Special Education Explainer

Special Education Explainer (2011)

By Susan E. Ansell — September 21, 2004 | Updated: July 07, 2011 7 min read
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Editor’s Note: For more recent information on special education, please read our 2019 explainer, Special Education: Definition, Statistics, and Trends, our 2023 explainer, How Special Education Funding Actually Works, and our 2023 explainer, What Is an IEP? Individualized Education Programs Explained.

The term “special education” encompasses educational programs that serve children with mental, physical, emotional, and behavioral disabilities. In practical terms, special education is largely defined 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.”

The landmark IDEA law, first enacted in 1975 as the Education for All Handicapped Children Act, set in motion a tidal wave of change, bringing into the public schools more than 1 million children with disabilities who previously had been shut out of school or received limited educational services. Prior to the law’s passage, the standards for educating children with disabilities varied tremendously among states.

By 2009, U.S. Department of Education estimates showed that, about 5.8 million of the nation’s schoolchildren, ages 6 to 21, were receiving special education services through IDEA. About 61 percent percent of those students have specific learning disabilities or speech or language impairments. Only about 8 percent are diagnosed with significant cognitive disabilities, such as mental retardation or traumatic brain injury. More than half of all students with disabilities spend at least 80 percent of their time in the regular classroom. The size of that group of students—along with their inclusion in the general education classroom—has raised 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 law mandates that instructional road maps, known as Individualized Education Programs, be created for each student with a disability. 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 to increase students’ with disabilities’ participation in the core curriculum.

When IDEA was reauthorized again in 2004, the testing requirements for students with disabilities were expanded. States were required to develop and implement alternate assessments aligned with the state’s academic content standards. In addition, states had to report the number and performance of children with disabilities taking regular state assessments and how many of them received accommodations to participate in those assessments; how many children with disabilities participate in alternate assessments aligned with the state standards; and the number of children with disabilities taking alternate assessments aligned with alternate achievement standards. Also, the performance of students with disabilities must be compared with the achievement of all children, including children with disabilities, on those assessments.

The No Child Left Behind Act, a reauthorized version of the Elementary and Secondary Act, the flagship federal law governing K-12 education, 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 the test results to the public on school report cards. The law’s 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 grows with the increasing number of years 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 receives a high-quality education. Those supporters say collecting achievement data is the only way to determine if students are progressing and schools are serving their needs. Critics of No Child Left Behind Act worry the law is not flexible enough to account for the individual needs of students, specifically those with disabilities.

Some states have developed alternate ways to measure students’ progress and make adequate yearly progress. These alternatives include growth models, which are designed to show whether students are progressing even if they are not meeting grade-level targets for achievement. The use of the models hasn’t improved schools’ ability to make adequate yearly progress as much as was hoped, one study showed (Hoffer, 2011).

Access to the general education curriculum is an important issue for all students with disabilities, but especially for African-American students. The overrepresentation of black 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).

When Congress reauthorized IDEA in 1997, it added a provision requiring districts to monitor the racial and ethnic breakdown of students receiving special education services. In the 2004 reauthorization, another provision was added to take the monitoring process further. Districts with an overrepresentation of minority group members in special education must set aside 15 percent of their federal aid for students, particularly those in grades K-3, who need “additional academic and behavioral support to succeed in a general education environment,” according to the law.

The 2004 reauthorization also required states to allow districts to use a strategy called “response to intervention,” as a tool for determining if a child has a specific learning disability. Response to intervention, or RTI, involves early identification of students’ learning problems and the use of increasingly intensive lessons, or interventions, to address those problems before they become entrenched. The process has been credited as a factor in reducing the overall rate of students diagnosed with specific learning disabilities, which has been on a steady decline since 2005 (Samuels, 2011).

In addition, many states and districts are changing their style of teaching and the materials they use with students, trading in traditional text-heavy materials for those created with the “universal design for learning” philosophy. According to the National Center on Universal Design for Learning, UDL “provides a blueprint for creating instructional goals, methods, materials, and assessments that work for everyone—not a single, one-size-fits-all solution but rather flexible approaches that can be customized and adjusted for individual needs.”

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. No Child Left Behind and IDEA require special education teachers to be “highly qualified” in special education as well as in the subjects they teach. General educators, who typically have more experience teaching a specific subject area, must be able to work effectively with students with special needs, but they are not required to be highly qualified to teach students with disabilities.

A critical issue facing states is the need for more federal dollars for 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.” In 2011, federal funding accounted for about 16.5 percent of public education spending on students with disabilities.

At the state level, regardless of the level of funding from the federal government or the condition of their own budgets, states must spend the same or more each year on special education to insulate students with disabilities from the political and economic vagaries of budgetary cycles. In recent years several states have asked the federal Education Department to waive this requirement, and some have been granted that permission. At the same time, states and districts are for the first time looking at how to save money in special education, which has progressively taken over more of their budgets, sometimes at the expense of other students. Teaching students in more inclusive settings, rather than segregating them, is one strategy.

Donovan, M. and Cross, C. (eds.), “Minority Students in Special and Gifted Education,” Committee on Minority Representation in Special Education, Washington D.C.: National Academy Press, 2002.
Hoffer, Thomas B., et al, “Final Report on the Evaluation of the Growth Model Pilot Project,” 2011.
Losen, D. and Orfield, G. “Racial Inequity in Special Education,” The Civil Rights Project, Harvard Education Publishing Group, 2002.
Samuels, C.A., “RTI: An Instructional Approach Expands Its Reach,” Education Week, March 2, 2011.
Sparks, S.D., “Study Flags Drawbacks in Growth Models for AYP,” Education Week, April 1, 2011.
U.S. Department of Education, “Individuals with Disabilities Education Act,” 1997.
U.S. Department of Education, “Individuals with Disabilities Education Act,” 2004.
U.S. Department of Education, “No Child Left Behind Act,” 2001.

How to Cite This Article
Ansell, S. (2004, September 21). Special Education. Education Week. Retrieved Month Day, Year from https://www.edweek.org/teaching-learning/special-education/2007/12

A previous version of this article had the title Special Education.


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