Responding to “Welcome to the Destruction of Special Education in the Name of Ideology” by Dan Hallahan

The article titled “Welcome to the Destruction of Special Education in the Name of Ideology” was published online in the Taylor & Francis journal Exceptionality in early January 2024. This publishing company has prohibitive paywalls and many academic libraries do not subscribe so it is not easy to access. Maybe this is one time the inaccessibility of academic research is useful but it is so important to know what the prominent discourse is in the field if we want to see change in the field.

The author, Dan Hallahan, Professor Emeritus at the University of Virginia, says, “The threats to special education are many. For the sake of brevity, I’ll proffer but three – the overemphasis of the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Special Education and Rehabilitation Services’ (OSERS’) and Office of Special Education Programs’ (OSEP’s) overemphasis on, and distorted understanding of, the principle of the least restrictive environment (LRE); the disregard of scientific research; the emergence of Dis/ability Critical Race Theory (DisCrit).”

Let’s look at his arguments on each of these three “threats.” Since this is a newsletter and not a response piece, I’ll just pull a quote from each section and provide one alternative perspective. There is much more to unpack but this will get us started!

His first stated threat:
The overemphasis of the U. S. Department of Education’s Office of Special Education and Rehabilitation Services’ (OSERS’) and Office of Special Education Programs’ (OSEP’s) overemphasis on, and distorted understanding of, the principle of the least restrictive environment (LRE).
Quote from the article:
“As characterized by Anastasiou et al. (this issue), SWIFT proposes ‘a utopian “transformation” of public schools, apparently enabling schools to provide appropriate education for all students, regardless of learning differences, in general education classrooms with no exceptions.’ In other words, SWIFT’s interpretation of LRE is full inclusion, i.e., all students with disabilities should be educated exclusively in general education classrooms” (Hallahan, 2024, p. 2.”
My interpretation of his argument
His issue here seems to be in OSEP (the funding arm of IDEA) providing over $30 million to build and research school wide implementation of inclusion. It is a lot of money. Money that must be invested if we want to better understand how students appropriately supported in inclusive settings will do.
Things to consider
I would argue that he is positing segregated and self-contained settings as “utopian” in the same sense. Just because students are in more restrictive environments does not mean they are receiving access to highly qualified teachers and educational pedagogy. Where is the evidence that students are thriving in self-contained? When he is asking for us to follow the research, shouldn’t we rigorously research whether another model of implementation may work better for students?

This brings us to his second threat.
The disregard of scientific research.
Quote from the article:
“Moving forward to the mid-20th Century, the ground-breaking studies by Skeels (Skeels, 1966; Skeels & Dye, 1939; see also Brookwood, 2021) became an early standard bearer for using quantitative research to determine whether interventions designed to prevent or ameliorate disabilities are effective” (Hallahan, 2024, p 3)
My interpretation of his argument
He lifts up the Journal for Applied Behavior Analysis (JABA) here as a gold star example of “special education’s ties to research.”
Things to consider
This is a clear example of how those who feel special education is “under attack” view the role of special education and determine what is and is not research. The idea that the purpose of special education is to “prevent or ameliorate disabilities” is in direct conflict with the disability studies and DisCrit lens of disability as natural, expected, and supported. Who decides what “works” is also critical here. Does JABA and other special education research account for the social validity, the role of masking behaviors, the mental health effects on students, or any of the long term impacts of their interventions? He is also conflating disability with behavior. As special educators, our focus should be on educational pedagogies, supports, and outcomes.

Which puts us here for his third stated threat.
The emergence of Dis/ability Critical Race Theory (DisCrit).
Quote from the article:
“Drawing on Annamma’s Dis/Crit concept of a ‘pedagogy of pathologization,’ which posits that helping professions are too quick to label behaviors as deviant and in need of treatment, PBIS has been accused of causing race-based and ableist trauma in students (Kim & Venet, 2023).
My interpretation of his argument:
Hallahan lauds the evidence base for PBIS but again this evidence does not include the experiences of teachers, students, and administrators who are experiencing PBIS. He is dismissive of claims that PBIS is implemented in ways that perpetuate racism and ableism and poses that these claims are made without evidence.
Things to consider:
Established white, male scholars attacking the scholarship of Black female scholars and the work scholars of the global majority is not new but it must be named. Annamma’s work is based on clear and present evidence of over representation of specific eligibility categories for specific demographics of students. The school to prison pipeline with special education serving as high speed rail to prison is irrefutable.

In Conclusion
We have real problems to solve. We have kids who cannot wait. We have teachers who demand the research address the real problems they face every day, not the theoretical ones of the academy. Special education as a protection and a right to individualized education, to services and supports, to uniquely designed instruction must be protected. And we have a lot of work to do to address the ableism and racism and saviorism in this article.

The field of special education must acknowledge and confront its shortcomings, its failures, and its harm. Only then can we move our system to one centering equity, justice, and inclusion.

Who is with me?

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