Special Education in State Is Failing on Many Fronts


Tens of thousands of students in California’s special education system have been placed there not because of a serious mental or emotional handicap, but because they were never taught to read properly.

Failed by mainstream classes and teachers, they are then referred to special education and labeled “learning disabled.” There they are failed a second time, by a badly flawed system designed to be their safety net.

The needless referrals and inadequate instruction for these children are widely acknowledged by educators and officials but are rarely addressed.


As a result, public education costs have spiraled upward and academic prospects have dimmed for otherwise bright children sometimes described as “instructional casualties.”

“Learning disabilities have become a sociological sponge to wipe up the spills of general education,” said G. Reid Lyon, who heads the federal government’s research efforts into reading and learning disabilities. “It’s where children who weren’t taught well go in many respects.”

California has 651,000 special education students--about one in 10 public school students. Of them, 18% suffer disabilities that include emotional disturbance, mental retardation and autism. Another 26% are in special education because of speech and language impairments such as stuttering.

But more than half of special education students are called “learning disabled,” a catch-all category primarily for children who have trouble reading. That category has grown by 63% over the last 15 years.

Almost all of the students who have been designated as learning disabled because of reading difficulties should not be in special education at all, said Alice Parker, California’s director of special education. That’s as many as 250,000 students statewide.

“They have not been taught how to read,” Parker said. “And that is deplorable.”

Leading research now shows that the reading problems most of those students suffer from could have been reduced, or even avoided altogether, had they received systematic, intensive instruction as early as kindergarten in how letters represent sounds and how letters go together to form words--the basis of phonics.


Beginning in the late 1980s, however, explicit lessons in phonics were downplayed across the country, and especially in California. The reduction in such lessons contributed to a steady rise in the number of students identified as learning disabled, state officials now say.

Many of them were allowed to languish in regular classrooms until they slipped so far behind their peers that their problems became serious.

Misguided teachers and administrators also contribute to the improper placement of students in special education classrooms.

The learning disabled label is sometimes recommended by teachers who want the best for struggling students but are overwhelmed trying to give special attention in a crowded classroom.

“They see a special ed teacher down the hall with a smaller class, annd they work to get the kid in that teacher’s classroom,” said Doug Fuchs, co-director of the federally funded National Center on Accelerating Student Learning at Vanderbilt University.

Other teachers see special education as an easy place to dump students with behavioral difficulties.


“You have a kid with a problem, so the teacher says, ‘Let’s ship him out of here and into special ed,’ ” said Alan Mori, the dean of the school of education at Cal State Los Angeles.

A state task force that examined special education, however, concluded that the biggest factor driving the dramatic growth in the number of learning disabled students is poor general education instruction, particularly in early reading.

A “significant number of children labeled learning disabled or dyslexic could have become successful readers had they received systematic and explicit instruction and intervention far earlier in their educational careers,” the task force concluded in a report last month.

Some children--experts say between 2% and 5%--have such severe learning disabilities that they would need extra help--and probably separate classes--no matter how effectively regular classrooms were functioning.

The law guaranteeing access to special education was enacted a generation ago to help those children and others with emotional, physical or mental disabilities.

But for many, including those with vaguely defined learning problems, it can become a trap of inappropriately slowed-down instruction, lowered goals and a lifetime of stigma.


Schools and districts, citing financial shortfalls, regularly fail to provide the classroom aides, specialized materials and extra services guaranteed by law to their special education students.

Students in special education classrooms are three times more likely to have untrained teachers. They are twice as likely to drop out of school prior to graduation. And though special education, in theory, is meant to give needy students extra help in catching up to their peers, inadequate instructional methods often leave them permanently behind; fewer than 10% of children who are saddled with the label of learning disabled ever shed their special education status.

Taxpayers Face Hefty Bill

For taxpayers, the result is a hefty bill. School districts spend an estimated $5,500 a year on special education services for each learning disabled student, meaning the extra--and largely unnecessary--costs to the system could run $1 billion or more.

“Everyone knows the way we have been providing special education isn’t working,” said Janny Latno, a veteran special ed teacher in Vallejo and a consultant to the state association that represents special ed instructors.

Further, educators expect the numbers of students designated as learning disabled to grow as reforms of the general education system take hold, including the end of both bilingual education and social promotion and the start of tough accountability measures that can force the closure or takeover of low-performing campuses.

Those measures could create incentives for schools, or parents, to seek to label students as disabled and avoid the consequences of poor scores on standardized tests. Special education students are required to take such exams, but last year about one-third of their scores were not reported in California because of accommodations that provided simplified test directions and other assistance.


