Special Education in Restructured Schools: Findings from Three Multi-Year Studies

Article excerpt

Data from three studies cause the authors to conclude that - for a significant proportion of students with learning disabilities - enhanced educational opportunities provided in the general education setting do not produce desired achievement outcomes.

Special education for students with learning disabilities has had a relatively short, but always controversial, history. Before the 1960s, few public schools concerned themselves with students who, despite normal intellectual abilities and opportunities to learn, had significant problems with school achievement and manifested other behavioral symptoms (e.g., hyperactivity, distractibility, perceptual problems) that have come to be associated with learning disabilities. When programs for these students were started in public schools (e.g., the demonstration project in Syracuse, New York, directed by William Cruickshank and his colleagues(1)), they reflected the traditional service-delivery model of the times - the self-contained special education classroom. Until the passage in 1975 of P.L. 94-142, the Education for All Handicapped Children Act (EHA), few states recognized learning disabilities as a handicapping condition that required the provision of special education services.

But EHA changed all that. With a mandate to serve and with federal guidelines for diagnosis, publicly funded special education programs for students with learning disabilities became commonplace; the number of students classified as learning disabled (LD) and provided with special education services in public schools rose from 797,212 in 1976-77 to 2,214,326 in 1991-92.(2)

With this increase in the LD population came a shift away from the self-contained class as the preferred model of service delivery; most students with learning disabilities received their special education services in part-time special education settings, usually resource rooms. Data from the U.S. Department of Education's annual reports to Congress illustrate this trend. In the 1984-85 school year, 15% of LD students received the majority of their education in regular classes and received special education and related services for less than a quarter of the school day. In the 1988-89 school year, the percentage of LD students served in this way was up to 19.6%, and in 1990-91, up again to 22.5%.(3)

The movement away from self-contained special education placements was strongly advocated by Lloyd Dunn in his 1968 critique of special education.(4) Dunn's call for the elimination of special classes and schools for students with mild learning problems was grounded in the evidence provided by James Coleman and others that academically disadvantaged African American children in racially segregated schools made less progress than those of comparable ability in integrated schools.(5) Dunn called for more integrated service-delivery models for students with disabilities, as well, and envisioned pull-out, remedial resource rooms, staffed by special education teachers, as the way to provide "a better education" for children with learning problems.(6)

Eighteen years later, these very pullout services were themselves subject to criticism. "Although well-intentioned, this so-called 'pull-out' approach to the educational difficulties of students with learning problems has failed in many instances to meet the educational needs of these students," wrote Madeline Will, then assistant secretary of education and head of the Office of Special Education Programs.(7) Will and others called for even more fully integrated educational experiences to enable children with learning problems to achieve "improved educational outcomes" and "academic growth."(8)

Even before Will's call for a change in the delivery of special education services, essays on the failure of special education had begun to proliferate, and the theme was constant: pull-out special education was not working; fundamental changes in the delivery model for special education were needed to increase the academic accomplishments of students with learning disabilities. …