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Comparative study of parental participation in regular and special education programs.

Comparative Study of Parental Participation in Regular and Special Education Programs

ABSTRACT: The purpose of this study was to determine if significantly different opinions existed

between parents of regular education students and parents of special education students

concerning (a) school involvement, (b) quality of instruction, and (c) equality of educational

opportunity. Data were gathered from a telephone survey of 1,702 randomly selected parents.

Results showed a comparable pattern of responses between parents of handicapped and

nonhandicapped students. Apparently, whether a child was enrolled in regular or special

education had only a negligible effect on either parent involvement or satisfaction with the

schools. * A growing body of professional literature has affirmed that parental participation is an indispensable ingredient of academic excellence (Epstein, 1987; Turnbull, 1983). Findings from diverse studies over the past two decades have revealed that an active parent-school partnership can contribute not only to the enhancement of the educational performance of students, but also to the improvement of parenting skills and family life (Cone, Delawyer, & Wolfe, 1985; Lillie, 1975; Schaefer, 1972).

Recognition of the importance of parent involvement in special education resulted in the congressional mandate that schools and families cooperate in the planning of Individual Education Programs (IEPs) for students with disabilities (The Education for All Handicapped Children Act of 1975, Public Law 94-142). Specifically, the statute stipulates that parents must be notified of, and be afforded the opportunity to participate in, educational decisions that directly affect their child. This legal proviso pointedly was intended to promote parent involvement while at the same time safeguarding the educational rights of students with disabilities.

Comparable federal legislation that would provide parents of regular education students equivalent opportunities for school involvement presently does not exist. Accordingly, it might be assumed that the level of educational participation of exceptional parents would exceed that of parents of nonhandicapped children. It also might be anticipated that, as a result of their increased opportunities for involvement, parents of special education students would possess more favorable attitudes about both the quality of instruction and the equality of opportunity within the schools.

Although several studies subsequent to the enactment of P.L. 94-142 have attempted to assess the educational involvement of families of the disabled (Fuqua, Hegland, & Karas, 1985; Meyers & Blacher, 1987; Yoshida, Fenton, Kaufman, & Maxwell, 1978), no research apparently has been published that directly compares the level of school participation of special education parents with that of regular education parents. It therefore was the threefold purpose of this field study to determine if significantly different opinions existed between these two groups concerning (a) school involvement, (b) quality of instruction, and (c) equality of educational opportunity.


A questionnaire was developed to elicit the candid responses of parents concerning the aforementioned research issues. Cognizant that the length of the survey would directly affect the rate of response, an instrument was constructed that would gather the greatest amount of information in the briefest period of time. Ten tersely worded, closed-ended questions ultimately were devised to investigate the opinions and attitudes of regular and special education parents.

A team of 20 professionally trained telephone interviewers was employed to conduct the field study. Interviewing took place on weekday evenings between 6:00 and 9:00 p.m. as well as on Saturday from 11:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m. during the spring of 1988. Delivery of a scripted introduction and subsequent individual administration of the survey were designed to last no longer than 7 minutes.

Subjects participating in this investigation were parents of students enrolled in a large, urban, public school system in the midwestern United States. The racial and ethnic composition of the schools consisted of approximately 70% Black and 24% Caucasian. Among the remaining 6%, Hispanic, Asian, and Native American ethnic groups were represented. Nearly 90% of all students were instructed exclusively in regular classes, and the remaining 10% received supplemental special education services.

From a computer-generated list of 6,500 names within the school system's automated pupil record file, 1,918 parents were successfully contacted via telephone. Ultimately, 1,702 of these randomly selected parents agreed to participate fully in the field study. The resultant sample was composed of 69.5% Black, 27% White, and 3.5% other subjects. Within this representative sample, 1,539 (90.4%) subjects were parents of students enrolled in regular education, and the remaining 163 (9.6%) respondents reported having children assigned to special education programs.

Responses received from all participants in the survey were tallied and frequency distributions and percentages were computed for each item of the questionnaire. To facilitate further analysis of these descriptive statistical data, responses from regular and special education parents were tabulated separately. Last, t values were calculated for all survey items to ascertain if any significant differences existed between the two groups.


In regard to the issue of school involvement, findings from the field study revealed a comparable pattern of responses between parents of handicapped and nonhandicapped students (see Table 1). Only a small proportion of each group reportedly had been contacted by either a teacher or school administrator to request their participation in a school-related activity. Predictably, even fewer parents indicated that they had served on a school committee during the past year.

