SLP Perspective on Overidentification

Why are there so many children in special education?

Before 1950 special needs children were underrepresented in schools. IDEA legislation pressured teachers into taking and “mainstreaming” greater numbers of handicapped pupils. Federal financial incentives helped inflate enrollments. Numbers grew faster than predicted by underlying social and medical disability. Unknown is the extent to which local administrators advanced enrollments for financial gain.

Poor coordination of federal, state and local regulations produced variation of eligibility standards across the country. Eligibility decisions as determined by local IEP teams drifted in many directions. Confusing and costly divisions between general education and special education for remedial and special education services contributed to the fragmentation of educational programs. It created the necessity of “referring” to special education to access types of instruction unavailable in general education.

Misidentification of special education children accounted for flawed placements of disabled and minority children. Learning disability placements grew wildly, suggesting a “waste basket” category in which non-disabled children were placed. Inexplicably, males were placed more often than females. Black and “disadvantaged” children the same. Children who simply had no means of learning English were identified as learning disabled.

Regular classroom teachers began to drive eligibility. One explanation is that they are ”bothered” by by distractible learners in the classroom (Congress Report).

Parents and parent advocacy groups insisted on having their children placed in special education with little regard for the stigmatization of such placements. Attorneys gave assistance. Administrators became afraid of parent complaints and potential legal setbacks. Their focus was on school record-keeping to ward off state auditors.

School psychologists placed the majority of America’s special education pupils. Public policy debates did not address the influence of any one profession on admissions. Psychometric standards for the placement of learning disabled children are now in dispute – i.e, the “discrepancy model.”

School speech-language pathologists have made certain “grassroots” efforts to reduce their caseloads but no similar effort to take responsibility for over-placing children in special education. In the school hierarchy, they accepted a minor policy role in eligibility determination. SLPs help place 20% of special education students nationwide, so they have ample opportunity to address off-target placements within their job category.

An ASHA panel describes how SLPs should exercise leadership in the school setting: “In the context of educational reform it is important for SLPs to assume a leadership role in defining and articulating their roles and responsibilities and in ensuring that students’ educational needs are met…They must themselves keep abreast of the changes reform brings” (ASHA Policy, 2009). Eligibility reform is needed to make sure the right children get the right services.

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