“In some of our more dysfunctional school systems, there will be chaos and more lawsuits,” said Kevin Feldman, director of reading and early intervention for Sonoma County and a member of the state task force that reviewed the link between special ed and reading instruction. “That may be what it takes to get our attention. That’s the price we have to pay.”

Screening Methods Called Flawed

Students in special education classes, whether they are labeled as learning disabled or have a more serious disorder, are supposed to be exposed to the same topics and ideas and held to the same standards as their non-disabled peers. When most California fourth-graders study the Spanish missions, their special education counterparts are supposed to do the same--albeit through alternative methods.

And so, one recent day, the assignment in Toni Cognein’s English class was for students to read “Tom Sawyer,” the classic American novel required of all eighth-graders in the Los Angeles Unified School District.

Yet with its colloquial language and dense vocabulary, the book was far too difficult for Cognein’s learning disabled students at Marina del Rey Middle School.

So the teenagers listened to the book on tape. They watched a movie based on the story. And, rather than read Mark Twain’s actual prose, they used an abridged version, with pictures, written at the fifth-grade level. Even then, the students struggled to pronounce words such as “daintily” and “superintendent” when they took turns reading the novel aloud.

“You work from where they are,” Cognein said.

Cognein’s class is one of eight serving the school’s 150 learning disabled students, who account for 17% of the school’s total enrollment.


“A lot of these kids weren’t identified until fifth or sixth grade,” Cognein said. “It’s really too late. Why does that happen?”

The reason for late identification is rooted in the 1975 federal law that mandated special education programs nationwide.

The law said a disabled student is one who demonstrates a disorder in the “basic psychological processes involved in understanding or in using language.” That manifests itself as an “imperfect ability to listen, think, speak, read, write, spell, or . . . do mathematical calculations.”

That definition drew on research which indicated that many students who were falling behind in school had identifiable neurological disorders or they misperceived letters.

Because methods of observing the brain in action were too crude to pinpoint dysfunctions, educators developed an indirect method to measure unexplained gaps in performance: Schools would give children an IQ test. Then they would measure their reading performance. If the IQ test results were significantly higher than the reading scores--meaning a student was bright but could not read--a child would be designated disabled.

“It’s not like diagnosing cancer or heart disease,” said Thomas Hehir, the former director of special ed programs for the U.S. Department of Education and now a lecturer at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. “It’s not science. There are lots of kids with reading problems who are not learning disabled.”


Hehir and other leading researchers now argue that the method is fundamentally flawed. Because achievement tests measure academic skills, the gap between intelligence and performance doesn’t show up reliably until the third or fourth grade.

That’s too late for most students to catch up. For those who are not identified until third grade, 75% continue to experience reading difficulties through high school, according to research funded by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.

Moreover, the intelligence tests themselves are notoriously inaccurate and are so similar to the achievement tests that any gaps between the two result from testing error rather than actual differences, said Lou Danielson, a top researcher with the U.S. Department of Education.

Nonetheless, in most schools the method of identifying students for special education is embraced by psychologists, teachers and principals because they lack a replacement for it.

Increasingly, however, experts in education and psychology are leaning toward a different view of what causes students to fall behind.

In a 1998 article, professors Robert J. Sternberg of Yale University and Louise Spear-Swerling of Southern Connecticut State University proposed doing away with the concept of learning disabilities altogether.


They argued that, although variation in reading ability exists, there is little evidence to support an artificial dividing line between those who are called disabled and those who are simply poor readers.

In fact, most poor readers stumble over the same thing, which is dealing with the sounds within words, and they need instruction focused on that problem.

The imprecise way of identifying special education students is illustrated at Sunnymeadows Elementary School in Moreno Valley.

Throughout the day, special education students rotate through Nick Maricic’s cramped bungalow in groups of no more than five or six. The students, who are mostly 8 to 10 years old, leave their regular class and come to Maricic, where they learn rules to sound out words and get intense practice in hand gestures that reinforce vowel sounds and in blending letters.

After school, six other students gather around the same table in Maricic’s room. They get the same lessons as those during the day. There’s only one difference between the two groups: The school does not consider the kids who get help after school to be learning disabled.

Maricic identified those children by analyzing scores from the Stanford 9 standardized test. He looked for students whose reading score was at least 30 points below their math score two years in a row--figuring those students were intelligent but simply behind in their reading skills.


“I’m just trying to get them to reach their potential,” he said. “This could have been done before. There’s nothing magical here.”

After a half-hour, more children trickle in. Maricic spends 30 minutes with each one. The difference with this third set of kids is that their parents are paying Maricic for his services.

Some of these tutoring clients already are in special education classes but still are not receiving this kind of instruction. Others, such as 8-year-old Krista Hoffman, are in regular classrooms but struggle to keep up.

