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Lori and Bill Granger of Chicago were astonished when their son, Alec, underwent a routine test and was declared handicapped. Lori, a teacher and writer, and Bill, a Chicago Tribune columnist, tried to tell the school testers that Alec could read.

But no one would listen.

So the Grangers tape-recorded their first-grade son reading a third-grade story at home. Then they set up a meeting with the school testers. The scene in the conference room, as portrayed in their book, "The Magic Feather," is a devastating piece of comic theater.

First Alec's mother asked the testers which of them had asked Alec to read.

"The psycho-testers looked at each other, still smiling," the Grangers wrote.

"No one had, they explained gently. Knowing he could not, it would have been 'cruel' to ask him to read.

"We played the tape and gave the (book) to the chief psychologist. She followed along as Alec's voice came off the tape, reading strongly. Her smile of pity became frozen. She was listening to a boy with an IQ of 47 -- an imbecile . . . reading above his age level.

"When it was over, one of the secondary shrinks said that it didn't prove that he wasn't retarded. Bill stared at him as though he had just revealed he was a Martian."

When the Grangers went to transfer Alec to another school, the principal asked them for copies of the boy's past test results.

"He said wrong test results were better than nothing," the Grangers wrote. "He said they would be useful 'for planning the child's future.' "

The couple finally found the right school for Alec and discovered that he'd had a vision problem all along. It was corrected in three months, and today Alec is a winner, not a loser.

In their emotional but well-researched book, the Grangers call learning disabilities "a pseudo-disease that had not even existed in 1970" but "suddenly became the most fashionable disease in education."

The Grangers are not the only students of learning disabilities who have come to this conclusion.

When Congress passed the Education for All Handicapped Children Act in 1975, it guaranteed free public schooling for pupils who previously were excluded from the schools because they were blind, deaf, speech impaired or disabled mentally or emotionally.

Since then, special education has become a booming business, stimulating the hiring of special teachers and support staff, even in the face of declining public school enrollments. While the nation's schools lost 4 million pupils between 1970 and 1986, the proportion of children in special education programs nearly doubled from 6 percent to more than 11 percent.

Just a few years ago, the Buffalo public schools led the state and most major cities in the percentage of its students who were assigned to special education.

In 1985, 19.1 percent of Buffalo's pupils were classified as handicapped. Dwarfing New York City's 12.5 percent, it was exceeded only by Boston among 22 cities surveyed by New York City's Commission on Special Education, headed by Richard I. Beattie.

Since then, Buffalo's figure has dropped to 11.7 percent, which is below its 1980 level of 12.7 percent but still above the national average of 11.1 percent. (Today 10.3 percent of public school children in Erie County are enrolled in special education.)

Dr. Janet L. Jacobs, director of special education for the Buffalo public schools, says one reason the city's figure is down is because pupils with minimal speech problems are no longer classified as handicapped. She also claims handicaps are being diagnosed more carefully.

"I'd attribute it to a more finite evaluation and programming," she says. "Everyone is maturing with special education across the whole country. We're learning more. You know, the laws for the handicapped came out in the mid-'70s, and since then it's been a steady increase in knowledge and doing better testing and evaluating and placement."

Most of these special education kids carry the nebulous label "learning disabled." Their numbers rose from 1.4 million in 1980 to 1.9 million in 1988 -- a one-third increase -- and today they may account for as many as one out of every 12 American pupils.

In the Buffalo public schools today, 3,034 -- or 57.6 percent -- of the 5,263 handicapped students are classified as learning disabled. In all of Erie County, there are 8,061 learning disabled students, or 59.2 percent of the 13,606 handicapped students.

Black children are much more likely than whites to be declared learning disabled. This has prompted critics to say learning disabilities are a dumping ground for children who are different from the norm, either in their behavior or in their way of learning.

Unfortunately, an up-to-date ethnic breakdown for Buffalo's learning disabled children is not readily accessible to the public.

"We have no ethnic data for learning disabilities in Buffalo schools," says Leonard Powell, bureau chief of the state Information Center on Education in Albany. "It impinges on privacy, and school districts are loathe to give it for some categories, such as dropouts and learning disabilities, which can be a volatile thing."

