Special Education in the Age of National Standards Special education is evolving as a result of the strict standards mandated by the No Child Left Behind Act, which pushes schools to bring all students up to the same level. What does this mean for U.S. students?

Special Education in the Age of National Standards

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NEAL CONAN, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

In years past, the expectation for children with disabilities was minimal at best. Some vocational training, along with reading and writing and maybe they can find a productive place in the world. Most traditional special education programs followed that pattern. They included self-contained classes, all but isolated from the outside world. Today, a great deal has changed. Not only do kids with disabilities spend more time in regular classrooms, but the No Child Left Behind law has emphasized the idea that kids with disabilities, no matter how severe, can and should achieve and learn alongside their peers.

Under the law, states are now required to test these special-needs kids to meet the same standards as the rest of their students. But some educators worry that these two goals may be contradictory. The new world of No Child Left Behind, they say, puts new strains on special ed, including funding, paperwork and definitions of what a disability is.

Later in the program, Warner Bros. wonders what Bugs, Daffy and Taz might do as crime fighters of the future. But first, special education and No Child Left Behind. We'll talk with a group of educators about these changes, and we want to hear from listeners, parents and teachers, especially if you teach special education or if you've had a child in special ed. What has changed? Should special-ed kids be held to the same standards as those in regular education? Our number here in Washington is (800) 989-8255; (800) 989-TALK. E-mail us: totn@npr.org.

Joining us first is Ken Bird, superintendent of the Westside School District in Omaha, Nebraska. He's with us from Warehouse Productions in Omaha.

And it's nice of you to join us today.

Mr. KEN BIRD (Superintendent, Westside School District, Omaha, Nebraska): Thank you, Neal. I'm pleased to be with you.

CONAN: So what do you think of standards for kids in special ed?

Mr. BIRD: Oh, boy, it's a double-edged sword, there's no doubt about it. I believe that holding all kids to higher standards is certainly in their best interest--then I'm going to have the caveat--when appropriate. And I think that's where we've maybe lost a little of our focus is on the appropriateness of it. To say all students with disabilities can be held to the same standards of young people without disabilities at their same grade level and age cohort in that relationship, is creating just a real kind of convoluted educational system in trying to serve our students with disabilities.

CONAN: Well, why--first of all, what kinds of problems is it creating?

Mr. BIRD: Well, I think one of the issues we have is trying to sort out the difference between IDEA, the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act, and the foundation of that is the IEP, the individualized education program for students. That document is developed according to ability and is a teaching guide based on the ability. Then you have No Child Left Behind, which is a regulatory function, a statute that directs standards based not on ability, but on grade-level placement with their peers. And that conflict that is created is putting pressure on our teachers, on our buildings that I think in many ways is not appropriate pressure. Some...

CONAN: Pressure...

Mr. BIRD: ...pressure is good.

CONAN: ...to try to bring those special-ed kids up to speed.

Mr. BIRD: Well, yes in some cases. But by the nature of disabilities, they may never be able to achieve, 90 percent of them, by 2013 and '14, as No Child Left Behind would require, achieve at the level of proficiency of their age peers. To set an unrealistic expectation like that and then to label buildings as failing because that segment of the population could not achieve proficiency at the level of--same level as their age-appropriate peers just isn't fair to our educators.

CONAN: But if every school more or less had the same percentage, more or less of special-ed students, doesn't that more or less average out?

Mr. BIRD: Well, it might. And I don't know that buildings and districts across the country have the same percentages we have in Nebraska. Certainly vast ranges--our statewide average would be 15 percent of a school district population being disabled compared to the national average of 13 percent. In my school system, we would be closer to 10.5 percent. But one of the problems that's created even with those percentages is as a student with disability is found to be proficient, they are moved out of that age cohort as disabled and the cohort of disability students shrinks and the ability to advance that age cohort at a grade-level proficiency diminishes. We just can't do it.

