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The regular education initiative debate: its promises and problems.

ABSTRACT: The most intense and controversial issue presently receiving attention in the special education professional literature is the Regular Education Initiative (REI) debate. The proposed merger of special and regular education into a unitary system has attracted both strong advocates and critics. This article examines the current parameters of this discourse, identifies specific problems and issues related to this debate, and suggests strategies for overcoming perceived obstacles and improving the overall dialogue. Particular attention is given to key groups, for example, local educators and students themselves, who have been largely excluded from the REI debate. Most of the suggested benefits of the REI movement will never accrue unless its present discourse is expanded to include these groups. Ill As the current debate involving the proposed merger of special education and regular education intensifies, it appears that many special educators feel compelled to choose sides. Either one is for or against what has commonly become known as the Regular Education initiative (REI), the movement advocating that the general education system assume unequivocal, primary responsibility for all students in our public schools-including identified handicapped students as well as those students who have special needs of some type. Thus, most proponents of the REI (e.g., Reynolds, Wang, & Walberg, 1987; Sapon-Shevin, 1987a; Stainback & Stainback, 1984; Will, 1986) call for a dissolution of the present dual system in our public school structure, to be replaced by a unitary educational system, which, if carefully designed and implemented, would allow for a more effective and appropriate education for all students.

In brief, REI advocates argue that the current special education delivery system is beset with a multitude of problems. They see it as based on flawed logic, as discriminatory, as programmatically ineffective, and as cost inefficient. Whereas the rallying cry of special education professional and advocacy groups during the 1960s and 1970s was "greater access to the mainstream," today it is being replaced by a much more complex rallying cry: "full access to a restructured mainstream" Skrtie, 1987a).

Advocates argue that "mere access" to the current general education mainstream is not enough. However, because of the deficiencies in organizational structure of general education, along with its present inability to respond effectively to individual student diversity and difference, general education requires a major reconstitution if it is to meet the needs of handicapped and other special needs students (Edgar, 1987, 1988; Reynolds et al., 1987; Skrtic, 1987a, 1988).

Most writers commonly identified as REI "opponents" (e.g., Gerber, 1988; Hallahan, Keller, McKinney, Lloyd, & Bryan, 1988; Keogh, 1988; Mesinger, 1985) generally attempt to qualify their positions, claiming not to be necessarily opposed to the merger of regular and special education per se, but rather advocating a more cautious approach to the issue. Typically they argue that the REI movement is based on some basic false assumptions and that it lacks a rigorous research base. These opponents maintain that if the REI is adopted too quickly on a widespread basis, it could bring serious harm to the very students it is designed to help. Despite these qualifications, the battle lines increasingly are being drawn and-justifiably or not-scholars and researchers are clearly being identified as being either for or against the REI.

It is not my purpose to pass judgment on or question the motives of anyone who has offered written or verbal commentary on the REI. This would be both presumptious and nonproductive. Yet several critical factors in the present REI controversy have not been given sufficient consideration by most debators. If these issues are not carefully addressed, they will only present major obstacles to the development and implementation of effective educational reform for all students. Passing judgment would also fan the fires of controversy and divisiveness that currently exist in American education, with the unfortunate but inevitable result that increasingly larger numbers of students will "fall through the cracks" of this very system. SPECIAL EDUCATION UNIVERSITY DOMINATION First, despite a few recent exceptions (Gartner & Lipsky, 1987), the REI debate has largely taken place among researchers and scholars who are affiliated with special education departments at universities and colleges. Regular educators, for the most part, hive had an extremely limited role in these discussions. Certainly others have recognized this situation and have cited this lack of participation as a major reason that the REI movement is unlikely to be effective. For example, in one of the most frequently cited references, Lieberman (1985) criticized Stainback and Stainback's (1984) call for a merger of regular and special education as similar to "a wedding in which we, as special educators, have forgotten to invite the bride [regular educators]" (p. 513).