Another disturbing imbalance among youths in special education is that boys overwhelmingly outnumber girls.

Critics suggest that teachers are sending slow learners or unruly kids -- usually boys -- to special education just to get rid of them. At the same time, they add, special education teachers have a vested interest in attracting and keeping their pupils, lest they lose their small class setting and be assigned to teach a full-size class of regular students.

Of course, it would be unfair to characterize special education teachers as cynical. But two honest questions can be asked:

How many of them are really qualified for this work in public schools?

"Most special education teachers are dedicated professionals," the Public Education Association reports, "but too many are inadequately prepared for the difficult work they do." Its 1987 report, "Special Education Reform" by Dr. Constancia Warren, warned that teacher preparation "must reflect the knowledge and expertise gained in the last decade."

Calling for "a thorough overhaul of certification procedures," the association warned of "a substantial degree of poor practice" by teachers who "lack sufficient practical experience before they enter full-time teaching." It added that Buffalo and New York City are "suffering from a shortage of bilingual special education teachers that has reached crisis levels."

In a similar vein Dr. Andrew W. Siegal, Buffalo's leading neuropsychologic clinician, feels that teachers and school psychologists "need more help in learning what the different neurological syndromes look like, and how to test for them." He adds that "testing should also be based on the results of detailed histories of the child's development, including parent interviews and reviews of medical and educational records."

Are these teachers achieving their mission?

The answer seems to be no. Only 5 percent of New York City's special education pupils were returned to regular classes full time last year. Just 13.8 percent of them received any kind of diploma after six years in their programs.

Jacobs says she believes Buffalo's schools have a much better track record. But she offered no figures.

"Treatment that affects only school work will not succeed, because learning disabilities are life disabilities," Dr. Larry B. Silver of Georgetown Medical School writes in the October issue of the Harvard Mental Health Letter.

There is mounting evidence that special education is not special -- or even educational. A study at Johns Hopkins University in 1982 found "no consistent benefits of full-time special education on any important outcomes" for these pupils.

Agreeing, special education researcher James Ysseldyke of the University of Minnesota concludes after years of study that "teachers use the same instructional approaches, materials and techniques with learning disabled students that they do with any other students. We could not find evidence that . . . instruction for learning disabled students is somehow unique."

Yet hundreds of thousands of pupils continue to go to those classes every day.

One of them is Juan.

A few weeks ago a school psychologist in New York had a heated argument with his supervisor over whether a fourth-grade Hispanic boy's academic problems were caused by a learning disability.

The psychologist, Morris A. Cohen, says that after examining the boy he found signs of slow learning but no neurological disorder that would call for special education.

Special education personnel in Buffalo remember Cohen as the biggest troublemaker they have ever had to work with. Cohen was considered a brilliant psychologist by many of his colleagues, but they also found him abrasive and impatient with those he felt were misusing diagnostic tests and data on pupils.

A longtime maverick in his field, Cohen, 62, was fired by the Buffalo Board of Education in 1985 after conducting a one-man strike and refusing to examine any more children until the system was reformed. He complained that his psychological findings were often being overruled, and children who merely needed tutorial help were being sent into special education, where they remained for the rest of their school careers.

In a nutshell, Cohen's argument is that the learning disabled are those whose brains, in a sense, are not "wired" normally. This is a lifelong disorder. Many other children who are merely behind in their development, and many who are just plain behind in their learning, are falsely diagnosed as having this disorder, he says.

While Cohen hasn't staged any more strikes, he has become a thorn in the side of his present employers in the New York public schools.

Recently, with his administrative supervisor's reluctant consent, Cohen tape-recorded a discussion they were having about a 10-year-old boy we'll call Juan.

Juan spoke only Spanish until moving to the United States when he was 3. Since age 7, Juan has spent part of each school day in a special education resource room with five other youngsters.

The question was whether Juan should continue visiting the resource room or return to a normal class schedule.

"He leaves his regular class for 45 minutes every day and misses the regular lesson," Cohen says. "And he gets further behind academically because he's always going to the resource room. In there, the teacher hardly teaches them anything new. She just drills them from a book on past classroom work -- something that could be done by ordinary tutoring. And he's not getting personal counseling, which I think is the real cause of his problem."

