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Prereferral interventions: progress, problems, and challenges.

Prereferral Interventions: Progress, Problems, and Challenges

ABSTRACT: Special education has supported the implementation and study of a variety of

prereferral interventions as a means of reducing the number of inappropriate formal referrals,

especially in the field of learning disabilities. Programs of preservice teacher education are

beginning to reflect the practice of prereferral activity programmatically by including

preparation for teaming and consultation roles. In this article, the assumptions associated with

the most prominent categories of prereferral interventions being adopted--consultation and

informal problem-solving teams--are examined. A critical analysis of the benefits and limitations

of each approach is offered, and alternative conceptions of prereferral practice are then

presented. * Perhaps one of the most complex issues currently being debated in special education is how best to redefine teacher roles in the context of prereferral intervention. As various permutations of prereferral intervention are developed, special educators are increasingly making choices regarding the kinds of informal support roles they will play. Because prereferral activity is commonly associated with professional interaction between adults in the schools, these choices represent significant and major changes in the kinds of preparation prospective special education teachers will receive.

Prereferral intervention typically is classified under one of two general categories: (a) informal, school-based, problem-solving teams (for example, Teacher Assistance Teams as developed by Chalfant, Pysh, & Moultrie, 1979); and (b) consultation on the part of special education teachers (Friend, 1984; Graden, Casey, & Christenson, 1985; Idol-Maestas, 1983; Paolucci-Whitcomb & Nevin, 1985). These approaches have much in common and generally can be defined as systematic attempts by special education teachers to assist classroom teachers before the initiation of formal identification procedures currently mandated by law. Defined as such, prereferral intervention is an extraordinarily progressive concept for a number of reasons.

First, by supporting prereferral intervention, special educators acknowledge the limitations of the cumbersome and resource-intensive diagnostic and identification procedures specified in Public Law 94-142, especially as they relate to inaccurate labeling of students as learning disabled. Second, the concept of prereferral intervention is based on the redistribution of the resources of special education toward more immediate problem solving and far greater interaction with general education. Third, with the implementation of prereferral interventions, the absence of other, informal alternatives for teacher problem solving within the current organizational patterns of the schools is highlighted. Fourth, by supporting prereferral intervention, special educators give credence to the notion that classroom teachers are likely to need problem-solving strategies for many students for whom referral is not and will never be a viable option. Finally, this trend reflects the serious difficulty posed by burgeoning numbers of students in the category of learning disabilities; it attempts to deal with learning and behavior problems that inaccurately may be identified as handicapping conditions at the site of their initial emergence--the general education classroom.

Without question, the concept of prereferral intervention has great face validity; the apparent speed of its implementation, in a variety of forms (see, e.g., West & Brown, 1987; Carter & Sugai, 1989), is a likely indication of the degree to which more efficient and less formal means of problem solving are perceived to be lacking. Nevertheless, in combination with the press of public scrutiny regarding resources devoted to special education, and the vocal and growing concern over the overidentification of students as learning disabled, such intuitive appeal may lead to the adoption or mandating of prereferral interventions in relative haste. Inadequate consideration is likely to be given to the long-term effects of adopting such approaches.

As special educators struggle with the question of role redefinition as it relates to prereferral activity, it is imperative that we inquire into the assumptions underlying current approaches to prereferral. The purpose of this article is to offer such an analysis and to present alternative ways of conceptualizing prereferral intervention.


Prereferral interventions were developed in response to the lengthy processes mandated by P.L. 94-142. Following is a brief review of our interpretation of the assumptions upon which legislated practice is based. This review can serve as a "baseline" against which to compare assumptions underlying concepts of prereferral intervention.

Public Defense of Problem

When a referring teacher initiates a referral by sending a written description of the problem to a professional or group of professionals for their action, the problem immediately becomes part of the public domain of education professionals who represent multiple disciplines in the school. Subsequently, referring teachers have to defend the existence of the problem as first described to the members of the committee.

No mechanism exists for a reinterpretation of the teacher's initial perception of the situation, although such early perceptions may not represent an accurate reflection of the actual problem. The problem as it is initially conceptualized by the referring teacher may be concretized prematurely (Pugach & Johnson, 1987).

