P. L. 94-142: Mainstream or Quicksand?
Originally published in Phi Delta Kappan in 1990, No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top made this article more depressingly current than ever. Through anecdotes of individual students I describe the real-life impact of P.L. 94-142, the Education for All Handicapped Children Act. I argue that mainstreaming is not necessarily in the best interest of children with special needs. Even the primary purposes of mainstreaming--better socialization and enhanced self-esteem--are rarely achieved. We need to provide meaningful alternatives for those who do not flourish in the mainstream.
I didn't know whether to laugh or cry. Certainly the gifts were appropriate. Joey was a loveable child-man: fifteen years old, 5'8" tll, 150 pounds. Who could believe that Joey's teachers could possibly follow mainstream mandates and present him the academic curriculum at his appropriate level? And how could Joey's classmates provide something called "socialization" for a boy who needed both coloring books and shaving cream?
Joey's social studies teacher gave him a lot of special attention. But giving a student like Joey only a fraction of the study packet doesn't help him. Behaviorists can insist until the chalk turns to cheese that "all students can learn the school tasks expected of them if the tasks are rigorously programmed and the students are given enough times." Michael Dorris knows it ain't so, and Joey's teachers know it ain't so. Sad to say, youngsters like Joey don't know it. They have the faith of the innocent. They think that if they just work hard enough, they'll get it. While I was trying to teach Joey the difference between a city and a state, he begged me to coach him for a social studies test on the U. S. Constitution. While I was trying to teach him to address an envelope, he worried about writing a term paper on James Madison.
Even the most optimistic of us must admit that, given all the time in the world, Joey is not going to catch up. The school need not accept blame for the fact that he is not going to be a chemist or a cashier--or probably even a member of Congress or a vice president. But the school must shoulder heavy blame for failing to help Joey learn the things he could have learned, things he needed to know. Maybe his teachers should have spent less time helping him participate in some small way in lessons on Washington's battle plan, the three branches of government, or the causes of World War I; maybe someone should have helped him learn to tie his shoes and make change for a collar.
When a seventh-grade teacher of social studies confronts her supervisor with some of the academic dilemmas posed by mainstreaming a boy like Joey, the supervisor insists that the child is in regular classes primarily for social reasons--"to learn how to get along with others, to make friends." The teacher is advised, "Be nice to Joey. Don't pressure him. Don't expect too much." So Joey's curriculum consists of the benign smile, the reassuring word, and the encouraging pat on the head. Social skills are the goal; cognitive development is seldom mentioned.
It is easy to be nice to Joey. He is a lovely boy. But just how "socializing" is it for him to sit in class after class not understanding the material--and being ignored by the "regular" students? The sad fact is that proclaiming equality, legislating equality, and even funding equality have never raised anybody's I. Q. And I'd like to see evidence that these actions ever improved a "poor perceptual-motor development of the body schema" either--or inspired a phone call from a friend.
Proponents of mainstreaming claim that all children can work on the same subject but at different levels. In effect, they say: give every child A Tale of Two Cities or Foundations of Democracy or Modern Biology. The Robins can read the whole book; the Blue Jays need read only half; the Pigeons can copy the table of contents five times. The Robins can dissect a frog; the Blue Jays can watch a movie about a frog; the Pigeons can play leapfrog. So the Robins go to the university, the Blue Jays might make it to a community college, and the Pigeons are cheated from learning what they can learn--what they need to know.
Then there was Arnold. He had an I. Q. of 68 and a history of abuse and neglect. He hated changing classes. I had to push him out of my room and down the hall to his next class, but he would run around and sneak in the back door of my room. He was terrified of eating in the cafeteria. He said that the other children stared at him and made fun of him. "Why can't I stay with you? he would plead. "I'll just sit and read a book--I promise."
So I'd weaken and let him in, and then the litany would begin. "I bet you hate me too. Yeah you really hate me. Everybody hates me. Everybody in this whole school hates me." Arnold would start listing the 1,126 people in our building, all of whom hated him. On and on he'd go, whining and wheedling for attention and approval. I soon realized I couldn't give Arnold enough. He sucked up approval with the power of an industrial vacuum cleaner, and all it did was make him whine for more.
And I wasn't a saint. After two weeks of keeping him with me during lunch, I locked my door. I figured if I didn't break up my day with at least fifteen minutes of peace and quiet, I'd soon be making bizarre noises too.
Arnold set his own course. Lots of days he did nothing but pester everybody in the room. The whole school got a blessed respite when he settled in on his spelling agenda. Always a good speller, Arnold spied the official departmental list for the eighth grade on my desk and decided to learn every word. For him, this was the pinnacle of academic achievement: a seventh grader learning eighth-grade spelling words.
For two months Arnold studied the list all day--in social studies, math, science, and physical education. He was never without the list. He ignored all other subjects, insisting, "I've got to learn my words." Arnold's other academic teachers were grateful. Studying spelling words gave him something to do. When he was huddled in a corner poring over his words, he wasn't running around the room making frog noises of pinching other students.
Every week or so Arnold would let me know that he was ready to be tested on another section of the list. He never scored less than 80, and he proudly showed off his 100s to the principal, the school nurse, and anybody else who would look. He tried to show his classmates, but no student would let Arnold near enough.
When it came time to do research for oral reports in our class, Arnold's social studies teacher--anxious for something to enter in her grade book--agreed that, if he reported on a famous American, she would give him credit too. For about a month Arnold carried around a boyhood biography of George Washington, frequently interrupting the class with anecdotes about George.
