Opinion
Special Education Commentary

What’s Wrong With Special Education

By Andrew P. Dunn — May 17, 2000 10 min read

Two weeks into the school year, the mother of one of my students called to talk to me about her son. She said the family had recently moved to our school district because it was known for small class sizes and she wanted to be sure that her son would receive the attention he needed.

Too many special education regulations end up hobbling our efforts to help those the system is supposed to serve.

“Are you aware that he’s classified?” she asked. I told her I had received a note from his Resource Room teacher telling me he went to her 5th period.

“Have you read his IEP [individualized education plan]?”

I confessed that I hadn’t. Schools are required to have this plan on file for each student classified as disabled, and for obvious reasons teachers are expected to know what’s in it. When I explained that I had yet to read the individualized education plan down in the office where they were kept, she offered to send me her copy from home. Great, I said.

A week later, she called to apologize. “His IEP must be in some box we haven’t opened yet, so I called the office to ask them to send you a copy,” she began. “The person in charge said they couldn’t do that—by law I can’t give copies to teachers—and that ‘Mr. Dunn should know that.’ I hope I didn’t get you in trouble.”

That a parent is proscribed from sharing the plan of instruction that has been designed for her own child with the teacher who must implement the plan defies common sense.

This story is one example of how a program can be handicapped by the very system that created it. In fact, too many special education regulations end up hobbling our efforts to help those the system is supposed to serve.

Logically, the individualized education plan should be placed in the hands of each teacher who needs to implement it. If the classroom teacher doesn’t have easy access to the plan for instruction, it might as well not exist. It is merely a file filler, never meant to be put into effect.

But the IEP is pretty much useless anyway. Meant to describe a student’s background, learning style, needs, and goals, it reads the same for almost every individual. It is bureaucratic boilerplate. For example, under the following “Description of Program,” the only parts that change from student to student, regardless of the nature of the disability, are those in brackets.

In selecting the least restrictive environment, consideration has been given to participation in the regular classroom program to the maximum extent appropriate making use of necessary supplemental aids and services.

[Name] demonstrates the following characteristics: [Average cognitive ability] [ADD (attention deficit disorder)] [Hands-on learner] In order to address [Name]'s learning and emotional needs his special education program will provide through the special education teacher: - small- group instruction - positive reinforcement - individual attention - immediate feedback - opportunity for social-skills development - extended time on tests - organizational and study skills - support in mainstream subjects

Meant to describe a student’s background, learning style, needs, and goals, the individualized education plan reads the same for almost every individual.

The goals (“Will complete all courses and receive credit” ... “Will maintain course expectations through support of the Resource Room teacher”) are equally generic. It is almost impossible for anyone reading the IEP to identify the individual for whom it was written. Occasionally, bits of information slip through that might be useful to the classroom teacher: “talented artist,” “strong in auditory processing, weak in written expression,” or “enjoys problem-solving.” But no usefully specific anecdotes from former teachers ever make it into the IEP.

The same force that keeps the individualized education plan out of the teachers’ hands is what reduces it to bureaucratic pabulum: fear of legal consequences. The school fears any leak of sensitive information, and since leaks are more likely if many people handle documents, it’s prudent to keep the IEP locked up. But if the IEP is so closely guarded, why doesn’t it at least say something worth guarding? I suspect that the broad generalizations and vacuous goals are there simply because they’d get no one in trouble if challenged in court; they offer a pillow to blunt sword thrusts.


When I first asked for copies of my students’ IEPs, before I realized how empty they were, I set off the confidentiality alarms among the members of our local Child Study Team, those responsible for coordinating special education programs. It is enough, they said, that the special education teachers are given copies, which are kept in locked file cabinets and destroyed at the end of each year. But what if teachers guaranteed to keep their copies in locked cabinets? I asked. They contacted the school’s attorney. His opinion, rendered in typical legalese: “IEP documents should not leave the Guidance Office absent agreement to allow release of the IEP by the parents of the special education student.” It was no-go again.

The special education system does work for some students, often in spite of itself.

According to the Child Study Team coordinator in a memo addressed to the faculty, teachers are given adequate information about the “learning styles, academic needs, and classroom accommodations” of their special education students when they meet with the students’ special education teachers at the start of each year. “The special education teachers,” she wrote, “will provide a written summary of each student’s strengths/weaknesses and academic needs” for the regular classroom teachers.

The team developed a form for this summary with bold block letters—CONFIDENTIAL—across the top. The space allotted for “IEP Strengths” is a rectangle measuring three-fourths of an inch by 11/2 inches; an equal space is given for weaknesses. What can be contained in these blocks? “Positive attitude” and “cooperative” (strengths); “written expression,” “communication,” and “socialization” (weaknesses).