Although Krista attends another school in Moreno Valley, her mother brings her to Maricic’s classroom twice a week after school. Maricic used to teach at Krista’s school; she was referred to him by her second-grade teacher.

Krista stumbles on words Maricic points to from a list. He has her repeat each one she misses until she gets it right.

Krista’s mother sits at her elbow, hanging on every word and even correcting some of her mistakes.


“Why didn’t my daughter get this in first or second grade?” Michelle Hoffman said. “She could spell and read because she could memorize. But she had no phonics skills. It’s frustrating for me.”

Neither Very Special Nor Educational

The fact that many students are being placed in special education programs unnecessarily would be less of a problem if those programs truly provided effective services. Often, however, special education is neither very special, nor educational.

Since their creation, special education programs have not been held to answer for the results they produce. Instead, they have been measured by whether they adhere to complicated procedural rules.

Now, a shift in thinking at the federal level is trickling down to the states. Under new federal rules, most special education students are to take the same tests and learn the same subjects as those in the general student population. Those rules are only now taking effect and no one knows yet whether, or how, they can be enforced.

For now, the system remains one that is extremely costly, but with little accountability.

Nationally, special education costs about $43 billion, providing services to 5.2 million children and adults from birth to 22 years of age. The cost has risen rapidly in recent years.

Congress envisioned the federal government covering 40% of those costs, with states picking up the rest.


But the federal purse has covered only about 12% of what was spent. This year, local California districts will kick in about $1.3 billion for special education, taking it from funds meant to pay for general education services. The state pays $2.2 billion.

Citing those financial constraints, school districts often argue that they cannot afford to meet the needs of special education students without shortchanging those in regular classrooms.

“It’s easy to say, ‘Give the kids everything they need,’ ” said Owen Waters, who is working on school finance issues for the California School Boards Assn. “But then the state doesn’t pay its bills and, guess what, you just mortgaged the education of the average kid in every school district.”

Services Fall Short

In many school districts, however, services for special education students fall far short of student needs.

Special education classrooms often are relegated to the fringes of schoolyards. At some schools, they are taught in cramped teacher lounges; when the state’s class-size reduction program went into effect, increasing the demand for classrooms, special education teachers were displaced and many were forced to go from room to room to teach.

Teachers say they often lack materials designed for their students’ needs, forcing them to cobble together a hodgepodge of books that are too difficult or outdated--a problem that state officials now recognize.


Reading Texts 10 Years Old

The problem leaps out at Lane Elementary School in Monterey Park, where learning disabled students in one classroom use 10-year-old reading books produced at the height of the whole language movement and a set of fraying phonics texts published in 1966. A teacher found both sets, bound by yarn, in the school’s dusty storage room.

“We’re always last in line for getting materials,” said one of Lane’s special ed teachers.

Last summer, the state for the first time adopted textbooks geared for special education students. The texts, which feature explicit phonics lessons, reflect the state’s academic standards for language arts. But many schools are unaware that the texts have been made available or have yet to buy them.

Moreover, most special education teachers do not receive any more training in how to teach reading than do other teachers. The result, many critics say, is that students often do not get the highly structured lessons that experts say they need most.

Making those problems worse, nearly one in three California teachers assigned to special education duties--as many as 9,000--lack full credentials, according to one study. By comparison, one in 10 general education teachers statewide lacks a credential.

An unknown number of special education classes are taught by a rotating cast of long-term substitutes.

School administrators say it is difficult to fill special education jobs, which demand inordinate hours, produce mountains of paperwork and involve disputes with ornery parents--all without the benefit of additional pay.


“We’re hiring anyone off the street who will fill a classroom,” said Ron Pinsky, director of special services for the North Monterey County Unified School District, where one-third of the 21 special education teachers lack credentials. “There are far easier teaching jobs that pay the same.”

Meanwhile, veterans are fleeing special education, trading their pressure cooker assignments for easier jobs in regular classrooms and creating yet more holes to fill, leading educators say. The exodus has been exacerbated by the state’s popular class-size reduction program, which has created new opportunities for teachers in regular classrooms. “That’s happening all over,” Pinsky said.

Anna Rubin is among the newcomers filling the empty special education slots. Three months into her job at Polytechnic High School in Long Beach, Rubin, 27, is frustrated by the bumpy road.

The district gave Rubin just two days of training--covering topics such as managing her classroom and filling out paperwork for individual education plans--before assigning her to room 31 of the sprawling campus near downtown Long Beach.

The English and history teacher has since discovered that the textbooks in her room are useless for her students, who read about as well as 8- and 9-year-olds.

Her duty, to “adapt” the ninth-grade curriculum to her students’ abilities, is almost impossible. “Great Expectations,” the sweeping tale that other ninth-graders are expected to read, seems more useful to her students as a doorstop than as a familiar high school steppingstone.


