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The pitfalls and promises of special education practice.

* Cultural, racial, and economic diversity are realities in American schools. Unfortunately, academic achievement is correlated with this diversity, meaning that, on the average, some ethnic groups continue to experience low achievement. For example, African-American, American Indian, and Hispanic children tend not to experience high achievement. Some educators have tried to address the problem, but their efforts over the years have been notoriously unsuccessful. As we continue to try to provide remedial services for the student who gets behind and special education services for students with disabilities, we should follow the admonition sometimes heard in the medical profession, "When you are deciding about a treatment for a sick patient, first do no harm." Our children are in need of high-quality teaching; in some cases, they need special education or remedial services. As we seek to provide these, we must first do no harm. Either our special services must have the high probability of being successful or there is no need for such services at all.


At this point in the history of the United States, we do not have a system of education that matches, in quality, the economic and political position of the most powerful nation in the world (though our position here, too, is slipping). Embarrassing reports appear regularly in various media to remind us that the United States ranks near the bottom of industrialized nations in the academic achievement of its young people. Allowing for bias in assessment instruments and weaknesses in evaluation practices, we still must search hard to find evidence of real power in U.S. education systems generally. Real pedagogical power means that all children reach a high level of achievement on criterion-based standards. It means that children who may have disabilities receive sophisticated, valid services that cause them to do better than they would have done if they had not received special services at all.

Many of us are familiar with the statistics that support this conclusion, but few of us seem to have confronted the profound implications of that conclusion. A nation so situated academically-- and being challenged by economic forces from around the world--would certainly seem to be a nation that would give urgent, compelling attention to education for the masses, the engine of its future success.

In addition, that nation ought to be concerned about the quality of life of all citizens, which means that education for employment is only a part of the problem. For example, locating, evaluating, using, and contributing information for one's personal use is a goal for the masses of our people. We are far behind on such things as simple literacy, not to mention access to the vast network of computerized information services.

In other words, we have a major problem with the regular educational system. One of our great needs is for an honest and comprehensive look at the nature of these problems. Until we do, the problems associated with special education-- and equity issues that derive from them--can hardly be solved, inasmuch as they are imbedded in the larger problem of the quality of regular education.


We know that we have a problem in equity when we see the outcomes of education distributed as a function of socioeconomic status, race, culture, and language groups. This symptom is manifest first in the regular education system and is later found in the special education system (Skrtic, 1991). It may be exacerbated in the special education system, when able children are diagnosed invalidly, labeled, and placed in special education (Heller, Holtzman, & Messick, 1982; Hilliard, 1987).

Sensitive observers have always been aware, at an intuitive level, of some of our major problems. In recent years, however, a growing number of educational researchers and theoreticians have provided us with precisely the type of analytical literature that is grounded in empirical documentation, followed by inspired theoretical analysis (Lipsky & Gartner, 1989; Skrtic, 1991 ). This new literature allows us to take the dilettantes out of the game. It also imposes a higher level of responsibility on those of us who have become familiar with the significant and essential literature. Let me give just a few examples of what I mean.

The NRC Report

Some years ago, the U.S. Office of Civil Rights expressed alarm at the disproportionately high number of African-American males that were being placed into classes for students with mental retardation. An appeal was made by the Office of Civil Rights to the National Research Council (NRC) of the National Academy of Sciences to do a study to determine the reasons for this phenomenon. The question of the scientific validity of certain practices in special education was at issue. As is its practice, the NRC selected a diverse group of scholars and commissioned them to do a state-of-the-art paper on special education placement practices. After 2 years of evaluation work, the NRC issued a report, Placing Children in Special Education: A Strategy for Equity (Heller et al., 1982).

The field of special education was slow in responding to this important report, the first of its kind. A ran; declaration was made at the very beginning of this report, that the very purpose of assessment and placement in special education was to improve the educational outcomes for children. This simple declaration had far-reaching implications. If this were indeed the purpose of special education, then all practices could and should be evaluated against that rigorous criterion. One important goal of the NRC's Committee on the Placement of Children in Special Education's literature review was to discover if assessment and treatment in special education had the positive and significant effect that was expected.

The results of the literature review were a shock to some. There were no data to support the conclusion that assessment, placement, and treatment led to higher achievement. To make matters worse, the review also revealed that referral was tantamount to placement, that the highly touted "team assessments" did not function as intended, and that the individualized education program (IEP) system was not functioning as intended. The review made a host of other equally important revelations. In short, an elaborate system was in place that did not function in keeping with its own rules. And worse still, its benefits for the students were nil.

