Special Education

IDEA Opens Doors, Fans Controversy

By Joetta L. Sack — March 03, 2008 11 min read
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Twenty-five years ago this week, President Gerald R. Ford signed the most important piece of special education legislation in the nation’s history into law. Since then, teachers, children, parents, and administrators have seen the law create opportunities and challenges, perhaps beyond anyone’s expectations.

IDEA 25:
Progress and Problems
Part I:
IDEA Opens Doors, Fans Controversy
‘I Know That I Am Here for a Reason’
Lobbying for Change: A Parent’s View
Retired Administrator Notes Shift In Federal Law’s Focus
Table: A Rising Tide of Disabilities
Charts: The Changing Nature Of Students’ Disabilities
Part II:
Schools Grapple With Reality Of Ambitious Law
Teacher’s Career Spans Changes Spurred by 1975 Law
‘They Accept Me For Who I Am’
Chart: A Sharp Rise in Federal Special Education Funding

Over the past quarter-century, what was first called the Education for All Handicapped Children Act and now is known as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act has spurred welcome changes and fanned intense debate. It has generated huge bills and headaches for schools coping with the myriad accommodations some students need to attend classes. But it has also cleared the way for millions of children with disabilities to receive an education they might otherwise have been denied.

“IDEA is the biggest success story in American education in my lifetime,” said Benny Gooden, the superintendent of the 12,500-student Fort Smith, Ark., school district.

Before Congress passed the 1975 law, the standards for educating children with disabilities varied tremendously. Public Law 94-142, the Education for All Handicapped Children Act, sought to change that by ordering states to ensure that public schools provide a “free, appropriate public education” in the “least restrictive environment” to all students with disabilities. In doing so, it set in motion a tidal wave of change, bringing into the public schools slightly more than 1 million children with disabilities who previously had been shut out of school or had received only limited educational services.

In the 1976-77 school year, just after the law’s passage, the nation educated about 3.3 million children with disabilities. Now, the Department of Education estimates, slightly more than 6 million such children are in school, a nearly 82 percent increase. In fact, the number of children educated under the IDEA has increased 30 percent just over the past 10 years, according to federal officials.

Students with disabilities ages 6 to 17 now make up just more than 11 percent of total public school enrollment, compared with 9.5 percent in the 1988-89 school year.

"[The IDEA] gave access to both kids who were out of schools as well as kids in schools whose needs weren’t being met,” said Thomas Hehir, a lecturer in special education at Harvard University’s graduate school of education and a former director of the federal office of special education programs.

With new diagnostic tools and standards, the realm of disabilities has also evolved. Today, schools are seeing more and more students with what are classified as learning and emotional disabilities. For example, in the 1997-98 school year—the most recent for which data are available—schools enrolled 2.8 million students with learning or emotional disabilities, up from 1.9 million in 1987-88, a 47 percent increase. Such statistics have fueled debate over whether students are being wrongly identified as having disabilities.

Inclusion of children with disabilities in regular classes has also become commonplace, with about 3 million special education students receiving services in a regular classroom for at least part of the school day.

“Now, we take access for granted,” said Ronald Felton, the assistant superintendent in charge of special education for Florida’s 361,000-student Miami-Dade County public schools. “No one thinks twice about a very severely, multiply handicapped child with medical needs coming to school.”

The availability of advanced technology has combined with the IDEA to bring many children with severe disabilities not just into schools, but into regular classrooms as well.

“We’ve seen a vast change from what we expected in 1975,” Mr. Gooden of Fort Smith said, referring to himself and other supporters of P.L. 94-142. “I must confess, most of us did not imagine the severity of disability we’d be seeing in regular schools.” That, he added, has its pluses and minuses—while it’s certainly good that severely disabled children are being educated, he said, the costs and complications associated with their schooling can be daunting.

Education Plans

At the heart of the IDEA is the individualized education plan, or IEP, which spells out the educational services and accommodations a particular student with a disability must receive. Once an IEP is drawn up—by a team of teachers, administrators, specialists, the student’s parents, and sometimes the student himself—the school is obligated to provide the services it details.

Under the IDEA’s basic provisions, students are required to be educated in “the least restrictive environment” as much as possible. In amending the law in 1997, though, Congress shifted the main focus of the measure from access to quality.

Students with disabilities now must be given access to the same curriculum and high standards available to their nondisabled classmates. Students with disabilities are also required to be included in all national, state, and local assessments, with appropriate accommodations, or to be given alternative assessments.

If properly implemented, the change will make a remarkable difference in the education of those students, advocates say.

“I think we have moved away from feeling successful if a child was in what was called a classroom, whether or not the child was learning,” said Judith E. Heumann, the federal Education Department’s assistant secretary for special education and rehabilitative services.

Ms. Heumann, who herself uses a wheelchair because of the polio she contracted as a child, knows firsthand the role that the IDEA can play. She was nearly shut out of school as a youngster because of her disability, and her parents had to fight to enroll her in a public elementary school. Ultimately, she became the first person with polio to graduate from her high school and go on to college. Later, however, she found it tough to find work as a teacher because of her disability.

Testing and Intervention

But since the IDEA was passed, special education has become the norm in most schools and countless students with disabilities have gone on to higher education and remarkable careers.