Transfer of Problem Ownership

With the formal act of referral, classroom teachers transfer ownership of the problem to a team of professionals with specialized expertise. At this point teachers may perceive that they have fulfilled their responsibility; the potential exists for teachers to absolve themselves from responsibility for further action. This is understandable, because the issue is now in the hands of professionals who are considered to be better equipped to deal with the problem than the classroom teacher. Solutions to classroom problems are acknowledged as being outside the classroom and the classroom teacher's control.

Dependence on Specialists for Problem Clarification and Solution

With formal referral, the verification of the problem's existence depends largely on the results of standardized testing completed by specialists. The subsequent solution can only be arrived at in the presence of specialists, who, by virtue of their preparation, are seen as possessing the requisite knowledge to develop an appropriate solution.

Classroom teachers have not been assured a place in the process of accumulating data, implying that the information available from this particular group of professionals holds a less important place than the expertise of specialists. Although classroom teachers are sometimes encouraged to attend meetings at which identification and eligibility decisions are made, they are not mandated to attend.

Centralized, Complex Decision Making

To accumulate adequate verifying data and to analyze those data in the presence of all interested parties (including parents), the multidisciplinary staffings that follow formal referral are necessarily complex and require orchestration and technical organization. Those assigned to the coordinating function must plan meetings around the time and schedules of numerous individuals, each of whom has different responsibilities. Of these, classroom teachers tend to be the least easy to accommodate, given the constant daily press of their classroom and teaching responsibilities. Not only is the process complex in terms of organization, but it is complex in a practical sense as well. Referring teachers spend much valuable time and energy completing requisite paperwork and waiting for meetings to be scheduled. To accommodate such complexity, the process necessarily becomes highly formalized and time consuming.

These assumptions form the basis of an hierarchical, bureaucratic, and centralized problem-solving process in which specialists occupy the highest position and classroom teachers, the lowest. How are the assumptions underlying prereferral interventions different from those associated with formal referral? If prereferral interventions are to be effective in reducing inappropriate referrals, we would expect readily identifiable and distinct differences to exist. The following sections examine the degree to which the assumptions underlying informal school-based problem-solving teams and consultation, the most common forms of prereferral intervention, are similar to or different from those associated with the standard, legislated multidisciplinary staffing process.


As a form of prereferral activity, informal problem-solving teams are known by a variety of names that include concepts of support (school support teams), assistance (teacher assistance teams, school assistance teams, or building assistance teams), and appraisal (school appraisal teams). Such teams are meant to serve two basic purposes. First, they can provide immediate informal assistance to teachers as a means of solving mild learning and behavior problems in the classroom. Second, they can serve as a screening mechanism for determining which referrals should be forwarded formally for a full evaluation. Such teams are school based, typically have permanent membership, and meet on a regularly scheduled basis. In concept, informal teams differ significantly from multidisciplinary teaming mandated by law because (a) teachers are not obligated to wait for the results of lengthy standardized testing before taking action, and (b) teaming is meant to provide ongoing, as opposed to one-time, assistance.

Team membership is commonly based on diverse membership and includes multidisciplinary representation. Teams may be made up entirely of specialists and an administrator, with the referring teacher coming to the team for assistance; or they may have one or more permanent "master" teacher members representing general education.

When team membership is drawn primarily from a variety of specialists within the school in combination with few, if any, classroom teachers, the procedures for problem solving still appear to operate under many of the same assumptions that already characterize the existing, mandated referral process. For example, the referring teacher usually presents the problem publicly on a referral form, in writing. The nature of the problem is thus made permanent based on the referring teacher's written statement and is subsequently defended to the group. Even if a written referral is not required, the centralized nature of decision making in an informal team continues to result in bureaucratic complexity and centralization similar to that existing under legislated practice (Mehan, Hertweck, & Meihls, 1986). A standing group of staff members must be convened on a regular basis to hear problems taking place in general education classrooms.

