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Special Education for a New Century

reviewed by N. Kathleen Kosobud - 2006

coverTitle: Special Education for a New Century
Author(s): Lauren I. Katzman, Allison Gruner Gandhi, Wendy S. Harbour, and J.D. LaRock (Eds.)
Publisher: Harvard Education Publishing Group, Cambridge
ISBN: 091669044X, Pages: 300, Year: 2005
Search for book at Amazon.com

Special Education for a New Century comes at a significant time for policy makers, teacher educators and researchers, education leaders, and disability advocates.  Since the Individuals with Disabilities Education Acts (IDEA) reauthorization in 2004, intended to align with No Child Left Behind (2001), the unexpected impact of the new accountability system is being felt by many of the nations schools.  This book is a follow-up to the Harvard Educational Reviews reprint volume: Special Education at the Century's End: Evolution of Theory and Practice Since 1970 (Hehir & Latus, eds., 1992), a retrospective look at the progress and future of special education from before the initial passage of P.L. 94-142, the Education for All Handicapped Children Act (EHA) of 1975.  Over 10 years later, this second compilation of classic articles and contemporary critiques invites readers to reappraise special education in the context of standards and accountability for all students.

In spite of 50 years passing since the Brown vs. Board of Education decision (separate is inherently unequal) and 30 years since P.L. 94-142 required a free and appropriate public education (FAPE) for all children with disabilities in the least restrictive environment (LRE), two separate systems of education continue to exist in schools:  general education and special education.  Further, disproportionate numbers of African American, Latino, and other minority children are relegated to these separate settings as well as English language learners, who continue to be mistakenly regarded as disabled when language is the true barrier.  As funds for other categorical support programs disappear, schools have turned to special education to take on children who are, for their teachers, difficult to teach.

As a whole, the articles in this collection serve as a reminder of the persistence of troubling disparities in education.  At the same time, each article reveals new perspectives on these sticky problems.  The book is organized into three sections:  Challenging Assumptions, Critical Conversations about Disability and Race in Special Education, and Inclusive Practice in a Standards-Based World.  Each section is introduced by the editors through a brief framing paper, followed by articles that provide the broad view of the topic, raise issues and concerns, and provide specific discussion related to the articles themes.  The critical perspectives of each author engage the reader in thought-provoking inner dialogues with them.  As policy makers prepare to take up No Child Left Behind for revision and reauthorization, the commentaries in this volume may influence new approaches to the challenges of creating an equitable and excellent education system.

Section 1 is unified around the theme of alternative perspectives on disability and difference.  Included are deconstructions of discriminatory practices, pedagogical approaches, and changing conceptualizations of learning resulting from inclusive instruction.

Thomas Hehirs article, Eliminating Ableism in Education (2002), sets the tone for this section. He argues that normative assumptions privilege children who do not require educational accommodation and disadvantage children whose learning needs require different adaptations.  Ableism is the term Hehir uses to characterize this phenomenon: an assumption that fitting into normal modes should be an expected outcome of education. Learning differences become transformed into deficits through mistaken expectations of homogeneity and fit.  He uses examples from deaf education, education of the blind and visually impaired, and education of students with learning disabilities to illustrate ableist practices.  Hehirs concerns focus on practices that impede the development of independence, and hinder access and achievement in the general curriculum.

Hehir suggests that exclusively Oralist approaches distance deaf children from the Deaf community and its culture by interfering with access to instruction in American Sign Language (ASL), the preferred communication mode for those who identify as culturally Deaf.  For children who are deaf, early instruction in ASL is associated with improved English language and literacy acquisition.  

Similar assumptions about normative modes of reading and writing have limited blind children from receiving Braille instruction and orientation and mobility training.   Using audiotapes instead of teaching children to read and write in Braille, and substituting personal assistants to guide students from place to place instead of providing mobility training, hinder independence in the blind.  

The lack of early intervention in reading is a comparable barrier for children suspected of having learning disabilities. Although 20% of all children may experience difficulty with early reading development, approximately 70% of these children are estimated to be able to benefit from early intensive reading intervention.  Delays in intervention impact later access to curriculum where reading may be the principal mode for learning.

Assuming that labeling is necessary to receive compensatory help, and that special education is a place not a service, are other examples of ableism.  Particularly in the heterogeneous field of specific learning disabilities, the act of labeling does little to direct teachers toward appropriate instructional interventions.  

