Special Education

views updated May 23 2018


history of
devery r. mock
jennifer j. jakubecy
james m. kauffman

current trends
jennifer j. jakubecy
devery r. mock
james m. kauffman

preparation of teachers
paul t. sindelar
mary t. brownell

international context

paul ackerman
robert jaeger
anne smith


Special education, as its name suggests, is a specialized branch of education. Claiming lineage to such persons as Jean-Marc-Gaspard Itard (17751838), the physician who "tamed" the "wild boy of Aveyron," and Anne Sullivan Macy (18661936), the teacher who "worked miracles" with Helen Keller, special educators teach those students who have physical, cognitive, language, learning, sensory, and/or emotional abilities that deviate from those of the general population. Special educators provide instruction specifically tailored to meet individualized needs, making education available to students who otherwise would have limited access to education. In 2001, special education in the United States was serving over five million students.

Although federally mandated special education is relatively new in the United States, students with disabilities have been present in every era and in every society. Historical records have consistently documented the most severe disabilitiesthose that transcend task and setting. Itard's description of the wild boy of Aveyron documents a variety of behaviors consistent with both mental retardation and behavioral disorders. Nineteenth-century reports of deviant behavior describe conditions that could easily be interpreted as severe mental retardation, autism, or schizophrenia. Milder forms of disability became apparent only after the advent of universal public education. When literacy became a goal for all children, teachers began observing disabilities specific to task and settingthat is, less severe disabilities. After decades of research and legislation, special education now provides services to students with varying degrees and forms of disabilities, including mental retardation, emotional disturbance, learning disabilities, speech-language (communication) disabilities, impaired hearing and deafness, low vision and blindness, autism, traumatic brain injury, other health impairments, and severe and multiple disabilities.

Development of the Field of Special Education

At its inception in the early nineteenth century, leaders of social change set out to cure many ills of society. Physicians and clergy, including Itard, Edouard O. Seguin (18121880), Samuel Gridley Howe (18011876), and Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet (17871851), wanted to ameliorate the neglectful, often abusive treatment of individuals with disabilities. A rich literature describes the treatment provided to individuals with disabilities in the 1800s: They were often confined in jails and almshouses without decent food, clothing, personal hygiene, and exercise. During much of the nineteenth century, and early in the twentieth, professionals believed individuals with disabilities were best treated in residential facilities in rural environments. Advocates of these institutions argued that environmental conditions such as urban poverty and vices induced behavioral problems. Reformers such as Dorothea Dix (18021887) prevailed upon state governments to provide funds for bigger and more specialized institutions. These facilities focused more on a particular disability, such as mental retardation, then known as "feeble-mindedness" or "idiocy"; mental illness, then labeled "insanity" or "madness"; sensory impairment such as deafness or blindness; and behavioral disorders such as criminality and juvenile delinquency. Children who were judged to be delinquent or aggressive, but not insane, were sent to houses ofrefuge or reform schools, whereas children and adults judged to be "mad" were admitted to psychiatric hospitals. Dix and her followers believed that institutionalization of individuals with disabilities would end their abuse (confinement without treatment in jails and poorhouses) and provide effective treatment. Moral treatment was the dominant approach of the early nineteenth century in psychiatric hospitals, the aim being cure. Moral treatment employed methods analogous to today's occupational therapy, systematic instruction, and positive reinforcement. Evidence suggests this approach was humane and effective in some cases, but the treatment was generally abandoned by the late nineteenth century, due largely to the failure of moral therapists to train others in their techniques and the rise of the belief that mental illness was always a result of brain disease.

By the end of the nineteenth century, pessimism about cure and emphasis on physiological causes led to a change in orientation that would later bring about the "warehouse-like" institutions that have become a symbol for abuse and neglect of society's most vulnerable citizens. The practice of moral treatment was replaced by the belief that most disabilities were incurable. This led to keeping individuals with disabilities ininstitutions both for their own protection and for the betterment of society. Although the transformation took many years, by the end of the nineteenth century the size of institutions had increased so dramatically that the goal of rehabilitation was no longer possible. Institutions became instruments for permanent segregation. Many special education professionals became critics of institutions. Howe, one of the first to argue for in stitutions for people with disabilities, began advocating placing out residents into families. Unfortunately this practice became a logistical and pragmatic problem before it could become a viable alternative to institutionalization.

At the close of the nineteenth century, state governments established juvenile courts and social welfare programs, including foster homes, for children and adolescents. The child study movement became prominent in the early twentieth century. Using the approach pioneered by G. Stanley Hall (18441924; considered the founder of child psychology), researchers attempted to study child development scientifically in relation to education and in so doing established a place for psychology within public schools. In 1931, the Bradley Home, the first psychiatric hospital for children in the United States, was established in East Providence, Rhode Island. The treatment offered in this hospital, as well as most of the other hospitals of the early twentieth century, was psychodynamic. Psychodynamic ideas fanned interest in the diagnosis and classification of disabili ties. In 1951 the first institution for research on exceptional children opened at the University of Illinois and began what was to become the newest focus of the field of special education: the slow learner and, eventually, what we know today as learning disability.

The Development of Special Education in Institutions and Schools

Although Itard failed to normalize Victor, the wild boy of Averyon, he did produce dramatic changes in Victor's behavior through education. Modern special education practices can be traced to Itard, and his work marks the beginning of widespread attempts to instruct students with disabilities. In 1817 the first special education school in the United States, the American Asylum for the Education and Instruction of the Deaf and Dumb (now called the American School for the Deaf), was established in Hartford, Connecticut, by Gallaudet. By the middle of the nineteenth century, special educational programs were being provided in many asylums. Education was a prominent part of moral therapy. By the close of the nineteenth century, special classes within regular public schools had been launched in major cities. These special classes were initially established for immigrant students who were not proficient in English and students who had mild mental retardation or behavioral disorders. Descriptions of these children included terms such as steamer children, backward, truant, and incorrigible. Procedures for identifying "defectives" were included in the World's Fair of 1904. By the 1920s special classes for students judged unsuitable for regular classes had become common in major cities.

In 1840 Rhode Island passed a law mandating compulsory education for children, but not all states had compulsory education until 1918. With compulsory schooling and the swelling tide of anti-institution sentiment in the twentieth century, many children with disabilities were moved out of institutional settings and into public schools. However, by the mid-twentieth century children with disabilities were still often excluded from public schools and kept at home if not institutionalized. In order to respond to the new population of students with special needs entering schools, school officials created still more special classes in public schools.

The number of special classes and complementary support services (assistance given to teachers in managing behavior and learning problems) increased dramatically after World War II. During the early 1900s there was also an increased attention to mental health and a consequent interest in establishing child guidance clinics. By 1930 child guidance clinics and counseling services were relatively common features of major cities, and by 1950 special education had become an identifiable part of urban public education in nearly every school district. By 1960 special educators were instructing their students in a continuum of settings that included hospital schools for those with the most severe disabilities, specialized day schools for students with severe disabilities who were able to live at home, and special classes in regular public schools for students whose disabilities could be managed in small groups. During this period special educators also began to take on the role of consultant, assisting other teachers in instructing students with disabilities. Thus, by 1970 the field of special education was offering a variety of educational placements to students with varying disabilities and needs; however, public schools were not yet required to educate all students regardless of their disabilities.

During the middle decades of the twentieth century, instruction of children with disabilities often was based on process trainingwhich involves attempts to improve children's academic performance by teaching them cognitive or motor processes, such as perceptualmotor skills, visual memory, auditory memory, or auditory-vocal processing. These are ancient ideas that found twentieth-century proponents. Process training enthusiasts taught children various perceptual skills (e.g., identifying different sounds or objects by touch) or perceptual motor skills (e.g., balancing) with the notion that fluency in these skills would generalize to reading, writing, arithmetic, and other basic academic tasks. After many years of research, however, such training was shown not to be effective in improving academic skills. Many of these same ideas were recycled in the late twentieth century as learning styles, multiple intelligences, and other notions that the underlying process of learning varies with gender, ethnicity, or other physiological differences. None of these theories has found much support in reliable research, although direct instruction, mnemonic (memory) devices, and a few other instructional strategies have been supported reliably by research.

