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Placing Children in Special Education: A Strategy for Equity.

Placing Children in Special Education: A Strategy for Equity Placing Children in Special Education: A Strategy for Equity. K. A. Heller, W. H. Holtzman, and S. Messick, Editors. Washington, DC: National Academy Press (2101 Constitution Ave., Washington, DC 20418), 1982. 381 pp. $18.95.

Placing Children in Special Education is the response by the National Research Council (NRC) to a request from the Office of Civil Rights (OCR) of the U.S. Department of Education to study the overrepresentation of minority children and males in special education programs for mentally retarded students. The interest of OCR in placement issues derives from the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution and Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 which prohibits "the classification of persons in such a way that disproportionate harm--including the harm of separateness--accrues to members of a group identified by race, color or national origin" (see report, p. 3). The National Research Council is the principal operating agency of the National Academy of Sciences (NAS).

The report, including a set of principles for improving research and practice, was prepared by a panel of 15 members. Two panelists, James J. Gallagher of the University of North Carolina and Reginald B. Jones of the University of California, are well-known special educators and psychologists, but most others were lawyers, psychiatrists, measurement specialists, or non-school-psychologists. Chairperson of the panel was Wayne Holtzman of the Hogg Foundation for Mental Health, University of Texas; Vice-chairperson was Samuel Messick of the Educational Testing Service. Kirby A. Heller served for the NRC as the study director.

The panel satisfied itself quickly that indeed there were disproportionalities of the kinds that had caused concern among OCR staff. Nationwide data for 1978, for example, showed that 3.46% of the Black children in school were enrolled in programs for students who were educable mentally retarded (EMR); the comparable figure for White children was 1.07%.

The panel was not willing to assume that reduction of disproportionality per se would result in more effective programs for the children involved, nor, indeed, that more effective instruction would necessarily reduce disproportionality. Attention of the panel turned to two issues: (a) the validity of referral, assessment, and placement procedures; and (b) the quality of instruction received--both in regular classes and in special education programs. In the words of Panel Chairperson Holtzman "educational benefits for children became our unifying theme" (Preface, p. x).

"What is needed" to justify placement in a special program for retarded children "is evidence that children with scores in the EMR range will learn more effectively in a special program or placement" (p. 61). That conclusion followed a discussion of issues of assessment, much of it focussed on IQ tests. Considering issues of effective instruction, the panel concluded that "we can find little empirical justification for categorical labeling that discriminates mildly mentally retarded children from other children receiving compensatory education" (p. 87) and that the "weight of evidence clearly points to a group of instructional practices that seem to benefit all of these children" (p. 87).

The panel report has much significance for several trends now prominent in special education, such as the two-phase approach to referral and placement of children who show difficulties in regular school programs. The first phase involves attempts to improve the learning environment and instruction in the regular class; the second phase, referral to special education, is followed only if specifically prescribed practices are needed that are not feasible in the regular classroom. Other trends supported by recommendations of the panel include study of learning environments as well as of children in making diagnoses, assessment practices that validly assess the functional needs of the individual child and for which there are potentially effective interventions and attempts to make regular class instruction more effective. The entire report has relevance in the current debates about the so-called "regular education initiative."

If the report were to be summarized in one sentence, it might be as follows: It is the responsibility of the placement team that labels and places a child in a special program to demonstrate that any differential label used is related to a distinctive prescription for educational practices and that these practices are likely to lead to improved outcomes not achievable in the regular classroom.

This report reminds one of a similar major study and report of the mid-1970s, Nicholas Hobbs' Future of Children (1975). Both the NAS and Hobbs' reports examine in detail issues of classification and placement in special education. In both cases, background papers are provided along with a summary report. The NAS report includes six background papers in a final section, about half the book. Topics covered are (a) Biological and Social Factors Contributing to Mild Mental Retardation, (b) Classifying Mentally Retarded Students: A Review of Placement Practices, (c) Testing in Educational Placement, (d) Effects of Education Placement, (e) Potential Incentives of Special Education Funding Practices, and (f) Placement as Revealed by the OCR Surveys. The American Educational Research Association devoted almost an entire issue of The Educational Researcher (Vol. 13, no. 3, 1984) to a review and critique of the NRC report.

This book is of broad significance to special educators, especially to those who serve children with relatively mild handicapping conditions. It is one of those major "once-in-a-decade" statements that challenge an entire field or profession to new levels of accountability in both practice and research. This is required reading, I believe, for all who propose to be literate in special education.


Hobbs, N. (1975). The future of children. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Reviewed by MAYNARD C. REYNOLDS, Professor, Special Education Programs, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis.
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Author:Wood, Frank H.
Publication:Exceptional Children
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jan 1, 1988
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