And so Rubin throws together her own history and English lessons, dipping into a cardboard box under her desk for lesson plans and teaching manuals left to her by a veteran colleague who recently fled the field.

“I didn’t realize the enormity of the task,” said Rubin, who spent four years working as a special ed instructional assistant at other schools.

Rubin knows that academics don’t come easy to her students. One of them took an hour and 15 minutes to compose five sentences using his vocabulary words. As she helped him, four others all but ignored their assignment, telling jokes and cursing at each other.

So, as Rubin acknowledges, only part of her job is teaching; the rest of it is trying to keep her restless students on task. She knows that after years of not learning, they have either lost interest or are fed up with trying.

Based on Decades of Experience

Royalstine Bowman, a 33-year veteran teacher at San Bernardino High School, favors teaching students life skills with a home-grown curriculum that district officials have dubbed “Bowman’s Way.”

She has little patience with current research that focuses on daily doses of phonics instruction for special education students.


Her approach is based on three decades of experience, salvaged teaching manuals dating to 1942, and a belief that even the most impaired learners can be taught to become independent.

For her students, ranging from ninth- to 12th-graders--Bowman’s Way means getting drilled on the importance of a firm handshake, a confident introduction and legible handwriting. It means learning how to tell time and how to make change, how to cook and how to fill out job applications borrowed from local fast-food stands and Cadillac dealerships.

For a few students, it also means patient individual help in learning to memorize their home address and to spell their last names.

District officials make it clear that they believe Bowman’s Way is outmoded. They plan to replace her curriculum with one that makes expert reading instruction a priority.

“I don’t care what kind of situation a student is in, being in special education is no excuse for not learning to read,” said Joan Roberts, hired a year ago to upgrade the district’s special education program. “I want our students learning to read right up to the last second of their senior year.”

Bowman counters that “the experts don’t know my students.”

“The truth is, not every student goes to college,” she said. “And nobody asks applicants for jobs as custodians and stock boys what their reading level is.”


Dream May Be Out of Reach

For Amalia Barron, the dream of becoming a kindergarten teacher does seem out of reach. Approaching graduation from Bowman’s program, she works at a local fast-food stand stuffing “super burritos,” tallying daily proceeds and closing the shop when the boss is away.

A San Bernardino High senior, she has been in the special education pipeline since fourth grade. At 18, she still recalls the sting of having first- and second-grade classmates call her “dumb” for stumbling over simple words.

She wonders how different her aspirations might be today if teachers had begun early on to work on her reading difficulties. And she winces at the memory of her first-, second- and third-grade teachers, “who overlooked me because they thought I wasn’t worth the effort.”

Back then, her mother’s pleas for assistance were dismissed by school authorities who urged that she “wait and see if your daughter’s problems work themselves out over time.”

“If those teachers had paid more attention to me and my reading problems,” Barron wondered aloud, “would I even be in special education today?”

Times staff writer Louis Sahagun contributed to this story.


Growing Needs

Here is a look at the increase in learning disabled students in the 10 largest school districts in Southern California:



Researched by RICHARD O’REILLY and SANDY POINDEXTER / Los Angeles Times

The Learning Disability Factor

Students with learning disabilities have accounted for the largest portion of special

education students, consistently making up more than half of special education rolls

in California in the past 15 years.


Source: California Department of Education

Reading Problems: Myth vs Reality

Source: California Department of Education

Who to Contact

for Information

Here are organizations to contact for information on learning disabilities. The Web sites also lead to dozens of other sources of information on special education.

Learning Disabilities Assn. of California

655 Lewelling Blvd.

San Leandro, CA 94579

(916) 725-7881

Schwab Foundation for Learning

1650 S. Amphlett Blvd.

Suite 300

San Mateo, CA 94402

(800) 230-0988

Council For Exceptional Children

1920 Association Drive, Reston, VA 20191-1589

(703) 620-3660 or (888) CEC-SPED

California Department of Education

Special Education Division

515 L Street

Suite 270

Sacramento, CA 95814

(916) 445-4613

National Institute of Mental Health

6001 Executive Blvd., Rm. 8184

Bethesda, MD 20892-9663

(301) 443-4513


About This Series

TODAY: Tens of thousands of California students who are not learning disabled wind up in special education classes, with lowered expectations and dim prospects, because they have not been taught how to read. Once there, they often don’t get the help they need. A1

MONDAY: Parents of learning disabled children face multiple frustrations and fears that their sons and daughters will never become independent. Often, they become pitted against the schools meant to help them. A1

WEDNESDAY: Dr. Mel Levine, a nationally known pediatrician, is teaching educators and parents how to accommodate children’s learning differences. B2