And so the teachers are being pulled. Should they be teaching these students the life skills, the social skills that are necessary, or should they be focusing all the time in pursuit of an unattainable goal? So I think in some kids, for some students, we're missing an opportunity to prepare them for life with the mantra that we're helping them achieve an unrealistic math or reading score that No Child Left Behind has dictated.

CONAN: Would there now be a bureaucratic incentive, if only that, to try to get special-ed kids all in one school maybe?

Mr. BIRD: You know, that is something I haven't really considered much, but I think there's a fear that you just created in my mind that that could be. I mean, that we start moving away from our neighborhood school concepts, centralizing programs for students with disabilities more like we used to, and I don't think that's in the best interest of any students. It's certainly not how life will be presented to them after they leave our schools.

CONAN: How are special-ed parents responding to these changes in special education in the new world of No Child Left Behind?

Mr. BIRD: I think overall fairly well. I think there is some anxiety. Certainly in the lower incidence disability categories, we can exclude or we can have alternative assessments for a very narrow band of very severely involved students. The parents that I feel have the most anxiety are what we would call parents of kids that are gap kids. There may be functioning at a level that is not--is higher than severe-profound, but lower than students that are mildly learning-disabled or mildly speech-impaired that can achieve standards. And so those parents of these kids that are falling in the gaps have a very high anxiety about what are we doing with their children: What are we teaching them? Are we losing focus on the IEP in light of this tremendous pressure teachers are being presented with to have children meet an artificial standard based on some standardized testing?

CONAN: Well, let's get some listeners involved in the conversation. Our number is (800) 989-8255; (800) 989-TALK. And the e-mail address is totn@npr.org. And let's begin with Regina. Regina calling from Portland, Oregon.

REGINA (Caller): Hi. I wanted to talk--I'm a high school teacher and I wanted to talk about how as standards increase, a lot of my students become more and more frustrated, and I even see some of my kids dropping out and they really lose that investment in education because it's meaningless to them. We're doing less and less hands-on education and more and more reading and writing and college prep to meet these standards, and we're losing some of our kids. And I'd like to listen to the response off the air, please.

CONAN: Well, let me just ask you, Regina, should there be no standards, do you think?

REGINA: Should there be no standards? I believe there should be standards, but I believe the standards should meet each individual student as opposed to--'cause what we're doing is we're asking students to conform to what the schools provide instead of asking the schools to meet the students' needs.

CONAN: OK. Well, let's get a response from Ken Bird.

Mr. BIRD: Well, Regina, it's a great observation. I, too, am concerned about the impact it's going to have on our dropout rate for students with disabilities. I think as we, again, put these students under unrealistic pressure and we raise their frustration levels, they're going to escape from our system before they should, and that's a real fear I have. I believe that for these students, the guiding principles should be--of education should be outlined in their individualized education program. That IEP should be developed with you, Regina, as a teacher, as the champion for that child, helping direct what's best for them educationally, not holding them to an artificial set of standards developed by the state or local school district or federal government.

CONAN: Well, Ken Bird, I wanted to thank you for your time today. We appreciate it.

Mr. BIRD: Thank you. Good luck with your program.

CONAN: Thank you. Ken Bird is superintendent of the Westside School District in Omaha, Nebraska, and he was kind enough to join us today from Warehouse Productions in Omaha.

Let's bring another voice into the conversation. This is Margaret McLaughlin, who's a professor at the department of special education at the University of Maryland in College Park. She's currently researching the impact of accountability on students with disabilities, a study funded by the Department of Education.

And let's go back to the question we just had from the caller. I mean, is one set of standards appropriate for all the students?

Professor MARGARET McLAUGHLIN (Institute for the Study of Exceptional Children, University of Maryland): Well, first of all, I think that--I wanted to agree with both the caller and Ken that to hold one set of standards, academic, precollegiate standards and certain levels of performance for every single child in a certain time frame, no, that's not realistic. On the other hand, if we are--and I noticed that Ken talked a lot about the accountability and test scores and other kinds of aspects of the standards that cause a lot of problems to schools with respect to students with disabilities and I think that these are problems--I think the department is well aware of these problems, that we can adjust. We can start looking at the fact that maybe all children don't need to meet the same level on an assessment in the same period of time.

