Education Opinion

Why Does Special Education Have to Be Special?

By Starr Sackstein — July 05, 2015 16 min read
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Guest post by Dr. Douglas Green

Thanks to the federal Individuals with Disabilities Act passed in 1975, students who have some kind of identifiable disability that gets in the way of keeping up with their able peers, get service from special education teachers in schools throughout the United States.

While practices vary from state to state, there is some similarity as to how these services are provided. The law is well intentioned, and there is no doubt that much of what special education teachers do is helpful. However, we spend too much money and time on bureaucratic procedures that wastes funds that could be used to pay more teachers to give more help. The process that a child has to go through to become classified and therefore eligible for service creates a barrier that favors students with strong parent advocates, at the same time it leaves some poor kids who aren’t quite disabled enough out of luck.

Unlike Finland where services are provided to about half of the students at some point before they fall too far behind, we limit these kind of services to roughly 12% of the student population, and often wait until students are far behind their peers before we provide it. As an elementary school principal where 90% of the students were poor, 25% were refugees, and 20% qualified for special education services, I’ve seen this process close up. I have great respect for the teachers involved, but found that we spent way too much time in meetings trying to determine if a given student was classifiable rather than just helping kids who seemed to need help.

Tag ‘em and Bag ‘em

In order to qualify for special education services, a student needs to go through the dreaded classification process. Students who seem to need help are first dealt with by a committee of teachers who try to figure out how to help the student to avoid a special ed classification. If this doesn’t work, the student gets individual testing from a special education teacher and a school psychologist. When the testing is finished, the committee on special education meet to review the results and decide if a special ed classification is in order.

These meetings include the child’s regular classroom teacher, a special education teacher, the school psychologist, the child’s parent (if they show up), a parent of a student already in the special ed system, and a committee chair provided by the district. As principal, I usually attended and parents where allowed to bring in advocates and lawyers if the wished.

After about half an hour of sorting through data that almost no parent and many regular ed teachers don’t understand, it’s up to the school psychologist to see if the child is eligible for one of the allowed classifications. About half of the students who make it are considered learning disabled. Other tags include the not so popular emotionally disturbed, cognitively challenged (formerly mentally retarded), speech impaired, and autistic. Then there is that wonderful grab bag classification called “other health impaired”. This is probably overused as it’s relatively easy for parents to swallow since it just sounds like the child has some sort of illness that might go away. This is where the ADHD crowd usually gets placed.

Students whose test results fall just above the classification lines, are basically returned to their regular classes to continue floundering. Some schools will allow the special education teachers to help these kids, but in many other situations, the special ed staff is too busy dealing with classified kids to do much.

I refer to these students as “crack” kids since they are in the crack that contains students who can’t keep up with their classmates, but aren’t disabled enough to qualify for significant additional help. This doesn’t happen in Finland.

Who Called My Kid a Retard?

When non-school people hear that a school has a psychologist, they might think that such persons provide psychological services to needy students. This is something they almost never do. Most of their time is devoted to individual testing for students who have been identified, retesting students who have been in the program for a while, or sitting through endless committees of special education meetings.

Let me know if you find anyone familiar with the program who doesn’t think their time could be better spent. They are essentially the gate keepers for the special ed system. I remember one parent who missed their child’s special education meeting steaming into my office yelling, “who called my kid a retard?” I pointed her in the direction of the psychologist’s office as it was her job to determine if a child qualified for a classification and what it would be. At the time mentally retarded was a classification. It was also a word that students often used to “diss” each other.

When special education classes were first placed in regular schools, most students were placed in classes where all the kids were classified. It was obvious to the other students that these classes were “special” and as a result, the special kids were easy targets for the local bullies.

When I got my principal job in 1993, there was a push among the innovative special ed teachers to “include” most classified students in regular classes, and provide the services by “pushing” special ed teachers in. This met with a lot of resistance from many general education teachers, as these were the same teachers that worked to push problem kids out into special ed classes so they wouldn’t have to deal with them.

In my case I supported the push-in movement and after a few years most of the classified students were receiving help in regular ed classrooms with limited “pull out” sessions. This brought the number of students in self-contained special ed classes in my school from about 15% down to about 6%. As special ed teachers pushed in to regular classes, they were also able to work with all of the children in the room on occasion, as they helped teachers modify lessons for the special ed kids.

Poor and Minority Kids

The only students who are considered for special education services are those who fall behind academically. Since poor children are less prepared to perform in school and minority children are more likely to be poor, they are more likely to be candidates for special ed. For this reason, many poor and minority parents see special ed as a stigma and fight the school’s efforts to classify their kids.

This is just the opposite with wealthy parents who push to get their kid classified so they get extra time on the SATs and other tests. It’s just one more way that people who have a lot get more, but it doesn’t have to be this way.

Why not just give every kid as much time as they want on any test?

As I said in a recent article, “How to Cheat on State Standardized Tests and Not Get Caught” , any teacher who calls time on their kids during state tests is doing themselves and their kids a disservice. Who’s going to know?