The History of Legislation in Special Education

Although many contend that special education was born with the passage of the Education for All Handicapped Children Act (EAHCA) in 1975, it is clear that special educators were beginning to respond to the needs of children with disabilities in public schools nearly a century earlier. It is also clear that EAHCA did not spring from a vacuum. This landmark law naturally evolved from events in both special education and the larger society and came about in large part due to the work of grass roots organizations composed of both parents and professionals. These groups dated back to the 1870s, when the American Association of Instructors of the Blind and the American Association on Mental Deficiency (the latter is now the American Association on Mental Retardation) were formed. In 1922 the Council for Exceptional Children, now the major professional organization of special educators, was organized. In the 1930s and 1940s parent groups began to band together on a national level. These groups worked to make changes in their own communities and, consequently, set the stage for changes on a national level. Two of the most influential parent advocacy groups were the National Association for Retarded Citizens (now ARC/USA), organized in 1950, and the Association for Children with Learning Disabilities, organized in 1963.

Throughout the first half of the twentieth century, advocacy groups were securing local ordinances that would protect and serve individuals with disabilities in their communities. For example, in 1930, in Peoria, Illinois, the first white cane ordinance gave individuals with blindness the right-of-way when crossing the street. By mid-century all states had legislation providing for education of students with disabilities. However, legislation was still noncompulsory. In the late 1950s federal money was allocated for educating children with disabilities and for the training of special educators. Thus the federal government became formally involved in research and in training special education professionals, but limited its involvement to these functions until the 1970s. In 1971, this support was reinforced and extended to the state level when the Pennsylvania Association for Retarded Children (PARC) filed a class action suit against their Commonwealth. This suit, resolved by consent agreement, specified that all children age six through twenty-one were to be provided free public education in the least restrictive alternative (LRA, which would later become the least restrictive environment [LRE] clause in EAHCA). In 1973 the Rehabilitation Act prohibited discriminatory practices in programs receiving federal financial assistance but imposed no affirmative obligations with respect to special education.

In 1975 the legal action begun under the Kennedy and Johnson administrations resulted in EAHCA, which was signed into law by President Gerald Ford. EAHCA reached full implementation in 1977 and required school districts to provide free and appropriate education to all of their students with disabilities. In return for federal funding, each state was to ensure that students with disabilities received non-discriminatory testing, evaluation, and placement; the right to due process; education in the least restrictive environment; and a free and appropriate education. The centerpiece of this public law (known since 1990 as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, or IDEA) was, and is, a free appropriate public education (FAPE). To ensure FAPE, the law mandated that each student receiving special education receive an Individualized Education Program (IEP). Under EAHCA, students with identified disabilities were to receive FAPE and an IEP that included relevant instructional goals and objectives, specifications as to length of school year, determination of the most appropriate educational placement, and descriptions of criteria to be used in evaluation and measurement. The IEP was designed to ensure that all students with disabilities received educational programs specific to their "unique" needs. Thus, the education of students with disabilities became federally controlled. In the 1982 case of Board of Education of the Hendrick Hudson Central School District v. Rowley, the U.S. Supreme Court clarified the level of services to be afforded students with special needs and ruled that special education services need only provide some "educational benefit" to studentspublic schools were not required to maximize the educational progress of students with disabilities. In so doing the Supreme Court further defined what was meant by a free and appropriate education. In 1990 EAHCA was amended to include a change to person-first language, replacing the term handicapped student with student with disabilities. The 1990 amendments also added new classification categories for students with autism and traumatic brain injury and transition plans within IEPs for students age fourteen or older. In 1997, IDEA was reauthorized under President Clinton and amended to require the inclusion of students with disabilities in statewide and districtwide assessments, measurable IEP goals and objectives, and functional behavioral assessment and behavior intervention plans for students with emotional or behavioral needs. Because IDEA is amended and reauthorized every few years, it is impossible to predict the future of this law. It is possible that it will be repealed or altered dramatically by a future Congress. The special education story, both past and future, can be written in many different ways.

Trends in Special Education

Researchers have conceptualized the history of special education in stages that highlight the various trends that the field has experienced. Although some of these conceptualizations focus on changes involving instructional interventions for students with disabilities, others focus on the place of interventions. The focus on placement reflects the controversy in which the field of special education has found itself throughout history. Samuel G. Howe was one of the first to assertin the nineteenth centurythat instructional settings had inherent qualities that alone insured effective interventions. Belief in the essential curative powers of place spurred the late nineteenth century crusade for bigger and better institutions, as well as the mid-twentieth-century movement for deinstitutionalization. Exclusive focus on the importance of place distracted many professionals and prevented them from recognizing that dramatic changes in philosophy were accompanying the movement for deinstitutionalization. In the late nineteenth century, social Darwinism replaced environmentalism as the primary causal explanation for those individuals with abilities who deviated from those of the general population, opening the door to the eugenics movement of the early twentieth century, and leading to the segregation and sterilization of individuals with mental retardation. At the beginning of the twentieth century, the debate had suddenly shifted from whether the disadvantaged should be helped to where these individuals should be served. As the institutionalization versus deinstitutionalization debate raged, many individuals were given custodial treatment, which is contrary to the mission of special education.

Almost a century after the placement debate began, special educators still focused on the importance of place. Many were calling upon the field to create not one perfect setting for the delivery of services, but a continuum of placement options that would address the needs of all students with disabilities. The civil rights movement had reconceptualized special education as a case of access of minorities to the educational privileges of the majority, and the least restrictive environment clause of EAHCA/IDEA prompted advocates for people with disabilities to call for mainstreaming the return of students with disabilities to the regular classroom whenever and wherever possible. In the 1980s the Regular Education Initiative (REI) was an attempt to return responsibility for the education of students with disabilities to neighborhood schools and regular classroom teachers. In the 1990s the full inclusion movement called for educating all students with disabilities in the regular classroom with a single, unified and responsive education system. Advocates for full inclusion, following in the footsteps of Howe, argued for appropriate instruction in a single, ubiquitous place, contrary to the mandate of IDEA.

Controversial Issues in Special Education

Special education has been the target of criticism throughout history. Some of the criticism has been justified, some unjustified. Some criticisms brought to light ineffective practices, such as the inefficacy and inhumanity of relegating all persons with disabilities to institutions. Other criticisms were distractions with disastrous repercussions, such as the singular focus on the importance of place while ignoring other inappropriate practices. The beginning of the twenty-first century found new criticisms being launched at special education. Some argue that the use of diagnostic labels is potentially stigmatizing to students, others that minority students are overrepresented in some disability categories, and still others that education of students with disabilities in special classes and schools, even pulling students out for instruction in resource classes, is akin to race-based segregation. Some of these criticisms may expose ineffective practices, others may only distract educators from the effort of finding and implementing effective instructional practices. Professionals must develop the ability to learn from history and differentiate between unimportant criticisms and those with merit.

One valid criticism repeatedly launched against special education involves the implementation of ineffective educational interventions. Although great concern about the where of instruction was expressed in the 1980s and 1990s, little attention was given to the what of instruction. Throughout the twentieth century the field of special education repeatedly adopted instructional strategies of questionable efficacyinterventions that have little to no empirical basis. Additionally, special educators have adopted, with "bandwagon" fervor, many practices that have been proven ineffective and have thereby repeated the mistakes of history. If special education is to progress, professionals will need to address and remedy the instructional practices used with students with disabilities.

Special education has also been validly criticized for the way in which students with disabilities are identified. In the early nineteenth century, physicians and educators had difficulty making reliable distinctions between different disability categories. In fact, the categories of mental retardation and behavioral disorders are inseparably intertwined. Many of the disability categories overlap to the extent that it is hard to differentiate one from the other. Additionally, some of the categorieslearning disabilities and behavioral disorders, for exampleare defined by the exclusion of other contributing disabilities. Thus, at the beginning of the twenty-first century, much work remains on the identification of students with disabilities.

Perhaps the largest, most pervasive issue in special education is its relationship to general education. The relationship of special to general education has been controversial since the beginning of universal public schooling. However, in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, the question of whether special education should retain a separate identity or be fused with general education such that it has no separate identity (e.g., budget, personnel) was made prominent by proponents of a radical restructuring of special education. Proponents of radical restructuring and fusion argue that such integration is necessary to provide appropriate education for all students regardless of their disabilities and without stigma or discrimination. In their view, special education suffers primarily from structural problems, and the integration of two separate systems will result in a flexible, supple, responsive single system that will meet the needs of all students without "separating out" any. All teachers, according to this line of thinking, should be prepared to teach all students, including those with special needs.

