This paper discusses the practical ramifications of competing theoretical perspectives in special education. Despite the relationship between scholarly conceptions of special education and its ultimate practice, the paper concludes with empirical data that appears to indicate that many (if not most) practicing administrators fail to appreciate the theoretical underpinnings of their very own professional understanding. This limits the potential for greater interdisciplinary understandings of special education or any practical reconciliation between competing perspectives.
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There are probably few areas of inquiry in education that are as troublesome and divisive as disability and special education. Conceptual understandings of special education and disability are informed by numerous other fields which themselves draw on entirely different scholarly traditions - most particularly the medical and the social sciences. The lack of conceptual agreement about the nature of the field is coupled with the practical difficulty of meeting disparate stakeholders' needs despite a persistent scarcity of resources. These factors qualify disability and special education as uniquely problematic areas of academic interest (Clark, Dyson & Millward, 1998; Jordan, 2001; Skrtic, 1995).
Currently, there is a paucity of dialogue about special education theorizing in the practitioner's arena. For example, few practitioners understand what theoretical underpinnings are associated with the practice of full inclusion or why others might favor a range of alternative placement options from segregated to integrated special education settings for students with special needs. To this end, there is a considerable need to support practitioners in understanding how they have come to know and understand special education, disability and inclusion in different ways. In the absence of these theory and practice connections, special education in practice will remain a highly contentious and conflicted school arena.
I believe that a more inclusive social science can increase acceptance of different knowledge claims arrived at in various ways. This paper in no way discounts or dismisses the knowledge contributions of; for example, medicine and psychology to special education, but rather calls for greater appreciation and ultimately inclusivity of the socio-cultural means of arriving at different understandings. My aim is to encourage greater clarity among theories and practices regarding the knowledge claims we make, the evidence assembled in support of those claims, and the logic employed when linking that evidence to such knowledge claims. These principles can (and should) underpin our scholarly and practical work in order to provide for greater methodological understandings that invite sound decision-making practice. An example of this is the selection of programs and practices for students who receive special education services.
Over the last several years both scholars and practitioners in special education and disability studies have begun to critique the whole notion of inclusion, creating a heated debate about what exactly constitutes inclusive educational programs and practices for students with disabilities. For example, in my own experiences as principal and researcher in special education and leadership, I have consistently found that there has been an overemphasis and over-reliance during parent-school personnel meetings on psychometric testing of students, which in special education, largely implies a behaviorist-objectivist discourse (Zaretsky, 2003; Zaretsky, 2004). I have found that this particular discourse also tends to dominate thinking in both policymaking and accountability initiatives. A single perspective, however, is plainly inadequate for developing a more sophisticated understanding of what might constitute valid knowledge and expertise in special education. …