As principal, about a third of my kids were minorities. As luck would have it, one of my three black teachers taught a 12-1 class that contained zero black kids. Anytime parents of a black kid who we felt needed special ed services told me that the program was prejudiced, I just took them to the special ed class with the black teacher and zero black kids.

Unfortunately, that is not the case in most schools due to the fact that black kids are more likely to come from poor homes. My sense is that any special ed kid who can spend a lot of time in regular classes is lucky. In order to make it in society, you need to deal with a normal cross section of the population. You are also better off seeing how the “smarter” kids behave and perform.

The Wealthy and Well Connected Win or How to Beat the System

As I mentioned earlier, parents with means can most likely get their kid classified if they want to as the special ed committee members are not likely to go against parents’ wishes and fear being sued.

This happens at both ends of the disabled spectrum. For tests that are high-stakes for kids, parents want a classification to get kids more time. For parents with kids who have real disabilities, the game changes. What they typically want is the “platinum version” of special ed services. The top shelf service is the one on one aide. Pushy parents will even get involved in the selection of the individual aide who follows the student around all day.

Parents with means will often demand that their child be included in regular classes no matter how disabled they are. In addition to extra test time, they also push for individual counseling time every week. Keep in mind that it is the rare school that has extra counseling time available, so when this happens, other kids suffer.

The other problem with poor and minority parents is that they often don’t show up to the meetings. Sad to say it might not matter much if they did, because the test reports from the special ed teacher and the psychologist can sound like Chinese to anyone without a strong background in statistics. Raise your hand if you know what a normal curve equivalent is.

Meetings, Meetings, and More Meetings

If you do some math on the committee meeting times, it’s not a pretty picture. In my school with 530 students, we had a full day of special ed meetings almost every week. Each meeting featured a full-time equivalent of about five employees. For about 30 days of meetings in a 40-week year at an average cost of $50,000 an employee, This creates a yearly cost of about $60,000 which includes hiring substitutes for teachers on the committee. This is very conservative as psychologist and principal salaries are much higher than teacher salaries, and these costs don’t include employee benefits.

Without the meetings we could easily hire another teacher.

The other big expense is the cost of the district special education department. Just about every district has a full-time special ed director with an administrator’s certificate. In my district with only 6,000 students we have two. They also have clerks and someone who runs the district meetings caused by situations where building committees can’t sort things out or parents don’t agree. For my district this cost is at least $300,000 a year. Districts, however, feel this cost is the price of avoiding law suits.

If schools just were given more teachers with the abilities to help any student who needed it, when they needed it, without committee action, wouldn’t we be better off?

Learning Bad Habits From Each Other

One reason why children with severe disabilities are placed in classes with only special education students is a result of the way some teachers teach. If a class features a one-size-fits-all approach where all students are expected to learn the same thing, at the same time, at the same rate, slow learners will become frustrated and often act out. For many, this is why they get sent off to special ed in the first place. In essence, some teachers cut students off the bottom who can’t keep up with the pace the teacher sets.

If classes featured shorter periods of teacher talk, more time for students to work individually or in small groups, and opportunities for peer teaching, students of varying ability would have a better chance of learning together. But in order to keep the kids in a given room somewhat close to each other in terms of ability, kids need to be sorted, which is what the special ed system does at the bottom. (The gifted program does the same at the top, but that’s another article.)

Thanks to the sorting process of low functioning kids, schools create what are called self-contained special ed classes. From what I’ve seen, some are just fine, and some are abusive. There is a big range. The best classes contain about 15 slow learners who are well-behaved and who have skilled teachers.Worst case classes are the ones where eight or so emotionally disturbed kids are in the same room with almost any teacher.

Unfortunately, these jobs have such a high burn out ratio that the teachers involved are often relatively inexperienced. In these 8-1 rooms kids with all sorts of problems get to see endless bad examples to learn from. This also happens in most schools when both classified and non-classified kids are sent to time-out rooms. In such rooms kids who are having some kind of emotional issue get to see similar behaviors from kids from other classes. They are also usually supervised by less skilled adults than the ones who kicked them out of class in the first place.

Special Ed and State Standardized Tests

Although the state tests are used to punish teachers and schools and are totally inappropriate for most special ed students, they have to take them anyway. Only the lowest of the low, roughly the bottom 1%, are given alternate testing.

For those unlucky enough to be in the next few percentiles, the process of taking the tests can feel like punishment. For students with very low reading abilities, the tests are an absolute joke. I’ve seen kids cry when faced with reading tests they can’t read. The scores they do get are always in the bottom level of the four-level system.

When it comes to math, things are a bit better. That’s due to the fact that teachers can read the math tests to the students. I guess the geniuses that set up this awful system realized that if you didn’t read the math test to the kid you were more or less giving them another reading test. Thanks to this accommodation, students do have a shot of getting to level 2, and some do. That is still not passing, however, so their teachers stand a good chance of being considered less than effective.

