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Special Education

Current Trends

The adage "there are two sides to every story" applies to special education. In the early years of special education, there was one clearly defined goal–an appropriate education for students with disabilities. Parents, professionals, and students with disabilities rallied together to attain this right. Having secured this goal, the allies splintered into numerous advocacy groups, each fighting for different issues in special education. Issues such as school reform, full inclusion, standards assessment, and disability classification can be viewed not only from at least two perspectives, but from many variations or degrees of each.

Special Education in the Context of School Reform

School reform has been a buzzword since the early 1980s, but special education was not often included in discussions of reform until about the turn of the twentieth century. In the early years of the twenty-first century, two of the most prominent school reform agendas having significant effects on special education were standards-based education and school choice.

Standards-based education. Standards-based reforms aim to improve school performance and use accountability systems to enforce the standards. Historically, schools have not included students with disabilities in accountability systems. By amending the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) in 1997, the federal government mandated that students with disabilities be included in district and state assessments. Local schools can face severe sanctions for inadequate test scores, including loss of accreditation and funding. Schools thus resist including lower scores that may bring down a school's average. Opponents argue that including students with disabilities on standards-based assessments creates an overemphasis on academic skills, when vocational or functional skills might better prepare the student for postsecondary school options other than higher education. Proponents believe that inclusion of students with disabilities on high-stakes tests increases school accountability and ensures access for students with disabilities to the general curriculum.

School-choice reform. School-choice reform focuses on the freedom of students to choose from a variety of alternatives to general public education. One trend is charter schools, which are publicly funded but follow a charter constructed by the school rather than by local government. Another form of school choice allows students to choose any public school within their designated district or cross district lines to attend another school. Choice may also involve magnet schools that offer special programs or concentrations, such as science and technology or performing arts. Open enrollment allows students to attend any public school in the state. Vouchers provide students with a designated amount of money to spend in any way on education, including private schools or home schooling. Other school choice alternatives are second-chance options (students may enter an alternative school or program) and workplace training (students learn a skilled trade through an apprenticeship).

School choice affects special education when restrictions are placed on entry into particular schools. For example, should a student with mental retardation be allowed to attend a science and technology magnet school? Should a student with severe emotional and behavioral disabilities be allowed to attend a charter school emphasizing visual and performing arts? If not, then school choice might be said to be an exclusionary and elitist system in which students with disabilities are denied an equal education.

School-choice proponents argue that no single educational program works for all students, thus it benefits children, including students with disabilities, to be able to choose the school that best meets their needs. Also, school choice provides options for students who might otherwise drop out of the public system and helps address issues such as racial and socioeconomic balance in schools.


The debate about where a student with disabilities is best served is one of the most volatile issues in special education. The controversy is whether full inclusion or a continuum of alternative placements is better.

Full inclusion. In full inclusion, all students–regardless of disability, health needs, academic ability, service needs, and, often, preference of parent or student–are educated full-time in a general education class in their neighborhood school (the school they would attend had they no disability). In this model, the child receives special education support services in the general education classroom. Full inclusion requires either a team-teaching approach or consultation of the regular classroom teacher with a special educator. In team teaching, a classroom will have both a general education teacher and a special education teacher equally sharing the responsibility to teach the whole class. In consultation, a special education teacher works with many general education teachers, meeting with them and answering questions as needed or on a regular schedule.

Proponents of full inclusion believe that pulling a child out of the classroom to provide special education services or placing the child in a self-contained classroom or special school is inherently unequal and inferior and, therefore, immoral. They also argue that both the student with disabilities and his or her peers benefit from full inclusion, an argument that often places greater emphasis on social interaction than academic achievement.

Full continuum of placements. Proponents of a full continuum of alternative placements, required by IDEA, note that since 1975 the law has mandated a continuum of placements including placement: (1) full-time in a general education classroom; (2) parttime in a special education resource room; (3) fulltime in a special education self-contained classroom;(4) in a separate special education school; (5) at a residential facility; and (6) homebound or in a hospital. They agree that full-time placement in general education is appropriate for some students, but not for every student with disabilities. Proponents argue that in accordance with IDEA each student should be assessed and placed individually. Many students with disabilities commonly need a more structured and clearly defined environment, either academically or behaviorally, than a general education classroom can provide. Also, students with severe emotional or behavioral disabilities can infringe on other students' education in a general education classroom by either monopolizing a teacher's attention or by placing peers and teachers in physical danger. While believing that students should be educated in the least restrictive environment with nondisabled peers to the maximum extent appropriate, proponents of the continuum also believe that it is immoral and illegal to place every student in the exact same placement regardless of individual needs.

