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Kill my program: at Loyola, a philosophical fight over "special" education

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In 1974 the U.S. Comptroller General released a report that said 60 percent of American children with disabilities were not being appropriately educated and one million were being excluded entirely from the public school system. In 1975 the federal Education for All Handicapped Children Act was passed. It guaranteed a "free and appropriate public education" in the "least restrictive environment" for all children with disabilities.

This law put the onus on local school districts not just to serve disabled kids but to serve them to the maximum extent possible in the schools they would be attending if they weren't disabled. The districts had to design schools and programs to fit these students rather than continue the commonly accepted practice of automatically sending them to segregated schools for the disabled, sometimes hundreds of miles away.

At that time the integrationist model for educating disabled kids gained huge momentum. According to this model, segregated schools are often dumping grounds, more custodial than educational, serving bureaucratic convenience and a mind-set that equates physical disability with intellectual inferiority. The sacred philosophical pillar of integration is the "least restrictive environment" (LRE); most often the LRE is a neighborhood school that addresses the unique needs of the disabled by accommodating them, sometimes by means as simple as a ramp, rather than segregating the students.

Joy Rogers, professor of counseling and educational psychology in Loyola University's school of education, believed in the 70s, as she does today, that LRE makes tremendous sense for reasons of social development as well as education. The real world is heterogenous and segregated schools are not, Rogers says, so they leave students woefully unprepared. "They send you to Texas and Washington. It costs an exorbitant amount of money and it does no good. They send you to an island. I suppose it's surrounded by sharks so there's no escape. You may eventually behave beautifully there, but how do you learn how to behave on 83rd and Ashland? It's just as important for kids who don't have disabilities. We can't teach people to get along with each other when we keep them apart."

So in 1980 Rogers and others created the master's in special education program at Loyola, designed to produce teachers dedicated to integration. But at this point Rogers believes that her once-proud creation has become a monster, the opposite of what it was meant to be, and should be put to death, after "a decade of rancor." So she's going over the heads of her department and the school of education, organizing advocates for the disabled to pressure the Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE) to decertify the program, effectively shutting it down. Rogers says the department hierarchy has taken the program so far adrift philosophically from the original intent that it would be better--for teachers, students, and the future of special education in Chicago--if it weren't there at all.

The master's program has to be recertified every ten years, so when ISBE staff visited Loyola last spring, Rogers and representatives from disability organizations pushed for a meeting to state their case for decertification. The staff met with Rogers and promised the representatives a meeting later, but that hasn't happened. (The elaborate certification process takes about a year.)

Kathleen Winter, education coordinator for Access Living, is one of the advocates Rogers has gathered. She uses a wheelchair most of the time, as she has all her life, and of all the names she could be called, the one that ticks her off the most is "special."

"I don't know anyone who has been helped by that word. It's a word that serves the system, not the person." She argues that it provides a benevolent rationalization for exclusion and disregard. Growing up in Chicago in the 1960s, Winter went to "special schools for special kids--special, special, special. And when I got out I was so damn special I couldn't get a job."

Rogers says Illinois and Chicago still lag dreadfully behind most everywhere in achieving maximum educational integration for students with disabilities. She cites U.S. Department of Education statistics that show Illinois near the bottom in the categories used to measure integration. Two years ago, the Chicago Board of Education settled a lawsuit brought by parents and community groups charging that it was not complying with the law, particularly the one requiring schools to develop "individual education plans" (IEPs) for all special education students. The settlement included the creation of a new position, associate superintendent of special education and pupil support services; it was filled by Bostonian Thomas Hehir, a strong advocate of integration. He says he knows no school system that is "in line" with the law, but most are better than Chicago's.

"I tell people we have segregated schools here," Hehir says, "and they don't believe me." He's trying to make up for lost time by turning several neighborhood schools into model "inclusive schools," with the architectural and programmatic flexibility to accommodate all kids geographically eligible to attend them. His goal is to create such schools in all districts.

But this program will succeed, Rogers argues, only if the teachers and administrators involved are dedicated to an integrationist ideal. Hehir agrees: "We can't continue to produce teachers with a 'very special' orientation. Where I see [inclusive schools] working is where there is support from the principal and all those who work in the building."

Rogers had intended the Loyola master's program to produce those kinds of educators. But, she says, it has never really done that, nurturing instead a paternalistic approach that dictates that "Kids with disabilities get on a segregated bus and are driven to a segregated school and stay till 2:30, then go home and rot until the next day."

Rogers says an original requirement that enrollees have a teaching certificate and two years of teaching experience was never really enforced, and doesn't exist at all now. Without those qualifications, Rogers says, graduates are destined to be merely special educators who know "how to manage annoying behavior" but don't necessarily have the expertise to teach students anything. "Children need access to education," she says. "They don't need to be managed. Maybe you've successfully managed their behavior all day, but you haven't taught them anything."

Winter says that going through this program and calling yourself a teacher is "like calling yourself a lawyer when you haven't been to law school."