I hesitate to give the testing system too much credit, but it has caused self-contained classes to become more academic. Prior to the tests, these classes featured way more fun and games and a stronger focus on life skills. Now they are getting a fairly heavy dose of academic work, and some students seem to like the fact that they are being challenged. I’m all for pushing these kids academically. Doing so will certainly give them a better chance of decent employment and a happier life.

If only we could give them tests that showed what they know instead of tests that just show they don’t know much.

What Happens After Special Ed?

In New York, any child has the legal right to stay in school until age 21. This seldom happens as schools push kids out to increase their graduation rate. Special ed kids usually end up with something called an IEP diploma as in “Individual Education Plan.” Like about half of our current high school graduates, they aren’t ready to take college level courses, and probably aren’t ready for the high school level courses that two-year colleges give students who fail the placement tests in either English or math.

When we look at data regarding what happens to these students, the picture isn’t pretty. Many families and young adults experience the transition to life after graduation not as a launching pad, but as a cliff. Only sixty percent of youths with disabilities are employed for pay outside the home eight years after leaving high school, compared with 66 percent of all youths. Young adults with disabilities also report earning less money than their non disabled peers--$10.40 per hour compared with $11.40.

Is Special Education Racist

In “Is Special Education Racist”, Paul L. Morgan and Gorge Farkas claim that special education would appear racist is based on the fact that black children are 1.4 times as likely to receive special education classifications than other races and ethnicities.

This is faulty logic, however, when you look at the fact that blacks are much more likely to be poor, and that poor children are much more likely to need the kind of additional attention offered by special education teachers.

According to Morgan and Farkas, however, 65% of blacks and only 30% of white children live in families below 200% of the poverty line. Blacks are also more likely to have elevated levels of lead in their blood, live in highly disadvantaged neighborhoods, be born premature, and suffer from fetal alcohol syndrome. This means that far more black children should be candidates for special help.

What Finland Does: Why Wait for Gaps to Show Up?

In Finland, about half of the students who complete compulsory education at the age of 16 have received some kind of special education service along the way. For any given year the number is one third with 8% receiving full-time service either in a regular school or a special institution. Early intervention is stressed and many children are diagnosed before they enter school. Preschool is free and 98% of the population attends. In my school, the committee of pre-school education removes the classifications they use so the neediest kids show up for kindergarten classification free.

The fraction of Finnish students served by special education staff gradually decreases throughout primary school and goes up a bit during secondary school. This notion of prevention is opposite to most other nations who try to repair students after problems show up. This results in a gradual increase in the number served as students move from grade to grade.

It should be noted that in Finland, structural elements that cause failure like grade retention have also been removed. When someone suggests that we look to Finland for reform ideas, others will quickly respond with statements like Finland is much smaller and more homogeneous than the US. What they fail to focus on is that Finland reformed a while ago to the system they have now, which caused big improvements in their results. It’s clear to me that if we were more like Finland, we would get better results.

What We Should Do

As I said before, old school teaching methods just don’t work with students who can’t keep up with the teacher’s one pace. In addition to abolishing committees and classifications, I would just let the teachers figure out who needed extra help and let them have at it. I’m sure they would let me know where the problems were, and I would work with them to smooth things out. I would keep some of the individual testing when the teachers thought it would help, and make the results available to teachers and parents. I would be sure to let parents know when their children are getting additional help from “consultant” teachers and for what reason.

Instead of treating all students the same, you would ideally treat each individual child they way they need to be treated. Finally, I would seek to eliminate the word special ed from the school culture’s lexicon.

As for the current crop of state tests, it would be fine with me if every kid opted out. I’m encouraged by the large increase of parents opting kids out in New York this year as many schools had more than half of their kids do so. We need to get some laws changed to do what I suggest, but we also need to change some laws to end the test and punish madness we are now experiencing. My goal here is to get educators, parents, and policy makers thinking about what could be a better system for children in need. What we have now has some positive aspects, but there is lots of room for improvement.

In the mean time, we also need administrators with backbones who are more concerned about what is best for students and less concerned about following rules that waste precious funds and prevent teachers from doing their best.

Dr. Doug Green is a former teacher of chemistry, physics, and computer science. He has held administrative positions of K-12 science chair, district director of computer services, director of instruction, and elementary principal. He teaches leadership courses for teachers working on administrative certification, and has authored hundreds of articles in computer magazines and educational journals. He retired in 2006 to care for his wife who had Lou Gehrig's disease. After her death in March of 2009, he started his blog at //DrDougGreen.Com to provide free resources and book summaries for busy educators and parents. You can follow him on Twitter @DrDougGreen.


Center for Public Education, “How many students with disabilities are in our school(s)?” //bit.ly/1UlR83Z

Christina A. Samuels, “Students Face Uncertain Paths After Special Education” //bit.ly/1RPfmkS

Morgan, Paul L and Farkas, Gorge, Is Special Education Racist, New York Times, June 24, 2015, P. A21.

The opinions expressed in Work in Progress are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.