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P. L. 94-142: Mainstream or Quicksand?

Publication Date: 2015-10-25

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.

Recently I have traveled the country telling stories about students who have touched my life in the past twenty years. Without fail, audiences shed tears when I share heartwarming anecdotes about Charles, the oddball eleven-year-old I welcomed into my third-grade classroom.

Although these upbeat stories about Charles are true, they are far from the whole truth. You jsut can't tell the whole story in a forty-five-minute talk in a crowded room. As John Updike has observed, the larger the audience, the simpler is its range of response. A packed room is the place for black-and-white sketches--mostly white. One roughs in a few bureaucratic enemies and lots of victories, and the audience responds warmly. There is no duplicity here. I savor my triumphs and am eager to give teachers the uplift that such shared victories bring. The auditorium is not the place for the gray ambiguity of unanswered questions, not the place for soul-searing, not the place for a heart-on-the-sleeve teacher to confess her fear that maybe a lot of youngsters like Charles are drowning in the mainstream.

It is devastating for someone like me to be forced to acknowledge that my dealings with Charles had a dark side. After all, we teach because we are convinced that we can make a difference, a lasting difference. Our job is to push back the darkness, to light a candle. And for someone like me, who had taught oddball seventh graders for so many years, "getting one young" was a dream come true. If seventh grade sometimes proved too late to save a child, surely a third-grade teacher could intervene soon enough.

Even on my gloomy days I still believe that, though my colleagues who refused to mainstream Charles turned out to be right, it was for all the wrong reasons. In his own quirky, idiosyncratic fashion, Charles did learn; in a harum-scarum sort of way he even made a few prodigious leaps. He learned an impressive amount of dinosaur lore; he became an avid note writer; to his classmates' amazement and delight, this boy, who could neither add nor subtract, could shout out the answer to 9 x 7. Initially so high-strung that he vomited when he thought other students were looking at him, Charles became the boy who stood in front of an audience of ninety and narrated our class production of The Frog Prince. He went from the boy who circled the room making weird chirping noises whenever his classmates squeezed close together around me for story time, to the boy who sat in the middle of the squeeze and begged me to read more.

But even Charles recognized that all of this was not enough. He was reluctant to go on to fourth grade with the rest of the class and asked me if he could return to my third grade for a second year. "I know where things are," he said. "I could be your aide." I was charmed by his suggestion. "Why not?" I asked his resource teacher. "He did so well this year, just think what he could do with one more year."

She liked the idea too--until a phone call forced us to face reality. Charles' mother informed us that Charles needed quite specific information about sex.

Charles' life passed rapidly before my eyes. He wasn't a winsome little eight-year-old. He was now a gangly twelve-year-old who couldn't add or subtract with any reliability, couldn't tell time, and couldn't pass a spelling test even when all the words were three-letter rhyming words, such as pan, man, fan. This twelve-year-old on the brink of puberty simply could not come back to my third grade enough times. No matter how much affection, acceptance, and information I offered him, he wasn't going to "catch up"--not even with third graders.

A boy like Charles is so difficult and so "delayed" that it is natural for a teacher to cling to the positive moment--the time he actually discussed dinosaurs with another student, the time he marched down to the principal's office and read him a story. Can I be blamed for letting my nurturing instincts hold sway? For avoiding the larger question of whether spending half the day or more in a "regular" third-grade classroom was truly appropriate to the needs of a boy approaching puberty?

Michael Dorris says that children like Charles inspire wishful thinking, we optimists are convinced that, with lots of love and just one more little push, the child will be okay. In The Broken Cord, Dorris tells Adam's story. Dorris adopted Adam at age three, knowing that the boy had serious problems but armed with the conviction that love and a good environment could overcome all obstacles. Over the years Adam's full-scale WISC IQ score remained constant in the 64-76 range, and his performance in other areas fell below even what might be expected of a child in that range. Dorris remained constant in his belief that Adam teetered "so close to the edge of 'okay' that there was no way he would not succeed."

Adam's teachers seemed to agree. Year after year a string of report cards proclaimed Adam's progress in reading, math, and map skills. One report announced that Adam had "demonstrated good ability and understanding with regard to our unit on geometry." But Dorris finally realized that, although they spent long hours on homework every night, Adam just wasn't managing.

In retrospect Dorris sees that Adam "learned" the same low-level skills year after year. Progress reports to the contrary, Adam at eighteen cannot tell time or read a map; he has no notion of money and will cheerfully pay ten dollars for a doughnut. Never mind any principles of geometry.

For those who insist that the primary purposes of mainstreaming are better socialization and the enhancement of self-esteem, Dorris describes a hearbreaking collision with reality. Despite yearly report cards that proclaimed Adam's great progress in making friends, Dorris notes that, in all his school days, Adam "never once received so much as a telephone call or an invitation from a "friend." When I read that, I cried. For all the satisfaction I took in helping my third graders learn to be tolerant and even kind to Charles, I have to admit that I never saw any evidence of friendship. Those third graders tolerated Charles because I was there. I would wager a large sum that Charles has never received a phone call from a classmate, either. Yes, he made charming breakthroughs, giving us occasional, tantalizing glimpses of a more normal boy--but even on his best days, Charles was still an uncomfortable, oddball child.

Long before I met Charles, I had known Lucille. Immediately after the passage of P. L. 94-142, the Education for All Handicapped Children Act, my school district put all "educable" children entering seventh and eighth grades into a regular academic program. So none of Lucille's teachers knew that she had spent her entire elementary career in special classes. I suspected something was amiss the first week of school and asked to see her record. The guidance counselor told me Lucille was one of six siblings in special education; she had never been in a regular program until she hit seventh grade. He reminded me of the new federal laws.