Cohen told his boss it was time for Juan to return to regular classes full time.

"After three years of being in a resource room, he has shown no progress," Cohen said. "He got F's (for fair) in all courses."

The supervisor disagreed.

"He's a year below grade level," he told Cohen.

"He has academic problems," Cohen responded. "Is this a learning disability? Should we put children with no neurological impairment -- but that have only academic delays -- should we put them in a category of learning disabilities, a handicap condition? Or should we not classify them learning disabled -- and give them help in the regular classroom?"

"You test, educationally and psychologically," Cohen's supervisor advised him. "You speak with teachers. You observe the child. You look at previous test scores. And you make a professional decision. Don't talk about neurological impairments, because we're not neurologists. OK?"

"Are you an expert in test and measurements?" Cohen asked.

"No," replied his boss, who has a master's degree in social work. "I am the supervisor, and I read cases for a lot of years, and in this case I discussed it with (the clinical supervisor of school psychologists)." Neither he nor the clinical supervisor personally examined Juan.

After reviewing a transcript in his Buffalo office, Siegal said Cohen's boss was expressing "a fallacy" by dismissing the importance of neurological impairment. He also took exception to the supervisor's emphasis on studying Juan's profile of test scores, saying this is like flying over a city in a helicopter and dangling a microphone to study the cultural milieu.

"If you have to look (primarily) at the profile," Siegal says, "you either haven't taken the time to observe the kid's behavior, or you don't have sufficient experience with neurologic patients to recognize identifiable syndromes in people with difficulties in learning."

Cohen also told his boss that continuing Juan in the special resource room would only damage his self-esteem.

"Juan appears to be a dejected, self-discouraging and depressive child," Cohen said. "Juan is not engaged in enough self-esteem building."

Siegal says special education can diminish self-esteem. "Besides the stigma and being teased," he says, "these kids need to be given challenges in school."

"I can't dissect his brain and know what's inside," Cohen's supervisor said at one point. "He has an uneven profile."

"I've got an uneven profile," Cohen shouted. "You have an uneven profile."

The supervisor was losing his patience.

"Morris," he said, "I can't make you classify this child as learning disabled. It calls for a conflict resolution."

"Unless you order me to classify him learning disabled, I won't," Cohen said.

The conflict resolution meeting was held a few days later, and the Committee on Special Education overruled Cohen and declared Juan to have a learning disability.

The taped session reveals that Cohen is a forceful, temperamental man who may very well be obsessed with failings he sees in how the schools diagnose learning disabilities. But the tape also demonstrates that Cohen's superiors, too, must struggle for concrete guidelines on how to apply a regulation to pupils who are unique, with their own sets of problems.

While Cohen has jeopardized his career in a struggle for accountability and reform, he is by no means the only doubter.

Researcher Ysseldyke has said that defining learning disabilities is like trying to come up with a definition for "manure." His five-year study found little or no difference between children placed in classes for the learning disabled and "slow learners" who remain in the regular classroom. He also has found that 75 percent of the children not labeled as learning disabled could be given that label under the criteria followed by most schools in America.

In 1985 the Beattie Commission took direct aim at the problems with special education in New York City and pulled no punches about the abuses occurring in diagnosis and referral.

"Thousands of children are labeled as mildly or, to a lesser degree, moderately handicapped not because they necessarily have handicapping conditions but because regular education programs have not adequately dealt with the educational needs of these children," the commission reported. "The special education assessment process fails to differentiate between children who have handicapping conditions and those who do not."

The consequences can be disastrous, it warned.

"Special education can be harmful for children who are in fact not handicapped," the commission said. "Once labeled 'handicapped,' virtually all students stay in special education the remainder of their school careers, often isolated from their peers and subject to lower expectations of achievement, fewer educational options and depressed self-image."

Five years later these findings have yet to be acted on, says Beth J. Lief, former executive director of the commission and now head of the Fund for New York City Public Education. She is especially concerned that so many of these pupils are still isolated from their peers.