Carrying the analogy further, Lieberman (1985) stated:

We cannot drag regular educators kicking and

screaming into a merger [wedding] with special

education. The daily evidence on mainstreaming

attitudes is too overwhelming. This proposed

merger is a myth, unless regular educators, for

reasons far removed from "it's best for children,"

decide that such a merger is in their own best

interests. This is something that we will never be

able to point out to them. They will have to come

to it in their own way, on their own terms, in their

own time. How about a few millenia? (p. 513).

Obviously, Lieberman sees little, if any, value in truly examining the REI issue, having already concluded a priori that regular education presently is unwilling or unable to change-and that the likelihood of witnessing such change (at least in our reasonably expected lifetimes) is remote. Possibly, Liebertman is right. However, this isn't the point. To make such an assumption as that of Lieberman's only serves to mask the real critical issues and to beg the real questions.

If the REI never had surfaced as a labeled, identified issue in the first place, I strongly suspect that the role of special education within the overall educational structure presently would still be the object of vehement debate. Its ever-increasing visibility would have demanded such. Even its most vocal and severe critics cannot ignore the widespread impact that the identification, instructional, and placement practices of special education since the implementation of P.L. 94-142 have had on American education-sociologically, politically, economically, and educationally.

Therefore, borrowing Lieberman's analogy, I suggest that " the wedding has already taken place. " Formal invitations may not have been sent, but this makes no difference. Neither the bride nor the groom may have been willing, enthusiastic participants in the ceremony, but this too makes little difference. Although not currently formally sanctioned, or even necessarily accepted or desired by either party, the impact of P.L. 94-142 has produced a wedding of sorts. Lieberman and others may have missed it, but unmistakably it occurred. Now, the real question is, how do we make this marriage work?

Special educators at institutions of higher education (IHES) need to stop debating exclusively among themselves. Faculty representing other areas, especially elementary and secondary education, as well as educational administration, must be brought into the REI debate. Collaborative discussions, presentations, and correspondence between special and regular educators need to be actively pursued.

Vehicles such as the study and research agenda groups organized and facilitated by The National inquiry into the Future of Education for Students with Special Needs Skrtic, 1987b) sponsored by the University of Kansas, provide one specific example whereby greater collaboration among am personnel can be fostered. Study groups or "think-tanks" can be organized at various levels-university, state, regional, local, and national- to address particular issues and concerns involving at-risk students. Such vehicles have the potential to provide both scholars and practitioners with valuable opportunities to engage in productive discourse and collaborative problem solving. LACK OF LOCAL INVOLVEMENT The REI debate must include more substantial involvement of special and regular educators at the local education agency (LEA) level. Both proponents and opponents of the greater merger of regular and special education programs frequently cite issues and concerns directly involving the roles, responsibilities, attitudes, and skill levels of building principals and teachers as being critical to the eventual success or failure of REI efforts. Yet, for the most part, these frontline personnel have been passive participants, at best, in this discourse.

It is understandable why so much skepticism and, in some instances, even outright hostility exist at the LEA level relative to the REI issue. Because of the myriad pressures, confusion reigns. The REI movement often is perceived as still another in a long line of top-down policy attempts to dictate and control program implementation. Many regular educators, already feeling overburdened and unfairly criticized for their perceived lack of response to more broadly based issues (e.g., rising illiteracy, increasing drop-out rates, and declining student achievement test scores), view increased special education mandates as being especially intrusive and unrealistic.

Many of them feel mired and caught in an excellence versus equity" trap (Sapon-Shevin, 1987b; Shepard, 1987; Toch, 1984; Yudof, 1984). They feel public pressure to improve the overall academic performance levels of their students, but now must also attempt to "accommodate" difficult-to-teach students within their classes-which may result in the overall decrease of student achievement scores (Gersten, Walker, & Darch, 1988; Kauffman, Gerber, & Semmel, 1988).

