Special Education Explainer

Special Education

By Susan E. Ansell — August 04, 2004 9 min read
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Editor’s Note: This version was published in 2004. An updated version is available from 2011.

The term “special education” broadly defines educational programs designed to serve children with mental, physical, emotional, and behavioral disabilities. In practical terms, special education is largely characterized by the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, or the IDEA, which guarantees a “free, appropriate public education” to children with disabilities and mandates that, to the “maximum extent appropriate,” they be educated with their nondisabled peers in the “least restrictive environment.”

First enacted in 1975 as the Education for All Handicapped Children Act, the landmark law 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 received only limited educational services. Prior to the federal law’s passage, the standards for educating children with disabilities varied tremendously among states.

Today, according to U.S. Department of Education estimates, nearly 6 million of the nation’s schoolchildren, ages 6 to 21, receive special education services under Part B of the IDEA. Sixty-seven percent of those students have specific learning disabilities or speech or language impairments. Fewer than 12 percent are diagnosed with significant cognitive disabilities, such as mental retardation or traumatic brain injury. Most students with disabilities spend the majority of their time in the regular classroom, a testament to the implementation of the IDEA (Quality Counts, 2004). The size of that group of students—along with their inclusion in the general education classroom—has raised a host of concerns about academic expectations, teacher preparedness, and cost.

In addition to advancing the inclusion of special education students in general education classrooms, the IDEA has brought attention to the academic performance of students with disabilities. The 1997 reauthorization of the law required special education students to participate in state tests and states to report the results of those tests to the public. However, the IDEA imposed almost no consequences on states that did not comply, and many states were slow to meet the law’s mandates. It was not until passage of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 that states enacted significant, large-scale changes to their testing and accountability systems.

The No Child Left Behind Act (a reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Act, the flagship federal law in K-12 education that was first passed in 1965) built on the requirements initially established by the IDEA but added accountability measures. Under the No Child Left Behind law, states must test at least 95 percent of their students with disabilities. They also have to incorporate test scores of all subgroups of students, including those with disabilities, into school ratings and provide test results to the public on report cards. The long-term goal is to have all students performing at the proficient level on state tests by 2013-14. Schools that do not make “adequate yearly progress” toward that goal face a series of sanctions, the severity of which increases with each year they fail to meet their achievement targets.

The public has reacted sharply to these new requirements. Some policymakers see the inclusion of special education students in state testing and accountability systems as an important next step in ensuring that every child, regardless of whether he or she has a disability, receives a high-quality education. Those supporters say collecting achievement data is the only way to determine if students are progressing or if schools are serving their needs. Critics of the No Child Left Behind Act worry that the law is not flexible enough to take into account the individual needs of students, specifically those with disabilities. As Stephen P. Crawford, superintendent of the Byng school district in Oklahoma, explains, “It’s the same principle as asking kids to jump a bar one foot off the ground and providing no exceptions for children who are in a wheelchair” (Quality Counts, 2004).

Teachers, too, seem worried about the pressure of new testing requirements. According to a poll commissioned by Education Week for Quality Counts 2004, teachers agree, in principle, that students with disabilities should be held to high standards. But more than 85 percent of the teachers polled think it is unfair for special education students or teachers to be evaluated on how well special education students master academic-content standards based on test scores. Seventy-eight percent of the teachers believe requiring special education students to meet state academic-content standards and take state tests will hinder their individualized education. And 84 percent think special education students should not be expected to meet the same set of academic-content standards as general education students their age (Quality Counts, 2004).

But, as the law stands, most special education students, except for those with the most significant cognitive disabilities, will be required to meet the same standards as their peers without disabilities. According to recent test results, states still have a long way to go to help students with disabilities do so. For Quality Counts 2004, Education Week collected data on the performance of special and general education students on reading and math exams in grades 4, 8, and 10 and found substantial achievement gaps between the two groups of students. On 4th grade reading tests, for example, 30 of 39 states with complete data reported gaps of 30 percentage points or more between the number of special and general education students who scored at the “proficient” level or above. On high school reading exams, 32 of 36 states reported such gaps.

Some scholars contend that achievement gap is partially due to the fact that many special education students have lacked access to the general education curriculum and the content standards against which they are being tested (Heubert, 2002). Common practice, stemming from an era when people with disabilities were routinely shut away in institutions, has been to teach children with disabilities in separate schools, or to pull them out of their regular classrooms for special help in nearby resource rooms. Special education students’ inclusion in the general education classroom and access to the general curriculum has improved in recent years, but many students with severe disabilities are still typically included in regular classes for only a few subjects a day, such as art or physical education. According to data from the federal government, 20 percent of all students with disabilities still spend more than 60 percent of the day outside of the regular classroom (Quality Counts, 2004).