"When George was born," Arnold began his oral report, "his father looked at the dollar bill and said, 'I think I'll call him George Washington,' and that's how the baby got his name." I must have looked startled, because Arnold addressed his next remarks directly to me. "You have seen his picture right there on the dollar bill, haven't you?" He reached into his pocket, pulled out a dollar, and held it up. "That's how he got his name. Right off the money." On the departmental final exam, this boy was expected to explain the difference between communism and democracy.
If students and teachers are disoriented by mainstreaming, it also sends confusing messages to parents. Bobby's foster father wanted him removed from my class because he "keeps bringing home first-grade homework and first-grade spelling words." The man felt that such baby work was an insult to a seventh grader. He pointed out that Bobby was passing biology and social studies. So why the problem in language arts? Why didn't I give him seventh-grade work?
It is not easy to tell a parent that mainstreamed students don't fail, that his child can't read that biology book, or that a lot of teachers--not knowing how to handle the mainstreaming dilemma--give all mainstreamed students passing marks and give higher marks to the docile ones who cause no problems. How do you explain to a parent that this is called socialization?
Mainstreamed students get 90s on essays copied out of the encyclopedia--essays that stop in the moddle of a sentence. "The teacher asked for two pages, so I wrote the two pages," Sophie explains without a hint of irony. If the encyclopedia passage she's copying on Pocahontas runs out before the requisite two pages are filled, she just carries on with James Polk. It is all the same to her--all equally meaningless. This is the curriculum of keeping them quiet, the curriculum of copying; it is also the curriculum of coping for the teachers trying to follow as best they can the rules of mainstreaming.
Every year Billy's teachers reported that he was "making good progress with decoding skills," but ty the time he reached seventh grade he was in a constant rage because he couldn't read. I don't think anybody lied about that "good progress." He did make progress: every September he started with initial consonants, and by every June he had reached the cr blend.
As academic pressures mounted in the middle school, Billy's rages grew more frequent, and his mother was often called to school for his disciplinary hearings. She confided to me that she read only with great difficulty and that Billy's father couldn't read at all. She enrolled Billy in the nearby university reading clinic. Billy was thrilled that his professor was interested in him and was convinced that the professor would perform miracles. After every session, I'd get a blow-by-blow account of what the professor had said, what lesson the professor had taught. Billy was making rapid progress on the same decoding skills he'd "mastered" every year in school. And I hoped that maybe his new optimism could work miracles.
When Billy proudly showed me the "new book" he was reading for the professor, chills went down my spine. Like everyone else in Billy's old school, I'd known about him when he was a hyperactive third grader: I'd seen him race around the corridors. I'd also seen the vice principal sit and read with him every day--out of that very same book. A lot of earnest, caring teachers had tried very hard with Billy, but, like Michael Dorris' son, Adam, Billy seemed to have had one year of elementary school repeated eight times over.
After half a dozen or so trips to the university lab, when Billy realized that there was no miracle in the good professor's bag of tricks, his enthusiasm evaporated. He became surly and, according to the professor's report, "exhibited acting-out behavior of an antisocial nature." Since the university reading lab did not operate under the same constraints as a public school classroom, the professor kicked him out.
Billy found a life outside the mainstream. He dropped out of school as soon as he legally could and became a petty criminal. He has been in and out of jail ever since. I don't think it had to be that way. I wish we teachers could have acknowledged that Billy wasn't a mainstream child and offered him a different curriculum. Why did he get the same decoding skills year after year in elementary school and then an academic curriculum in middle school? What would have happened if, when Billy hit seventh grade, we'd said, "Okay, there are a few children who aren't going to learn to read--particularly if they are obnoxious. refuse to cooperate, and refuse to work at it"--and tried something else? We never gave Billy any chance to show what he could do, so he got even by making everyone around him suffer. But the sad part is, nobody suffered as much as Billy.
So-called liberal doctrine holds that "special classes"--a relic of education's dark ages--produce demoralization, low self-esteem, and inferior education. And I have seen plenty of evidence that they do. In the worst cases, the special education room is just a holding tank with a curriculum of movies and M&M's: even in the best cases, the curriculum has never taken a direction very different from mainstream academics. We never offer true alternatives but are lured time and time again by the people who claim that everybody should learn the classics. We are very reluctant to admit that some people should be allowed--even encouraged--to be different.
We are good at accumulating labels: minimal brain dysfunction, perceptual-motor aberration, impaired learning efficiency, sensory deficit, delayed interpretation of input, and so on. Maybe we should spend less time on labels and more time providing meaningful alternatives for all students who don't flourish in the mainstream. As moved and challenged as I was by Dorris' book, I think little good will be served if it only inspires bureaucrats to look for children who qualify for the label "fetal alcohol syndrome." Of what use is any label to child or teacher if the school system can't come to grips with how to educate the child who is different?
Michael Dorris points out that in the media it is chic to portray the learning disabled as "invariably conscientious, anxious to please, desirous to make a good impression. But Adam taught Dorris to face hard facts: "Adam was not like that. Though I knew him to be sweet, gentle-hearted and generous, the face he showed to the world was sullen. He avoided work whenever possible, refused to pay attention to his appearance, was slow to motivate, and only occasionally told the truth. His attitude discouraged even those who began their association with him enthusiastically...."
For years Dorris was blinded by his dreams for Adam and not able to see him whole. Now that he has recognized the boy's shortcomings, it doesn't mean that he loves Adam less. Recognizing the shortcomings of special children doesn't mean that I care about them less. It just means that I am finally ready to move beyond slogans and to admit to some dark disappointments. I won't give up lighting candles, but I'm ready to admit the limits of candlelight. I'm ready to stop letting dreams of a more equitable society blind me to the very real and very different educational needs of special children.
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