Finally, Hehir addresses ableism as it affects current accountability and standards issues in testing. Testing with accommodations raises issues of appropriate access.  If accommodations are limited or denied, the results may not be a valid reflection of performance.  If accommodations in a preferred modality are allowed, the construct validity of the test may be compromised.  If promotion or graduation hinges on the results of testing, what are the consequences for students (particularly, those with cognitive impairments) who are repeatedly unable to pass the tests?  Testing, he concludes, should not be the only way for students to demonstrate their accomplishments.  Holding high standards does not need to be accompanied by high stakes.  Rather, high standards should emphasize results attained as the consequence of specialized education to develop skills in optimal modalities. As a matter of social justice, normative assumptions about learning need to give way to broader ideas about access.  Universal design should supplant the conventional, ableist norms to provide equitable educational opportunities.

Timothy Reagans (1985) The Deaf as a Linguistic Minority:  Educational Considerations challenges the reader to consider the Deaf, not as pathologically defective, but as a cultural and linguistic group.  Drawing on parallels to the Black English court cases of the 1970s for equal educational opportunity, Reagan argues that bilingual educational strategies would be more appropriate for the Deaf than special education. He suggests that ASL should be regarded as the better (and native) modality for early language learning in children who are deaf, in part because it connects children who are deaf to the broader Deaf community.  

From a bilingual perspective, a high level of mastery of a native language provides a strong scaffold upon which second language instruction can be based.  Since the culturally Deaf do not regard themselves as disabled, it is more appropriate to consider instruction in English language and literacy skills from a bilingual perspective. ASL is then considered the native language, with no pejorative assumptions made about its use. Reagan suggests that bilingualbicultural education would better fulfill the needs of the deaf to be able to function within the Deaf community, but also be able to function in the hearing world where mastery of written and spoken English are necessary.  

Adopting a bilingual approach has huge implications for the training of deaf educators, many of whom do not routinely learn ASL or receive bilingualbicultural pedagogical instruction. Shifting theoretical allegiances is no small challenge.  However, Reagan argues that this would result in higher levels of academic attainment and literacy for the deaf, which would ultimately make it possible for them to function better in both the Deaf and hearing worlds.   

The final article in the first section is Citizenship for All in the Literate Community: An Ethnography of Young Children with Significant Disabilities in Inclusive Early Childhood Settings (Kleiwer et al., 2004).  This article challenges assumptions about literacy learning by describing moments of emergent literacy embedded in the play of included preschoolers. These vignettes show how teachers tap into their students strengths, interests, and capacities. Classrooms are equipped with a varying array of semiotic tools, narrative settings, and activities to foster narrative engagement at many levels in a variety of modes.  Despite language impairments, the children featured in each vignette demonstrate their grasp of pragmatics (social language), attach meaning to gestures or symbols, and show general awareness of many conventions of a literate environment.  Teachers, aware of the many modes that convey literacy, capture the literate acts of all of their children and use these as opportunities for scaffolding them into the play of the broader community.  Through these vignettes, the authors portray extended conceptualizations of preliterate behavior in children.

In the second section, Alfredo Artiles article extends the discourse of critical race theory developed in Lisa Delpits and Jim Cummins articles from nearly 20 years ago.  To the power discourse of race, Artiles adds the social justice discourse of inclusive education and examines some of the unresolved gaps and silences that exist between these two political movements for equity in education.  Even though Delpits and Cummins articles come from an earlier time, the subjects continue to be relevant.

In Special Educations Changing Identity: Paradoxes and Dilemmas in Views of Culture and Space Alfredo Artiles (2003) writes about two different discourses within special education that have separated the issues of inclusion from the issues of race, culture, and overrepresentation in special education. The implementation discourse of inclusion is largely silent on the inclusion of minority children with disabilities in general education.  Artiles suggests that this dual deficit of minority culture and disability becomes a dilemma for treatment in the general classroom:  Should the student be accommodated for disability, or does accommodation connote cultural difference as defect? More broadly, Artiles questions whether differences should make a difference.  Should differences in race, culture, class, or ability be problematic?

Artiles examines the gaps and silences between the overrepresentation and inclusionist discourses. Cultural identity is rooted in the historical, but is expressed in the varying metrics of a cultures history, a persons life, and moment-to-moment events.  Even though an individuals cultural history is important in the discourse of overrepresentation, it does rest entirely in a cultural history of oppression.  In the histories of many oppressed cultures, there is also a history of resilience.  Individuals within a culture, in a particular context may use those resources of their heritage to transcend adversity. Looking solely at the historical oppression of a culture ignores the complexities of language, racial, and cultural contributions, seated in individuals, and interacting over time, in various contexts.