Opponents of radical restructuring argue that special education's problems are primarily the lack of implementation of best practices, not structural. Moreover, they suggest, special education will not survive to serve the special needs of exceptional students if it loses its identity, including special budget allocations and personnel preparation. It is not feasible nor is it desirable, they contend, to prepare all teachers to teach all children; special training is required to teach students who are educationally exceptional. Arguments about the structure of education (special and general), who (if anyone) should receive special treatment, how they should be taught, and where special services should be provided are perpetual issues in special education. These issues will likely continue to be debated throughout the twenty-first century.

In the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, another issue became the basis for conceptual or theoretical bases for special education practices. Postmodern and antiscientific philosophies have been put forward in both general and special education. These ideas have been challenged by others who have noted the importance of the scientific method in discriminating among ideas and assertions. Likely, postmodern ideas and attempts to apply them to or refute them will be perpetual.

More than two hundred years after Itard began his work on the education of the wild boy of Aveyron, special educators are being asked to make decisions concerning such issues as placement and delivery of services. The inclusion debate, although important, has the potential to distract the field of special education away from issues of greater importissues such as the efficacy of intervention and the accurate identification of students with disabilities. If special educators are to avoid the mistakes of the past, they will need to make future decisions based upon reliable data, evaluating the efficacy of differing options. Since the inception of what is now known as IDEA, significant progress has been made in applying scientific research to the problems of special education. In the twenty-first century, special education need not remain a field of good intentions, but can fully employ the scientific child-study techniques begun in the late eighteenth century to provide free and appropriate educations to all children with disabilities.

See also: Adapted Physical Education; Assistive Technology; Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder; Council for Exceptional Children; Emotionally Disturbed, Education of; Hearing Impairment; Learning Disabilities, Education of Individuals with; Mental Retardation, Education of Individuals with; Severe and Multiple Disabilities, Education of Individuals with; Special Education, subentry on Current Trends; Speech and Language Impairment, Education of Individuals with; Visual Impairments, Education of Individuals with.


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Devery R. Mock

Jennifer J. Jakubecy

James M. Kauffman


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 goalan 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 studentsregardless of disability, health needs, academic ability, service needs, and, often, preference of parent or studentare 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 19931994 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 consolidationthe 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.

See also: Adapted Physical Education; Assistive Technology; Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder; Council for Exceptional Children; Emotionally Disturbed, Education of; Hearing Impairment; Learning Disabilities, Education of Individuals with; Mental Retardation, Education of Individuals with; School Reform; Special Education, subentry on History of; Speech and Language Impairment, Education of Individuals with; Visual Impairments, Education of Individuals with.


Bateman, Barbara D., and Linden, Mary A. 1998. Better IEPs: How to Develop Legally Correct and Educationally Useful Programs, 3rd edition. Longmont, CO: Sopris West.

Crockett, Jean B., and Kauffman, James M. 1999. The Least Restrictive Environment: Its Origins and Interpretations in Special Education. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

Gersten, Russell; Schiller, Ellen P.; and Vaughn, Sharon, eds. 2000. Contemporary Special Education Research: Syntheses of the Knowledge Base on Critical Instructional Issues. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

Hallahan, Daniel P., and Kauffman, James M. 2000. Exceptional Learners: Introduction to Special Education, 8th edition. Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

Hallahan, Daniel P.; Kauffman, James M.; and Lloyd, John W. 1999. Introduction to Learning Disabilities, 2nd edition. Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

Hallahan, Daniel P., and Keogh, Barbara K., eds. 2001. Research and Global Perspectives in Learning Disabilities: Essays in Honor of William M. Cruickshank. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

Hockenbury, Jill C.; Kauffman, James M.; and Hallahan, Daniel P. 19992000. "What's Right About Special Education." Exceptionality 8 (1):311.

Kauffman, James M. 1999. "Commentary: Today's Special Education and Its Messages for Tomorrow." The Journal of Special Education 32:244254.

Kauffman, James M. 1999. "How We Prevent the Prevention of Emotional and Behavioral Disorders." Exceptional Children 65:448468.

Kauffman, James M. 2001. Characteristics of Emotional and Behavioral Disorders of Children and Youth, 7th edition. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Kauffman, James M., and Hallahan, Daniel P. 1993. "Toward a Comprehensive Delivery System for Special Education." In Integrating General and Special Education, ed. John I. Goodlad and Thomas C. Lovitt. Columbus, OH: Merrill/Macmillan.

Kauffman, James M., and Hallahan, Daniel P., eds. 1995. The Illusion of Full Inclusion: A Comprehensive Critique of a Current Special Education Bandwagon. Austin, TX: PRO-ED.

Kauffman, James M.; Lloyd, John W.; Hallahan, Daniel P.; and Astuto, Terry A., eds. 1995. Issues in Educational Placement: Students with Emotional and Behavioral Disorders. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

Lloyd, John W.; Hallahan, Daniel P.; Kauffman, James M.; and Keller, Clay E. 1998. "Academic Problems." In Practice of Child Therapy, 3rd edition, ed. Thomas R. Kratochwill and Richard J. Morris. Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

Lloyd, John W.; Kameenui, Edward J.; and Chard, David, eds. 1997. Issues in Educating Students with Disabilities. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

Mastropieri, Margo A., and Scruggs, Thomas E. 2000. The Inclusive Classroom: Strategies for Effective Instruction. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Merrill.

Yell, Mitchell L. 1998. The Law and Special Education. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Ysseldyke, James E.; Algozzine, Bob; and Thurlow, Martha L. 2000. Critical Issues in Special Education, 3rd edition. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Jennifer J. Jakubecy

Devery R. Mock

James M. Kauffman


Special education is a complex enterprise. Students are classified by disability categories and placed in settings that range from classrooms and resource rooms to self-contained classes and separate schools. Special education teacher education also is complex. Teachers are prepared in specialized programs and often licensed to teach students with a particular disability. Licensure structures are complex and vary dramatically from state to state. Furthermore, how students with disabilities are served in schools has changed dramatically since the early 1980s, with implications for teachers' roles and teacher preparation.

Special Education Students and Teachers

According to the U.S. Department of Education (DoE), in 19981999 about 5.7 million school-aged children were provided special education in the United States. Schools employed about 360,000 special education teachers, 90 percent of whom were fully qualified. Teacher preparation is also a substantial enterprise. The approximately 800 special education programs in the United States awarded more than 22,000 bachelor's and master's degrees in 19961997. Although such productivity would seem sufficient to address demand, many master's recipients are practicing teachers, and many newly graduated teachers decline to enter the work force.

The federal government has played an influential role in special education teacher education. Through the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), the DoE has invested tens of millions of dollars annually on the preparation of special education teachers. The department has leveraged these funds to promote program development, most notably in early childhood and secondary special education. The government also has taken an active role in support of programs for teachers of students with low-incidence disabilitiessevere disabilities and visual and hearing impairments, to name a few. In many states, the number of students with lowincidence disabilities is so small as to make teacher preparation costly and inefficient. For example, only thirty programs nationally prepare teachers in the area of visual impairments, and sixteen states have no programs for teachers of the hearing impaired. Because it is inefficient for individual states to prepare teachers in low-incidence areas, by the early twenty-first century the DoE had come to consider program support a federal responsibility.

History of Special Education Teacher Education

The development of special education was bolstered in 1975 by the passage of the Education for All Handicapped Children Act (EAHCA), which was amended in 1997 by the IDEA. With the emergence and diversification of special education services in schools came demand for specially trained teachers and programs to prepare them. Although special education teacher education programs existed before the passage of the EAHCA, its passage spurred growth. By the beginning of the twenty-first century, 871 colleges and universities in the United States prepared teachers in at least one special education field.

In spite of its complexity and distinctive character, special education teacher education has evolved in the same way that general teacher education has evolved. Once guided by causal models that related precisely defined teacher actions to specific student outcomes, teacher educators' conceptions of teaching and learning have broadened to include teacher thinking and decision-making. This shift is most evident in the Interstate New Teacher Assessment and Support Consortium (INTASC) standards for beginning teachers, which use general education practice as the foundation for special education practice, and the realignment of the Council for Exceptional Children's professional standards with those provided by INTASC.

Issues in Special Education Teacher Education

For decades, the overriding issue in special education teacher education has been the shortage of fully qualified practitioners. The IDEA requires that students with disabilities be provided a free and appropriate public education (FAPE), a promise that presumes a qualified teacher in every special education classroom. In 19981999, 10 percent of special education teachers were not fully qualified for their work. These 36,511 teachers worked with more than 570,000 students, who arguably may have been denied FAPE.

