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Special Education Opinion

The Death of Special Education

By Laurence M. Lieberman — January 17, 2001 11 min read
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Laurence M. Lieberman has been a special education teacher, the learning-disabilities coordinator in the former U.S. Office of Education in Washington, and the chairman of the special education doctoral program at Boston College. For the past 23 years, he has been an independent school consultant in Boston.

Special education is dead. It is dead because of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act Amendments of 1997—federal legislation requiring that aids, services, and other supports for students with special needs be provided in regular classes—and it is dead because of how the law is being implemented in the public schools.

Here, for example, are the first four items on a list presented in the March 27, 1998, issue of the journal Special Educator as “Congress’ 10 IEP Commandments” (rules governing the individualized education plans required for special education students):

1. Consider the effect of disability on involvement in the regular curriculum.

2. Develop goals and objectives enabling students to be involved and progress in the regular curriculum.

3. State the aids and services that will be provided in order for the student to be involved in the regular curriculum.

4. Presume regular education placement.

Use of the word “individuals” in the title of the federal special education law, and of “individualized” in reference to the educational plans required for each child under that law, would suggest that there can be no “presumptions” of any kind in the education of special-needs students, especially in regard to placement and curriculum. But the framers of IDEA ’97 seem to refer to the individual as a way of avoiding political heat, while conceding nothing with regard to meeting individual needs.

Special education has been swallowed by the beast: the school system, with its mandated curriculum, mandated tests, and mandated standards. Now, children with disabilities are entitled—no, are practically required—to have the same education as every other child, regardless of whether or not that education is of high quality or is appropriate for a child with a disability.

In 1980, I wrote in the Journal of Learning Disabilities that when the original federal legislation governing children with handicaps, PL 94-142, was passed, “a disabled child was not disabled because he was failing in school; he was failing in school because he was disabled.” Two decades later, there are children with disabilities who will continue to fail in the regular education curriculum because they are disabled. It is the wrong curriculum.

Consider the following statement from the “Policy Framework for Special Education,” adopted by the Michigan state board of education in December 1999: “Special education is a support system for students with disabilities to foster their progress in the general curriculum. The general education environment, curriculum, and assessments are accepted as the starting points in designing IEPs for students with disabilities.”

This sentiment is probably representative of most states’ policy frameworks. Yet, special education’s “starting point” used to be the student, not the general education environment. Certainly, Sam Kirk, the generally acknowledged father of modern special education, would not endorse such policies, as Esther Minskoff indicates in her book Learning Disabilities Research and Practice.

"The current adoption in both special education and general education of the philosophy of homogenization, the view that all children are the same and all children should be given the same education, is antithetical to the diagnostic-prescriptive approach," she writes. "This homogenized philosophy is reflected in the popularity of the inclusion movement and the emphasis in special education on making changes in the environment (accommodations and modifications), rather than changes in the child (remediation). [Mr.Kirk] believed that all children have the same right to an education, but not to the same education."


Special education used to be a support system, one focused on the following:

• Enabling students to overcome their disabilities, through the employment of a continuous, can-do approach integral to the doctrine that success breeds success.

• Preventing handicaps from developing in students with disabilities, an orientation suggesting that disabled students are at much greater risk of having limited choices and, thus, a diminished quality of life.

• Meeting individual needs, an emphasis that underscores the fact that every disability has the potential to affect every aspect of a person’s life, and can result in multiple handicaps.

• Maximizing potential, an approach taking into account strengths and weaknesses, and recognizing that academic schooling and the regular education curriculum do not necessarily correlate perfectly with having a quality of life commensurate with one’s desires.

• Promoting maximum employment opportunity, with an understanding that job skills, career orientation, and meaningful work opportunities can be a function of academic success, but can also be so much more, well beyond the regular education curriculum.

• Promoting independent living, by recognizing that students with disabilities do not necessarily learn independent-living skills just by exposure, and may need direct instruction in life management.

The new standard of special education—how well children with disabilities can succeed in the regular classroom and regular education curriculum—may be sorely lacking in any or all of the these support systems. IDEA ‘97, in fact, has very little to do with either individuals or disabilities. It has become the At-Risk for Failure in the Regular Classroom Act.

The distinguishing difference between regular and special education has always been in who dictated the curriculum. For the former, it was the “system"; for the latter, the individual. As Katherine Garnett writes in Thinking About Inclusion and Learning Disabilities, “Special education is meant to be the marshaling of appropriately focused responses to individual students’ educational needs.” Currently, however, the word least likely to be heard in a school building is “individualization.” The I in IDEA and the I in IEP are virtually nonexistent. Everyone will do what everyone else will do. It is the belly of the beast.


If we are to understand whom special education is for and why it is provided, we must first understand the difference between disability and handicap. A disability is an objective condition; it can be measured and observed. In IDEA ‘97, the definition is specified as mental retardation, hearing impairments, speech or language impairments, visual impairments, serious emotional disturbance, orthopedic impairments, autism, traumatic brain injury, other health impairments, or specific learning disabilities.

