Special Report
Special Education Reported Essay

Special Education Is Broken

By Christina A. Samuels — January 08, 2019 9 min read
Conceptual Illustration of a special education puzzle with missing pieces
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Editor’s Note: Associate Editor Christina Samuels covers special education. This analysis is part of a special report exploring pressing trends in education. Read the full report: 10 Big Ideas in Education.

The year was 1975, and President Gerald Ford was ambivalent about the law he was about to sign, guaranteeing that students with disabilities are entitled to education in the public schools. He said so in what was then an infrequently used presidential option—a signing statement.

No one could argue against the law’s goals, Ford wrote. But the “Education for All Handicapped Children Act” was underfunded, promised too much to families, and was burdened by complex technical requirements, he said.

Fortunately, he said, the law wasn’t scheduled to be fully implemented until 1978. “There is time to revise the legislation and come up with a program that is effective and realistic,” Ford wrote.

That was optimistic.

Over 43 years later, others still hold Ford’s concerns, and they aren’t opponents of the law. Rather, people who have spent their professional careers or personal lives deeply involved in the cause of educating students with disabilities are the same ones who are troubled—publicly and privately—about special education as functional law and as a process intended to get students the education that they need.

What is now the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act was the culmination of decades of activism all over the country. Now that the law is here, it will take a revival of that same spirit to fix what is broken in the implementation.

And that implementation is broken in some fundamental ways. Here are a few: Children with disabilities aren’t always identified for needs when they have them. When they are identified, what happens in the classroom is hit-or-miss. And, as Ford and countless school officials, advocates, parents, and teachers have said since 1975, there’s not enough money in the law to accomplish all that it requires.

Let’s take a look at the process of identifying children with disabilities, one of the underpinnings of the IDEA. School districts have to seek out and evaluate any child in their boundaries that may have a disability—a process that the special education law calls “child find.”

But the process of identifying children with certain disabilities—dyslexia, for example—is exquisitely sensitive to human pressure and to public policy. After years of growth, the overall special education population dipped in the early 2000s. Why? It’s not clear.

There could be a policy driver: The 2000s saw many schools adopt “response to intervention,” an educational process intended to steer students to appropriate interventions before they fall too far behind academically.

But those same policies can also be used to keep children out of special education who should qualify for it. Texas was called out earlier this year by the U.S. Department of Education for failing to identify and evaluate its students properly, thus keeping its special education enrollment numbers artificially low. State officials say the price tag for providing additional special education services could be more than $3 billion over the next three years.

Another twist to the identification issue: Recent research shows that minority children are actually less likely than their white peers to receive special education services, upending years of other studies. The pushback against those findings has been fierce.

And then there is what happens once students are identified. Response to intervention was rolled out to schools with great fanfare and is now used in some form in more than 70 percent of school districts. But a major goal of RTI is to keep children out of special education—an acknowledgement that some children are receiving services who should not really need them, and that other students need extra academic help who aren’t identified with a disability.

Does RTI work? One large study in 2015 showed that students in the program who were supposedly receiving targeted interventions actually performed worse than virtually identical peers who were not in an RTI process. RTI supporters say the problem is poor implementation that needs simplification.

But if RTI is currently too complicated for most schools to implement well, what does that mean for the teachers and principals who are working so hard to put it in place, or for the students who are enrolled in it right now?

And then, there’s the money. Congress never funded the IDEA for the full amount that was authorized when the law was first signed. At that time, Congress estimated that it cost states twice as much to educate a student with disabilities as it does to educate a general education student, and the law authorizes the federal government to give up to 40 percent of that excess cost to states.

Congress has never come close to that mark; its $12.3 billion contribution in fiscal 2018 is more like 15 percent of the excess cost.

But we don’t have a good idea nationally of how much is spent on special education, or if it’s still correct that special education students cost school districts twice as much to educate. The last national spending numbers are more than 20 years old. And even if more money was poured into the system, would it flow to where it’s needed? A 2014 report by New America, a Washington-based think tank, asserted that the out-of-date, complicated formula that the federal government uses to distribute money to states has resulted in small districts getting more federal money per student than larger districts, and shrinking school systems receiving more federal dollars than school districts that are growing.