Similarly, many building-level principals feel overwhelmed and confused by the REI movement. Madeleine Will may be absolutely correct in her recommendation that building-level administrators must be empowered to assemble appropriate professional and other resources for delivering effective, coordinated, and comprehensive services for all students based on individual educational needs, rather than eligibility for special programs" Will, 1986, p. 413). However, many principals may feel that they have not received proper training to assume this responsibility-nor, in some cases, consider this added responsibility to be realistic-given the many other demands and pressures currently being placed on them in the educational reform movements.

Of even greater concern to many LEA principals is the special education backlash effect which is taking place within many communities. The current situation in Massachusetts provides a good example. Marantz (1988) cited the growing, and increasingly hostile, arguments that have been taking place in this state between parents of children in regular education and local/state education administrators relative to the perceived favoritism being granted to children with special needs at the financial and programmatic expense of nonhandicapped children.

Principals in Massachusetts, as well as in other states, are faced with a difficult dilemma. On one hand, they are being encouraged (some would suggest, required) to assume much greater responsibility and advocacy for special education programs, while, at the same time, they must defend their positions in this regard to an increasingly larger number of parents who are becoming more vocal and vehement in their protests and criticism of special education. This is not to suggest that what REI advocates are proposing, regarding the necessity for greater principal and regular classroom teacher involvement and ownership, is wrong. Yet, these policy and program implementors at the local level must be much more involved; their concerns must be heard; and, most important, they must be provided with specific help to solve complex and often extremely delicate problems.

The REI debate has produced similarly frustrating dilemmas for many special education administrators and teachers at the LEA level. Confusion reigns here, too. They are being asked to alter some very basic philosophical and educational beliefs-as well as practices. It is not uncommon for some special education directors and teachers to feel guilt, anger, suspicion, and possibly even betrayal by much of what is embodied in the principles of the REI. For some, it clearly may be an issue of feeling threatened or losing an established professional identity.

However, for many others, there appears to exist a genuine concern that regular education still is not ready-in either attitude or instructional capabilities to adequately meet the needs of students with special needs. Many special educators are skeptical and untrusting of a regular education system they have been taught to suspect. They harbor feelings of guilt for abandoning their students and feel betrayed by former highly respected professors who seem to be suggesting a total philosophical flip-flop. "

Again, the issue is not so much who is right or what is right. Rather, the REI must be an issue of honest, open dialogue that more meaningfully involves practitioners as well as researchers and scholars. Practitioners need to be listened to, their views and ideas valued, and their feelings respected. As suggested by Clark, Lotto, and Astuto (1984) in their studies involving effective schools and school change, "the key for effective schools lies in the people who populate particular schools at particular times and their interaction with these organizations. The search for the excellence in schools is the search for the excellence in people" (p. 50) [as cited in Skrtic, 1987a, p. 181.

Especially teachers at the LEA level (both regular and special) must be convinced of the real need and value of changing. Change is always difficult. It is particularly so when one feels left out of the change process. Both personal and professional changes are being called for in the REI movement. There is the tendency for both regular and special education teachers to place blame on each other; to harbor feelings of resentment and distrust; and even to succumb to cynicism. But the most dangerous of all consequences of excluding teachers from meaningful participation in the REI debate is the apathy that likely will occur. If the REI is perceived as nothing more than just another in a long line of bandwagon approaches, bereft of any substance or real value, I fear that its potential to truly improve the quality of schooling and the quality of lives of students will never be realized.

The bottom line in successful education was, is now, and will continue to be the quality of individual teacher-student interactions. Teachers must become

more involved in the REI discourse. LACK OF CONSUMER PARTICIPATION The widespread absence of consumers themselves in the REI debate, if not surprising, is particularly disturbing. Historically, there have been few efforts to directly involve students themselves in the design, implementation, and evaluation components of their own educational programs. Although several observers (e.g., Biklen, 1985; Blatt, 1981; Bogdan & Taylor, 1982; Davis, 1982; McCaul & Davis, 1988; Skrtic, 1988) have argued for greater consumer involvement in the overall special education process, rarely are students' attitudes, feelings, and opinions directly assessed regarding "what is being done to them" under the guise of sound educational policies and practices.