Special education is dead because of the IDEA and because of how the law is being implemented in the public schools.

A handicap, on the other hand, is a subjective phenomenon related to limitations of choice and in quality of life. Handicaps do not automatically result from disabilities. Although not likely, it is possible to be disabled and not be handicapped.

Candidates for special education are children with disabilities who are in danger of becoming handicapped if they do not receive special services. That is why the services are provided: to prevent handicaps from developing in children with disabilities and, implicitly, to provide these children with the opportunity to maximize their potential.

It is imperative that, in order for special education services to be provided, there be a measurable, observable disability. Without this imperative, any state education agency or local school system is given the license to develop curriculum standards with no regard for the individual. In other words, any student who cannot succeed in the curriculum becomes a candidate for special education. That is precisely what IDEA ’97 has done, in its transformation into the At- Risk for Failure in the Regular Classroom Act.

The inherent problem in this conceptual framework is the problem of school and academic failure. A person may be handicapped, and not necessarily disabled, if he or she fails in school. Failing in school will result, more than likely, in limitations of choice and a diminished quality of life, which, by definition, constitute a handicap. The program in place to prevent such handicaps from developing in nondisabled students is called the regular classroom. But, as we know, this program is not always successful; even for large numbers of students. Yet, the framers of IDEA ’97 allowed themselves to be consumed by the regular classroom and its curriculum.

When a true disability exists, it can result in multiple handicaps. A disability can pervade every aspect of a person’s intellectual, physical, and psychosocial existence. Regular-classroom placement is only one part of life, and it must be put into proper perspective. A student with a disability may be able to “make it” through school, but go on to a diminished quality of life resulting from numerous handicaps. The school might have been able to enhance the student’s life in school, but what about his life? What is required for the truly disabled is an individualized life plan, not an individualized educational plan.

This suggests another important aspect of our increasing emphasis on the regular classroom and regular curriculum: It puts a priority on compensation for disabilities, almost to the exclusion of remediation. This is true even for special educators. Their most important role has become helping regular educators circumvent the disability of the student. It is all about supplementary aids and supports, not helping the student overcome his disability.

Remediation implies going right at the disability: teaching to cure it (building up the muscles and balance of a child with cerebral palsy so that he can walk); teaching to diminish its impact (using an individualized, highly structured phonics approach with a child with dyslexia to enable her to read, even with difficulty); or teaching to raise competence to a minimally acceptable level (teaching a child with emotional disturbance, or with impulse-control problems, to verbalize when his or her frustration tolerance is at its limit).

Parents have been duped into thinking that their children will be better off with group process than with individual attention to their needs.

Compensation, on the other hand, is associated with getting around the disability: ignoring it in a direct sense, while indirectly using it to dictate teaching approaches, and strengthening substitute abilities. A decision for either remediation or compensation is a disservice to the student. Rather than asking “which,” the more appropriate questions we should ask are “where” and “who.”

Our response should be this: that the special educator emphasize remediation outside the context of the regular education curriculum, while the regular classroom teacher provides opportunities for the child to compensate through alternative requirements for task performance and information acquisition.

In fact, what is special about special education, and what requires specific training to teach disabled populations, is remediation. The emphasis in IDEA ’97 fails miserably in this regard. Services to be provided outside the classroom that do not directly pertain to the regular education curriculum are looked upon with suspicion and regret.

Even when direct services are provided, they are usually in the form of a low-intensity pullout model, with as many as 12 or 15 students in a resource room, with absolutely no individualization. This represents the demise of special education. And everything points in the direction of IDEA ‘97’s continuation of feeding the resource room, without any real emphasis on overcoming disability or providing remediation.


When people with cerebral palsy walk, and the blind navigate with a cane, and someone with mental retardation is employed and living semi-independently in the community, when a once-disturbed, out-of-control youth has a wife and family and contributes to the community, and a dyslexic child reads and writes, it has very little to do with the regular classroom curriculum. It has to do with special educators’ working with people with disabilities, trying to prevent them from becoming handicapped.

Clarion calls for high standards are worthwhile, but they can also be misguided attempts to take higher students higher, at the expense of others. The purpose of the school is to provide an educational opportunity that will meet the needs of all students, collectively and as individuals. The standard for excellence should be predicated on how effectively this occurs.

The standard for excellence should be predicated on how effectively a school meets the needs of all its students.

Meeting the needs of individuals requires much more than having them demonstrate mastery levels in content areas or achieve high test scores. No such standard of excellence ever created an excellent life or an excellent contribution to life. Only the quality of the educational system’s response to the individual can create that kind of excellence.

Prior to the passage of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act Amendments of 1997, there was some semblance of balance for the student with a disability. But when the special education law itself abandons the individual, balance is completely destroyed.

The death of special education is not from natural causes, and the program will not necessarily be reborn in a better form. We are at the beginning of a trek across a vast wasteland, where special education services have been demolished and parents have been duped into thinking that their children will be better off with group process than with individual attention to their needs.

A version of this article appeared in the January 17, 2001 edition of Education Week as The Death of Special Education


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