But do I think that it's important that all children work toward and progress toward the same standards? I do. So I guess I have to say in response to the caller from Oregon, I don't think it has ever worked well for children, and particularly children with disabilities, when we've allowed those decisions about what to teach them and what to expect that they are going to learn up to individual IEP teams and individual teachers. It's kind of like a seat-of-the-pants education.

CONAN: But inevitably, if you're going to have, well, some getting lower sta--decisions have to be made on an individual basis. It could be excruciating decisions.

Prof. McLAUGHLIN: I think decisions need to be made and by law have to be made about how to teach the child, about what kinds of instruction the child needs, what kind of technologies. Everything we do for that child has to be individualized for the child. But when we talk about a curriculum standard, we're saying, `But we're doing this to help you make good progress toward stuff that we think is important.' And, frankly, I think it's very important that these children learn higher levels of math and reading, social studies and science.

CONAN: We're talking about special education in the age of No Child Left Behind, and we're taking your calls on teaching kids with special needs. The number is (800) 989-8255; (800) 989-TALK. E-mail us: totn@npr.org. We'll be back after the break.

I'm Neal Conan. It's TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

Special education is meant to help slower students keep up with kids their own age. Now special ed must work within the framework of tough standards offered up by the No Child Left Behind law. You're invited to join our discussion. If you wonder how special-education programs can work with No Child Left Behind, if you're an educator, a student or a parent, give us a call: (800) 989-8255; (800) 989-TALK. Our e-mail address is totn@npr.org.

Our guest is Margaret McLaughlin, president at the department of special education at the University of Maryland, College Park. And let's get a caller on the line. This is Tom. Tom calling from Edwardsville in Illinois.

TOM (Caller): Hi...

CONAN: Hi.

TOM: ...Neal and Margaret. How you doing?

CONAN: Very well.

Prof. McLAUGHLIN: Fine.

TOM: Thanks for taking my call. My daughter went through special ed before No Child Left Behind and, unlike what you just said, that it's designed to--or special ed is designed to help kids keep up with the material, she was taught different material that would be more applicable. It seems that today with No Child Left Behind, and the previous caller talked about having all the kids learn higher math and science and social studies, that's appropriate if everyone's going to go to a four-year college, but where I teach now we no longer have a viable vocational training because there's--you know, everyone's trying to get the test and everyone has to take algebra in eighth grade and it's just not working.

CONAN: So is what you're saying, Tom, that special ed in particular no longer works?

TOM: Correct.

CONAN: OK.

TOM: And the whole education system is backlogged because trying to teach special-ed kids the same as the college-prep kids.

CONAN: Yeah. Margaret McLaughlin?

Prof. McLAUGHLIN: I think you raise a really good point, and it's one that we have to grapple with for not just students with disabilities but for a whole array of students, and that is that the standards have done two things, and I'm talking now about the notion of this content that has to be taught. And I've certainly seen this. I've seen this in Ken Bird's district and a number of others. One of the things that we've done is we've just overloaded with the content the kind--the material that teachers have to teach. Teachers are working harder and harder to cover the material that's in these standards. This wasn't created by students with disabilities. It wasn't even created by No Child Left Behind. The individual states have set these standards.

And I think we need to--I think the caller raises a really good point. We need to go back and say: Are preacademic, precollegiate--not preacademic, but academic, precollegiate standards right for all students? I don't think this is just children with disabilities. And if they are, do we need to have all of this math and all of this science in the standards? Because this clearly creates a great pressure on schools. So I think that is a very valid point when we start talking about standards, and we need to keep in mind that the federal law didn't create those; those are things that states have been putting in place since the late '80s, and I think we need to revisit those for all students.

TOM: I...

CONAN: But I--excuse me, Tom, just a second. I'll let you get back in. But I hear parents saying, `What, less math? Less science? We're talking about a world where our kids all need to learn more math and more science.'