I am not referring to token involvement on the part of consumers. We already witness this all too often in the Individual Education Program (IEP) process (Tumbull, Tumbull, Summers, Brotherson, & Benson, 1986; Ysseldyke, Algozzine, & Thurlow, 1980). Students are provided with general pieces of information about the programs they are about to enter; the appropriate consent forms, where applicable, are signed; even the diagnostic tools to be employed (irrespective of their actual validity and appropriateness) that may eventually label them as "disabled" are briefly explained. Yet, seldom does any real discourse occur. Typically, professionals talk and clients (students and parents) listen.

Few studies have attempted to assess students' perceptions concerning why they have been placed in special education programs, an understanding of their own handicapping condition label, and judgments regarding the efficacy of their own programs. The results of these studies have generally indicated wide differences between consumer and professional judgments and beliefs regarding the specific issues addressed (Davis, 1982; McCaul & Davis, 1988).

1 am advocating the real, meaningful involvement of consumers in the REI debate, especially those students at the secondary level. I strongly suspect that students frequently feel "jerked around" by the educational system. They become either benefactors or victims, in varying degree, of philosophical debate, litigation, and legislative mandates that are subsequently transformed into educational policies and practices (e.g., the principles of least restrictive education directors and teachers to feel guilt, anger, suspicion, and possibly even betrayal by much of what is embodied in the principles of the REI. For some, it clearly may be an issue of feeling threatened or losing an established professional identity.

However, for many others, there appears to exist a genuine concern that regular education still is not ready-in either attitude or instructional capabilities to adequately meet the needs of students with special needs. Many special educators are skeptical and untrusting of a regular education system they have been taught to suspect. They harbor feelings of guilt for abandoning their students and feel betrayed by former highly respected professors who seem to be suggesting a total philosophical flip-flop. "

Again, the issue is not so much who is right or what is right. Rather, the REI must be an issue of honest, open dialogue that more meaningfully involves practitioners as well as researchers and scholars. Practitioners need to be listened to, their views and ideas valued, and their feelings respected. As suggested by Clark, Lotto, and Astuto (1984) in their studies involving effective schools and school change, "the key for effective schools lies in the people who populate particular schools at particular times and their interaction with these organizations. The search for the excellence in schools is the search for the excellence in people" (p. 50) [as cited in Skrtic, 1987a, p. 181.

Especially teachers at the LEA level (both regular and special) must be convinced of the real need and value of changing. Change is always difficult. It is particularly so when one feels left out of the change process. Both personal and professional changes are being called for in the REI movement. There is the tendency for both regular and special education teachers to place blame on each other; to harbor feelings of resentment and distrust; and even to succumb to cynicism. But the most dangerous of all consequences of excluding teachers from meaningful participation in the REI debate is the apathy that likely will occur. If the REI is perceived as nothing more than just another in a long line of bandwagon approaches, bereft of any substance or real value, I fear that its potential to truly improve the quality of schooling and the quality of lives of students will never be realized.

The bottom line in successful education was, is now, and will continue to be the quality of individual teacher-student interactions. Teachers must become more involved in the REI discourse. LACK OF CONSUMER PARTICIPATION The widespread absence of consumers themselves in the REI debate, if not surprising, is particularly disturbing. Historically, there have been few efforts to directly involve students themselves in the design, implementation, and evaluation components of their own educational programs. Although several observers (e.g., Biklen, 1985; Blatt, 1981; Bogdan & Taylor, 1982; Davis, 1982; McCaul & Davis, 1988; Skrtic, 1988) have argued for greater consumer involvement in the overall special education process, rarely are students' attitudes, feelings, and opinions directly assessed regarding "what is being done to them" under the guise of sound educational policies and practices.

