on such things as simple literacy, not to mention access to the vast network of computerized information services.

In other words, we have a major problem with the regular educational system. One of our great needs is for an honest and comprehensive look at the nature of these problems. Until we do, the problems associated with special education-- and equity issues that derive from them--can hardly be solved, inasmuch as they are imbedded in the larger problem of the quality of regular education.


We know that we have a problem in equity when we see the outcomes of education distributed as a function of socioeconomic status, race, culture, and language groups. This symptom is manifest first in the regular education system and is later found in the special education system (Skrtic, 1991). It may be exacerbated in the special education system, when able children are diagnosed invalidly, labeled, and placed in special education (Heller, Holtzman, & Messick, 1982; Hilliard, 1987).

Sensitive observers have always been aware, at an intuitive level, of some of our major problems. In recent years, however, a growing number of educational researchers and theoreticians have provided us with precisely the type of analytical literature that is grounded in empirical documentation, followed by inspired theoretical analysis (Lipsky & Gartner, 1989; Skrtic, 1991 ). …