"I'm going to tell you, we were not real successful with that," she says. "It isn't that they weren't taken to heart. There just has been a lot of turnover in management. They now have stable management there, and I think they're going to take a hard look at that."

"Why do we have to label these kids as handicapped before we can help them?" Cohen laments. "Why should God's children be loved on the lowest level -- as flunkies -- instead of on the highest level -- as unique, creative beings?"

Jack Kamins, president of the New York Association of School Psychologists, told Cohen frankly that he has "agonized for hours" over classifications for children and could provide no "easy solution for your dilemma."

"Although there will be a lack of consistency between clinicians," Kamins wrote, "at this time we have to rely on an often overlooked tool in our school psychology repertoire: clinical judgment."

As far as psychologist Siegal is concerned, "the description of the child's underlying problem is very much a function of the skill of the individual clinician. In fact, it's the whole thing."

But very few public school children are sent to a specialist like Siegal, who spends 15 hours examining a child and charges $2,000. Public schools don't have that kind of commitment to neurological testing, and school psychologists operate in an entirely different world from Siegal's.

School psychologists told the Beattie commission that "evaluators often face an unethical dilemma between (a) labeling children as handicapped who they know are not, and (b) returning them to regular education where they will not receive the help they need."

"It's like reading tea leaves!" Cohen exclaims. Last February he dashed off a letter to the governor.

"Kindly advise me," Cohen wrote, "whether you believe that it is legally, morally or ethically appropriate to classify a school child in New York State as 'learning disabled' when in fact school professionals, at best, can demonstrate only educational deficit."

Gov. Cuomo's office referred Cohen's letter to Hannah Flegenheimer, director of the Office for Education of Children with Handicapping Conditions. She wrote Cohen in reply: "Since the definition is one that relies on the assessment of a variety ofseveral somewhat subjective factors, classification will of necessity involve some degree of clinical judgment."

In June, Cohen wrote again, asking what constitutes "clinical judgment."

"It is assumed," Flegenheimer wrote in reply, "that individuals who have met the certification standards have the clinical skills necessary to decide whether or not a given student is learning disabled. Should the parents of the student disagree, they have extensive due process rights."

But it took Bill and Lori Granger years to rescue their son from the system.

Over the years Cohen has sent hundreds of letters to public officials who he felt might take up his cause -- local school board members, federal judges, even the president of the United States.

Since losing his job and 16 years tenure in Buffalo and securing a position in New York, Cohen has continued to hammer away at the issue. Recently, officials in the Big Apple have started taking a hard look at their $1.2 billion special education program.

Lee Blake, a spokesman for Mayor David Dinkins, found Cohen's point about learning disabilities "well taken."

"Many students who show signs of learning disabilities and who are diagnosed and placed in special education do not belong there," Blake acknowledged last July. "Only those who are assessed as having severe handicapping conditions should be placed in special education. The mayor believes that all other students belong in regular classrooms with all other students, and if they have some learning problems they should receive additional assistance."

In September the New York City schools chancellor replaced the director of special education, blaming him for confusion about the program's goals, long waiting lists and rising costs ($15,000 a year for a special education pupil, compared to $6,000 for other kids). The chancellor had just been castigated by a federal judge for missing deadlines for evaluating pupils. (The backlog had grown from 8,879 to 25,000 in recent years.)

"We're blaming them for society's failures," says Cohen. "When you exonerate the parents from being incompetent parents, when you absolve the schools from being incompetent schools, when you have no one left to blame for society's failures -- you blame it on the children."

When Cohen was in the second grade, his teachers wanted to keep him back because he wasn't doing well in reading or arithmetic. But like Alec Granger's parents, Cohen's mother didn't let them do it.

"God bless her soul," Cohen says. "Now, I may be retarded -- but I'm surely not dumb! It turned out my IQ was over 160. I graduated first in my class in elementary school, high school and college."

Cohen can't stop agonizing over his role in the school system.

"Every school psychologist who examines and analyzes a pupil who is a slow learner or a disciplinary problem does it differently," he says. "They do not have standardized procedures. They're all reading tea leaves. It's educational malpractice. Whenever I sign a diagnosis for some child and don't feel right about it, it hurts me inside. We've become mere baby sitters."

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