I am not referring to token involvement on the part of consumers. We already witness this all too often in the Individual Education Program (IEP) process (Tumbull, Tumbull, Summers, Brotherson, & Benson, 1986; Ysseldyke, Algozzine, & Thurlow, 1980). Students are provided with general pieces of information about the programs they are about to enter; the appropriate consent forms, where applicable, are signed; even the diagnostic tools to be employed (irrespective of their actual validity and appropriateness) that may eventually label them as "disabled" are briefly explained. Yet, seldom does any real discourse occur. Typically, professionals talk and clients (students and parents) listen.

Few studies have attempted to assess students' perceptions concerning why they have been placed in special education programs, an understanding of their own handicapping condition label, and judgments regarding the efficacy of their own programs. The results of these studies have generally indicated wide differences between consumer and professional judgments and beliefs regarding the specific issues addressed (Davis, 1982; McCaul & Davis, 1988).

1 am advocating the real, meaningful involvement of consumers in the REI debate, especially those students at the secondary level. I strongly suspect that students frequently feel "jerked around" by the educational system. They become either benefactors or victims, in varying degree, of philosophical debate, litigation, and legislative mandates that are subsequently transformed into educational policies and practices (e.g., the principles of least restrictive environment and maximum feasible benefit-policies and practices that directly impact their daily lives). Yet, how often are students really listened to or their opinions truly valued?

Do not misconstrue or overgeneralize the point that I am attempting to make in this plea for greater consumer involvement in the current REI debate. Clearly, federal, state, and local governing bodies have both the right and responsibility to determine and monitor educational policy and practices in our schools. Likewise, professional educators, as well as professionals representing other disciplines, have the responsibility (and, presumably the expertise) for analyzing educational environments and practices. These educators are responsible for making recommendations regarding optimal student learning and adjustment. I am not suggesting that these "adults" be absolved of their responsibilities toward our children and youth, nor that students be expected to make "adult decisions" without a sufficient living and learning base.

Very simply, I am urging that students not be denied access to the REI debate-that deliberate and purposeful efforts be made to both talk with them and listen to them about the issues. Should this not occur with significantly greater frequency, not only will opportunities for valuable input for the shaping of the debate be lost but also many students, both handicapped and nonhandicapped, will continue to labor under totally invalid assumptions about what others are trying to do with, for, and to them. INVOLVEMENT OF OTHER DISCIPLINES It must be recognized that the REI is much broader than a debate about educational issues and concerns. It is rooted in political, economic, and sociological thought and action. Therefore, in total support of Skrtic's recommendation (1988), this debate, to have any real long-range impact, must be expanded to the voices of scholars in the social sciences and humanities . . . who can help us understand the place of special education in the complex web of social, political, cultural, economic, and organizational interrelationships within which we and our clients live" (p. 475).

The REI debate is really about how our nation's schools can better serve students who require special attention, interventions, and support systems to enjoy a better quality of life-educationally, personally, socially, and vocationally. For many years now, we have given these students, along with their programs, various labels: disadvantaged, special needs, disaffected, remedial, Chapter I, migrant, underachievers, and so forth. Although often an extremely heterogeneous group as measured by many variables, these students typically have had one thing in common as judged by educators: They are viewed as differing from the established norm of a particular educational system at a given point in time. Educational programs have been developed for these students based on the assumption, true or false, that they are different; they do not fit the normal mold; they possess deficits and disadvantages of some type and degree that require atypical interventions.