Substantial majorities of both groups nonetheless agreed that sufficient opportunities for involvement were available to them. More important, most respondents expressed satisfaction with their present levels of participation in educational decision making. Even more parents perceived education to be a mutual obligation of home and school.

However, only one item within the entire survey revealed a statistically significant difference between the responses of the two groups. The percentage of exceptional parents who reported being contacted by their child's teacher during the past year was found to be significantly greater, at the .01 level.

In reference to the quality of education, large majorities of both groups seemingly were satisfied with the implementation and outcomes of instruction in the schools (see Table 2). Most parents apparently concluded that the caliber of teaching was competent enough to enable students to attain life goals.

Concerning educational opportunity, the percentage of affirmative responses from both groups was identical (see Table 3). A large majority of all subjects believed the schools provided children equivalent opportunities to learn. Regarding the related issue of equality of treatment, barely a majority (52%) of the total sample acknowledged that students were treated as equals regardless of race, religion, or handicapping condition.


Although it was determined that exceptional parents were significantly more likely to be contacted by a teacher to discuss their child's education, no other statistically significant differences were found between the two surveyed groups within this predominantly Black, urban school district. Evidently, the impact of P.L. 94-142 has been limited to increasing communication between school and home without enhancing the educational involvement of parents.

This incongruous finding may be attributable to the fact that some exceptional parents conceivably have concluded that they are ill prepared to address the special learning needs of their children. Hence, out of frustration or despair, they may have chosen to relinquish any additional responsibility for their child's education.

Reinforcing this avoidance behavior by parents of exceptional children may be the attitudes of special educators themselves. As Yoshida et al. (1978) reported, the predominant view expressed by surveyed school personnel participating in IEP meetings was that parents of exceptional children lacked sufficient expertise to be involved in educational decision making. Clearly, the existence of such aloof, elitist attitudes among professionals must be expunged if a truly productive parent-school partnership ever is to emerge within special education.

As the results of this study reveal, teachers and administrators will need to redouble their efforts to increase the involvement of parents in school planning and decision making. Parents of the handicapped and nonhandicapped alike must be persuaded to become active participants rather than passive observers of their children's education. Realization of this outcome will require that school officials successfully communicate to parents that meaningful opportunities for educational collaboration truly exist.

To strengthen the linkage between school and family, Fuqua et al. (1985) have recommended that special educators organize parent-support groups and home-based teaching programs. These researchers concluded that direct, informal, and personal interactions between home and school not only facilitated dual-directional communication, but also enhanced teacher appreciation of parent involvement. Such conventional channels of communication as school conferences, telephone calls, or letters were found to be far less effective means of enlisting parent participation.

Irrespective of insignificant fluctuations in the frequencies and percentages for individual items within this survey, a consistent pattern of responses emerged between parents in both groups. Apparently, whether a child was enrolled in regular or special education had only a negligible effect on either parent involvement or satisfaction with the schools. The results of this study suggest that, even though 13 years have elapsed since the passage of P.L. 94-142, the Act has not significantly altered the levels of school participation of parents of exceptional children.

Perhaps the most positive conclusion that may be inferred from the findings is that parents of exceptional children appear to perceive the schools as addressing the needs of their children at least as adequately as do parents of regular education students. Although advocates of the handicapped might lobby legislators for more, such a level of special educational services may be precisely what Congress intended when P.L. 94-142 was enacted (Yanok, 1986).

In the opinion of the U.S. Supreme Court in the landmark case of Hendrick Hudson District Board of Education v. Rowley (1982), the statute does not compel the schools to maximize the learning potential of handicapped children, but instead mandates only that they be guaranteed access to instruction equivalent to what is available to all students. Thus, the concurring responses of surveyed special and regular education parents regarding both the quality of instruction and the equality of opportunity suggest that the intent of Congress has been partially realized. [Tabular Data 1 to 3 Omitted]

JAMES YANOK is Coordinator of Special Education Programs, Ohio University, Athens. DIANE DERUBERTIS is Research Consultant, Kent, Ohio.
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Title Annotation:includes bibliography
Author:Yanok, James; Derubetis, Diane
Publication:Exceptional Children
Date:Nov 1, 1989
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