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View from the Top: 
How Principals View Learning Problems

by Pamela Darr Wright

As school leaders, principals define and shape the "culture" of schools. How do principals view children who have learning problems? What should schools do for children who have school and learning problems? 

In 1997, "How Administrators Understand Learning Difficulties" (by Allington, McGill-Franzel, and Schick) was published in Remedial and Special Education, 18(4), 223-232. 

This article discusses findings of researchers who interviewed principals of elementary schools where large numbers of children were being retained and/or referred to special education. The researchers wanted to learn why so many children had problems at these schools and what the schools were doing to resolve the problems. 


Stereotypes, Prejudices and Myths 

According to this study, principals shared the prejudices and stereotypes of mainstream society. Most princials claimed that children with learning problems were "disadvantaged." They believed that "disadvantaged children" were "immature" and "slow learners." 

The principals confused achievement with ability
. They believed that children who entered school with limited educational experiences were also intellectually limited. The principals explained that children from poor families have learning problems because the children are "limited." 

The authors of this study expressed concerns about these erroneous beliefs and posed several questions: 

If principals believe that poor children are intellectually "limited," will the children receive the educational help they need? 

If principals believe that children are "limited," will the children receive enrichment and other appropriate help? 

The authors referenced several studies which show that "limited experience children benefit from early rich, intensive literacy environments." They cited evidence that "instruction can accelerate literacy development and literally, "catch" these children up with their more advantaged peers." (p. 226) 

The principals were either unaware of these studies or didnít accept the findings because the information didnít fit their prejudices. 


"A Disturbing Pattern" Ė Unprepared Kids Sent to Special Ed 

The authors of this study discovered a disturbing pattern. Many low-income children enter school without the advantages of enrichment at home. Because they arenít adequately prepared when they enter school, many fail. When they fail, they are labeled as "limited" and are "held back" or retained. 

Many of these children land in special education classes - not because they have disabilities but because this is the only place for children who are "limited." Expectations are low in most special education classes. Special education doesn't provide the instruction these children need Ė enrichment and instruction to accelerate literacy. 


 The "Gene Pool Effect" 

The principals discussed their own beliefs about learning problems. The researchers called these beliefs the "Gene Pool Effect." 

The "Gene Pool Effect " included a mixed bag of social and economic problems - single parent homes, broken homes, "dysfunctional families," and parents who had limited education. 


 "Itís Not Our Fault"

The principals insisted that childrensí "failure to learn" had nothing to do with what schools do or don't do. By insisting that childrenís learning problems are "not our fault," they tried to take themselves "off the hook." 

One principal insisted that holding schools accountable when children donít learn is "unfair:" 
 
Society is saying, ĎItís the schoolís problem." Never the parents . . . We teach far more in school than we should ever have to teach. (p. 226)
Solutions Must Be Cheap & Easy 
The authors asked this question: "What happens when children "fail to learn?" They learned that solutions to childrenís learning problems had to be cheap and easy

The principals had two solutions - retention and referral to special education
. Few children received any remediation. Why? The schools didnít offer remediation because they didnít have to - remediation isnít federally or state-mandated or funded. 


The Purpose of Special Education: "It Benefits Us"

"Why are so many children in your school diagnosed with learning disabilities?" asked the researchers. They found that  principals view special education as a way to "give services" and deal with "problem children." 

Here are some principalsí comments about why children are referred to special education: 
 
We have a bushel basket we call learning disabilities. If you want to give a child services, you throw him in the learning disabilities basket and it qualifies him. 

. . . if you have a problem child all you have to do to eliminate having to deal with that child is refer him to the special class. Because special class referral almost always ends up with special class placement . . . You donít have to deal with the kid anymore. The kid is gone. I mean it has an appeal for some people. (p. 228)

The principals used special education for their benefit. State competency testing was increasing. The results of competency testing was published in local newspapers. Publicity meant that principals were under pressure to improve school achievement test scores. If they shifted low achieving kids into special education classes, these children would not be counted against them. 

The principals also expressed the belief that children with learning problems were "defective:" 
 
"They explained the low achievement of children by calling up images of an unsatisfactory inventory shipped to the school by the manufacturers (parents). These school administrators would prefer a better inventory, but lacking that, will work vigorously to label the defective inventory they received and protect the reputation of the institution." 

 . . . 

"The [majority view] was to accept and live with the defects in the inventory . . . the problem of school failure originated outside the school and it was outside general education that solutions were located."

School Culture - Ten Years Later 
In 1988, Galen Alessi published his study of school psychology practices. We wrote an article about his findings called "Learning Problems at School: Whose FAULT Is It?

In Alessi's study, school psychologists said they had to "limit the reasons" they used to explain childrenís learning problems to children and their parents. "School culture" did not allow them to mention "school reasons" for learning problems - improper curriculum, inappropriate teaching methods, and school administrative problems. 

Principals are school leaders. The principals who were interviewed for this study believed that schools don't need change - even when children aren't learning. 

Ten years after Alessi's study was published, "school culture" continues to influence how schools define problems and how decisions are made in public schools. 


Implications for Parents 

What are the implications of this study? If you are a parent and your child is having problems at school, the school staff probably believes that the problems are your fault - or your child's fault. This is the power of school culture

How can you combat school culture? 

First, you have to understand that you will not "win" by threatening or blowing up. You must learn to recognize the beliefs that are part of school culture (including the belief that a child's school problems are never the school's "fault"). You need to understand that these beliefs are as old as public schools - so you won't succeed in changing them. 
 
Study salesmanship - how to make people want to give you what you want. 

Learn how to ask questions, offer ideas, and make suggestions that will be heard - how to influence the actions of others by your own behavior. 

Learn how to negotiate and persuade - stay cool under pressure, stand up without provoking opposition, deal with underhanded tactics, find mutually agreeable options. 

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Wrightslaw: Special Education Law, 2nd Edition, by Pam and Pete Wright Wrightslaw: All About IEPs Surviving Due Process: Stephen Jeffers v. School Board

Copyright © 1998-2014, Peter W. D. Wright and Pamela Darr Wright. All rights reserved.

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