Although lengthy testing is bypassed in this model of prereferral intervention, the solution to the problem can be arrived at only in the presence of specialists, thus implying limitations on the expertise and problem-solving capacities of classroom teachers. However, because standardized testing is not a prerequisite in the informal teaming model, the implications concerning the lack of expertise of classroom teachers are far more subtle than with formal referrals. Nevertheless, on such teams, the fact remains that the experience and expertise of classroom teachers are undervalued. In essence, the only assumption that is significantly different when informal teams are set up with primarily multidisciplinary representation is that the ownership of the problem is meant to remain with the classroom teacher who initiates the discussion. Yet to some extent even this assumption is violated; the task of summarizing and interpreting the problem that anchors the participants' thinking before the meeting may belong to a specialist team leader to whom the referring teacher reports.

Under a multidisciplinary interpretation of informal prereferral teams, then, the hierarchy that dominates legislated practice is essentially retained, and the day-to-day operation of such teams often shows a remarkable resemblance to teaming patterns that have existed since the 1975 mandate began. When procedures to access the team are highly formalized and the decision-making process is highly centralized--without actively involving classroom teachers in the process--most of the same assumptions that characterize existing multidisciplinary teams are likely to be in place.

In contrast to these multidisciplinary interpretations of informal problem-solving teams, the original conceptualization of teacher assistance teams (TATs) (Chalfant et al., 1979) calls for three classroom teachers who meet to determine whether administrators or special education personnel should hold permanent membership. The referring teacher and the parent constitute the fourth and fifth members of the original team. The fundamental concern of Chalfant et al. in establishing TATs was to move away from an expert-only model of problem solving to one that institutionalized the role of classroom teachers as sources of expertise in the process.

In the rapidly evolving variations of school-based teaming for problem solving that exist today, such teaming is often initiated by special education administrators, pupil services personnel, or special education teachers who, rightfully concerned about escalating referral rates, want to effect change quickly and efficiently. In general, teaming appears to represent a meaningful alternative to existing practice. However, the similarity of informal, multidisciplinary teaming to mandated teaming practices may not be easily apparent in the rush to adopt a new approach to classroom intervention through prereferral.


Consultation is another method of solving problems informally, before time-consuming formal referrals are made. Although the specific processes of consultation vary, all are similar in that the special education teacher or the school psychologist provides one-to-one consultation services to classroom teachers (see, e.g., Fuchs & Fuchs, 1988; Graden et al., 1985; Idol-Maestas, 1983).

Compared with mandated practice, the consultation approach to prereferral intervention is meant to provide far more immediate service to classroom teachers in a far less structured manner. Because consultation is meant to be classroom based, two problematic assumptions associated with mandated practice are not associated with consultation, namely: (a) public defense of the problem and (b) complex, centralized decision making. Classroom teachers work directly on the problem in a one-to-one relationship with the consultant and are never put into the position of convincing a public gathering of professionals that the problem exists. As a consequence, complex organizational arrangements do not enter into the problem-solving dynamics. These are notably meritorious qualities of consultation and properly move special education services into a more interactive mode with general education.

On the other hand, this approach to consultation still retains two of the assumptions that characterize standard practice: (a) the dependence on a specialist for appropriate problem solutions and (b) the transfer of problem ownership. Clearly, these two assumptions are related. Although the initial contact in a consultant-consultee relationship typically comes from the classroom teacher, the direction of service delivery in consultation moves from special to general education, or from school psychology to general education. Consultants get information about the problem from the classroom teacher, thus in appearance allowing problem ownership to be retained by the initiating teacher. However, the solution is developed only with the assistance of the special education or school psychology consultant. This arrangement implies, perhaps unintentionally, that without the participation of a specialist, the classroom teacher is not likely to develop an appropriate solution.

In an expert model of consultation, the relationship between owning the problem and solving it are contradictory; the classroom teacher owns the problem but not the solution. The solution is arrived at with the help of a consultant who typically is well versed in specific intervention techniques, often based on behavior management and data-based instruction, but is less well versed in the curriculum, demands, and orientations of the general classroom and more often than not has never had to experience the challenges these classrooms present. It is not surprising, then, that Reisberg and Wolf (1986) conclude:

Regular educators, who are faced with large

classes and a variety of instructional demands,

may be unwilling and resistant to implement

interventions for a variety of reasons.