Right now, advocates have been in something of a defensive crouch over the law, which is nearly 10 years overdue for reauthorization. A new Congress might have a new attitude, however. And when and if it picks the law up again, here’s some questions that need answering:

  • How much does it really cost to educate students with disabilities? The numbers often cited don’t take into account changes such as the growth of students with autism or impairments such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, the rise of inclusion, or the increasing availability of interventions outside of the formal structure of special education.
  • Should special education be provided primarily by special education teachers? Most children with disabilities spend most or all of their time in the general education classroom. Given the chronic shortage of special education teachers, it may be time to make all teachers learn the fundamentals of what special education entails. This is already happening in some places. For example, at Syracuse University, any undergraduate student who wants to be an elementary teacher has to take coursework in inclusive education. Students are recommended for certificates in both general and special education.
  • Special education comes with a long list of rights that parents have, but are those rights reasonably available to everyone? Advocates hailed the 2017 Endrew F. v. Douglas County School Board U.S. Supreme Court ruling that established more-ambitious expectations for special education students. But it’s important to note that the parents in that case—like most parents—lost at every step of the process: at the administrative judge level, at the district court level, and at the appeals court level before prevailing at the high court. They had resources to carry on the fight that few parents possess. Schools and districts are afraid of lawsuits, even though they win the vast majority of them. But parents also have fears that their children are not getting the appropriate education to which they are entitled.

In the vast majority of cases, parents are not unreasonable, nor are special educators lazy. Everyone is working hard, and in good faith. But the landscape in 2018 is far different from the educational landscape in 1975.

The IDEA made a fundamental change in access to education for students with disabilities. Now it’s time to make that access meaningful.


Q&A: How to Expand Special Education Services

Disability civil rights pioneer Judith Heumann has been at the forefront of trailblazing legislation to support people with disabilities, including Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, first passed in 1975, and the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act. A former assistant secretary of education for special education and rehabilitative services, Heumann says the future of this country relies on valuing every child and adult.

What will it take for the nation to have an “aha” moment about the state of special education?

The nation needs to recognize that education for all will not occur with a one-size-fits-all model. To get there, we must train all administrators and all teachers to teach all children. We must educate the average American that our ability to be competitive in the global economy rests on having a highly educated workforce, and we cannot afford to believe that any one group of children cannot benefit from a robust educational system. And finally, special education should not be seen as a place but rather a service.

How would you ensure that teachers have the training and support they need to be effective?

The U.S. Department of Education and state education departments need to ensure that appropriate standards (with accountability measures) are developed and implemented. States need to support teacher-preparation colleges that offer dual-licensure, that are taught by faculty who have successfully worked in inclusive classrooms, and offer meaningful clinical programs. Future educators should learn principles of universal design for learning, differentiated instruction, and co-teaching. Funding should come from the federal and state governments. Scholarships should be more available so that students are not fearful of debt that they will not be able to pay back. Additionally, one would know that the teacher programs are effective when administrators are satisfied with the people they are hiring and graduates feel they have the knowledge and confidence to work in diverse classrooms.

What are the federal, state, and local levers you would pull to effectively educate students with disabilities?

Quality education ensures a strong democracy. In our schools every day, we understand that students’ lives are impacted not only by what is happening in the classroom, but by poverty, health care, safety, employment, and housing, for example.

We must develop high standards for administrator and teacher licensure, provide sufficient funding to support our schools, and provide grants and loan forgiveness for educators. We must work with local, state, and national businesses to understand the future of work and the kind of learning that must be going on in our schools every day.

We cannot afford to squander one child’s life. Our efforts will be measured by reduced dropout rates, significant reduction of juveniles entering our prison systems, and ultimately producing a society where we have demonstrated the value of diversity in our communities. This means that no child or adult should be devalued because of disability or any other marginalizing label.

What big ideas matter to your classroom, school or district? We want to know. Tweet your comments to us at #K12BigIdeas.
A version of this article appeared in the January 09, 2019 edition of Education Week as Special Education’s Future


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