Prof. Diana Pullin (LSOE): "Special education is one of the most controversial and critical aspects of American education today. "
Pullin was among a group of educators who were selected by the National Research Council to develop the report. Congress chartered the study to provide independent scientific advice in preparation for reauthorizing the federal law that guarantees students with disabilities the right to a free, appropriate education.
According to the council, minorities now make up about one-third of school-age children and special education students constitute more than 10 percent, the majority of them classified as learning-disabled.
"Special education is one of the most controversial and critical aspects of American education today," said Pullin. "We on the committee are quite aware that the whole process of determining which children should be in special ed programs, and how these programs are funded, are highly sensitive, and often political, issues.
"Our purpose was to focus on educational practice and, with our different perspectives, to arrive at a workable consensus. We think that several of our recommendations are likely to appeal to Congress."
The research group was chaired by Christopher T. Cross, a senior fellow with the Center on Education Policy and a former assistant secretary of education under President George H.W. Bush. Building on a 1982 NRC report, the committee examined developments in law and practice during the past two decades as well as available data on students in special and gifted education programs.
According to the study, more than 14 percent of African American students and 13 percent of Native American students are in special education. Twelve percent of white students, 11 percent of Hispanic students and 5 percent of Asian American students are in the US special education population.
The disparities are greater in the categories with the greatest stigmas, such as mental retardation and emotional trauma, the report's authors said.
Nationwide, according to the report, 9.9 percent of Asian students and 7.47 percent of white students are placed in gifted programs, while 3.04 percent of African American students, 3.57 percent of Hispanic students and 4.86 percent of Native American students are classified as gifted.
A child placed in special education may receive individualized support, the report said, but teachers, peers, and even the student receiving services may have lowered expectations for the child's success. That trade-off may be worthwhile if the support is effective, say the authors, "but because there is a trade-off, both the need and benefit should be established before the label and the cost are imposed."
Pullin and her fellow committee members agreed that states' licensing and certification requirements should ensure teachers are trained in effective intervention methods to assist students who either exceed, or fail to meet, academic standards. Teachers also should consider student values and cultural practices that may affect classroom participation and success.
In addition, the committee called for improved and expanded federal and state early-childhood services related to health care, family support and preschool education. They also cited the need for rigorous research on ways to identify minority students who excel in verbal, math or other skills, since disproportionately low numbers of African American, Hispanic and Native American children are placed in gifted programs.
While special education is in the spotlight, Pullin said there has been little national discussion on educational practices and programs for gifted children.
"Gifted education is below the radar screen, especially with concerns over issues such as funding restrictions for education in general and testing reform," she said. "As a country, we've tended to have less concern over students who demonstrate high academic or intellectual ability, even though they might have other kinds of needs. We look more at those kids in the middle, or at the bottom, in terms of achievement.
"But what came through in our discussions," said Pullin, "is that there are activities and practices outside of special education requiring attention. The fact is, we should look closely at the needs of all students early on in school."
More information on the study is available through the World Wide Web site of the National Academy of Sciences, which co-administers the National Research Council.
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