Interventions may be seen as being too complex, time

consuming, aimed at only a few children, or

disruptive to the general classroom program.

More recently, proponents of consultation have begun to use the term collaborative consultation to denote a more equitable approach to consultation based on greater parity between special and general educators (Idol, Paolucci-Whitcomb, & Nevin, 1986). This approach to consultation involves "the creation of a sense of parity, which is a part of yet is distinct from equality" (Idol et al., 1986, p. 6). There is meant to be a "blending" of skills to create greater problem-solving power. These particular authors are adamant in their stance that, in the collaborative mode, consultation is not a hierarchical dynamic and that the consultant must remember that the teacher has valuable knowledge about his or her classroom and students.

However, the consultant is still present to guide the teacher to an appropriate solution while remembering to treat the teacher with respect and credit for his or her ideas. The underlying assumption is that, even if parity appears to exist between the two participants, the problem could not have been properly solved without the input of the special education consultant, who must remember to treat the classroom teacher as an equal partner. These exhortations regarding respect and equality appear to be emphasized in an attempt to overcome the natural tendency of special education consultants to see themselves as more knowledgeable than classroom teachers.

Programs of teacher preparation in consultation have demonstrated the importance of taking into account the needs of the classroom teacher in a consulting relationship, whether it be consultation as it was initially conceptualized, or the new collaborative consultation interpretation. For example, such programs have stressed the need for agreement among participants regarding possible interventions and data-collection techniques (Idol-Maestas, 1983).

In theory, many consultation models are based on a shared problem-solving relationship in which the consultant and consultee achieve parity (Graden et al., 1985). However, these approaches to consultation appear to remain fundamentally expert models based on the existence of a hierarchy among education professionals in the schools with the flow of information moving from specialists to classroom teachers (Johnson, Pugach, & Hammittee, 1988).

From the outset, consultants bring to the relationship the belief that their methods, which are often behavioral, are not in the repertoire of the classroom teacher and are likely to be bypassed unless a consultant directs teachers to these interventions and demonstrates their potential. Although it may be unintentional, such a belief implies a lack of respect for the professional knowledge and expertise of the classroom teacher.


Without question, both informal teams and special education consultation have much to recommend them. They represent the most concerted and organized efforts to date to remediate unnecessarily restrictive parts of P.L. 94-142; and they appropriately redirect the time and energy of special education personnel toward the immediate solution of learning and behavior problems in the classroom. Likewise, they are meant to provide assistance to teachers for students who have not been identified as handicapped. In intent, then, both approaches to prereferral intervention are clearly improvements over legislated practice.

Further, both approaches appear to be consistent with some of the more important recommendations in proposals for reforming the organization and operation of both schools and the preparation of teachers. For example, the need for building-level responsibility shared among professionals in the schools is underscored by Goodlad (1984). Similarly, consultation between teachers reduces the isolation that typically characterizes the work of many classroom teachers; it encourages collaborative problem-solving characterized by collegial professional relationships (see Carnegie Forum on Education and the Economy, 1986; The Holmes Group, 1986). Given such apparent benefits, what disadvantages might accrue over the long term if these prereferral interventions are adopted and institutionalized?

Informal problem-solving teams with little or no regular representation by classroom teachers run the risk of fast becoming another layer of bureaucracy--in addition to multidisciplinary staffing teams--whose complexity diverts rather than marshals resources toward the immediate resolution of problems (see Mehan et al., 1986). Such well-intentioned teams may fall into the same patterns that have heretofore characterized formal multidisciplinary staffings under P.L. 94-142--the issue of whose expert interpretation of the problem is the "correct" one.

As has been documented with Individual Education Program (IEP) meetings, classroom teachers invited to these meetings may react with similar intimidation and lack of assertiveness in front of a group made up largely of specialists (Goldstein, Strickland, Turnbull, & Curry, 1980). Or they may be treated with differentially low status, relegated to answering specialists' questions rather than offering independent summaries of their professional views (Mehan et al., 1986).