Inclusion discourses tend to be built on comparisons of inclusive and noninclusive settings, or on the developmental effects of inclusion on individuals over time.  These perspectives fail to confront racial and cultural factors in interaction with environment, or between individuals, when examining the effects of inclusion.  The complexities of environment and culture would predictably contribute to the effects of different instructional configurations but have not been studied.

Space, which might be regarded by ecological theorists as mediated openings is also a source of concern for Artiles. Space is conceptualized by its dimensions:  First is tangible, physical space; second is idealized, conceptual space; and third is a space which is open to contestation of power and control (Soja, 1996). Overrepresentation discourse concentrates primarily on physical space: how race and culture affects placement in special education and in segregated environments, with less attention paid to transformative, visionary spaces. By contrast, inclusive discourses focus on idealized, conceptual concerns. Both discourses need a convergent space where conflicting ideas about power and control intermingle the contrary social justice discourses of both overrepresentation and inclusion.  The challenge is to bring together some of the best insights of these two discourses while continuing critical dialogue.

Lisa Delpits seminal article, The Silenced Dialogue:  Power and Pedagogy in Educating Other Peoples Children (1988) addresses the issues of unequal distribution of power in the classroom as it affects participation and achievement. She argues that language reflects culture; the pedagogical dispositions of many teachers reflects the dominant culture. Students whose home culture is different than the dominant culture need explicit instruction in the covert meanings of the code and expectations of the school (dominant) culture so that they may gain access to the culture of power. Individual teacher efforts, she says, are not enough to tip the scales toward equity. Because teaching the code is a political as well as cultural endeavor, these concerns should be reflected in teacher preparation, as well as in the classroom.

The third article in this section by Jim Cummins, Empowering Minority Students:  A Framework for Intervention, (1986) applies critical race theory to Cummins analysis of the power relations at work in bilingual settings. In order to reduce failure of minority students in school, Cummins offers an empowerment framework that substantially equalizes relationships between educators, the cultural community, and students. He supports legitimating language and culture by bringing the community and its language into the school, actively using languages for learning, and using assessments as opportunities to identify and to build upon strengths.  From his perspective, minority students cultures should be valued for their differences. Incorporating their language and culture should be part of the integral connection to school. Cummins urges educators to adopt a reciprocal pedagogy, where each learns from the other.

Alan Gartner and Dorothy Kerzner Lipsky (1987) in Beyond Special Education: Toward a Quality System for All Students, say that the original intentions of special education were for children with learning difficulties to be given compensatory instruction and returned to the general educational setting.   Students with disabilities were anticipated to participate in the least restrictive environment, not to be kept in a separate place.  Over time, special education became identified as a space in which to put children who were difficult to teach. In their research, Gartner and Lipsky found little or no data on successful exits of students back into general education, which suggested that there was very little interest in whether children with disabilities were returned to the general education classroom.

They attribute the separation of children into special education to the influence of the medical model for diagnosis and treatment, which held that disability resided in (and was a permanent part of) the child.  By providing a useful and rational distinction between able and disabled, this interpretation upheld the functional separation of children into two separate programs.

Flaws in special education contribute to its failure to help children with disabilities meet their expected potential.  A host of ambiguities are evident in the referral, assessment, and placement processes for children with suspected learning disabilities. For example, identification of learning disabilities depends on judgments; many poor and minority children are mistakenly identified as having learning disabilities.  Funding plans, rather than specific needs, influence both the numbers of children identified and in what programs they are placed.

Gartner and Lipsky say that attitudes are responsible for the barriers to participation attitudes that arise out of ignorance and the social construction of disability. These attitudes and assumptions lead to exclusion and lowered expectations, and they contribute to disabling effects on children in special education.  As other program funding decreases, no child is beyond scrutiny for placement in special education.  

In order to interrupt these socially reproductive practices, Gartner and Lipsky envision a unified system of education, where all children learn together. Their proposal is for a changed, unitary system of education for all, drawing upon Effective Schools research (Edmonds, 1979a, 1979b). This requires fundamental changes in how difference is perceived, how schools are organized, and what purpose schooling serves for its students and society. Effective schools research recommends (a) high expectations, (b) instructional leadership, (c) a safe environment, (d) a shared vision, and (e) continuous checks of student progress. The authors argue that all students should receive instruction that enables them to attain common goals, leading to maximum adult participation in a democratic community.  They oppose labeling and placement as inherently inequitable and favor changes at an institutional level that would affect attitudes, beliefs, and instructional practices in recognition of the idea that difference is not defect.  