Prof. McLAUGHLIN: Absolutely. I think we can look at different ways. We certainly have different models, European models, others, where we might have children specialize, if you will, in certain standard areas where they do get more opportunity to really learn important stuff. And let's face it, we have--I don't happen to be a person who has a great deal of artistic talent, but there are a lot of kids in the school who do, and the caller is right. We have a lot of areas where children are not being well-served by solely focusing on these precollegiate academic standards that are so extensive and exhaustive.

CONAN: Tom, I apologize. Go ahead.

TOM: No problem. All I was saying was, `Thank you,' and she was making my point beautifully.

CONAN: OK. All right. Thanks very much, then, for the call, Tom. We appreciate it.

TOM: Thank you.

CONAN: Bye-bye.

Let's go to Mary Jane. Mary Jane calling from Lansing, Michigan.

MARY JANE (Caller): Hello.

CONAN: Hi.

MARY JANE: Good afternoon. I'm a school psychologist, and one of my jobs--oh, the difficulties of my job is designating or putting the label of `learning disabled' on a child, and most of special education, in terms of numbers, are learning disabled. There are many other kinds of labels in there, mentally challenged and physically disabled, but learning disabled which normally means that there's a difficulty in reading or in math. And in the area of reading, I applaud No Child Left Behind because when it's time to label this child `learning disabled,' I have data that shows the child has indeed been taught, that she has gone through the guidelines set by the state of Michigan and other places that they have had exposure to reading all of the various vowels, consonants, that they understand beginning, middle and end and very often when we put this analytical framework on a child's educational history, we find that they have not had the exposure to those things and therefore they are behind. So I applaud these measures that make it easier for us to diagnose what a child specifically cannot do and then remediate.

CONAN: OK. Mary Jane, I'm going to have to let you go because your cell phone is betraying you. We're having a hard time hearing you.

MARY JANE: Oh.

CONAN: But thank you for your call. We'll get a response also from Margaret McLaughlin.

MARY JANE: Thank you.

Prof. McLAUGHLIN: Well, I think that they--the whole area of learning disabilities and how we--what we call a learning disability and how we identify it, of course, is something that is--has been of great concern in special education and it's now being addressed, I think, at least in part through some new language in the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act.

I do think, Mary Jane, that the comment that you were making--I believe you were making about the emphasis on standards and assessments at an early age are critical because what we do know, you're right, a vast majority of children who come in or are referred to special education and during school are there because of failure to learn to read and have not had good, early literacy instruction. And the earlier we can get to these children--and have assessments that tell us, `Here's a child that's, you know--something's not going right here. We need to--we really need to beef up this child's teaching. We need to do something here,' and not wait until they've failed. And this is something that we are in special education and I think we're seeing it in general ed as well, very well aware of the need for this. And this is something I think that is very positive about having common standards and high standards for students. And...

CONAN: Let me ask you what I talked to Ken Bird about briefly before and that is--doesn't the existence of these two laws provide at least a bureaucratic incentive for school districts to concentrate special-ed students in one school or for at least individual principals to do the very best they can to move them down the row?

Prof. McLAUGHLIN: That's kind of hard to answer because there are a number of technicalities that we don't want to get too deeply into in No Child Left Behind. But there is the possibility, if you have a school that has a large number of children with IEPs, they are eligible, the state can get a waiver, basically, for that school so that that school is not going to be held accountable for their scores. So, yes, you know, anecdotally I've heard people say this is going on. We have really no evidence of it. I do want to say, however, that there's a counterpressure by the department on states. They carefully monitor their data on children who are placed in more segregated placements, and states know that they really have to watch this segregation of students from the mainstream.

CONAN: Parents may feel defeated when it comes to getting the best education for their special-needs children. Karran Royal is assistant director of Pyramid Community Parent Resource Center. That's a non-profit group in New Orleans that helps parents there to navigate the school system on behalf of the student. She's with us now from Audio Works in New Orleans.

Thanks very much for being with us today.

Ms. KARRAN ROYAL (Pyramid Community Parent Resource Center): Thank you.

CONAN: And I wanted to ask how these new standards, the No Child Left Behind law, how has that affected the special-ed families you work with?