In addition, informal teams that are primarily multidisciplinary may become arenas of conflict and uncertainty about new roles for specialists--whose tasks are meant to differ greatly under a model of informal decision making. For example, school psychologists, who would less frequently be expected to provide services related to administering and interpreting standardized testing, may have difficulty assuming the alternative, less prescriptive, and more interactive set of responsibilities the teaming approach implies.

If potential problems such as these come to fruition, the important goal of building collegial problem solving at the building level, which is a central goal of educational reform, will not easily be achieved. Rather, individuals may be more concerned with defending what they perceive as their "turf."

In the case of consultation, the long-term scenario may be somewhat different. The potential disadvantages revolve around two issues: (a) the movement toward increased professionalism for classroom teachers as represented in the reform efforts of such organizations as the Carnegie Forum and the Holmes Group, and (b) the degree to which methods offered by consultants represent unique information to teachers. As the education community works toward achieving greater professionalism, a major and explicit goal is that classroom teachers will take greater responsibility for educational decision making. Indeed, the Holmes Group (1986) report states the following:

As research has demonstrated, many

classroom teachers now defer to these experts in

educational decision making, even when it

may not be in the child's best interest to do so.

When confronted with arcane test results,

teachers--like parents--frequently feel

disadvantaged in presenting their own, often more

valuable, insights regarding a child's status

and needs. The Professional Teacher would

speak with legitimate authority on behalf of

children. Thus, these practitioners would be

more autonomous and responsible in making

judgments about students than most teachers

are today.

As classroom teachers are increasingly prepared for these decision-making responsibilities and as schools are reorganized to promote them, teachers may be even less inclined than Reisberg and Wolf (1986) have noted to accept the suggestions of special education professionals--who lack expertise in the operations of the general classroom. Instead, classroom teachers may find that as they become more comfortable, confident, and skilled in their decision-making abilities, they are in fact capable of solving many mild learning and behavior problems effectively.

Such a sense of professional efficacy has largely been absent, and there has been little expectation for problem solving of this nature to take place among classroom teachers. Nor has time been built into the schedules of teachers to allow this dynamic to occur on a regular basis. Yet the message of educational reform is clear: "Properly staffed schools can only succeed if they operate on the principle that the essential resource is already inside the school: determined, intelligent, and capable teachers" (Carnegie Forum, 1986, p. 58).

Further, as teachers continue to incorporate more effective teaching practices into their schools and classrooms, and as programs of general teacher education restructure their curricula around sound practice, methods of intervention that heretofore may have been seen as the province only of special education are likely to be used by classroom teachers with increasing frequency. For example, it is no longer unusual to see classroom teachers promoting cooperative learning or peer tutoring.

Techniques of contigency contracting or positive reinforcement are much more prevalent in classroom teaching. These are often the methods special education teachers now bring to the schools; as they are built into the repertoire of classroom teachers, the tools of the special educator are in danger of ceasing to provide something unique. Although this may not occur quickly, it certainly appears to represent the trend in general teaching and teacher education.

These scenarios present a serious dilemma for special educators, who in good faith are promoting and implementing prereferral intervention procedures. On the one hand, prereferral is a progressive step and solves some of the basic problems that have been an unanticipated outgrowth of P.L. 94-142. On the other hand, the long-term effects of prereferral as it is currently conceptualized may lead to serious difficulties that seem to stand in direct conflict to the goals of professionalization of classroom teachers and decentralized, teacher-based empowerment that constitute the agenda of the parent general education community within which special education exists.

Further, prereferral intervention represents only one level of change--that of within-classroom alternatives needed if schools are to accommodate students with problems. Changes will also be needed in curriculum and school structure. Given the magnitude of this dilemma, what alternatives might exist for the development of prereferral procedures?


