What's Happening in Self-Contained Special Education Classrooms?
In recent years, more than 4 million handicapped students received all or part of their education in classrooms directed by a specially trained teacher. Conventional wisdom holds that categories used to classify individuals as elgibile for special services represent mutually exclusive groups of people and serve as the basis for some type of differentiated treatment (cf. Hallahan & Kauffman, 1986; Kirk & Gallagher, 1986). Hallahan and Kauffman (1986, p. 5) defined special education as "specially designed instruction that meets the unique needs of an exceptional child." Educators have reasoned that special materials as well as special teaching techniques, equipment, or facilities are required for special education to be effective.
Clearly, there is a need for specially designed instruction for some exceptional students. For example, it is difficult to imagine not providing specialized classroom interventions for individuals who are blind or deaf; in fact, special education programs for these people are the oldest, and maybe the best developed. Identifying the unique needs of learning disabled, emotionally handicapped, or mentally retarded students--or their educational treatments--is not so simply accomplished. There are many reasons why a student does not achieve commensurate with ability, or why abilities differ, or why a student fails to demonstrate expected ability, achievement, or adaptive behavior. Most of these reasons do not lead directly to specific interventions (Ysseldyke & Algozzine, 1984).
This failure to identify categorically specific characteristics or treatments has led some to argue for a decrease in categorization. For example, Hallahan and Kauffman (1977) provided "logical justification for considering children traditionally falling into three categories of mildly handicapped--learning disabled, emotionally disturbed, and educable mentally retarded--within a behavioral rather than a categorical framework" (p. 139). Their argument was supported by discussion of the confusing, imprecise definitions that are used to develop eligibility criteria in most states, the common historical perspective evident in studying the development of each of the mild handicaps, and the overlap of behavioral characteristics among these three groups of exceptional students. Similarly convincing rhetoric has been offered by others (cf. Gardner, 1977; Hewett & Forness, 1974; Lilly, 1979; Neisworth & Greer, 1975); in fact, as Edgar and Hayden (1984-1985) pointed out, "the literature is replete with statements that these three groups represent essentially the same population . . ." (p. 533).
Despite its logical support, the noncategorical perspective does not enjoy universal acceptance. For example, Epstein and Cullinan (1983) stated: "It is most unfortunate that, despite the intense and often persuasive advocacy of some of its proponents, there has been very little scientific study of the assumptions on which cross-categorical special education is based" (p. 306). They used academic performance of learning disabled (LD) and behaviorally disordered (BD) students to derive the following conclusion: "The results do not support the idea that intervention practices should necessarily be the same for students with LD, BD, and educable mental retardation" (p. 305). Again, the literature is replete with opinions and data supporting the separation of exceptional students into categorical groups to supply appropriate special education (cf. Becker, 1978; Cullinan, Epstein, & Dembinski, 1979; Lieberman, 1980; Phipps, 1982).
The purpose of this research was to describe instruction provided in categorical special education classrooms. Such information would be a valuable starting point for determining the appropriatness of categorical grouping of students.
Teachers of students classified as emotionally handicapped (EH), learning disabled (LD), or educable mentally retarded (EMR) were observed during different types of classroom instruction. …