In Rogers's eyes another fatal flaw is the teaching clinic at Loyola: special ed students are brought to campus for interaction with and observation by enrollees. This is yet another segregated, controlled environment, she argues, which does nothing to prepare teachers for life in the regular public schools. "The students are handpicked to meet the expectations of the teachers. It's a fake school. It's like trying to learn to ride a horse on a fake horse. You can get by for a while, but sooner or later a real horse is going to do something that the fake horse isn't programmed to do. You're coming out of the textbook, the clinic, and the ivory tower."

This particularly bothers Maria Elena Montes, director of Fiesta Educativa, a community organization dedicated to the rights of disabled Hispanic students. Future special ed teachers, she says, "need to know what's going on in the inner cities." What's going on for Hispanic special ed students is an 80 percent dropout rate. Montes says, "There's no regard for self-esteem. They see a disability and they think, 'I'm going to stick them in a corner with some Crayolas.'" She also points out that there's always been a lot of dumping into special ed programs of Hispanic students whose only disability is poor English proficiency.

Rogers further argues that the great majority of the special ed students taken into the Loyola clinic are not special ed students at all, or at least not students whose needs have been identified. She says almost none of those in the clinic have individual education plans.

Carol Harding, chairman of Loyola's counseling and educational psychology department, and Martha Ellen Wynne, director of the special education program, thoroughly reject the notion that they are segregationists trying to devise a program that serves that philosophy. They say that if the program does not match what Rogers envisioned, it's the result of state laws on the disabled that are contradictory but often favor segregation. "We were trying to run a program that emphasized mainstreaming and integration," Harding says. "But we've been instructed to move closer to what the state requires [training teachers in specific categories of disablement], so we're moving in the direction of making it more like a traditional special ed program."

Wynne says, "I am very much in favor of mainstreaming. Professor Rogers's views are on the far end of the continuum. The state is not approving programs reflecting that end of the continuum."

The state doesn't seem to know what direction it wants to take. On the one hand, the ISBE has undertaken innovative programs like the Regular Education Initiative and Project Choices. The Regular Ed Initiative is a training series in which special ed and regular teachers find ways to teach cooperatively in an integrated regular classroom setting. Project Choices provides technical and financial assistance to Illinois schools that want to try alternative special ed approaches, and the more creative and inclusive the better.

But then there are state laws, such as those governing the way the state reimburses local schools for certain expenses, that Hehir says provide the opposite incentive. The more segregated the program, he says, the higher is the level of state reimbursement. The state also requires special ed teachers to be certified according to specific categories of supposed expertise, such as learning disabilities and behavioral disorders. Hehir's views reflect the growing opposition to such categories, which are in most cases stereotypical, he says, and prepare teachers to view disability similarly. One certification, for instance, is teacher of the physically handicapped. "What does that mean?" Hehir says. "The only thing you can say about all kids in wheelchairs is that they're all in wheelchairs." Hehir agrees with Rogers that special ed teachers should be teachers of academic subjects first, with additional areas of generic disability knowledge.

The state's self-contradictions may reflect the contrary pressures of forces in the larger arena. The biggest obstacle Hehir says he faces, and the one he resents the most, is the political influence of private schools for the disabled, to which kids were once routinely referred. Inclusive schools threaten their supply of new students. "The job of institutions is to perpetuate themselves," he says. "There are millions of dollars at stake for them."

As for Rogers's criticism of the clinic, Wynne responds "She hasn't visited the clinic, which is located across the street, since 1985. I sometimes have little patience with people who criticize things they haven't seen." Wynne maintains that all those in the clinic are special ed students. If they don't have IEPs, that's because the schools they came from have been lax in obeying the law. (Witness the lawsuit against the Board of Ed.)

Wynne also says it's deceptive to depict the clinic experience as the only student contact people in the program get. Those who don't have undergraduate student teaching experience are required to student teach outside the clinic.

Harding says that the softening and eventual elimination of the teaching-certificate and teaching-experience requirements for enrollees were also a matter of coping with reality rather than changing philosophy. "We hoped we could attract people who taught. But it was hard to get teaching jobs in the 1980s. People weren't giving up their jobs to get a master's." She knows of no other master's program with such requirements, and adds that they are not mandated by state law.

Rogers says that if you have to adjust the master's program to fit the needs of the market instead of revolutionizing it, the program shouldn't exist. "If you're training people just because there's a market for it, that's wrong." She says there's no need to visit the clinic because she doesn't think there's anything new to see. And it doesn't make her feel any better that enrollees who student taught as undergrads have their student-teaching requirement waived, because the majority of enrollees, she says, were undergrads at Loyola and student taught in segregated special ed environments.

The ISBE's preliminary certification report, which came out shortly before the site visit in the spring, did raise serious questions about recertification, but the problem was course content rather than philosophy. Graduates receive certification in teaching those with learning disabilities and behavior disorders and those called the educable mentally handicapped. The report said the LD and EMH courses did not address those disabilities specifically enough.

Courses are being added or modified to rectify this, say Harding and Wynne. But they think the changes take the program in the opposite direction from what Rogers wants to see, one that is more highly categorized and thus tailored to segregation.

But Rogers says that any change can't help but be for the better. "It couldn't be any worse. Any opening provides a myriad of opportunities to change the focus of the program."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Paul L. Meredith.

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