Sadly, it seems, the special education teachers are given no more information about their students than we subject teachers would have after reading the IEP. And while the special education teacher, one of the student’s regular teachers, and the parents review and revise the IEP annually, the same fuzzy process is repeated year after year, so the information contained in it never becomes any more specific. The entire operation, with the requisite meetings and filings of papers, merely makes it seem as though something is being done to help the child.

But sometimes the process really hurts a child.

One of my 9th graders had a speech problem; I often had to ask him to repeat what he said because he didn’t articulate clearly and spoke too fast. I submitted his name to our part-time speech pathologist for an evaluation in October. In May, his IEP was ready: six pages of the same boilerplate, with “articulation” and “speed” noted under his special needs. When I asked why his evaluation had taken so long, I was told, “You can’t believe all the steps we have to follow.” Because it was so late in the year, his therapy was put off until the following September. A year was wasted.

Such bureaucratic claptrap is not the only feature of our special education system that hurts a child, though.

Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 provides accommodations for another group of students, those who don’t need special education per se but who have identified disabilities such as “mild ADD.” Teachers are typically notified by a guidance counselor that a student is a “504" and told that the student must be given extra time for tests (an accommodation that seems to be granted to all 504 students), copies of notes the teacher writes on the board, or similar provisions to enable the student to cope with a “handicap that affects a major life activity” (language used in a 504 Accommodation Plan).

"[Name] has a difficult time focusing in class” might be a description of such a handicap. Since 504 students are not officially special education students and don’t work with special education teachers, nothing in their transcripts indicates that they received special allowances.

The teacher must always grant 504 allowances; our message to the student is that he or she can’t become more responsible.

Some students come to rely upon their 504 accommodations so much that they lose incentive to master their difficulties. For example, a 504 plan might stipulate that a student doesn’t have to meet a deadline or take an unannounced quiz. After hitting that jackpot, what student would want to change his habits and lose the benefit?

Many teachers are cynical about the 504 designation because they feel that savvy parents manipulate the system. I sat stunned during one session when I was asked to participate in setting up a 504 for a senior in one of my Advanced Placement English classes; the family-hired psychologist suggested that the student should be given test questions a day in advance, since the student’s failing grades must be due to his unfamiliarity with the questions. I knew, the student knew, and I think the parents knew that the student was simply failing tests because he had done no work. Fortunately, the student’s guidance counselor said that such a provision would be unworkable.

Another case in point: Last October, a teacher in my school received a registered letter from the parents of a student who had received a D in her class the year before. The grade had dropped, the teacher said, when the student failed to hand in a major end-of-year project. She had been aware that the student’s 504 accommodation said teachers needed to allow a day or two of grace, since part of the student’s disability was difficulty with deadlines. “I reminded her for three weeks, and I called home,” the teacher said, “and she never handed anything in. What was I to do?” According to the registered letter, the parents were now asking that the student be allowed to hand in the assignment the next academic year under the provisions of the 504 classification. They had discovered that students who received no grades lower than B are entitled to a discounted automobile-insurance rate.


Typical 504 accommodations, such as extending time on tests, providing help after school, and offering extra study materials, were offered by sensitive teachers long before 504s existed. Teachers will often cut some slack. A good teacher knows when it’s in students’ best interest to enforce or relax the rules. But the 504 classification removes such choice. The teacher must always grant allowances; our message to the student is that he or she can’t become more responsible.

Moreover, granting 504 accommodations and not indicating to colleges or employers that they have been granted seems unfair. One student in my Advanced Placement English class always took twice as much time as was allowed other students to complete in-class essays. His 504 accommodations called for this and required me to treat his paper like all the rest. Would the grades of the non-504 students have been better had they been given more time? Perhaps not. But not indicating somewhere that a student received special allowances seems wrong. It’s saying that both Bill and Ted sank the same number of foul shots without saying that Bill had twice the number of chances.

The special education system does work for some students, often in spite of itself, through the hard work of teachers, the determination of some students to overcome their disabilities (one remarkable recent graduate was a county debate champion despite his severe dyslexia), and the common sense of parents. But I fear that many are lost to an enervating bureaucracy, one that is symbolized by the locked filing cabinet keeping individual education plans safely out of reach.

I am all too aware that these remarks, and my earlier questioning of the system, will make me seem a crank. (A school psychologist once wanted to know if I had suffered some traumatic experience related to special education.) I worry more, however, that I will be branded as someone insensitive to the needs of students with disabilities. It is this fear, I feel, that prevents more of my colleagues from speaking out about a system we recognize as having serious shortcomings.

I am sensitive to the needs of our disabled students. That those needs are not being met by our current practices is the reason I’m writing.


Andrew P. Dunn teaches high school English in Allendale, N.J.

A version of this article appeared in the May 17, 2000 edition of Education Week as What’s Wrong With Special Education

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