Ms. ROYAL: Many of the families that I work with are caught in a quagmire. While all parents want their children to achieve as high as they can, in our city we find that as schools are identified as being schools in need of improvement, the solutions for helping the families in those schools aren't there. And the solutions for if the parent were to move to a higher-performing school often are not there because it's more difficult for a child with a disability to meet the entry requirements at some of the schools in New Orleans that are higher-performing schools. So while we want higher standards for our children, want to make sure our children are learning the skills they need to be successful in life, it's the pressure that's been put on schools--we have our schools that are just in such chaos that it's very difficult to provide quality education to anybody.

CONAN: Let me ask you, again, is what you're saying that if a school is identified as not performing up to standards, regular kids can apply to move along to a better school, but the special-ed kids don't have that opportunity because of fewer places?

Ms. ROYAL: In many--that's exactly the point. And it's allowable under the No Child Left Behind Act for children with IEPs. The school district does have more of an option to limit their choices. And when your choices are already limited, as they are in urban communities such as New Orleans, that makes it even more difficult for children with disabilities.

CONAN: What's the typical special-ed program in the district in which you work?

Ms. ROYAL: New Orleans has a larger-than-optimal number of children in self-contained placements. We are, in our school district, under a mandate to move children to more inclusion settings, but because of a lack of funding for the supports in those settings, it's--we're moving children into settings that they're not supported in and disciplinary problems are causing more and more children not to be successful in school.

CONAN: So what happens when you get a school that is said--well, not improving fast enough and--is this like a spiral, that the better students or at least the more mobile students move out and what's left?

Ms. ROYAL: You're absolutely right. While we--we're trying to have our children in more inclusion settings because children with disabilities usually fare out better when they're included. But if they're included in schools where the children who remain are those who can't get out, then what are we fighting for?

CONAN: I wonder, what's been the reaction of parents that you work with?

Ms. ROYAL: Many of the parents I work with are very frustrated. Yesterday, I had three calls from parents who really wanted to move their children from their school because the list has just come out of which schools that must offer school choice. And two of the parents I talked to had not been able to access school choice in the previous two years and they're very, very frustrated that there is no place for their children to go to.

CONAN: Let...

Ms. ROYAL: So their children are, indeed, left behind.

CONAN: Let me bring Margaret McLaughlin back into the conversation. Is the situation that Karran Royal's describing--she's describing New Orleans, but it seems to me this might apply in other large cities as well.

Prof. McLAUGHLIN: Well, I can't--I really cannot speak for New Orleans or for all large cities. I can say that I am aware of one large district where, yes, this is a problem.

CONAN: This is a problem.

Prof. McLAUGHLIN: It is a problem, and it's a problem because principals particularly for children who have behavior problems, children with emotional disturbance, children who come with IEPs--that parents have reported--and we've certainly heard this from a number of sources in this one very large district, that the principals basically do not want to take these children into their school, and so they say they're full, etc., etc. So I don't know how pervasive it is.

CONAN: We're speaking with Margaret McLaughlin, who you just heard, at the--professor at the department of special education at the University of Maryland, College Park, and with Karran Royal, assistant director of the Pyramid Community Parent Resource Center in New Orleans. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And let's get another caller on the line. This is Joanne, Joanne calling from Statesboro, Georgia.

JOANNE (Caller): Yeah. Can you hear me?

CONAN: Yes, we can. Go ahead. You're on the air.

JOANNE: OK. I'm out in front of school right now, ready to pick my kids up, so I'll make this short and sweet. But I have one of those kids that's kind of a gap kid that you mentioned before. He has high-functioning autism. And I think one of the biggest problems or struggles for me that--has been, ever since we put him in school, even as a preschooler, is getting the services we need. It's a major fight because of funding. And if we're saying that we can educate these kids--and he can learn the same material as his peers, but he needs a lot of support--then we have to supply the funding for parapros if we're going to provide support to the teachers in the classroom, and also training for those teachers, because you wouldn't believe that every year we reinvent the wheel, because every staff member that we run into has never had a student before with high-functioning autism and doesn't understand an IEP or want to implement it.