The Name Game

Controversies surrounding labels and categories of disabilities are a major concern to parents and professionals. One issue is whether students should be labeled at all. Proponents of labels such as learning disabled, deaf, or autistic believe that these labels provide a common ground for professionals, researchers, and parents to discuss practices and share knowledge about particular disabilities. Labels help teachers and administrators prepare for and provide a student with an appropriate education. Schools can better manage their budgets if they can quantify and describe the students needing additional funds and services.

Opponents of labels argue that labels permanently stigmatize the student. They believe that teachers and administrators lower their expectations of a labeled student, creating a vicious cycle in which the student is given fewer and fewer challenges and falls further behind grade level.

An extension of the labeling issue is categorical versus noncategorical labeling. Categorical labeling specifies a disability based on categories in IDEA. Noncategorical labeling tags a student as disabled or developmentally delayed without specifying the precise disability. Nondescript labels can provide educators and parents additional time to observe and evaluate the child before making a decision on disability type. Though this can help avoid mislabeling, the benefits of categorical labeling are lost.

Disability Classifications

Some disabilities can be measured and defined objectively, and thus are easily identifiable. If a child is classified as blind, there is usually agreement about what blindness means and whether the child qualifies for special education or other services. However, many disabilities are not easy to identify and label. Judgmental categories such as learning disability, mental retardation, emotional disturbance, autism, and giftedness require professional judgment and subjective analysis. Severe and multiple disabilities, though often easier to identify, also create controversies because judgment is required to distinguish the level of disability (mild, moderate, or severe).

Learning disability. The majority of students categorically labeled have learning disabilities (LD). This is ironic because LD is one of the most difficult disabilities to define. Some individuals believe that LD is simply a social construct for those students who have not had adequate instruction. Another concern is that the IDEA definition describes what LD is not, rather than what it is, leaving localities with the task of finding a workable definition. Most localities define LD using a discrepancy between the student's actual achievement and the student's presumed ability or IQ. The problem is that not all localities use the same discrepancy standard or the same tests to measure achievement and ability and discrepancy scores have inherent limitations.

Mental retardation. Mental retardation (MR) is identified by below average intellectual ability and poor adaptive behavior that is pervasive in all areas of life. Intellectual ability and adaptive behavior can both be ambiguous, as different tests yield different intelligence quotients and assessment of adaptive behavior requires subjective judgment. A disproportionately large number of children from minority populations and low socioeconomic status are identified as having mental retardation, giving rise to the argument that identification of mental retardation is biased (too many African-American and Latino students and too many poor students are identified, but too few children of Asian descent are identified).

Emotional disturbance. Emotional disturbance refers to severe and protracted difficulties in relationships with other people. Controversies abound regarding who should be included in the category of emotional disturbance (ED). IDEA excludes from ED students who are socially maladjusted but not emotionally disturbed, but it does not define social maladjustment. Confounding the problem is another clause describing ED as "an inability to build or maintain satisfactory relationships with peers and teachers," which can be interpreted to mean social maladjustment. Thus the language of the law seems self-contradictory. Another issue in ED is disagreement on the actual number of students with this disorder. Many estimates based on prevalence studies range from 6 to 25 percent of the student population, but less that 1 percent of the school population has been identified as having ED for special education purposes.

Autism. Autism is a pervasive developmental disability affecting approximately one in 500 children. Its onset is noted before the age of three years. Professionals find it hard to agree on a definition. One of the main controversies in definition involves the closely related syndromes of Asperger's and Pervasive Developmental Disorder (PDD). There is great confusion and disagreement as to whether these are separate disabilities or different levels of severity of autism. Causes as well as the best treatments are also disputed for each.

Attention deficit disorder and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Attention deficit disorder (ADD) and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) have always been controversial. One reason for this is that the characteristics of ADD/ADHD, including careless mistakes on school work, forgetting daily activities, fidgeting with hands or feet, or talking excessively, can describe an average child. What makes a diagnosis of ADD/ADHD difficult is determining whether these characteristics are beyond normal for the student's age and have become a disability. In fact, some professionals argue that ADD/ADHD does not exist and that the label is used haphazardly on students who simply exhibit inappropriate behavior and a lack of discipline. Furthermore, IDEA does not acknowledge ADD/ADHD as a separate category but includes it under "other health impaired" (OHI). There is also a growing concern that too many children are being medicated for ADD/ADHD.

Gifts and talents. Gifts and talents are the opposite of disabilities, but some, if not all, of the same issues discussed previously apply (e.g., stigma of identification, judgment in assessment). Opponents of special programs for gifted and talented students argue that separating them from their nongifted classmates is elitist and that all students should be exposed to a superior, highly challenging education. A disproportionately high number of Caucasian and Asian students are identified as gifted, while a disproportionately low number of African-American and Hispanic students are found eligible for gifted programs. Proponents of special education for gifted students believe that these students need a special curriculum. Gifted students who are asked to work below their ability level or tutor their less gifted peers become bored and lose motivation. Identifying gifted students is also difficult because there is not one universally accepted definition, nor is gifted a category acknowledged under IDEA. The decision to provide gifted education and to determine what qualifies a student as gifted is often a local responsibility.