Shortages also are related to licensure area, geographical location, and diversity of the work force. Perhaps more invidious than overall shortages or variability in licensure areas are shortages of teachers in urban and rural areasor, perhaps more precisely, in low-income schools in cities and rural areas. Also critical is the shortage of culturally and linguistically diverse (CLD) special education teachers, an issue that has plagued the general teacher work force as well. It is especially important in special education because of overrepresentation of CLD students, particularly African Americans, on special education rosters.

High attrition rates in special education contribute significantly to chronic teacher shortages. Some researchers have argued that attrition is the primary reason for continued shortages, particularly in high poverty schools. Attrition from special education classrooms is consistently higher than in general education. Analyses of the 19931994 Schools and Staffing Survey data suggest that, in a given year, more teachers leave the special education work force than enter. Consequently, the number of teachers entering the field each year is never sufficient to replace the demand for teachers created by attrition and growth, creating a chronic need for new teachers. In large-scale studies conducted since the early 1990s, researchers have identified specific teacher and workplace characteristics that contribute to attrition. Less experienced special education teachers are a greater attrition risk than more experienced counterparts, and unlicensed teachers are more likely to leave the classroom than their licensed counterparts. Moreover, studies of teacher induction indicate that high-quality programs may increase beginning teachers' intentions to remain in special education.

The chronic undersupply of teachers has spawned alternative special education training programs, many of which attempt to tap nontraditional pools of teacher candidates, such as retired military personnel and midlife career changers. Although many of these programs are quite rigorous in terms of the courses and field experiences required, not all are. Research on special education alternative programs has shown graduates of some programs to be capable teachers, often as competent and motivated as graduates of traditional programs. Moreover, their competence is associated with the length and intensity of their training. Longer and more rigorous programs have been shown to prepare better teachers than shortcut programs.

Amid concerns for preparing greater numbers of teachers are increasing pressures to improve their competence. Inclusion advocates believe that separate preparation of special and general education teachers does little to help teachers develop the knowledge and skills necessary for implementing inclusive classroom practices. Thus, there has been an increasing movement toward the unified preparation of classroom and special education teachersat least those special education teachers who work with students with mild disabilities. Although some type of collaborative program was present at nearly 200 institutions by the beginning of the twenty-first century, critics worry that preparation for the distinctive work that special education teachers perform will be lost through unification.

Finally, researchers and teacher educators are concerned about the persistent gap between what is known about effective classroom practices and what teachers actually do. In special education, significant advances in behavior management, technology applications, and teaching reading have brought this issue into the spotlight. Both novice and practicing teachers are more likely to rely on traditional practices, perhaps learned through observation in K12 education. Although the professional literature has provided substantial information about how best to help teachers improve their practice, state policy-makers are reluctant to support professional development adequately. Moreover, there is limited research in general education and no research in special education delineating the characteristics of preparation programs that enable novice teachers to master and apply research-based practices in the classroom.


Shortages of special education teachers have proven intractable, in spite of the substantial capacity for preparing teachers in the United States and a sustained federal investment in it. Solutions have been sought through studies of attrition, in which factors influencing teachers' decisions to leave the field have been identified, and in programs to attract nontraditional teacher candidates. Special education teacher education faces two additional challenges: preparing classroom teachers for the work they do with students with disabilities and bridging the researchto-practice gap for novice and veteran teachers. Although improving workplace conditions, establishing high-quality teacher induction programs, and providing effective professional development may ameliorate attrition and help resolve teacher shortages, the gap between what is known about supporting teachers professionally and what is done in the public schools persists. There is much to learn about effective practices in the initial preparation of teachers. In spite of these challenges, the special education teacher education enterprise annually produces more than 20,000 bachelor's and master's degree graduates and has sustained a fully qualified work force of more than 300,000 teachersremarkable accomplishments in and of themselves.

See also: Special Education, subentries on Current Trends, History of; Teacher Education.


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Boe, Erling E.; Bobbitt, Sharon A.; Cook, Lynne h.; Whitener, Summer D.; and Weber, Anita L. 1997. "Why Didst Thou Go? Predictors of Retention, Transfer, and Attrition of Special and General Education Teachers from a National Perspective." Journal of Special Education 30:390411.

Boe, Erling E.; Cook, Lynne H.; Bobbitt, Sharon A.; and Terhanian, George. 1998. "The Shortage of Fully Certified Teachers in Special and General Education." Teacher Education and Special Education 21:121.

Brownell, Mary T.; Ross, Dorene R.; Colon,Elayne; and McCallum, Cynthia. 2001. "Teacher Education Practices in Special Education: How Do They Compare to Exemplary General Education Teacher Education Practices?" Gainesville: University of Florida, Center on Personnel Studies in Special Education.

Gersten, Russell; Vaughn, Sharon; Deshler, Don; and Schiller, Ellen. 1997. "What We Know about Using Research Findings: Implications for Improving Special Education Practice." Journal of Learning Disabilities 30:466476.

Hirsch, Eric; Koppich, Julia E.; and Knapp, Michael S. 2001. "Revisiting What States Are Doing to Improve the Quality of Teaching: An Update on Patterns and Trends." Seattle: University of Washington, Center for the Study of Teaching and Policy.

Ingersoll, Richard M. 1999. "Teacher Turnover, Teacher Shortages, and the Organization of Schools: A CTP Working Paper." Seattle: University of Washington, Center for the Study of Teaching and Policy.

Miller, M. David; Brownell, Mary T.; and Smith, Stephen W. 1999. "Factors that Predict Teachers Staying in, Leaving, or Transferring from the Special Education Classroom." Exceptional Children 65:201218.

Rosenberg, Michael S., and Sindelar, Paul T. 2001. "The Proliferation of Alternative Routes to Certification in Special Education: A Critical Review of the Literature." Arlington, VA: Council for Exceptional Children, National Clearing-house for Professions in Special Education.

Sindelar, Paul T.; Brownell, Mary T.; Correa, Vivian; McLeskey, James; Bishop, Anne; Smith, Deborah; Tyler, Naomi; and Waldron, Nancy. 2001. "The Center on Personnel Studies in Special Education: Assessing the Quality of Preservice Teacher Preparation." Paper presented at the annual meeting of the Teacher Education Division of the Council for Exceptional Children, St. Petersburg, FL.

Strosnider, Roberta; Crutchfield, Margaret; and Paschall, Albert. 2000. "Dual, Blended, or Integrated Teacher Preparation Programs: Who, What, When, Where, and Why?" In Unified Teacher Preparation Programs for General and Special Educators, ed. Lee Sherry and Fred Spooner. St. Petersburg: Florida Comprehensive System of Personnel Development.

U.S. Department of Education. 2000. Twenty-Second Annual Report to Congress on the Implementation of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, 2000. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education.

Whitaker, Susan D. 2000. "Mentoring Beginning Special Education Teachers and the Relationship to Attrition." Exceptional Children 66:546566.

Wideen, Marvin; Mayer-Smith, Jolie; and Moon, Barbara. 1998. "A Critical Analysis of the Research on Learning to Teach: Making the Case for an Ecological Perspective on Inquiry." Review of Educational Research 68:130178.

Paul T. Sindelar

Mary T. Brownell


A goal of the United Nations is to make education available for all the world's students, including those who are disabled and have special needs. Doing so, however, raises many questions:

  • What children need special education?
  • What is the nature of education for children with disabilities?
  • What philosophies form the basis for education for children with special needs and their families?

Access to education for students with special education needs is a global phenomenon. The underlying assumptions, educational strategies, and authorization of legislation governing special education differ across nations, and are inextricably linked to local context, societal values, and beliefs about pedagogy and disability.

Education Philosophies

Three major philosophies have governed how a nation identifies and educates children with special needs. Historically, the medical model is the most widespread and has been used in both diagnosis and educational treatment of children with disabilities. Children receive a medical diagnosis based on psychological and physical impairments across selected domains and both strengths and weakness are identified for education and training. Children with similar diagnoses and functional levels are grouped together for instructional purposes. Standardized testing is often used to provide a diagnostic name for a disability. According to Thomas Oakland and Sherman Hu, the accuracy of diagnoses is questionable as standardized tests are often not suitably normed, and reliability and validity estimates are often not available, making international comparisons difficult.