Initial conceptualizations of prereferral intervention may not offer genuine alternatives to the assumptions upon which legislated practice is based. If prereferral activity is to provide a significantly different method of problem solving for teachers, it will have to address more directly the relationship between general and special educators. As teacher educators grapple with preparing their special education graduates for prereferral activity, the following assumptions place such activity in the broad context of educational reform and emphasize the interactive relationship between special and general educators. Assumption 1: Prereferral is a function of general education. Prereferral interventions were instituted to improve the quality of general education so that students would not unnecessarily be served through the special education system. Their fundamental purpose is to identify and implement successful interventions with students as a method of preventing inappropriate identification as handicapped. When the routine use of alternative strategies for instruction and management is inextricably bound to special education processes, namely prereferral, such interventions are perceived as being owned by special education and prereferral activity is not meant to be properly engaged in without the participation of special education.

This approach to prereferral intervention is consistent with the belief that the recent experience of special education with mainstreaming has provided a rich source of expertise applicable not only to students currently identified as handicapped, but also to the large group of students identified as being at risk for school failure (see, e.g., Will, 1986). Yet it would seem inappropriate to conceptualize prereferral activity only as an institutionalized part of the special education system at a time when general education is reconceptualizing its fundamental approach to classroom teachers. If prereferral activity is seen as "owned" by special education, classroom teachers likely will not gain independence in identifying resources and expertise among themselves, in working effectively with their peers, in reflecting on and monitoring their own practice as a source of problems, and in developing solutions to which they can be committed. A more appropriate stance on the part of special education would be to support the development of classroom teachers as independent problem solvers, recognizing that only some classroom problems require special education intervention (Pugach & Johnson, 1988). It is perhaps more appropriate to conceptualize prereferral simply as one of the regular responsibilities of classroom teachers--as an essential part of classroom teaching. Special educators and school psychologists should be seen as contributing to, rather than controlling, the process of classroom problem solving. Assumption 2: Consultation is a multidirectional activity. As it is commonly practiced, consultation represents a unidirectional relationship, with the classroom teacher always receiving assistance from a specialist. In a true collegial atmosphere, all education professionals within a school would be consultants for each other at one time or another. For example, considering the relative lack of familiarity with the general education curriculum on the part of special education teachers, classroom teachers could provide much needed expert consultation to special educators on issues such as preparing handicapped students to function in the mainstream. Likewise, specialists could continue to offer advice to classroom teachers on more severe instructional and behavior problems. A multidirectional approach to consultation would contribute to breaking down the hierarchical relationships between general and special education teachers. Prereferral activity based on this assumption signifies a role reversal from the traditional expert position in which special educators and school psychologists typically function.

This argument is not meant to preclude in any way the important place of intercollegial interaction in the schools. In contrast, it is meant to raise a distinction between institutionalized hierarchical consultation and consultation that is reciprocal and voluntary. In a voluntary arrangement, although interaction is appropriate, it is not expected that classroom teachers interact with specialists to solve problems. Rather, in a climate of true collegiality, peers will naturally interact in a collaborative mode. This type of collaboration and dialogue is what Goodlad (1984) appears to have had in mind; it should be strongly encouraged on the part of special and general education teachers alike. This assumption is predicated on the development of teacher-to-teacher dialogue as a basic form of professional activity in the schools.

Perhaps the ultimate embodiment of parity among teachers is the situation in which classroom teachers and special education teachers co-teach. In this arrangement, both are forced to recognize each other's strengths and weaknesses, share a common group of students, and approach the task of teaching from an equal, collegial framework, which of necessity represents a commitment to common goals. Assumption 3: Classroom teachers have adequate expertise to solve many classroom problems in the absence of specialists, given time and an appropriate structure to do so. As stated earlier, in their original conceptualization of Teacher Assistance Teams, Chalfant et al. (1979) recognized the importance of teams staffed by classroom teachers. They stated: "Teachers have the ability to create unique and effective suggestions and must be allowed and encouraged to do so". This stance is based on the belief that, provided with an appropriate structure for problem solving, classroom teachers are a skilled group of professionals. A similar concern has prompted successful research on developing strategies to assist pairs of classroom teachers to serve as peer collaborators for one another (Johnson & Pugach, 1988; Pugach & Johnson, in press). In this work, classroom teachers designed specific, individualized, data-based solutions to many mild learning and behavior problems, in the absence of special educators, by engaging in structured dialogue designed to develop metacognitive thinking and to focus teacher attention on the variables they can manipulate in the classroom. Both approaches take into account the fact that the participation of specialists may result in discomfort on the part of classroom teachers and may curtail their full participation in the problem-solving process. Further, they provide teachers with a relatively safe environment within which to question the adequacy of their own instructional and management practices without always having an external "finger of blame" pointing at them.