Skrtic's Review

There have been many critics of special education and of tracking that leads to homogenous groupings (Glass, 1983; Lipsky & Gartner, 1989). But perhaps the most comprehensive review of literature (and a critique of regular and special education practices) was conducted by Thomas Skrtic (1991). He reviewed all the literature (both pro and con) on the regular education initiative (REI) and on special education effectiveness. Skrtic's striking discovery was that although researchers and other professionals substantially agreed on what the empirical data showed, they disagreed over what to do about it. For example, no one claimed that significant benefits were found as a result of special education treatment. Yet many insisted that present practice should be continued, largely on the grounds that resources were needed if the acknowledged problems were to be solved.


I do not argue here that the deficiencies in special education practice, which are also tied to deficiencies in regular education, should result in the abandonment of special education services. I know that some small proportion of the student population will manifest some true disabilities. I believe there can be no justification for the abnormally large numbers of students classified with learning disabilities or with mild mental retardation. Yet there are valid ways to diagnose the smaller number of true impediments (Feuerstein, 1979, 1980; Lidz, 1987). This means that there is a need for diagnosticians. There are also systematic approaches to pedagogy that produce meaningful academic gains for the students. In other words, I believe that there is meaningful work to be done in special education. What we need is a paradigm change.

Feuerstein's Approach

Recognizing that there are other approaches to the solution of the problem of how to improve special education practice, I will use Feuerstein's (1980) work as the model of what has to be done. In doing this, I am mindful especially of the needs of cultural minority groups who have been most harmed by existing practice. I believe that approaches similar to that of Feuerstein offer the most valid, useful, and beneficial instruction.

Over the past 30 years or so, Reuven Feuerstein, an Israeli psychologist, and his colleagues have developed a clinically grounded, articulated, and theoretically elaborated diagnostic and mediational ("remedial") system. Thousands of hours of clinical observations of low-performing learners under a schema derived from the cognitive psychology of Jean Piaget, have generated a cognitive map--an articulation of the parameters by which mental acts can be analyzed. Associated with this map and derived from the clinical observation is a listing of a "set of deficient cognitive functions." These deficient functions are akin to habits that impede efficient functioning.

In addition to the diagnostic side of the approach, Feuerstein and his associates have developed a highly articulated set of mediation ("teaching") strategies. Thirty years of clinical experience with these strategies have yielded powerful ways to change the approaches of learners in a meaningful, long-lasting way. Naturally, much more empirical research is needed for a full validation of this important work. However, there are few if any competitors for the system that is called Dynamic Assessment (diagnosis) and Instrumental Enrichment (mediation or "remediation").

Special Education Imperatives

Without going into details about Feuerstein's system, I believe it represents the elements and the outlook that must be present in any services in assessment and special education, if benefit to children is to be the main criterion for evaluation of the services.

1. We must assume that children's thinking can be changed significantly. We do not know their upper limits.

2. We are interested in the processes of thinking and how they can be changed, rather than in the product for comparative purposes (ranking and classification).

3. We must require that any system that is employed be able to produce significant and meaningful change in students' cognitive and academic functioning.

4. We should, given the existence of a successful system, have a theoretical explanation of it.


The cultural diversity and uniqueness of different ethnic groups can easily be documented (Cohen, 1969, 1971; Cole, Gay, Glick, & Sharp, 1971; Hilliard, 1976, 1983; Levi-Strauss, 1966; Smith, 1978, 1979; Smitherman, 1977; Tenhouton, 1971; Turner, 1949). Culturally sophisticated observers can explain much of the unavoidable bias in measurement and assessment. The abuses of treatment and assessment in the case of ethnic minorities can also be easily documented (Chase, 1977; Deparle, 1990; Gould, 1981; Kamin, 1974). Yet, the equity issues in special education services have less to do with bias and fairness than with pedagogical validity (Hilliard, 1979, 1983, 1984). The question is, Can learning impediments be overcome or eliminated, allowing the formerly impaired student to perform significantly better than he or she would have without the services, or allowing the student to perform well in the mainstream academic program? We should either initiate systems such as Dynamic Assessment and Instrumental Enrichment to produce valid beneficial results or, in the absence of a valid competing system, terminate the special services altogether. Custodial care hardly justifies the extensive and complicated instructional system that has emerged.

African Americans and other ethnic minority groups have the same needs for special services as do all others. However, invalid services or even valid services that fail to produce benefits for the children are an unnecessary burden on the children and their families. Appropriate services are those that are pedagogically valid (which also assumes that they are culturally sensitive and salient).