In the environmental model, disabilities are experienced as a function of the interaction between the person and the environment. Environments can be defined in terms of psychological and social environments as well as physical environments. Environmental impediments include architectural barriers, lack of assistive technology, and/or limited transportation. Instructional techniques and learning opportunities can be structured to compensate for environmental deficiencies to ensure that children learn and achieve skills of adaptive living. The role of the environment has been recognized in a World Health Organization classification scheme for individuals with disabilities.

The inclusion model incorporates aspects of the environmental model and views children as having a right to education with and alongside their nondisabled peers. Schools are organized to ensure that each student, disabled or nondisabled, receives age-appropriate, individualized attention, accommodations, and supports to provide access to the general education curriculum. Assistive technology often facilitates inclusive schooling practice for both teacher and student.


Attempts to make meaningful international comparisons among students and the instructional supports and programs for children with disabilities are exceedingly difficult, given the differing definitions and eligibility criteria. For example, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) reports a range between 1 percent to 35 percent of the primary and lower secondary education population across twenty developed nations receiving special needs additional resources, including special teachers, assistive technology, classroom adaptations, and specialized teaching materials. Additional resources are typically provided to a higher proportion of males than females (averaging 63% to 37%, respectively).

The OECD also investigated how nations addressed the needs of students requiring support in the general-education curriculum and expanded their indicators designed to compare the proportions of students with disabilities, learning difficulties, and social and economic disadvantages. Three categories emerged. Category A refers to students who have diagnosed disabilities about which there is substantial international agreement (e.g., blind/partially sighted, deaf/hard of hearing, autism, cognitive disabilities, or multiple disabilities). Category B is an intermediary classification and refers to students who have difficulty learning and are not easily categorized in either Category A or C. Category C refers to students who have difficulty learning because of socioeconomic, cultural, and/or linguistic factors.

The OECD reported striking differences in educational placement for students with special education needs. Some nations serve virtually no disabled students in special segregated schools (e.g., Italy), while others serve more than two-thirds in segregated schools (e.g., Finland, France, Greece, and the Netherlands). Despite the increasing inclusion of students with disabilities (Category A) in the mainstream of general education, inclusion is an issue that continues to be debated.


Cecil R. Reynolds and Elaine Fletcher-Janzen provide brief descriptions of existing special education approaches that are available for more than thirty nations or regions of the world. More detailed information, data and case studies are also available for nineteen developed nations in the OECD's 1995 report Integrating Students with Special Needs into Mainstream Schools. Another collection of comparative studies by Kas Mazurek and Margaret A. Winzer includes nations with limited special education (South Africa, Papua New Guinea, Senegal, and the West Bank and Gaza Strip), emerging special education (Nigeria, Iran, Brazil, Indonesia, Egypt, Pakistan, China, India, and Uruguay), segregated special education (Japan, Taiwan, Russia, Czechoslovakia, and Hong Kong), approaching integration (Israel, Poland, Australia, and Canada), and integrated special education (Scandinavia, New Zealand, the United States, and England and Wales).

An examination of special education philosophies and approaches reveals the following:

  • Special education often consists of national and local governmental involvement in funding and service provision that is supplemented by the work of nongovernmental service organizations. Oversight of these programs by governments varies widely.
  • The medical model is the predominant philosophy in developing countries and in many developed countries. Environmental and inclusive models are emerging and are in varying stages of planning and implementation, primarily in the western developed nations.
  • There are no coordinating international agencies monitoring global progress in special education, but the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) and the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) have developed teacher education materials in an effort to broaden the "Education for All" initiative to include children with disabilities.
  • International funding sources for education (e.g., World Bank, Inter-American Development Bank, etc.), are proposing more inclusive approaches to special needs education.
  • All nations recognize a need for improved teacher education, particularly in teaching children with special needs in regular classrooms.
  • Nations with great needs for special education, usually the developing countries, are attempting to develop family or village-centered programs called community-based special education. These programs have been shown to be successful.
  • A movement toward school-university partnerships shows promise in grounding teacher preparation in the practice of schooling.

Educating children with special needs is a humanitarian effort that is both a science and an art in some nations and an act of charity in others. In every nation, education for all has social, economic, and moral benefits.

This article was written by two of the authors (Jaeger and Smith) in their private capacity. No official support or endorsement by the U.S. Department of Education is intended or should be inferred.

See also: International Development Agencies and Education; Special Education, subentries on Current Trends, History of, Preparation of Teachers.


Lynch, James. 1994. Provision for Children with Special Educational Needs in the Asia Region. World Bank Technical Paper Number 261, Asia Technical Series. Washington, DC: The World Bank.

Mazurek, Kas, and Winzer, Margret A. 1994. Comparative Studies in Special Education. Washington, DC: Gallaudet University Press.

Oakland, Thomas, and Hu, Sherman. 1994. "International Perspectives on Tests Used with Children and Youth." Journal of School Psychology 31:501517.

Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. 1995. Integrating Students with Special Needs into Mainstream Schools. Paris: Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.

Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. 2000. Education at a Glance; OECD Indicators. Paris: Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.

Reynolds, Cecil R., and Fletcher-Janzen,

Elaine. 2000. Encyclopedia of Special Education, 2nd edition. New York: Wiley.

internet resources

Unesco, Special Education, Division of Basic Education. 1994. "The Salamanca Statement and Framework for Action on Special Needs Education. World Conference on Special Needs Education: Access and Quality." Salamanca, Spain, 710 June 1994. <www.unesco.org/education/educprog/sne/salamanc/index.htm>.

World Health Organization. 2001. "ICIDH-2: International Classification of Functioning, Disability and Health." Geneva. <www.who.int/icidh>.

Paul Ackerman

Robert Jaeger

Anne Smith

Special Education

views updated May 23 2018

Special education

Educational instruction or social services designed or modified to assist individuals with disabilities.

Special education refers to a range of services, including social work services and rehabilitative counseling, provided to individuals with disabilities from ages 3-21 through the public school system, including instruction given in the classroom, at home, or in institutions. Special education classes are taught by teachers with professional certification. Some teachers specialize in working with children with learning disabilities or multiple handicaps, and instruction may take place within a regular school or a residential school for students with disabilities.

In 1975, the Education for All Handicapped Children Act (EHCA, PL 94-142) mandated that states provide a "free and appropriate public education" (FAPE) to all students, including those with physical, mental, or behavioral disabilities. This special education must include a comprehensive screening and diagnosis by a multi-disciplinary team and the development of an annual Individualized Education Plan (IEP) for each student, outlining academic and behavioral goals, services to be provided, and methods of evaluation. The student's parents must consent to initial screening and must be invited to participate in all phases of the process. Besides the unprecedented move in guaranteeing free comprehensive services to children with special needs, the act was revolutionary in that it specified that special education take place in the "least restrictive environment" (LRE). In 1991 the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) provided federal assistance to state and local agencies to implement EHCA and made some revisions including: requiring that the disability status of the special-needs student be reevaluated every three years; adding the category of learning disabled as a qualifying disability; and further interpreting the LRE clause to require that the special-needs student be educated "to the maximum extent appropriate" with children who are not disabled. Services are available to individuals ages 2-21, and states are required to seek and initiate contact with qualifying individuals.

During the nearly 20 years after the passage of special education laws (1977-94), the rate of enrollment in public special education programs increased by 46%, while total enrollment in public schools declined 2%. In 1994, 12% of students enrolled in public schools or institutions were in special education programs. Much of the increase took place after 1991, when children identified with learning disabilities dominated special education classrooms: in 1994 learning disabled students made up 5% of total enrollment, falling short of just half of all special education students. Children's disabilities are defined under 13 categories: autism , blindness, visual impairment, deafness, hearing impairment, deaf-blindness, orthopedic (movement) impairments, multiple handicaps (several disabilities), mental retardation (also called developmental disability), serious emotional disturbance, speech and language disorders, specific learning disabilities (e.g., dyslexia ), and specialized health care needs (e.g., oxygen dependence). Traumatic brain injury also qualifies. Of students enrolled in special education programs in 1994, 45% were learning disabled; 19% had speech and language disorders; 10% were mentally retarded; 8% were deaf or hearing impaired; 8% were seriously emotionally disturbed; and 8% had other disabilities

Screening and evaluation

To qualify for special education, a child must be diagnosed as having a disability and the disability must be found to "adversely affect educational performance" so as to require special services. There is wide variability in the way students are referred and evaluated for special education. For children with severe disabilities, the physician and parents identify and refer the child to special education. Other disabilities or deficits in the child's developing physical and cognitive abilities may be identified by teacher and parent observation or revealed by academic or developmental tests. Most districts have standardized programs to screen large numbers of children between kindergarten and third grade. Other disabilities may be subtle or compensated for, such as dyslexia, and may not be discovered until demands on the student increase in college. After referral, a meeting is held to determine whether the child should be "assessed" or "evaluated" to determine the type of disability he or she may have. Tests will attempt to identify the cognitive (academic), social, or physical tasks which the child has difficulty performing, and why the difficulty exists, i.e., what disability or disabilities are present. Tests may include: reading, writing, spelling, and math tests; psychological or intelligence tests; speech and language tests; vision and hearing tests; or an examination by a doctor. Parents must consent to all testing, evaluation, and placement, and can appeal most decisions if they disagree with the conclusions.