Teacher-directed teams and teacher-to-teacher collaboration represent a major departure from much current prereferral activity. Both imply a diminished role for specialists with regard to students with mild learning and behavior problems. Both imply that distinctions need to be made between problems that classroom teachers can solve and those for which expert advice is needed. Ironically, although prereferral interventions were initially founded on the need to reduce the unnecessary involvement of specialists, many informal multidisciplinary teaming and consultation models as they now operate continue to fail to make these crucial distinctions. Instead, they operate under the assumption that all problems require the presence of specialists, but not formalized testing. In the opinion of the authors, classroom teachers can make distinctions regarding which problems require the contribution of specialists and can be successful problem solvers themselves.

It is impossible, however, to expect classroom teachers to reach their potential as problem solvers given existing conditions of work in schools. Teachers need time to engage in the reflective process that skilled problem solving requires, time to step back from daily teaching pressures. They need specific structures that contribute to the development of individual interventions and time to monitor their progress. In the absence of such changes in the organizational climate of schools, prereferral practice is unlikely to succeed. Assumption 4: All problems do not require the same configuration of educators to develop solutions. When informal problem-solving teams are constituted with permanent membership, the assumption is that only one particular combination of experts and their accompanying skills is adequate to address problems. An alternative approach would be that teams could be constituted anew by each teacher experiencing a problem. The core team might consist of only the principal and the referring teacher, who then decide on team membership for that particular problem. Such voluntary, rather than mandated, teams would promote more of a schoolwide commitment to collegiality and group problem solving than do permanent teaming configurations. Further, the esteem of classroom teachers would be raised; they would retain ownership of problems and their solutions. Problems would be shared rather than relinquished. Specialists would be called on to help only when their particular expertise is deemed appropriate and valuable. Such a fluid approach is consistent with reform proposals promoting classroom teachers as the basic professionals in the schools, professionals who will have the option of calling on support staff as they deem it necessary (Carnegie Forum, 1986).


The preceding set of alternative assumptions would result in approaches to prereferral intervention that take the process out of the context of special education and place it where it fundamentally belongs, in the general teaching environment. These assumptions are based on the notion that teachers have the capability to solve problems but also that such problem solving occurs only when teachers have both the time and structure to engage in that process. The current organizational structure of schools, one that places the resources for problem solving outside the reach of classrooms and classroom teachers and within special education under the rubric of prereferral, stands in fundamental opposition to building-level problem-solving processes of this nature.

By advocating problem-solving solutions based in general education, special education agrees to work toward delineating the lines between special and general education more clearly and to focus its resources on students with identifiable handicapping conditions. Further, the development of improved problem-solving capabilities of classroom teachers is consistent with current trends in general teacher education to identify ways of increasing teacher reflectivity (Clift, Houston, & Pugach, in press; Zeichner & Liston, 1987). In the context of prereferral interventions, the proprietary role specialists now play only defers a consideration of what constitutes the proper boundaries of special education in the schools.

Special education is at a critical crossroads. The opportunity is ripe to interact more productively with the general education community by becoming its partner, but doing so will necessitate a redefinition and probable reduction in the scope of special education services, especially in the categories of mild handicapping conditions. Consolidation and expansion, as represented by current efforts to broker prereferral practices, is likely to take special education even farther than it now stands from education as a whole, whereas recognizing its limitations is likely to move special education closer to a more reasonable definition of its teaching tasks. The outcome of special education's current involvement with prereferral will likely be a good indicator of the path the field chooses to pursue.

MARLEEN C. PUGACH is Associate Professor, Department of Curriculum and Instruction, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. LAWRENCE J. JOHNSON is Associate Professor, Area of Special Education, The University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa.
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Title Annotation:includes bibliography
Author:Pugach, Marleen C.; Johnson, Lawrence J.
Publication:Exceptional Children
Date:Nov 1, 1989
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