Most educators would agree, however, that for many of these students, their "problems" are not primarily educational in origin. Rather, they are rooted in much deeper societal problems and issues (e.g., lack of health care, inadequate housing, poverty, and dysfunctional family environments). The educational needs possessed by these students often pale in comparison to their other more basic human needs, such as shelter, food, and affection. Thus, school personnel frequently are expected to develop programs that they know full well do not begin to address many students' real needs. This situation has caused countless special education and other remedial teachers to become extremely frustrated, feeling that what they are doing with certain students will likely have minimal meaningful longrange impact. Put simply-the environmental odds are perceived to be too great to overcome via traditional educational interventions alone.

This issue strikes right at the heart of the global question: "What are the purposes of education?" And more to the point, "What should be the parameters of education's responsibility to students?" Education may be perceived as having very broad responsibilities, including promoting positive mental health, developing lifelong leisure time skills, and providing very specific vocational training. On the other hand, others may perceive education's responsibility to be very narrowly and exclusively focused: to teach academics. Unfortunately, the students themselves continue to be the victims of these controversies. It is not the students who have failed. Rather, "the system" has failed the students.

The current REI debate will not likely provide a solution to the far more complex problem of defining the goals of American public school education. However, I suggest that the debate has the potential to help clarify some very critical issues and questions. What is education's responsibility to students who deviate or differ from the established norm? The REI debate, if its discourse is sufficiently figorous, open, and democratized, can provide a vehicle and forum to generate collaborative thinking, problem solving, and action related to many dilemmas that currently exist in our schools.

For example, who is responsible for the education of students who do not qualify for special education programming services under current eligibility criteria but who clearly appear to be in need of some instructional and curricular modifications? Or, what are the legal, programmatic, and ethical responsibilities of schools for students whose "emotional problems" appear to be primarily home related and do not appear to be "significantly interfering with academic performance"-yet who clearly seem to be at risk and extremely vulnerable youngsters who are in need of counseling intervention? Is this a special education responsibility? A regular education responsibility? A family responsibility? A combination of all three?

It would be naive to think that the REI debate has the potential for providing definitive, simple solutions to these problems. Nevertheless, it does have the potential to help clarify some of the issues and concerns, as well as to provide some clear direction, relative to the responsibilities of society, in general, and the education community, in particular, to students who are "falling through the cracks." Because the issues and problems are much broader than educational in nature, scholars and thinkers representing other disciplines must be involved in the debate. If not, the issues and problems, as well as the suggested solutions, will be too narrowly focused. The larger questions need to be asked. The broader perspective needs to be sought. As advocated by such writers as Skrtic (1986, 1987a) and Edgar (1988), we must experiment with new paradigms in education-paradigms that may look drastically different from the present and that take into full consideration the social, political, and economic influences on current educational environments. OTHER CONTEMPORARY DISCOURSES REI debators and critics must also recognize that our debate" is not an isolated or independent discourse. It should not, and must not, be separated from other debates on broader societal issues currently taking place in America: homeless children and families, child abuse, chemical abuse, unemployment and underemployment, hunger, poverty, and so forth. The issues involved in these broader discourses often are directly or indirectly related to the REI agenda. The voices of those who are participants in these very debates must be heard and their positions examined in light of their implications for, and relevance to, our REI discourse. Of more importance, they should be formally invited to share their thinking with us. CONCLUSION The REI debate must be placed in proper perspective. It is not important which scholars view themselves as, or are perceived by others as, being "winners" or "losers" in this discourse. If any substantial and meaningful benefit is to accrue from REI deliberations, practitioners and consumers must be more directly involved as participants.

Issues and concerns currently being addressed as part of the REI debate are important ones. They provide us with a rare opportunity to rigorously evaluate public education's commitment to serving handicapped and other special needs, at-risk students, as well as to assess its present level of organizational readiness necessary to not only accommodate but also to respect and value individual student differences. Most important, however, the REI debate is focusing, in part, on quality-of-life issues-basic human needs issues that are much more global and significant than simply P.L. 94-142 compliance issues. REFERENCES Biklen, D. (Ed.). (1985). Achieving the complete school:

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Date:Feb 1, 1989
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