Not many years ago, Dexter, a 10-year-old mute paraplegic in Indianola, Miss., or 7-year-old John from Greenwich, Conn., confined to a wheelchair with cerebral palsy, might have been kept in institutions or left to languish at home in front of the TV. School was an impossible dream for many such children.
John, Dexter and the nation's 4.3 million other handicapped youngsters have been rescued from isolation, ignorance and hopelessness, thanks largely to the 1975 federal Education for All Handicapped Children Act, which entitles them to "a free, appropriate education."
Meanwhile, the enterprise known as special education has developed from a $5-billion program in 1977 to a $20 billion-a-year system. For the one child in nine who gets such services, it has produced "a sea change," in the words of Secretary of Education William J. Bennett, who rarely gives such high praise to the public schools.
"We've set the world's standard in special education," he said.
But when reporters visited 102 schools in 15 states over the last year, they found a darker side, a system troubled by confusion, inequity and checkered results largely overlooked by the reports that have called for education reform over the last five years.
Slow Learners Included
The critics say that special education has become a dumping ground for slow learners who have no real handicaps. Special-education teachers themselves are challenging the methods used to identify and instruct handicapped students. Many view the special education label itself as a handicap, and there are hints of backlash over the costs of the special services.
Among the problems:
Untold thousands of underachieving or hard-to-teach children are in classes for the handicapped, classified as learning disabled, a poorly understood term with perhaps 50 different definitions. These children are placed in special-education classes simply because the schools lack workable alternatives.
At P.S. 146 in the impoverished East Harlem section of New York City, special-education supervisor Charles Evans conceded that some of the 11 youngsters who spend all day in Judi Gimpelson's class for the mildly handicapped could be taught in regular classrooms.
Regular classes are overcrowded, so special education is the only place problem youngsters can get extra help, Evans explained.
Some critics say that pupils with less clear-cut handicaps lose more than they gain in such settings. Others are suspicious of the motives of the teachers who send them there.
Problem Pupils Banished
Some have been banished from regular classes "because they were a pain in the butt, or because they didn't please the teacher in some other way. They didn't follow directions," said Stillman Wood, special-education director in Olympia, Wash.
Almost 5% of the nation's 39 million schoolchildren are classified as learning disabled. No one really knows how many of them are genuinely handicapped, but some experts estimate that perhaps two-thirds of them may merely be slow learners.
- Easy to enter, tough to leave.
Once a teacher decides a youngster needs special education, the placement is virtually inevitable.
A University of Minnesota professor of educational psychology, James Ysseldyke, found in a 1983 study that almost 75% of the 3% to 6% of the school population referred each year for testing is found eligible for special education.
"It is clear that the most important decision made in the entire assessment process is the decision by a regular classroom teacher to refer a student for assessment," Ysseldyke said.
For the overwhelming majority of these children, the door swings only one way: out of regular classrooms and into a world where the pace is usually slow and expectations low.
Many Enter, Few Return
A recent study by the Council of Great City Schools estimated that less than one-fifth of students placed in special education ever return to full-time, regular classes. Only 2% of New York City's 116,000 special-education pupils return each year.
- Race and sex inequities.
Blacks are 16% of the public school population, but they make up 37% of the students who are labeled retarded, according to U.S. Office of Civil Rights statistics. Boys outnumber girls in classes for the emotionally disturbed, by as much as 9 to 1.
The disproportionate number of minorities can be traced, in large part, to the use of IQ tests, which have been criticized as culturally biased. Lawsuits in Georgia and California forced those states to end their reliance on such tests for special-education placement.
Why so many boys?
"We don't know. You have to ask God that," said Robin Perencevic, head teacher at Arevalos School for autistic children in Huntington Beach, Calif.
- Uneven state standards.