Four Ways Schools Fail Special Education Students

Education for students with disabilities must be improved

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Last spring’s U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Endrew F. v. Douglas County School District reaffirmed the importance of providing, in the words of Chief Justice John Roberts, an “appropriately ambitious” education for the nation’s 6.7 million children with disabilities. The court ruled that in order for school districts to meet their obligations under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, or IDEA, they must offer students with disabilities an individualized education plan that enables them to make progress and be adequately challenged to meet their full potential.

The court described this standard in its ruling as a “fact intensive exercise.” From our vantage, that fact-intensive exercise must include processes to ensure that schools actually provide the mandates that appear in each student’s IEP.

In recent years, there have been substantial structural improvements to existing special education practices. Schools now typically place greater emphasis on educating students with disabilities in general education classes and have adopted stringent guidelines to ensure that students with disabilities have access to the general education curriculum.


Despite these improvements, the U.S. Department of Education determined in July that fewer than half of the states are meeting their obligations under IDEA. Most of those states failing to follow educational guidelines have done so for at least two years.

Unsurprisingly, these failures are reflected in student performance. In 2015, the National Assessment of Educational Progress reported that only 8 percent of 8th graders with disabilities were proficient in reading and math. For 12th grade students, only 12 percent were proficient in reading and 6 percent proficient in math. Considering the majority of students with disabilities are identified by the 4th grade and receive special education services for years by the time they reach 8th grade, these results are not acceptable.

Why, despite the implementation of many well-intentioned reforms, does special education continue to produce limited results? Are we to seriously believe that, as a consequence of the Endrew F. ruling, states will change their practices in ways that will improve student performance? Though it’s too early to tell what the full effects of the ruling will be, it’s difficult to believe that any substantial change could come quickly from an announcement that challenges decades of entrenched practices.

The latest structural improvements in special education delivery are synonymous with official school policy. Unfortunately, there is frequently a substantial gap between official policy and implementation. Based on our experience evaluating special education programs, often on behalf of federal district courts, and working with parents, we can identify four important components of special education wherein schools overestimate their success:

"After three reauthorizations of IDEA, we think it is high time that schools truly provide what they are legally required to offer."

1) Disability determination is a key element of IDEA. Children should not be referred or assessed for special education prior to receiving a sound set of pre-referral interventions. Schools provide various pre-referral services, often based on a response-to-intervention model, to keep students in general education. But too frequently, the underlying rationale and delivery of these services are limited. These limitations are usually because teachers are not adequately trained or because schools lack resources, such as reading coaches, behavior specialists, social workers, and attendance officers, to implement them. Parents may also feel overwhelmed by the process of determinants or don’t feel heard when they insist there’s a problem. School districts must make more of an effort to communicate with parents about how children are doing in the classroom, so parents and teachers can share their experiences and concerns.

2) Parents’ and students’ rights in special education are protected under IDEA. But their contributions during IEP meetings are often given short shrift and seldom incorporated in ways that work best for parents. IEP teams frequently misinform parents of their rights, schedule meetings at inconvenient times, are slow to provide assessment data, and exaggerate the downsides of more restrictive—and costly—programs. As a result, parents too often resent what they perceive as condescension from their child’s IEP team, which hinders cooperation. In a report we once conducted for the Office for Civil Rights, regarding a school district’s violations of special education requirements, the parents were most angered because they felt the teachers did not respect them.

3) Students’ placement in “least restrictive environments” is a hallmark of federal legislation. Implementation, however, is often flawed. Decisions regarding placement of students in full-inclusion, partial-inclusion, or pull-out programs are often dependent on principals’ varied understandings of inclusion, their personal preferences, or the number and location of available seats. Important considerations such as class size, the overall achievement level of a student’s non-disabled peer group, teachers’ ability to adapt instruction, and teachers’ tolerance for students with disabilities are not always weighed in the decisionmaking process.

4) Students must receive related services when IEPs require them. Even when an IEP states the frequency and intensity of services a student is to receive, schools may not execute them. And schools often do not keep adequate records of student progress, or the effects of counseling or occupational therapy, other than for state-mandated academic assessments.

After multiple updates and reauthorizations to IDEA, we think it is high time that schools provide what they are legally required to offer. If schools do not deliver on IEP recommendations, outcome data for students with disabilities will continue to be poor. General educators and special educators have a joint responsibility to ensure that children with special needs receive an appropriate education, not only on paper but in actual fact.

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