When I asked why we teachers hadn't been alerted to the special difficulties of Lucille and similar students, he told me that such information was confidential--that it might prejudice teachers and prevent them from treating "educable" children "equally" with other children in the class. So youngsters dumped willy-nilly into the mainstream were left to suffer embarrassment in front of their peers when they couldn't read aloud or solve math problems at the board or locate rivers on a map.

Lucille was kind, cheerful, cooperative, and always anxious to please. She was very proud of her high marks in spelling as she progressed from third-grade to fourth-grade words. She had good decoding skills and liked using the typewriter and listening to poetry tapes. She seemed to comprehend nothing.

When Lucille first told me she has having a terrible time in science, I tried to avoid the issue. The course was rigorous, modeled on the teacher's own college biology course. But Lucille was so anxious to pass a test--any test--that I went to the teacher, got the questions for an upcoming exam, and began to coach her. Lucille and I worked during the lunch break for three weeks. We labored over the structure of the cell. She drew cells on the chalkboard and cut cells out of construction paper; she made flash cards; we drilled; we invented acronyms to help her remember. Lucille would learn the material one day and forget it by the next, and so every day we started over. She never gave up. She desperately wanted to pass that test.

Lucille appeared in my doorway right after the biology test. "I didn't do too good," she confided, adding in a whisper, "I think I'm going to be sick." I tried to rush her to the lavatory, but we didn't quite make it. Evidence of Lucille's "failure" lay visible in the hallway. The poor child told me that she was sorry she had let me down. But in truth, I'd failed her. I vowed then never again to drill children on such inappropriate material.

I read in texts advocating mainstreaming that disabled students need "a chance to shine," that they "will learn from nondisabled students," that students with disabilities must be "seen as peers of nondisabled students." But nobody can make a disabled student equal, and nobody can promise a disabled student a phone call from a friend.

When following the mandates of P. L. 94-142, we need to figure out just what it means to mainstream children "to the maximum extent appropriate to their needs." Many school districts lump all children with learning problems together in a short of academic twilight zone. The educable mentally retarded, the low normal, the learning disabled (whatever that means this week), and the emotionally disturbed are all sent off to regular English, science, social studies, and mathematics classes--until the situation becomes too traumatic either for the child or for the teacher. I always figured my district had to see blood before it would de-mainstream a child.

Tommy was amazing proof of a system run amok. His name appeared on my official class list for the first day of school. I asked why he wasn't there, and the students replied, "Oh, Tommy never comes to school. Not even in first grade." He was a legend in his own time. I check the records: Tommy had shown up eight times in sixth grade. He was sent on to seventh grade because he had already been held back three times, and teachers don't like to have tough, streetwise fourteen- and fifteen-year-olds in the same classroom with naive ten- and eleven-year-olds. Hardliners who insist on the elimination of social promotion don't seem to be stepping forward with much advice on how to make mainstreaming work harmoniously for the little girl who keeps a teddy bear in her school locker and the randy hulk who should keep condoms in his.

I began agitating for the strict to take Tommy's mother to court and get him into school. And for some reason, somebody did something. The departments in charge of social services and probation got together and sent a trainee to pick up Tommy at his front door every morning and escort him to the front door of the school. Predictably, Tommy came in the front door, raced through the building, and disappeared out the back door.

I heard about all this after the fact. Had I known about the plan to escort Tommy to school, I would at least have stood at the back door. But, as with most bureaucratic schemes, teachers are the last to know. And then we know only because the students tell us.

So the social service folks changed their strategy. A woman appeared in my doorway with Tommy and announced, "I'm with him." When Tommy sat down, so did she. She pulled out a thick textbook--a psychology text, no less--and read all period, carefully underlining selected portions with yellow highlighter. Tommy did a bit of work when I crouched by his chair. As soon as I moved to someone else, he unleashed his repertoire of obnoxious tricks. When the bell sounded the end of the period, Tommy dashed out of the room; his companion grabbed her book and ran after him.

I phoned the main office and asked what was going on. I was informed that Tommy now had a court-appointed aide to keep tabs on him. "Good," I thought. Tommy needed one-on-one tutoring. The two or three times I'd worked with him had convinced me he could learn. He was, in fact, very cooperative when I worked alone with him. He liked that individual attention. But I had a classful of students, and Tommy was no good at waiting, at taking turns, at working by himself. He had never been in school long enough to learn these necessary rituals. If he could not have the teacher's immediate and total attention, he became indifferent at first, then hostile, and finally destructive. But with his own aide--maybe we had a chance. I immediately began to dream about Tommy getting some of the individual attention he craved, getting used to school, maybe even succeeding in school.

Fat chance. Tommy's aide quickly let me know how mistaken I was. She informed me that she was in our school solely to see that Tommy made it to class. She was not there to teach him, to talk to him, or to respond to him in any way once he was inside a classroom. She was taking graduate courses at night and had her own books to worry about; she certainly wasn't going to be bothered with Tommy's books. That was my job.

Tommy began racing out of his classes faster and faster. For a few days he just ran around the locker areas, letting the pursuing aide keep him in sight. Other students stood and watched and cheered him on. I suspect a few teachers were silently cheering too. Certainly none of us intervened. The aide had set the ground rules: our job was to teach; hers, to chase. The game soon lost its charm for Tommy, and he began dashing out of the building, losing his aide in the city streets, and returning to his life of petty crime. The last I heard, he'd been declared incorrigible and "sent away."

Another child in the mainstream for the first time, Joey, was taking a full academic curriculum when he wrote me this note:

Dear Mrs. O.,

For Christmas Santa brought me skates, coloring books, and shaving cream.

Your friend,

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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