In The Special Education Paradox: Equity as the Way to Excellence, Thomas Skrtic (1991) uses critical theory to examine the assumptions, silences, and gaps related to schools as organizations and the special education paradox. He perceives a contradiction between educational excellence and educational equity as it has affected the acceptance of children with disabilities in the general education environment, as well as how it has affected the adaptability of school organization and administration and how school failure is conceptualized.

In a functionalist reading of the school as organization, social reality is assumed to be objective, orderly, and rational. Maintaining difficult to teach children in the same classroom with others is considered an inefficient use of resources and personnel. Educational administration is an impediment to change, since its role is to oversee the rationalfunctional efficiencies of the factory-model school.  By dispatching problematic students away from general education, the uncertainties associated with school failure are obscured. Because school failure is perceived to reside in the students, rather than circulating throughout the system, the system continues to function, siphoning more and more defective children away from general education.

Although opponents of inclusive education acknowledge that special education has not produced high quality results for its students, they believe that general education is not adaptable and that findings in research will ultimately lead to improvements in special education. Skrtic argues that students with high incidence, mild disabilities are not well-served in either the general or special educational setting; it doesnt eliminate failure in the general classroom, nor does it benefit those excluded. In order to realize equity and excellence for all, Skrtic suggests that schooling needs to be restructured so that more broadly heterogeneous groups of students can learn together. Opponents argue that the labeling process (and placement in special education) is politically useful; it gives access to special funding for extra service.

Looking at the overall organization of schooling, the outside management is organized as machine bureaucracies, where work is simple, division of labor is into small, simple tasks, and theory is separated from practice. From the outside standpoint, teaching is seen as a technical skill, to be reproduced and repeated. The complex work of teachers, a professional bureaucracy, operates inside schools.  Individual teachers, inside their classrooms, exercise their professional discretion to make decisions.  

Rituals of overt conformity take place at the boundaries between the outer, machine bureaucracy, and the inner, professional bureaucracy. Schools and teachers outwardly comply with the demands of the machine bureaucracy while covertly carrying out the work of the professional bureaucracy within. Both the machine and professional bureaucracies are standardized and efficient; they work as stable systems, discouraging change.  

Skrtic suggests that this kind of standardization limits innovative teaching. The conformity required of teachers and schools to meet standards and accountability, monitored by the outer machine bureaucracy, constrains new practices. When calls for educational change come, the school organization may display outward symbols and signs of change without substantially changing what happens in the classroom. Attempting to create an inclusive organization in this framework is complicated by power differentials and struggles for individual primacy. Collaboration within the bureaucratic structure does not resolve the ownership of student failure.

Looking at schools as a culture, Skrtic says, change is necessary to confront ambiguities.  In a postindustrial era, school organization based on efficiency is outmoded. The nature of postindustrial work is often novel (nonrepetitive) and requires ongoing problem solving, drawing upon knowledge from a number of different points of view. In order to have schools function democratically, and realize both equity and excellence for all students, Skrtic suggests that there is a need for a third strategy for organizing the work of schools: adhocracy, built on principles of innovation. Schools that are successful, he says, are schools that have transcended bureaucracy and individualism, in order to meet new and constantly changing needs.  In such school organizations, members collaborate to creatively solve problems and craft novel solutions. In cultural terms, these flexible groups hold shared interests in solving problems; the stakeholders, both clients and professionals, jointly hold accountability.

In Complexity, Accountability, and School Improvement Jennifer ODay (2002) discusses a multiyear analysis of data gathered in a study of accountability measures in Chicago Public Schools (CPS).  Like No Child Left Behind, CPS uses the school as the unit of accountability for improving school learning (an outcome-based bureaucratic accountability system), and has many years of data to use as the basis for theory building and extension. ODays purpose is to examine organizational learning and adaptation in the context of accountability systems for improvement. She argues that accountability systems support improvement where resources are made available so that information that focuses on teaching and learning can be gathered, individuals and schools can use it to improve instructional practice, and schools can build the knowledge base needed to interpret and apply it.

Using a complexity theory as her framework, ODay describes the workings of the various parts of a school system and the difficulty of identifying causal relationships within a complex system. ODay suggests that in complex adaptive systems, because many players are simultaneously adapting to each other, the emergent future is hard to predict.  