Access to the general curriculum is an important issue for all students with disabilities, but especially for black students. According to federal data, black students are 2.3 times more likely than white students to be identified as mentally retarded. And while 30 percent of black students spend more than 60 percent of the school day outside of the regular classroom, that is true for only 15 percent of white students (Quality Counts, 2004). The overrepresentation of students typically occurs in the categories of disability that are most subjective to identify (Donovan & Cross, 2002). Some scholars attribute the overrepresentation of black students in special education to the use of identification tools such as IQ tests, which they claim can be culturally biased (Losen & Orfield, 2002). However, students across the country are being overidentified for special education services in general, possibly a result of more universal identification problems, such as diagnosing students with reading troubles as having disabilities (Donovan & Cross, 2002).

Parents are worried about such identification problems. A 2002 Public Agenda survey found that parents of students with disabilities expressed “mixed views” on whether the right children were getting the right services. Sixty-five percent said some children who have behavioral problems, rather than disabilities, get misdirected into special education. And 70 percent of the parents thought too many children with special needs were losing out because their parents were not aware of the services available to them.

Although parents often play an important role in securing special education services for their children, much of the responsibility of helping students with disabilities succeed in the classroom falls to teachers. Four out of every five general educators have a special education student in their classrooms, making the preparation of such students for state tests a concern for special and general educators alike. General educators, who typically have more experience teaching a specific subject area, must be able to work effectively with students with special needs. And special educators, whose expertise is working with students with disabilities, must have background knowledge of the content standards of the subjects on which their students will be tested. But just 45 percent of general educators say they feel “very prepared” to teach special education students. And only 34 percent say they are included “all of the time” in the development of their students’ individualized education plans—the instructional road maps, known as IEPs, that federal law requires for students with disabilities (Quality Counts, 2004). In addition, although the No Child Left Behind Act requires all teachers of core academic subjects, including special education teachers, to demonstrate competence in each and every subject they teach by the 2005-06 school year, no state had such requirements in place for special education teachers at the secondary level in the 2003-04 school year (Quality Counts, 2004).

For many educators and school advocates, another critical issue facing the states is the need for more federal funding of special education. They note that the 1975 law authorized federal funding of “up to 40 percent” of the national average of per-pupil expenditures—and lawmakers and educators commonly refer to the 40 percent target as “full funding.” Federal funds currently support about 7.5 percent of total special education expenditures at the local level (Chambers et al., 2002). At the same time, school advocates say, states are missing out on what could be more than a billion dollars a year in Medicaid reimbursements for coordinating and providing medical services to special education students from low-income families. They say schools run up against numerous administrative and logistical barriers—confusing and inconsistent policies, a lack of federal guidance, and a lack of time and resources to pursue billing for reimbursement, for instance—when they try to collect that money.

Chambers, J., Parrish, T., Harr, J., “What Are We Spending on Special Education Services in the United States, 1999-2000?,” Special Education Expenditure Project, Center for Special Education Finance, U.S. Department of Education, Office of Special Education Programs, 2002.
Donovan, M. and Cross, C. (eds.), Minority Students in Special and Gifted Education,” Committe on Minority Representation in Special Education, Washington D.C.: National Academy Press, 2002.
Education Week, Quality Counts 2004: Count Me In, 22 (17), 2004.
Education Week, “Teachers: Spec. Ed. Students Should Meet Own Standards,” Quality Counts 2004: Count Me In, 2004.
Heubert, J.P., “Disability, Race, and High-Stakes Testing of Students”, Teachers College, Columbia University, National Center for Assessing the General Curriculum, 2002.
Losen, D. and Orfield, G. Racial Inequity in Special Education, The Civil Rights Project, Harvard Education Publishing Group, 2002.
Public Agenda, “When It’s Your Own Child: A Report on Special Education from the Families Who Use It,” 2002.
U.S. Department of Education, Office of Special Education Programs, “Individuals with Disabilities Education Act,” 1997.
U.S. Department of Education, “No Child Left Behind Act,” 2001.

How to Cite This Article
Ansell, S. (2004, August 4). Special Education. Education Week. Retrieved Month Day, Year from https://www.edweek.org/teaching-learning/special-education/2004/08


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