Applying the benefits criterion in the evaluation of special services, including assessment, should offer a welcome opportunity for professionals to institute services with a scientifically valid basis.


Chase, A. (1977). The legac.,v of Malthus: The social cost of scientific racism. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

Cohen, R. (1969). Conceptual styles, culture conflict, and non-verbal tests of intelligence. American Anthropologist, 71(5), 328-857.

Cohen, R. ( 1971 ). The influence of conceptual rule sets on measures of learning ability. In M. Tumin (Ed.), Race and Intelligence. Washington, DC: American Anthropological Association.

Cole, M., Gay, J., Glick, J., & Sharp, D.W. (1971). The cultural context of learning and thinking: An exploration in experimental anthropology. New York: Basic Books.

Deparle, J. (1990, November 30) An architect of the Reagan vision plunges into inquiry on race and I.Q. New York Times, p. A1.

Feuerstein, R. (1979). The dynamic assessment of retarded performers: The learning potential assessment device. Baltimore: University Park Press.

Feuerstein, R. (1980). Instrumental enrichment. Baltimore: University Park Press.

Glass, G.V. (1983). Effectiveness of special education. Policy Studies Review, 2 (1), University of Kansas. Gould, S.J. (1981). The mismeasure of man, New York: W.W. Norton.

Heller, K.A., Holtzman, W.H., & Messick, S. (Eds.). (1982). Placing children in special education: A strategy for equity. Washington, DC:National Academy Press.

Hilliard, A.G. III. (1976). Alternatives to IQ testing: An approach to the identification of "gifted" minority children. Final report to the California State Department of Education, Special Education Support Unit. New York: Columbia University. (ERIC Clearinghouse on Early Childhood Education, ED 146009)

Hilliard, A.G. III. (1979). Standardization and cultural bias as impediments to the scientific study and validation of intelligence. Journal of Research and Development in Education, 12(2), 49-58.

Hilliard, A.G. III. (1983). Psychological factors associated with language in the education of the African-American child. Journal of Negro Education, 52 (1), 24-34.

Hilliard, A.G. III. (1984). I.Q. testing as the emperor's new clothes: A critique of bias in mental testing. In C. Reynolds & R.E. Brown (Eds.), Perspective on bias in mental testing (pp. 139-169). New York: Plenum Press.

Hilliard, A.G. III. (Ed.). (1987, April-July). Testing African American students [Special Issue]. Negro Education Review, 38(2-3). (Also see reissue, 1992, by Southern Education Foundation, 135 Auburn Ave., 2nd Floor, Atlanta, GA 30303.)

Kamin, L. (1974). The science and politics of IQ. New York: Wiley.

Levi-Strauss, C. (1966). The savage mind. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Lidz, C.S. (Ed.). (1987). Dynamic assessment: An interactional approach to evaluating learning potential. New York: Guilford Press.

Lipsky, D.K., & Gartner, A. (1989). Beyond separate education: Quality education for all. Baltimore: Paul H. Brookes.

Skrtic, T.M. (1991). The special education paradox: Equity as the way to excellence. Harvard Educational Review, 61(2), 148-206,

Smith, E.A. (1978). The retention of the phonological, phonemic, and morphophonemic features of Africa in Afro-American ebonics (Seminar Series Paper #40). Fullerton, CA: Department of Linguistics, California State University at Fullerton.

Smith, E.A. (1979). A diagnostic instrument for assessing the phonological competence and performance of the inner-city Afro-American child. (Seminar Series Paper #41). Fullerton, CA: Department of Linguistics, California State University at Fullerton.

Smitherman, G. (1977). Talkin' and testifyin': The lan- guage of Black America. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Tenhouton, W. (1971,July). Cognitive styles and the social order, Los Angeles: University of California at Los Angeles, (Distributed by National Technical Information Service, U. S. Department of Commerce, 5285 Port Royal Road, Springfield, VA 22151)

TURNER, L. (1949) Africanisms in the Gullah dialect. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

About the Author

Asa G. Hilliard III is the Fuller E. Callaway Professor in the Department of Educational Foundation at Georgia State University, Atlanta
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Title Annotation:Issues in the Education of African-American Youth in Special Education Settings
Author:Hilliard, Asa G., III
Publication:Exceptional Children
Date:Oct 1, 1992
Previous Article:Self-concept of African-American students: an operational model for special education.
Next Article:Examining the instructional contexts of students with learning disabilities.

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