Like Skrtic, her analysis identifies an outer, bureaucratic management structure at work, focused on procedures, compliance, and accountability. The outer bureaucracy is loosely coupled with the inner workings of the schools.  Her analysis focuses on the dynamics between the outer bureaucracy and the inner workings of schools when they are placed on probation for poor student performance.  Based on her analysis, she concludes that there are four weaknesses in CPS outcome-based bureaucratic accountability system (where the school is the unit of analysis and individual student learning is the outcome).  First, the outcome measure is not well-connected to the curriculum of instruction; and it is administered only once a year, so it does not provide the timely, detailed information needed to apply to instructional practice.  Second, the outer bureaucratic management structure has little effect on the development of school cultures that foster sustained, professional learning and adaptation.  Third, the negative incentive structures constrain innovation or risk taking; they divert attention away from the goal of sustained improvements in student learning and focus attention instead on survival of the school.  Finally, the resources available for school improvement are inadequate and ill defined.  The management bureaucracy fosters top-down transmission of directives and information that does little to build the knowledge that would enable schools to interpret and apply information for improvement.

ODay considers professional accountability as an alternative to the current management bureaucracy.  Its strengths are that responsibility for instructional practice rests on the shoulders of those directly responsible for improved student learning: teachers.  Teachers may collaborate around commonly held problems to develop and share ideas about improved practice. Teachers can also gather and apply classroom-level data to support causal links between instruction and student outcomes.  

However, ODay notes general weaknesses in the professional culture of the teachers and their attainment of the high levels of content knowledge demanded for a prepared workforce.  She also notes poor effort on the part of teachers toward improving equity for minority children, particularly those in inner city schools. Also, she says that teachers are generally mistrusted by the public.

ODay proposes a combination of professional and bureaucratic accountability.  This would provide incentives for professional learning communities to engage in sustained work on improving student learning. By shifting from external to internal control of school improvement, this system fosters a commitment to accountability by connecting a schools teachers together through a common purpose.  The information generated by their work would be a valid and accurate reflection of school improvement achieved under authentic conditions for teaching and learning.

Further, ODay claims that her suggested combination of management and professional bureaucracy is more appropriate to the task of school improvement since it provides information about teacher performance as well as student outcomes. In addition, it allows for finer tuning of assessment aligned to the needs of teachers in the classroom, as well as broader assessment for district use.  Districts would be able to develop other connections within and across different parts of the system to pool information for use in school improvement efforts.  Finally, she contends that this multilayered approach would lead to the development of a rich knowledge base among teachers enabling them to interpret information and data leading to improved practice and outcomes.

It is always disheartening to find that the state of education for children with disabilities has continued to be so problematic for the past 30 years, even though much has been learned about many of the social dynamics that contribute to the problems of special education as it exists within the schools as organizations. Many authors in this volume appear to agree that special education, as a separate place, contributes to discrimination against people of all manners of difference. Inevitably, finding solutions to some of the issues they target involves fundamental changes in beliefs, attitudes, and dispositions.  How difference is conceptualized, and how that contributes to individual and collective action, seems to be one of the core issues. If difference is seen as defect, then practice has not taken schooling very far from the old biases and prejudices challenged in Brown.  

In the shadow of these collective and discouraging reminders of how embedded biases about difference can be, these articles challenge some of the common practices of special education, offer alternative perspectives on the implications of these practices, and suggest new directions that education policy makers, researchers, and educators might consider to advance equity and excellence in educational practice. Taken as a whole, these articles fuel critical examination of the organization of schools and the context of special education as part of the organizational structure.  Although there is broad agreement that the organization is flawed, different authors detail solutions that are premised on conflicting theories. The importance of these readings, then, is to question the conventional organization and power relations of school bureaucracies and to consider how to enable schools to function as democratic systems.  How can schools be reconfigured to bring about both equity and excellence for all students?  The challenge for the future of education is to be able to create a fluid system where difference is a taken for granted attribute of every child who enters a classroom.


Edmonds, R. (1979a). Effective schools for the urban poor. Educational Leadership, 37, 15-27.

Edmonds, R. (1979b). Some schools work and more can. Social Policy, 9 (5), 26-31.

Soja, E. W. (1996). Thirdspace: Journeys to Los Angeles and other real-and-imagined places. Oxford, England: Blackwell.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 108 Number 8, 2006, p. 1628-1638
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 12286, Date Accessed: 10/26/2021 4:43:30 PM

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About the Author
  • N. Kosobud
    Michigan State University
    E-mail Author
    KATHLEEN KOSOBUD is a Disability and Diversity Scholar in the Special Education doctoral program at Michigan State University, with interests in family-school collaborations and special education policy. She has worked with students with disabilities ranging from mild to severe for the past 25 years. She is on leave from the Ann Arbor (Michigan) Public Schools.
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