The Illusion and Broken Promises of Special Education

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The longer these students receive so-called special instruction, the steeper their academic decline.

At long last, the accountability movement has reached the forgotten shores of special education. Under the No Child Left Behind Act, school systems across the country have been forced to disclose the abysmally low academic test scores of students with disabilities. Education Week conducted a survey, reported in Quality Counts 2004, that found a chasm in which the performance scores of students with disabilities were typically 30 percent to 40 percent below those of other students. The longer these students receive so-called special instruction, the steeper their academic decline. They have inordinately high dropout and low graduation rates.

Yet, exposure and accountability laws alone will not produce significant progress. There must be a second wave of reform that brings to light the ineffective and often unlawful practices that cause and conceal the system’s failures. These practices have not been examined closely or understood, and they are not addressed in the recent reauthorization of the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. As a result, false explanations or excuses for poor student performance persist.

Most conspicuously, the No Child Left Behind law’s disaggregation of test scores has unleashed an outcry that students with disabilities should not be held to the same high standards as other children. This complaint is legitimate for students with severe disabilities. But it misses the boat and is especially indefensible for students classified as having a “specific learning disability” or other less severe impairments. These students make up the large majority of children receiving special education services. Virtually all of them have the cognitive ability to meet demanding academic standards or to achieve at higher levels than they do. Yet they lag far behind.

Over the past two years, as a pro bono attorney, I have represented more than 25 elementary school students classified as learning-disabled in the Baltimore public school system. I did this as part of policy research seeking to analyze how and why special education strays so far from the legal and moral promises of the IDEA. I have participated in more than 65 meetings in which individualized education programs, known as IEPs, were developed by school-based IEP teams that include teachers and related service providers such as psychologists, speech and language pathologists, and social workers.

The stories of most of the students I represent are tragedies. Despite several years of special education, they are reading at least three grades below their age level and cognitive ability and falling further behind. Frustration and stigma have led to emotional and behavioral problems that further impede learning. Along the way, many educators have responded by blaming the students and their parents, rather than inappropriate instruction, for these children’s meltdown. Parents who try to fight the system are rebuffed and left heartbroken.

The stories of most of the students I represent are tragedies. Despite several years of special education, they are reading at least three grades below their age level and cognitive ability and falling further behind.

This pattern applies nationwide, especially in large urban school districts, as the disaggregated federal data and numerous studies show. But why does it occur despite the mandates of the IDEA and the good intentions of educators? For sure, the blame doesn’t belong with front-line special educators. They and their students alike are too often set up for failure because of a lack of know-how, training, and resources to get the job done. Their hands are tied by the following practices that I found repeatedly in the Baltimore schools:

• Individualized-education-program teams are not trained in the most effective instructional programs for students with disabilities. As a result, teams vastly underestimate the academic potential of students and violate both the IDEA and the No Child Left Behind Act by failing to design and deliver appropriate, research-based instruction. Low expectations, particularly for low-income and low-IQ students who are often “invisible dyslexics,” are toxic self-fulfilling prophecies.

• IEP teams fail to actually individualize education programs as mandated by the IDEA. Special education is defined under that federal law as “specially designed instruction” to meet the child’s unique needs. Yet incredibly, IEPs are silent on the most basic elements of instruction: learning programs and methods, intensity (teacher-to-student ratio and time specified for small groups and tutoring), and teacher qualifications and training.

• IEP teams violate the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act by failing to set sufficiently high and measurable goals for the benefit that students are expected to achieve. School systems in Baltimore and elsewhere typically take the position that students are entitled only to services that enable them to receive any benefit, no matter how minimal or insignificant. Yet the No Child Left Behind Act, the IDEA, and numerous court decisions, including two landmark U.S. Supreme Court cases, require a much higher and more exact standard: Services must be reasonably calculated to enable cognitively able students to meet or achieve significant progress toward high academic standards for grade-to-grade promotion and graduation.

• Individualized-education-program teams also violate the federal special education law by tailoring IEPs to fit budget limits, not the individual needs of students. Even when IEP teams recognize the need for intensive instruction or other services, such as counseling for behavioral and emotional problems, the services are often radically reduced because of their cost.

• IEP teams violate the IDEA when student performance is not effectively monitored, and timely interventions are not provided if students fail to progress. Students fall further and further behind before a significant increase in services is considered. By then, it is almost always too late for effective remediation. Academic deficits have deepened, and frustrated students become behavior problems, with some winding up being reclassified with an “emotional disturbance” disability.

These practices are hidden from the view of parents and policymakers. In their place, low expectations are entrenched. Grade inflation and “social promotion” are rampant. Issues about instructional quality are buried under mountains of excessive procedural-compliance paperwork. And special educators, who know what is wrong with the system, are, in the words of a Baltimore Teachers Union official, “intimidated and afraid to speak out in their building; afraid to honestly describe what is lacking and what students need.”

Reform will not come easily. Nationwide, special education is underfunded. But at the same time, it is hard to rally support for more funding when the system’s deficiencies are misunderstood.

Low expectations are entrenched. Grade inflation and 'social promotion' are rampant. Issues about instructional quality are buried under mountains of excessive procedural-compliance paperwork.

In particular, educators have been slow to embrace the research that discredits low expectations for students with disabilities. Rachel F. Quenemoen of the National Center on Educational Outcomes has written: “For many educators, special education labels have become code words that say ‘this child can’t learn.’ What is frightening is that over the past 30 years that belief has become engrained even among parents, advocates, and policymakers.” For example, the field of special education has been a backwater of misinformation about reading difficulties, including dyslexia. Special educators have neglected the findings of reading scientists and too often blamed reading difficulties on students’ IQ (a dubious construct to begin with) and family background, rather than on poor instruction. Kevin McGrew, one of the authors of the widely used Woodcock-Johnson tests of achievement, has said: “For most children with cognitive disabilities (those with below-average IQ scores), it is NOT possible to predict individual levels of expected achievement with the degree of accuracy that would be required to deny a child the right to high standards/expectations.”

To begin to turn the tide, educators must first educate themselves about the high levels of achievement that students with learning and other disabilities can attain if appropriate instruction and other services are delivered. The best defense against the preoccupation in special education with procedural compliance is a good offense that focuses on best instructional programs and practices.

Special education has come a long way over the past three decades. The greatest triumph has been to end the public schools’ exclusion or warehousing of children with severe disabilities. Services have expanded. The great majority of teachers and other special educators are dedicated professionals who toil heroically. And the first step toward far-reaching instructional reform has been taken with public exposure under the No Child Left Behind law of dismally low test scores.

Still, there is a long way to go, and the second step is more daunting. It requires uprooting deeply embedded, ineffective, and unlawful instructional practices and growing new research-based programs and practices in their place. But that is unlikely to happen without more public awareness of the illusion and broken promises of special education instruction. Children with learning and other disabilities cross the economic and racial spectrum. But those who suffer most are disproportionately from low-income families and communities with the least ability to advocate for themselves. Educators, policymakers, and citizens must sound the alarm.

Vol. 24, Issue 26, Pages 30, 32

Published in Print: March 9, 2005, as The Illusion and Broken Promises Of Special Education
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