Over- and under-referral

There is some concern about over- or under-referral in particular disability categories. Mild disabilities are especially difficult to diagnose. Since special education laws went into effect, the enrollment of students diagnosed with mental retardation and speech and language disorders decreased sharply, while those with learning disabilities increased. The changes reflect a social consciousness about the stigma of labeling and fundamental changes in the way people view disabilities. Yet, under-referral of mental retardation in particular may reflect schools' realistic fear of litigation. Others are concerned about over referral for mild disabilities (learning and behavioral disorders) as a method of classroom management. Thirty-four states require some method of pre-referral intervention. If a teacher suspects a disability, he or she must consult with a team of teachers and develop alternate methods of effectively addressing the student's problems, through modifications in instruction or classroom environment , before the school will consider special education referral.


There is a concern that minority students are disproportionately represented in special education, mostly with learning disabilities. In 1993, white, learning-disabled students made up 5% of total enrollment in special education. The corresponding percentage of black students (proportionate to their representation in the total population) would be 0.5%, but African American students with learning disabilities make up 6% of total enrollment. There is no consensus on the exact diagnosis of specific learning disabilities, and the same treatment goals and teaching strategies are used for all types of learning disabilities. Often psychologists will continue testing until they "find" a learning disability for which a student can receive special instruction. Criticism can be levied from both sides against this practice: white, low-achieving students do not receive special attention they need, and black students are segregated and labeled incorrectly.

Location of services, mainstreaming, and inclusion

Before passage of the EHCA and IDEA, many disabled children were either not provided public education services at all, were in residential settings, or at best in separate day schools. In addition to providing special education in regular public school buildings, the stipulation that special-needs children be educated in the "least restrictive environment" led to the practice of mainstreaming. Mainstreaming is the policy of placing special education students in regular classrooms as much as possible, and using resource rooms where the student receives special tutoring, review, and instruction. In 1993, 40% of children received instruction primarily in regular classrooms, 30% in resource rooms, 24% in separate, special education classrooms, and the remaining 6% in public or private day schools and residential facilities. Students with speech or language impairments (80%) were most likely to be in general education classrooms. Mentally retarded and multiple-handicapped students (7% of each group) were the least likely to be in general education classrooms.

The type of contact special education teachers have with students varies according to district resources and student population. Some teachers, such as visual impairment specialists, may serve a whole region, tutoring a specific student only once a week. Others teach entire special education classes, providing general education teachers with support, ideas, and resources for mainstreamed pupils. Inclusion, sometimes considered the logical goal of mainstreaming, is total integration of special education students and services into the general education classroom, where special education teachers collaborate with general education teachers to teach the entire class. Full inclusion of all special education students would require restructuring of several traditional educational policies. To the extent that it necessitates extensive continuing collaboration between special education teachers, general education teachers, and support paraprofessionals, and requires restructuring of curricula and lessons, full inclusion represents a revolution in educational methods. Research on existing programs suggests that for inclusion to be successful certain attitudes and beliefs must be held and certain resources must be available:

  • The general education teacher must believe the special-needs student can succeed
  • The school must be committed to accepting responsibility for the learning outcomes of special education students
  • Parents must be informed and supportive
  • Services and physical accommodations must be adequate for the student's needs
  • The principal must understand the needs of special education students
  • Enough teacher and staff hours must be devoted to the child's care
  • Continuing staff development and technical assistance must be provided
  • Evaluation procedures must be clear
  • Special education teachers must be part of the entire planning process
  • A team approach is used by teachers and other specialists
  • A variety of instructional arrangements must be available (team teaching, ability grouping, peer tutoring)

Matriculation and employment

In 1992, 44% of special education students graduated with a diploma, 13% graduated with a certificate (including GED finished by age 21), 22% dropped out, and 21% exited school for other reasons. The highest dropout category was seriously emotionally disturbed students at 35%. The lowest was deaf-blind students, only 4% of whom dropped out. Graduation and employment rates for students with disabilities rose over the two decades after the passage of EHCA and IDEA and other disability legislation such as the Americans with Disabilities Act. Yet depending on the disability, as many as 45-70% of disabled adults were still unemployed in the early 1990s. People with learning disabilities and speech disorders have the lowest rates of unemployment. Because 77% of students take vocational education classes, a comprehensive vocational assessment, including assessment of independent living skills, is necessary. The assessment may take place at a regional center and follow an adult rehabilitation model. Assessments should take place several times in the course of a student's school career.

Gifted and talented

Gifted and talented children are those who demonstrate special abilities, aptitude, or creativity . Often they will express themselves primarily in one area such as humanities, sciences, mathematics, art, music, or leadership . Gifted and talented students are not usually considered clients of special education. There is no federal mandate or regular funding to support gifted and talented students, although about half of the states have programs for the gifted and talented. As a percentage of total public school enrollment, students in gifted and talented programs range from 1-2% in Idaho, Nevada, Alabama, and Washington to over 10% in Hawaii, Maryland, Michigan, Nebraska, Ohio, Wisconsin, and South Carolina.

In addition to special counseling, grade skipping, taking summer or correspondence courses, or early graduation, there are a variety of adaptations that can be made to serve the needs of gifted students. Adaptations can be made to the content, the process, or the products of learning. Some strategies include:

Acceleration Raising the academic level of assignments and giving the student reading material at a higher level of difficulty.

Telescoping Reducing the time allowed the student to cover given content. For example, a teacher could give the student two successive mathematics chapters to complete in the ordinary time period used to cover one chapter.

Compacting Testing to determine how much of a certain content unit the student knows already and custom designing a curriculum to fill in the gaps. Students can then use the gained time for creative or exploratory activities.

Independent study Allowing the student to choose his or her own focus, plan research, present material, and evaluate the process.

Tiered assignments Preparing assignments at different levels for different students. Asking more complex and higher order questions in assignments for gifted and talented students.

Other tools for pacing the learning of gifted and talented students are portfolios and learning centers. Several commercially prepared curricula that provide structured exploratory and design projects are also available.

Further Reading

Adelman, H., and L. Taylor. Learning Problems and Learning Disabilities. Pacific, CA: Brooks, 1993.

Algozzine, B. et al. Behaviorally Disordered? Assessment for Identification and Instruction. Reston, VA: The Council for Exceptional Children, 1991.

Council of Administrators of Special Education. Student Access: A Resource Guide for Educators, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. Albuquerque, NM: Author, 1991.

Cummins, J. Bilingualism and Special Education: Issues in Assessment and Pedagogy. Clevedon, England: Multilingual Matters. Co-published in the U.S. by College-Hill Press, San Diego, 1994.

Cook, L., and M. Friend. Interactions: Collaboration Skills for School Professionals. White Plains, NY: Longman Publishing, 1992.

Council for Exceptional Children, Department of Public Policy. The Rights of Children with Disabilities under ADA and Section 504: A Comparison to IDEA. Reston, VA: Author, 1994.

Giangreco, M. F., et al. Choosing Options and Accommodations for Children: A Guide to Planning Inclusive Education. Baltimore: Paul H. Brookes, 1993.

Gutkin, T. B., and C. R. Reynolds, eds. The Handbook of School Psychology. 2nd ed. New York: Wiley, 1990.

Hallahan, D., and J. Kaufmann. Exceptional Children. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1991.

Hunt, N., and K. Marshall. Exceptional Children and Youth. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1994.

Levinson, E. M. Transdisciplinary Vocational Assessment: Issues in School-Based Programs. Brandon, VT: Clinical Psychology Publishing Co., 1993.

Marder, C., and R. D'Amico. How Well Are Youth with Disabilities Really Doing? A Comparison of Youth with Disabilities and Youth in General. Menlo Park, CA: SRI International, 1992.

National Center for Education Statistics. Products Avaialbe from the National Center for Education Statistics. Washington, DC: NCES, 1997.