Chris Copeland, for one, was diagnosed with a learning disability in elementary school after he had difficulties learning to read. While there was certainly a stigma attached to having to go to a special class, he said, he knew that he needed the one-on-one help that the classes gave him.

“It taught me I had to work harder than the average person to get where I am,” he said. Although he still struggled with taking tests and reading at times, he was able to keep up in regular classes.

Mr. Copeland, who went on to graduate from college, where he played football, now works as a medical sales representative in Clear Lake, Texas.

For her part, Ms. Heumann agrees that the IDEA has made a revolutionary difference in the lives of students with disabilities—but she adds that there is still room for improvement.

“IDEA will become better when it’s seen as part of the overall education system,” she said. “In the future, maybe we won’t have a term called ‘special education.’”

Early results from assessments show significant gaps between the academic performance of special education and general education students, something that most educators agree will have to be a priority. Ms. Heumann and others also identified special education research and technology as areas that have seen marked improvements in the past 25 years, but need to see more funding and focus in coming years.

The educational levels of students with disabilities have risen greatly since the federal law’s passage, with many such students completing high school, going on to higher education, and holding jobs. In the 1996-97 school year, for instance, more than 160,000 students with disabilities received a high school diploma or certificate, an increase of more than 8,000 from the previous school year.

“I attribute that very much to IDEA,” said Mr. Hehir of Harvard, who has worked as a teacher and a school administrator, as well as a federal education official.

Advocates and educators remain concerned about the dropout rate for students identified as having disabilities. For instance, about 31 percent of the disabled students who were supposed to graduate in the 1997-98 school year had dropped out of school before then.

In the face of such statistics, the Education Department and states have shifted new attention to early intervention. In the early years of the IDEA, school and health officials searched for children with disabilities who had been institutionalized or left at home; now, they are searching for infants and toddlers who show signs of developmental delays or disabilities in the hope of heading off future, more serious problems.

Identification Quandary

But the changing concept of what a disability is has raised questions about whether some students should be put in special education in the first place. For years, some experts and observers have expressed fears that students are being incorrectly identified as having disabilities.

“We have too many children in special education,” said Patte Barth, a senior associate with the Education Trust, a Washington-based advocacy group for disadvantaged students. The case can be made to put almost any child in special education, she said, whether they’re having trouble learning fractions or acting up in the classroom.

It is relatively easy to determine whether a child is mentally retarded, hearing-impaired, or suffering from a traumatic brain injury. But it can be difficult to determine whether a child is learning-disabled or just wasn’t properly taught to read, whether a child has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder or is just very energetic, or whether a child who causes trouble has an emotional disturbance or just a mischievous streak.

The number of students in five of the 13 disability categories under the IDEA has increased by 20 percent or more in the past 10 years. The categories seeing such growth are: specific learning disabilities, emotional disturbance, multiple disabilities, orthopedic impairments, and other health impairments, which includes students with ADHD. (ADHD does not automatically entitle a child to special education services; that call depends on the severity of the ADHD.)

While research on the less clear-cut disabilities has been conducted, more needs to be done, Mr. Hehir said. “On the disabilities that require judgment, there’s still a tremendous need for more research,” he said.

Mr. Hehir added that the issue of proper identification of disabilities cuts both ways: Some populations, such as African-American students, have been put into special education classes too often, he argues, while other groups, such as students with limited English proficiency, are at risk of not being identified for the extra help they need.

Another part of the problem, Ms. Barth and others say, is that special education and general education teachers are not trained well enough to handle the diverse array of students with disabilities and students with different learning styles who come into their classrooms.

“Teachers need to be well-prepared, able to teach diverse learners,” Ms. Barth said. “We need good teachers, and we need to boost the preparation of regular teachers.”

Other observers say that in schools with tight budgets, teachers may refer any students who need extra help to special education, simply because they see no better way to get such youngsters the attention they need.

Some school administrators say they see parents abuse the law in other ways, almost lobbying to have their children labeled as needing special education services.

Doing so, those parents believe, may get their children extra time on college-entrance exams, for example, or lessen an impending punishment for a crime.

Success Stories

But for every complaint about the IDEA, fans of the law respond with dozens of success stories from the day-to-day course of their jobs.

Gayden Carruth, the superintendent of the 9,000-student Park Hill, Mo., district near Kansas City, knows all about the IDEA’s problems. She recently met with special education teachers who are considering leaving the field because of the paperwork and bureaucracy their jobs entail—and she knows they will not be easy to replace.

But Ms. Carruth also remembers a student who first came to her district at age 7. He had severe disabilities and no communication skills, and he usually sat in the corner of a classroom, staring at the wall and occasionally making unintelligible grunts.

The special education staff worked with him, though, and he slowly began to communicate and learn. Ms. Carruth remembers visiting his classroom and reading a book about crickets to him as part of his therapy.

Recently, the superintendent saw the boy, now 12, at a school event. It took them a moment to reconnect, but when she reminded him of their past acquaintance, he said, “Oh, that’s right—you’re the cricket lady!”

“I know the services we provide make a critical difference for these children,” Ms. Carruth said.

A version of this article appeared in the November 29, 2000 edition of Education Week as IDEA Opens Doors, Fans Controversy


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