Who Benefits From Special Education? Remediating [Fixing] Other People's Children, edited by Ellen Brantlinger. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum, 2006.
In her text, Brantlinger assembles a diverse range of papers that collectively serve to address Gramsci's (1929–1935, 1971) essential recommendation of always asking who benefits from particular social practices; in this case, the institutionalized set of practices that are collectively referred to in the United States as “special education.” Authors of the collected papers both deconstruct and critique mainstream special education ideologies and normative practices as well as highlight the perspectives of several constituencies too infrequently heard in professional literature—those of labeled students, their family members, and teachers. The text is primarily aimed at a scholarly audience, both graduate students and faculty, with particular interest in issues related to disability, including both special education and disability studies scholars, although the text should also prove to be quite relevant to wider audiences, including scholars in curriculum theory, critical theorists, and educators generally.
A number of these authors explore structural themes and issues in special education discourse and practice (e.g., the ways in which discourse, ideology, privilege, and politics operate in the venues of teacher preparation, student placement, decisions about curricular content, and the process of working toward more inclusive schooling), each making contributions that we have come to expect from these authors on the basis of their previous work. For example, Danforth, Taff, and Ferguson set the stage for considering the question of benefit within a broad historical context by offering a useful analysis of the intertwining concepts of place (Where should labeled students be taught?), professionalism (Who should teach labeled students?), and program (What should labeled students be taught?) as they have circulated through the history of special education.
Allan, who can always be counted upon to cut to the very core of any debate by articulating and questioning its most foundational assumptions, offers a critical analysis of the myth of the positivist construct of “progress” toward inclusive education. Brantlinger illuminates issues of capitalist, market-driven economics by offering readers a critical analysis of the problematic role that mainstream special education textbooks play in socializing preservice teachers into dominant, mainstream, and normative modes of discourse around disability, an analysis that should be of great interest and concern to all teacher educators. Erevelles, Kanga, and Middleton offer an insightful and needed exploration of the intersection of critical race theory with disability studies in addressing the continued overrepresentation of African American students in special education, illustrating the ways in which some critical race theorists' treatment of disability and some special education theorists' treatment of race are both rooted in biological determinism.
Brantlinger notes that some of the authors selected to contribute pieces to this text are scholars whose critical and postmodernist work in disability is well known (Allan, Brantlinger, Danforth, Erevelles, and Ferguson), whereas some of the other selected contributors have only recently come to higher education following careers as public school teachers (de Waal-Lucas, Harvey-Koelpin, Lewis-Robertson, and Stoughton). This latter group of scholars has contributed a selection of narrative, interpretive pieces of inquiry that highlight the perspectives of labeled students, their parents, and their teachers. This inclusiveness in inviting contributions is in many ways a strength of the text— it makes transparent the ways in which new and emerging scholars are joining in the ongoing conversations within a particular discourse community, and the contributions of the more novice scholars are refreshing in the intimacy with which they reflect upon the experiences of students, parents, and teachers (reflections that are in some cases autobiographical), in some ways striking a nice balance with the more structural analyses offered by the more senior scholars. However, this range of pieces also inadvertently creates a certain unevenness to the text in terms of its overall theoretical sophistication and political cohesiveness. At least some of this unevenness relates to Brantlinger's positioning of the text as being “written from a disability studies perspective” (p. viii).
Brantlinger describes a disability studies perspective as meaning “that the included authors challenge the perception that certain human differences are disabilities” (p. viii). She also states that this perspective means that the authors “recognize the dangers of normative school practices and structures that rank and sort school children” (pp. viii-ix) and that they “are wary of the hegemony of professionals” (p. viii) who believe or behave as if their professional knowledge and technical expertise are more important than the perspectives and feelings of those “so-called problems” (p. viii, emphasis in original) this knowledge and expertise are typically applied to, namely, those students ostensibly being “served” through special education. Although I do not mean to suggest that a disability studies perspective is or should be a unified, static, or monolithic position, based upon this description I would not necessarily characterize all of the contributing pieces (particularly several by emerging scholars in the field) as having been written from a disability studies perspective.
For example, de Waal-Lucas, while offering an interesting account of an interpretive study in which she challenged her largely affluent and European American participants' perception that multicultural education was “not needed” in the suburbs, paid scant attention to disability issues, missing several opportunities to do so explicitly in her discussion of tracking practices and in response to one participant's unexamined reference to “inclusion.” Harvey-Koelpin's contribution is problematic on a number of fronts: She fails to problematize or tease out the complexities of the construct of inclusive education, instrumentally referring throughout her piece to inclusion students, inclusion faculty, and inclusion classrooms, and even describing a school with “two self-contained special education rooms” as “a full inclusion school” (p. 124). She also uses language that frames disability as individual deficit, referring to a student as “a slow learner” or “a severe behavior problem,” and fails to critically engage the often problematic constructs and claims that her participants draw upon in making meaning (i.e., that some students “don't have the mental capacity” to “succeed” or “to even comprehend,” p. 134). Both Stoughton and Lewis-Robertson draw from time to time upon psychological discourses that tend to reify problematic constructs and locate them as individual deficits (i.e., emotional disturbance and oppositional defiant disorder); however, the experiences of each of the students and families that are profiled in these pieces are compelling and significant contributions in their own right. Thus, despite Brantlinger's characterization of the text as having been written “from a disability studies perspective,” it is perhaps illustrative and not at all surprising that the contributions from those most recently immersed in public schooling and its discourses are those that are most firmly embedded, to a greater or lesser extent, in the dominant positivist, medicalized, and individualistic discourses around disability, despite a self-conscious attempt to write from a perspective that questions those very discourses.
Brantlinger concludes the text with a detailed discussion of who does and who does not benefit from special education discourses and effectively illustrates the ways in which “we, as members of the educated class, are complicit in hierarchies” (p. 224). She further calls upon readers “to join a countermovement to oppose stratifying measures and work to overcome hierarchical and excluding relations in school and society” (p. 224). All in all, it is a provocative text that raises (whether explicitly or implicitly) significant issues that are relevant not only to the burgeoning field of disability studies in education, but to the broader, complex, civic project of public schooling in diverse democratic societies.