Stoner, G., et al. Interventions for Achievement and Behavior Problems. Silver Spring, MD: National Association of School Psychologists, 1991.

U.S. Department of Education. Eighteenth Annual Report to Congress on the Implementation of the Individuals with Disabilities Act. Washington, DC: Office of Special Education Programs, 1996.

Wang, M. C., et al. The Handbook of Special Education: Research and Practice. Vols 1 & 2. Oxford, England: Pergamon Press, 1987.

Further Information

American Coalition of Citizens with Disabilities. 1012 Fourteenth Street, NW, Washington, DC 20005.

Association for Children and Adults with Learning Disabilities. 4156 Library Road, Pittsburgh, PA 15234.

National Information Center for Handicapped Children and Youth. 155 Wilson Boulevard, Suite 508, Arlington, VA 22209.

National Center for Education Statistics. 555 New Jersey Ave., NW, Washington, DC 20208-5574. nces.gov.

The Council for Exceptional Children. 1920 Association Drive, Reston, VA 22091, (703) 6203660.

Learning Disabilities Association of America. 4156 Library Road, Pittsburgh, PA 15234, (412) 3411515.

Special Education

views updated May 21 2018

Special education


Special education refers to a range of educational and social services provided by the public school system and other educational institutions to individuals with disabilities who are between three and 21 years of age.


Special education is designed to ensure that students with disabilities are provided with an environment that allows them to be educated effectively. Disabilities that qualify for special education include physical disabilities, such as deafness or blindness; mental disabilities, such as Down's syndrome and autism ; medical conditions, such as oxygen dependence or traumatic brain injury; learning deficits, such as dyslexia ; and behavioral disorders, such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and conduct disorders.

In 1975, the Education for All Handicapped Children Act (EHCA, PL 94-142) mandated that states provide a "free and appropriate public education" (FAPE) to all students, including those with physical, mental, or behavioral disabilities. This special education must include a comprehensive screening and diagnosis by a multi-disciplinary team and the development of an annual Individualized Education Plan (IEP) for each student, outlining academic and behavioral goals, services to be provided, and methods of evaluation. The student's parents must consent to initial screening and must be invited to participate in all phases of the process.

In 1997, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) expanded special education services by mandating that all children with disabilitiesregardless of the type or severity of their disabilitybetween the ages of three and 21 years are entitled to FAPE in the least restrictive environment. That is, children requiring special education must by educated with nondisabled children to the maximum extent possible in an appropriate program to meet their special needs. While the majority of children with disabilities are taught at least parttime in a general classroom setting, many children are segregated, most often due to a lack of staff and resources to support special needs students in general classrooms. This stipulation that special-needs children be educated in the least restrictive environment led to the practice of mainstreaming, which is the policy of placing special education students in regular classrooms as much as possible and using separate resource rooms where the students receive special tutoring, review, and instruction.

Although gifted and talented students are not usually considered candidates for special education and there is no federal mandate to support these students, exceptionally gifted children may also be entitled to receive special education services. Gifted children who are not identified and continue to be taught in a general classroom may develop behavioral issues due to boredom. Specially designed gifted education programs are available in many school districts. In addition, bilingual children may require special education services. Children whose native language is not English may not receive appropriate education due to their language barrier. Bilingual language support services should be provided.


Special education can include a range of support services, depending on the special needs of the student. Support services may involve physical assistance and therapy, counseling and psychotherapy, modified learning environments and assistive learning devices, educational and psychological assessments, and behavioral modification techniques.

According to U.S. Department of Education statistics, approximately 600,000 children aged three to five years were served by special education services in 2001. In preschool children, the most prevalent disability was speech or language impairment. Approximately 5.8 million students aged six to 21 years were served by special education services in 2001. Common disabilities include specific learning disabilities (e.g., dyslexia), speech or language impairment, mental retardation , and emotional disturbance.

In order to qualify for special education a child must be diagnosed as having a disability and the disability must be found to "adversely affect educational performance" so as to require special services. Referral and evaluation for special education varies widely. For children with severe disabilities, a physician and the parents usually identify and refer the child to special education. Other disabilities or deficits in the child's developing physical and cognitive abilities may be identified by teacher and parent observation or revealed by academic or developmental tests. Most school districts have standardized programs to screen large numbers of children between kindergarten and third grade. Other disabilities may be subtle or compensated for, such as dyslexia, and may not be discovered until demands on the student increase in college. After referral, a meeting is held to determine whether the child should be assessed or evaluated to determine the type of disability he or she may have. Tests attempt to identify the cognitive (academic), social, or physical tasks that the child has difficulty performing and why the difficulty exists, i.e., what disability or disabilities are present. Tests may include: reading, writing, spelling, and math tests; psychological or intelligence tests; speech and language; vision and hearing tests; or an examination by a physician. Parents must consent to all testing, evaluation, and placement and can appeal most decisions if they disagree with the conclusions.

After disabilities and special needs are identified, an IEP is developed by school staff with input from the parents. The IEP development team is interdisciplinary and usually includes the special education teacher, another regular academic teacher, the parents, a school administrator, a school psychologist, and other school staff (e.g., nurse, coach, counselor). The IEP should be comprehensive and include the following:

  • current performance measures based on multiple tests and assessment methods
  • educational goals and objectives that define how problems will be addressed in the short and long term
  • definition of how the child's progress will be measured on an ongoing basis
  • disciplinary methods (especially for children with emotional and behavioral issues)
  • an individualized healthcare plan (IHP) for students also requiring special medical attention or medications

IEPs vary widely in length and complexity according to the type of disability. More effective IEPs specifically outline the child's needs; are mutually agreed upon by parents, teachers, and counselors; support activities that are typical of other students in the same age-group; promote school and community membership, and clearly facilitate the student's long-range life goals. Often IEPs do not specifically address how progress is to be measured. An effective IEP clearly defines the types of tests and assessments that are to be given to measure the child's progress. Although subjective assessment by teachers can provide valuable insight, objective tests that specifically measure academic and other skills must be included in the IEP.

After the IEP is developed, the student is placed in the appropriate educational setting. Certified special education teachers deliver programs in separate classrooms using modified educational curricula and specially designed assistive education techniques. Children with physical disabilities are provided with any assistive learning technology or equipment they need to complete educational requirements. Examples of such technology include special computers for speech/hearing/language assistance, modified desks, and writing support devices. Specially trained support staff assist students mainstreamed in general classrooms. When the public school cannot provide the appropriate environment and resources to meet the educational needs of the student, it is obligated to find and pay for an alternative educational setting, such as a day program in a mental/behavioral health facility, home schooling with appropriate medical/mental health support, an alternative school dedicated to serving disabled children, or a private school with special education support services.

Parental concerns

Children with disabilities and their parents have certain legal rights, most importantly, the right to challenge any recommendation made by a school and its staff. Parents who disagree with the school's educational program can hire legal representation, request formal and informal hearings (due process), and obtain additional evaluation from an independent consultant.

Children with emotional disturbances and related behavioral disorders have historically been unrecognized as being eligible for special education services. However, emotional problems can in fact act as a barrier to education. For children with emotional disturbances to qualify for special education, evidence from psychological testing and observation (by teachers or therapists) must demonstrate that the emotional issues significantly affect educational performance. Most public schools do not have the staff and resources to handle children with emotional disturbances, in addition to other children with disabilities. Many alternative schools exist for children with emotional disturbances and behavioral disorders who have average and above-average academic abilities. If the public school cannot adequately provide FAPE for such students, parents can seek legal representation to obtain funding from the public school for their child to attend an appropriate alternative school. Students with emotional disturbances and behavioral disorders should have mental health support services integrated with their IEP.

According to parents, 14 percent of students with disabilities in elementary and middle school had been expelled or suspended at some point in their school careers. And special needs children have a high drop-out rateapproximately 25 percent drop out of school and another 20 percent leave for other reasons. Emotionally disturbed students have the highest drop-out rate (35%), according to Department of Education statistics, while deaf-blind students have the lowest rate (4%). Graduation and employment rates for students with disabilities rose through the two decades that followed the passage of EHCA and IDEA and other disability legislation such as the Americans with Disabilities Act. Depending on the disability, as many as 45 to 70 percent of disabled adults may remain unemployed. However, some special needs students are quite successful. Students with learning disabilities and speech disorders have the lowest rates of unemployment, usually because they have participated in vocational education programs with a comprehensive vocational assessment, including assessment of independent living skills.