CONAN: Hm. Is this a problem where you are there in New Orleans, Karran Royal?

Ms. ROYAL: It absolutely is a problem. Training and the lack of consistency of having trained professionals in the classroom, the lack of support--it is a problem. And as schools are identified as failing schools, you have many teachers who no longer want to teach in those schools because they know that, soon, those schools will be reconstituted. So our children end up having a merry-go-round of teachers in our lowest-performing schools.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. Margaret McLaughlin, I guess funding is a problem everywhere. And, to some degree, a percentage of the funding is being--is it accurate to say that some of the funding is being directed towards No Child Left Behind activities in terms of getting kids up to grade, as opposed to special education?

Prof. McLAUGHLIN: Oh, I don't think that it's instead of special education at all. I really think that what we're seeing is a couple things. One, I think that, of course, funding is always a problem.

CONAN: Sure.

Prof. McLAUGHLIN: But I also think that schools--first of all, this is really hard work, what we're talking about here. This is not something that's going to happen overnight. We're talking about teachers and schools needing a lot of support and a lot of training. And I think that we need to work smarter in some of those schools, not necessarily harder, but really prioritize, really focus on some real changes with curriculum, better leadership in some of those schools. This takes money. It takes time. It takes new ways of doing business in those schools. And trust me, there are places, even in some of the most impacted urban inner-city areas, where we've seen isolated schools. I think the problem is we're still talking about isolated schools. We're not talking about whole districts that are able to do this. And that I find very frustrating and I'm sure parents find it frustrating.

CONAN: Joanne, I realize we've left you stranded there in front of your school, waiting for your child to come out.

JOANNE: No problem.

CONAN: We'll let you go. Thank you very much for the call.

But, Karran Royal, I do want to get a response from you on that. Again, is this seeming to be working in New Orleans?

Ms. ROYAL: It's not working in New Orleans. I think that what we're seeing is a dismantling of our school system when--with a legislation that had great promise for helping to build our school system and making sure that our children were able to reach higher standards. But the opposite is happening. Our school system is being dismantled right now.

CONAN: Hm. All right. Stay with us. We're going to take a short break and continue our conversation about kids and special education in the world of No Child Left Behind. And then, for children of all ages, a new look of Looney Tunes. Warner Bros. introduces high-tech descendants of Bugs, the Road Runner and Wile E. Coyote.

I'm Neal Conan. Stay with us. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

And here are the headlines from some of the stories we're following here today at NPR News. The Army says it has reached its active-duty recruiting target for a second straight month. It's unclear yet that the summer rebound will be enough for the service to reach its annual goal. And a new study shows the presence of wolves does make an important difference in the health and diversity of an ecosystem. You can hear details on those stories later today on "All Things Considered" from NPR News.

Tomorrow on TALK OF THE NATION, homosexuality and the clergy. The national assembly of Lutherans picks up the debate where other denominations have left off. That's tomorrow on TALK OF THE NATION. And it'll also be the return of the NPR movie awards. This week's category: best car chase ever, which means right now your life needs to screech to a halt long enough for you to drop us an e-mail at totn@npr.org. We want to know your favorite movie car chase and why. If you give us a really thrilling argument we may call you to be on the air, so include your phone number. What's the most daredevil, rubber-burning, pavement-chewing chase scene ever?--tomorrow on TALK OF THE NATION.

Coming up in a few minutes, we'll hear from the head of animation at Warner Bros., which is taking Looney Tunes to another level. We want to hear from you about favorite characters and plans for what they're calling "Loonatics Unleashed." (800) 989-8255; (800) 989-TALK. Or e-mail us: totn@npr.org.

Right now we're wrapping up our discussion about how states, school districts and educators meld special education with the realities of No Child Left Behind. And I'd like to begin with an e-mail we got from Norleska Hannah(ph) in Belleville, Illinois. `I rarely agree with President Bush, but I thank him every day for No Child Left Behind. I'm very close to earning my four-year degree, but in junior high through high school, I knew every day that I had no business being there. I needed a math tutor; not special ed for learning disabled. As an African-American male, I am curious about the incidence of African-American males being placed into special ed for the learning disabled when they really shouldn't be there.'

