Academic journal article Exceptional Children

Tolerance and Technology of Instruction: Implications for Special Education

Academic journal article Exceptional Children

Tolerance and Technology of Instruction: Implications for Special Education

Article excerpt

Tolerance and Technology of Instruction: Implications for Special Education Reform

The NAS report (i.e., from the National Academy of Sciences Panel on Selection and Placement of Students in Programs for the Mentally Retarded) (Heller, Holtzman, & Messick, 1982) represents only a part of a recent and growing trend for review and reevaluation of American public policy regarding education of handicapped children (e.g., see Will, 1986). One emerging theme in the current reconsideration of special education public policy is captured by what increasingly is being referred to as the "regular education initiative." To a large extent, discussion of a greater role for regular education in educating handicapped children, specifically mildly handicapped children, has been fueled by the type of scholarly commentary represented by the NAS report.

The present article has been intended as a brief discussion of the NAS report from the perspective of special education research and practice. In the following comments, two central issues implied, but not explored, by the NAS report will be raised. The first concerns what will be called "the instructional tolerance of schooling." The second, and functionally related, issue is posed by the notion of "instructional technology." The discussion is intended to caution state and federal policymakers, school administrators, and other professionals who may be persuaded too quickly by the intuitive appeal of conclusions reached by the NAS panel.


Tolerance, as used here, is intended neither in its mundane sense of forbearance, nor its more political sense of accommodation, but rather more in its engineering sense of permissible deviation or margin for error. Thus, when educators speak about processes by which students are classified as handicapped, they refer to such decisions as being made within a tolerance, even if they are not made with tolerance.

Much of the criticism aimed at "disproportionality" of minority placement in special education categories tends to be fueled more by the latter, rather than the former, sense of the concept of tolerance. This is not surprising. In its origins, national special education policy springs from the same affirmation of civil rights for handicapped children that has characterized political advocacy for ethnolinguistic minorities. Apart from advocacy for educational and social equity, however, there is a need not only to clarify how disproportionality is, to use Messick's (1984) terms, "symptomatic of a deeper educational problem" (p. 4), but also to explain the source of variability in all referral processes that threaten either equity or entitlement.

The NAS report attempts to clarify the deeper problem but, disappointingly, fails to begin to explain it. Excavating from a problem of perceived disproportionality the more perennial problems of "validity of referral and assessment" and "quality of instruction" seem to have discovered the obvious, or at best to have labeled the critical aspects of schooling about which we remain fairly ignorant. What is missing is a theoretical position, one that seeks to relate such abstractions as validity and quality to research questions that may better inform special education public policy.

The position taken by the authors of the NAS report is also disappointing because it yields no new insights into how special education itself might be reconceived or reconstituted so as to be better able to contribute to the attainment of the broader goals of educational quality and equity. Beyond being merely disinterested, the reason, it could be argued, is that the authors of the report accept uncritically the historical assumptions underlying the notion of handicap embedded in the term special education. Presumably, better teaching and testing standards will ultimately reveal the truly handicapped, who can then be sorted unambiguously. …

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