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Sisyphus & the Problems in Special Education
By Mark Alter, Ph.D. & Jay Gottlieb, Ph.D.

Sisyphus was compelled to roll a huge rock up a steep hill, but before he could reach the top of the hill, the rock would always roll back down, forcing him to begin again. Special education seems to suffer from the maddening nature of the punishment reserved for Sisyphus, binding it to an eternity of reform and frustration.

Under the weight of diminished revenue and tight budgets, the Board of Regents has once again enacted mandate relief, cost-containment actions affecting students with special needs. At the same time the New York City Department of Education is implementing Phase 1 of its reform of special education. Presumably, the cost-containment measures would not diminish a district’s responsibility to provide a federally mandated free appropriate public education to all students with disabilities, and the reform efforts would enhance the quality and effectiveness of special education services. As with previous special education reforms and mandate relief efforts, the state and city are concerned with the quality, compliance and ever-increasing costs of providing special education, and parents, administrators and teachers are fearful that removing or reducing services would harm students. The Board of Regents and the city are being asked to render Solomon-like decisions that reduce costs and do no harm.

On their face, the proposals may appear to be harmful: class sizes of students with disabilities would increase; small group instruction/therapy for speech and language services would become large group instruction; and teachers may never know and/or use students’ IEPs (Individualized Education Programs) to inform instruction. The simple fact is, we do not know the likely impact of the proposed actions. What we do know is that when instructional group size in resource rooms was increased from five to eight in New York City public schools, special needs students’ scores declined. That study was done specifically to evaluate the impact on student academic performance of the mandate that allowed New York City schools to increase instructional group size. Despite the demonstrated negative effects that were documented, the mandate was never rescinded.

Thirty-five years after the passage of comprehensive landmark federal legislation designed to protect the rights of students with disabilities, and ten years after the passage of federal legislation requiring that students be taught using “evidence-based” approaches and that progress for sub-groups, i.e., students with disabilities, be reported separately, we still know very little about the effects of special education services on the everyday lives of students with disabilities. In the years since the passage of the Education For All Handicapped Act (1975) and its reauthorization as IDEA (1990, 1997, 2004), neither parents, nor school boards, nor the Board of Regents have routinely pushed to create a climate in which basic instructional evidence is collected to monitor and evaluate the efficacy of special education implementation and special education reform. When school officials implement a new program, in special or general education, they automatically assume that the new program is needed and it is effective. Evidence of effectiveness, when it is collected, is too often confined to compliance and standardized-test performance. Critically important areas identified on special needs students’ IEPs, such as physical development, learning in social/emotional development, classroom behavior, effectiveness of related service, and the quality of a student’s transition plan are seldom, if ever, used as a metric of special education’s effectiveness.

Critics of special education maintain that students with disabilities can be accommodated in general education classes, and many of the students do not need costly special education services. If that were true, the vast majority would not have been referred, evaluated, found eligible, and placed in special education in the first place. Dissatisfaction with special education — and there are indeed many legitimate grounds for dissatisfaction — in no way implies that the general education systems can successfully absorb all the students with disabilities. Those students who failed in general education and are placed back in general education are likely to fail there again unless there is adequate and sustained support for the student and the general education teacher. Consciously or otherwise, New York City’s special education system continues to struggle with general education’s fallout. Too many students are identified as disabled because the classroom teacher cannot meet their needs, not because they have a disability as defined by state regulation. If a student does not have a disability, he or she should not be receiving costly special education services. When the student does have a disability, the expectation must be that the special education he or she receives is helpful and that there is documentation to demonstrate that it helps. When a student remains in special education beyond a finite term, perhaps one year, without improvement in skills that warrant movement to a less restrictive environment, it is an admission that special education is ineffective for that student and that new strategies must be developed. But these strategies must be based on empirical evidence, something that currently is in very short supply.

There continues to be a tendency to view special education as a problem. Administrators lament that too many students are placed in special education; however, both the source of the problem and its solution lie in general education. It is unrealistic to expect that the severe needs of inner-city students can be met in large classes with inexperienced teachers, inexperienced principals and insufficient support personnel. Students with legitimate disabilities have serious needs and require intensive services. Principals and classroom teachers who are responsible for the instruction of all students in their schools and classes already know this; it is time that policy makers learned this as well. #

Mark Alter & Jay Gottlieb are Professors of Educational Psychology at NYU in the Special Education Programs.



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