Karran Royal, I wonder--Karran Royal, assistant director of the Pyramid Community Parent Resource Center--is that going on in new Orleans, do you think?

Ms. ROYAL: Actually, New Orleans and the whole state of Louisiana has a larger-than-optimal percentage of African-American males placed in special education. I think in some cases it is a situation where they simply have not been taught the material, but in other situations they do belong there. I am the parent of two African-American males, and both of whom have been placed in special education, I believe rightfully so. I know that the new changes in special-education law will attempt to address that by directing some of the special-education funding to pre-referral interventions. And for a good number of students, they will begin to get the help that they need before they're placed in special ed. But in the past, one of the only ways to get that specialized help was to be placed in special education.

CONAN: I wonder--let me ask you, Margaret McLaughlin of the University of Maryland: Will No Child Left Behind help those kids get the help they need?

Prof. McLAUGHLIN: I don't that No Child Left Behind is the answer to that problem. We've had that problem of disproportionate representation since before special education. In fact, you can go back and look at the transcripts when the first special ed law was debated, and it was an issue at that time. I think we need some very serious accountability for that, because we have to begin to put pressure on schools much more than we have that has allowed general education to refer these kids, because they're problematic, they're not learning; frequently, behavior problems is what triggers the referral.

No Child Left Behind, however--if we start exempting students with IEPs from No Child Left Behind, then we're going to see wholesale referral of these children who cause any sort of learning problems in the schools to special education. So I think we need to be very cognizant that, as long as those children--schools are accountable for all children, they're much more likely to address the education and what those children need than simply refer them to special education and assume they'll get help there.

CONAN: Would you agree with that, Karran Royal?

Ms. ROYAL: Yes, I do agree with that.

CONAN: OK. Let's get another caller on the line. This is Alice, Alice calling us from Scottsdale, Arizona.

ALICE (Caller): Hi. I don't want to seem cold-hearted here, but I do believe children need to be judged on their mental capacity in order to mainstream them. And I know in our school we have kids who have aides--and I come from a middle-upper-class neighborhood. We--I know it's Arizona and we can make fun of that, but we have a good school. And the kids who are emotionally and severely learning challenged have aides, but there's, like, this one girl who is taken out of the classroom on average four times every day because she just has these huge outbursts and these--screaming, and she can't learn in that setting. Or if she can, she--it's challenging. But it absolutely is disturbing the other children in that room. And I want every child to meet their capacity, but how do you ensure that mainstreaming doesn't negatively impact the normal population?

CONAN: Well, we're going to address this more when we return to this issue next week to talk about mainstreaming and inclusion, but briefly, Margaret McLaughlin, is there an answer to Alice's question?

Prof. McLAUGHLIN: Well, clearly, there's no expectation that the child, that any child, should disrupt the learning of the other children in that classroom. And the reality is that, if this child needs a level of support and assistance or individual attention, not possible in that general education class, then, of course, we have to think of another setting. And, again, we have to look at the kinds of supports that we're giving teachers and classrooms and schools to educate children with disabilities under No Child Left Behind and/or with or without inclusion.

CONAN: And I'm afraid we're going to have to leave it there, Margaret McLaughlin. Thank you very much for the call, Alice. And, again, join us again next week. We're going to try to focus on just the question you were talking about.

ALICE: Great.

CONAN: And, Margaret McLaughlin, thank you so much for your time today.

Prof. McLAUGHLIN: Thank you.

CONAN: Margaret McLaughlin, a professor of special education at the University of Maryland at College Park. She was with us here in Studio 3A. Karran Royal, we appreciate your coming in to speak with us as well.

Ms. ROYAL: Thank you.

CONAN: Karran Royal is the assistant director of the Pyramid Community Parent Resource Center in New Orleans and joined us from Audio Works in New Orleans.

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