Alternative school An educational setting designed to accommodate educational, behavioral, and/or medical needs of children and adolescents that cannot be adequately addressed in a traditional school environment.

Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) A condition in which a person (usually a child) has an unusually high activity level and a short attention span. People with the disorder may act impulsively and may have learning and behavioral problems.

Dyslexia A type of reading disorder often characterized by reversal of letters or words.

Individualized educational plan (IEP) A detailed description of the educational goals, assessment methods, behavioral management plan, and educational performance of a student requiring special education services.



Gargiulo, Richard M. Special Education in Contemporary Society. Florence, KY: Wadsworth Publishing, 2005.

Kaufman, James, et al. Exceptional Learners: Introduction to Special Education. New York: Allyn & Bacon, 2005.

Kunjufu, Jawanza. Keeping Black Boys Out of Special Education. Chicago, IL: African American Images, 2005.

Wright, Peter W., and Pamela Darr Wright. From Emotions to Advocacy: The Special Education Survival Guide. Hartfield, VA: Harbor House Law Press, 2002.


Dalton, M. A. "Education Rights and the Special Needs Child." Child and Adolescent Psychiatric Clinicals of North America 11 (2002): 85968.

Heller, K. W., and J. Tumlin. "Using expanded individualized health care plans to assist teachers of students with complex health care needs." Journal of School Nursing 20 (June 2004): 15060.

Weist, Mark D., and Kathleen E. Albus. "Expanded School Mental Health." Behavior Modification 28 (July 2004): 46371.


Council for Exceptional Children. 1110 North Glebe Road, Suite 300, Arlington, VA 22201. Web site: <www.cec.sped.org/>.

MAX Foundation. PO Box 22, Rockville Center, New York, NY 11571. Web site: <http://maxfoundation.org/>.


Internet Special Education Resources. Available online at <www.iser.com/index.shtml> (accessed November 4,2004).

Special Education Resources on the Internet (SERI). Available online at <www.seriweb.com/> (accessed November 4,2004).

Wright, Peter W., and Pamela Darr Wright. "Your Child's IEP: Practical and Legal Guidance for Parents." Wrightslaw. Available online at <www.wrightslaw.com/advoc/articles/iep_guidance.html> (accessed November 4,2004).

Jennifer E. Sisk, M.A.

Special Education

views updated Jun 11 2018

Special Education

In the twenty-first century, schooling for children with disabilities is a public responsibility. In the United States, the Education of All Handicapped Children Act of 1975, reauthorized as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) of 1990, mandated a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) for all children and youth, ages three to twenty-one, with disabilities. The law mandates that no child can be excluded from schooling because of a physical, mental, or emotional disability, no matter how severe. It also mandates individualized educational and related services based on an Individual Education Program (IEP) and implemented in the Least Restrictive Environment (LRE), the setting providing maximum appropriate opportunity to learn together with peers who do not have disabilities. IDEA thus constituted the legal basis for the inclusion movement.

This dramatic public policy development culminated historic trends beginning with the establishment of residential schools in the nineteenth century, largely supplanted in the United States and Europe in the twentieth century by day classes that permitted children to live at home with their families. No longer a philanthropic enterprise, specialized schooling in the United States had come to be recognized as a responsibility of the common schools. The history of children with disabilities is often described as steadily increasing educational integration leading, in adulthood, to societal integration and independence. Given this general historical trend, however, each form of disability has a unique and complex history.

Deafness, the oldest special educational challenge, was the first to be addressed through formal schooling. Modeled after Paris's famed National Institute for the Deaf, the Connecticut Asylum for the Education of Deaf and Dumb Persons (later renamed the American School for the Deaf) opened in Hartford on April 15, 1817. Under the leadership of Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet and Laurent Clerc, a deaf teacher Gallaudet had recruited from the Paris School, the school featured academic instruction, as well as training useful in a trade, incorporating an Americanized version of the French system of manual signing. In time, American Sign Language (ASL) would be recognized as the fully legitimate language of the Deaf communities of the United States and Canada.

A conflicting tradition arose from the centuries-old quest to teach deaf persons to speak, predicated on the belief that speech was essential, not only for integration in the majority society but for reason itself. Through the strong advocacy of (hearing) leaders, notably Alexander Graham Bell, the inventor of the telephone, an international, late-nineteenth-century movement culminated in official adoption of oralism in teaching the deaf, favoring day classes rather than residential schools. Parents, in most instances not themselves deaf, and hearing professionals considered the communication models provided in children's own homes and public schools preferable to the exclusive company of other deaf students. Beginning with Ohio in 1898, successive states mandated funding for day classes, a development facilitated by the new capability to transport students with this relatively low-incidence disability to centralized, yet community-based school sites. However, since Deaf cultural identity issues have parallels among other minorities, conflicts concerning both instructional setting and instructional mode remain unresolved.

Samuel Gridley Howe, a leading nineteenth century reformer, founded Massachusetts' famed Perkins School for the Blind in 1832, then successfully lobbied various state legislatures to establish residential schools for persons (adults, as well as children) who were blind. Yet he, together with his strong ally Horace Mann, came to oppose such "institutions," increasingly envisioning the day when blind children could attend the common schools. That new era began when in 1900 the Chicago schools formed classes for the blind, intended to foster social integration with sighted classmates. While this Chicago Plan was followed in cities in Ohio and Massachusetts, a major shift from congregate, residential schools to day classes and itinerant specialists (in Braille and orientation and mobility training) did not occur until the 1970s, with the aid of parents' advocacy efforts and a general deinstitutionalization movement.

While efforts to integrate deaf and blind children in regular schools were certainly motivated by concerns for their well-being, another force early in the twentieth century was a growing eugenics movement. Some leaders believed educational integration essential to reduce the likelihood of marriage within these communities and thus hereditary transmission of such "defects." In the case of mental retardation (and also epilepsy) eugenics-related fears, erroneously linking various social evils with the condition led to state sterilization laws and more widespread institutional confinement less for the purpose of schooling than to protect society. In the meantime, with general adoption in schools of psychometric testing, by the 1930s states and individual districts were enacting policies to exclude children believed incapable of benefiting from education.

Paralleling the newly established day classes for deaf and for blind students, by 1900 the first special classes had been formed for children who were then referred to as "backward" or "feeble-minded." They were characterized by smaller class size, emphasis on practical life skills, and an individualized approach recognizing differences in readiness, motivation, and pacing. Contributing to this trend was the increasing adoption, especially in large, urban school districts, of psychoeducational clinics, modeled after the clinic Lightner Witner had established in 1896 at the University of Pennsylvania. While school-based clinics played a major role in assessing pupils' eligibility for special class placement (or for school exclusion), Witner's individualized, diagnostic approach would later be influential in education of students with orthopedic or health impairment, social-emotional problems, and specific learning disabilities.

As special classes became more numerous, however, concerns grew that placement was often arbitrary and discriminatory, and by the 1960s, influenced by the civil rights movement, that minority students were inordinately likely to be labeled as "slow" and placed accordingly, or as "disruptive" and placed in the far less numerous classes for students with emotional or behavioral disorders. These concerns, together with growing advocacy by parents of many other children not served by special education, yet not succeeding in school and needing individually appropriate instruction led to IDEA and the era of inclusion.

See also: Education, United States; IQ.


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Meyen, Edward L., and Thomas M. Skrtic. 1995. Special Education and Student Disability: An Introduction: Traditional, Emerging, and Alternative Perspectives, 4th ed. Denver, CO: Love Publishing.

Safford, Philip L., and Elizabeth J. Safford. 1996. A History of Childhood and Disability. New York: Teachers College Press.

Safford, Philip L., and Elizabeth J. Safford. 1998. "Visions of the Special Class." Remedial and Special Education 19, no. 4: 229238.

Scheerenberger, Richard C. 1983. A History of Mental Retardation. Baltimore: Paul H. Brookes.

Turnbull, Ann P., Rud Turnbull, Marilyn Shank, and Dorothy Leal. 1995. Exceptional Lives: Special Education in Today's Schools, 2nd ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Merrill/Prentice-Hall.

Turnbull, Ann P., and H. Rutherford Turnbull. 1997. Families, Professionals, and Exceptionality: A Special Partnership, 3rd ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Merrill/Prentice-Hall.

Winzer, Margret A. 1993. The History of Special Education: From Isolation to Integration. Washington, DC: Gallaudet University Press.

Philip Lane Safford

Education, Special

views updated May 11 2018


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