In their brief to contributors, the editors of this book argued that there is something wrong with the explanatory systems or theories, such as the medical model, which dominate thinking about special education, as well as those proposed to replace them. If theory not only provides 'a scheme of ideas to explain practice' (Williams, 1976), but also 'a framework to guide practice', then we have here a diagnosis of the ills of special education and a remedy. A barrier to progress in special education is to be removed with the generation of more adequate 'theories' about educational failure and improvement. This view of how progress might be made is a meta-theory to account for problems in a field of 'special education' and in this chapter I wish to contribute to the task of identifying and removing barriers to progress in special education by elaborating some elements of a meta-theory of my own.
I contend that the poverty of special education resides in much else besides the lack of adequate theories of student learning and school improvement. I have focused initially on three issues: a lack of the definition of the field; the submergence of conflict and critique; and the overproduction of 'knowledge'. I suggest that progress in these areas as in the use of theories of teaching and learning depends on a realignment of professional and political interests.
There is an absence of agreement about what constitutes 'special education' though how the subject is defined is rarely specified. Some chapters in this book assume special education is primarily concerned with issues of disability, while others see it as about organisational and classroom responses to diversity. The absence of definition is a striking omission, for in taking for granted that