Severe and multiple disabilities. Compared to other conditions, there is less uncertainty in the identification of students with severe and multiple disabilities (SMD). Increased numbers of children identified as having SMD, however, is a fairly new trend in special education. Advances in medicine and technology are helping more children than ever before survive serious medical emergencies and severe injuries. This increase has spurred changes in special education and has placed new demands on personnel and the physical environment. These children often need assistive and medical technology in the classroom, as well as personnel knowledgeable about this equipment. Some of these students need continuous support from a classroom assistant, especially when included in general education.

Trends in the Classroom

Three trends in special education have especially significant influence on the classroom environment:(1) early intervention and prevention, (2) technology, and (3) transition plans.

Early intervention and prevention. Early intervention and prevention of disabilities are not new ideas, but they have experienced increasing emphasis. Schools are realizing that early intervention and prevention not only benefit children in the long run but save money as well by reducing the later need for costly services. Two significant issues are the appropriate role for the family of the child and whether the intervention should be child-centered or teacherdirected. In addition, obstacles to early intervention and prevention are still being addressed.

Technology. Technology permeates our society with increasing intensity and reaches into classrooms. It helps students overcome limitations previously placed on them by a disability. Computer programs allow keyboarding and navigation of the Internet by eye movements. Cochlear implants allow deaf students to hear, and new prosthetics (artificial body parts) provide greater mobility and participation in education and society.

Transition. The 1997 amendments to IDEA added two mandates related to transition from one school setting to another or from school to work. The first amendment requires transition-planning conferences for children exiting early intervention programs, the second is a statement of needed services for the transition from high school to higher education or work in the Individualized Education Plan (IEP) for students age fourteen or older. Other forms of transition planning, such as from middle school to high school or from a self-contained or restrictive environment to a less restrictive environment, are also becoming common.

Special Education Teachers

There is a critical teacher shortage in special education in all areas of licensure. Reasons include a shortage of people going through teacher training programs in special education and entering the field, and alarmingly high exit rates for special education teachers. For example, in the 20th Annual Report to Congress on the Implementation of the IDEA (1998), statistics from 1993–1994 show that the total demand for special education teachers was 335,000, yet there were only 18,250 special education degree graduates, covering a mere 5.4 percent of the demand. Because of this gross need, alternative licensure programs have evolved: army personnel are being trained for a second career in teaching and drastically intensified and accelerated summer programs are replacing four-year licensure programs. While these programs can help place more teachers in the classroom, some professionals question the quality of both the teacher education programs and the newly licensed teachers. Also, some districts fill special education positions with teachers having either no prior education experience or with only general education experience and provide provisional or conditional licensure to these newly hired teachers. Due to these difficulties, teacher retention has also become a critical issue.

Debate also exists over categorical or noncategorical licensure. Proponents of categorical licensure argue that each disability category is substantially different from others and that teachers should be highly specialized in that area. Proponents of noncategorical licensure argue that teachers should be prepared to teach all children and should have the expertise to address differing abilities and disabilities.

A closely related issue is a trend in higher education to merge the special education teacher program into the general education program, doing away with special education altogether. The arguments for and against this teacher education structure are similar to those for categorical versus noncategorical licensure.

Funding Issues

Funding issues and controversies beset all areas of education, including special education. Because special education requires services above those specified in the general education curriculum, additional funding is critical. When IDEA was first enacted in 1975, the federal government acknowledged this additional need by promising to supplement 40 percent of the excess costs incurred in implementing the act's mandates. Unfortunately, the federal government has never come close to fulfilling this promise. Over the years, however, there has been a greater effort to provide these funds to the states.

Other issues persist at the local level. One common controversy stems from a belief that because the law requires special education services, these programs are funded first, utilizing the money that would otherwise be spent on general education. Another disputed issue is program consolidation–the blending of categorical programs such as special education, English as a second language, or other separately funded programs. Proponents believe that by pooling resources, all children can benefit and can be educated more effectively. Opponents of program consolidation believe it will diminish both the rights of children in these programs as well as the quality of special services provided.


These controversies and issues, although the most widespread and disputed issues facing special education, represent only a small fraction of the numerous issues permeating special education today. School reform, labeling and classification, inclusion, teacher shortage, and special education funding can often be seen in the headlines of newspapers nationwide. Even though every story has two sides, more work is needed to ensure that every student's story will have a happy ending.


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