How America Responds to Special Education Needs: Past, Present, and Future

How America Responds to Special Education Needs: Past, Present, and Future

David Scanlon, Ph.D., Lynch School of Education, Boston College


Leave it to American bravado for a Yank to come over to Ireland to tell educators how special education should be done. Humbled by the impressive system of Irish education and the skill and dedication of Irish educators[1], I would prefer instead to share our history of special education so you may learn from where we have been. This is surely more sensible, since it is not clear that we have it entirely right and, as an examination of our history will reveal, the special education we provide is as much a reflection of the on-going formation of our nation and the machinations of our political system as it is about knowing and enacting some ideal. Perhaps you can learn what we have managed to do that works and understand the context that helps to account for those successes.

The history of special education in America mirrors our history as a nation. It reflects our best intentions to treat all equally ("We the people" are the first three words of our Constitution, and "We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal..." is declared in our Declaration of Independence) and the reality of our historic struggle to realize the American Dream. The struggles to envision and enact our special education system account for the resulting system we have today. While not perfect, we are justifiably proud of the American special education system, but, always striving for progress, we are concerned for its future.

The Origin of Special Education in America

The new United States, borne out of a revolution in 1776 against oppression and lack of representation, did not offer public schooling for all. Schools were reserved for those who could afford them. The first American schools to serve those with disabilities were established in the 1800s, and they too were private but sometimes served more of a charitable purpose than an educational one. Many were aptly named 'asylums'. Even when compulsory education for the nation's schoolchildren was enacted in 1852, children with disabilities were welcomed to stay at home, as were children of other disenfranchised groups including children of colour, those from poor homes, newer immigrants, rural dwellers, members of certain religious faiths, and females. Indeed, much of American progress in education happened without consideration for children with disabilities or others who were traditionally excluded. In 1919 a famous Wisconsin court decision stated it plainly when the judge decreed that the schools did not have to educate a child with cerebral palsy because he had a "depressing and nauseating effect" on others and took "an undue portion" of the teacher's time. "We the people" and "all men are created equal" were not being fully realized in American education.

The pivotal event that set the path for nationwide public special education was the 1954 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Brown et al. v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas. In that court case, the young lawyer Thrugood Marshall (who went on to become the High Court's first African American justice) argued that the effect of segregated education on little Linda Brown, a black third grader, was to send a clear message to Linda and her peers of all races, that she was not worth as much, and simply was not as good as majority population children. The Supreme Court was swayed by Marshall's argument and famously worded their decision to declare, "seperate educational facilities are inherently unequal."[2] The Brown decision is commonly cited as the legal precedent for the modern civil rights era in the United States.

The story of American special education includes its past that led up to its present practice, an explanation of how and why we provide special education today, and consideration of what we might expect to be the future for special education. As is reflected in the Brown foundation for special education, much of what we do reflects American ideals, but is rooted in litigation and legislation.

American Special Education - The Past: Be Careful What You Wish For

To claim how things should be and to fight for that is relatively easy. It is a bit more difficult to realize those best of intentions. That is certainly the case for American special education. After a multi-year struggle to prepare a Bill, the Congress finally agreed upon an immense education Act known as "The Education For All Handicapped Children Act" (EHA), that would be passed into law by President Ford in 1975.

That Education Act declared for the first time that there would be comprehensive nationwide public special education. Like the American Declaration of Independence, it was a bold and progressive Act, it spoke of education inclusion and equity in education for all with disabilities. Easier said than done we learned. Speaking of the expenditures tied to the Bill, President Ford prophetically wondered aloud at the signing if we were promising more than we could deliver.

The law was desperately needed. In the year it was passed, the Congress recognized that approximately eight million American children were being denied an appropriate education solely due to their disability, and of those children, one million were receiving no education at all. The public set a new single day record for the number of communications to a President, urging him to sign the Bill (which he had threatened to veto). The hallmark of the law then, and still today, was its six ambitious provisions intended to right such wrongs. Under the Education for All Handicapped Children Act (renamed the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act in 1990) children with disabilities are entitled to:

  • Non-discriminatory identification and evaluation
  • Zero reject (meaning none can be denied special education due to hardship in providing that education or the pedagogic difficulty of the task)
  • Free and Appropriate Public Education, which the high court clarified in its first case testing the new law (Board of Education of the Hendrik Hudson Central School District v. Rowley) means, in part, that a child must benefit from her or his special education
  • The Least Restrictive Environment as the place where the special education is provided (meaning the physical location feasibly closest to the classroom in which the child might be placed were there no disability, including that very classroom to the extent possible)
  • Due process rights for parents, including right to parental notification, consent, and confidentiality, and
  • Parent and Student participation in the individualized special education planning process.

Each of these provisions has a basis in past court rulings regarding children with disabilities. Children had been denied education because it was claimed too difficult to do or too expensive; parents found themselves with no power to challenge administrators' decisions; and, inadvertent as well as blatantly biased practices led to misidentification of special needs and differentiated services, most often due to race/ethnicity and gender (e.g., uninformed cross-group assumptions, culturally insensitive testing, unattended to language differences).

With the passage of the law now known as the IDEA, children from 13 categories of disabilities were now entitled to a special education process that encompassed the six provisions. To ensure that the provisions of the IDEA are met, a massive and complex series of regulations accompanies the law. This powerful law is a moderate sized document, yet the regulations, which spell out procedural details for everything from funding formulas to who may be a special educator to when specialized transportation must be provided to how a "special education" is developed to what the rights of a parent are in unusual circumstances could easily fill enough volumes to rival a set of encyclopaedias.

Social change does not happen by chance alone, and these regulations which have been further refined by legislation and legal challenges reflect how we have progressed from an eighteenth century view of "the handicapped" that discounted their very existence to a twenty-first century inclusive view of the worth and rights of those "with disabilities."

To document the planned provision of special services, an Individualized Education Program (IEP) is developed and an accompanying individualized education plan is written. The IEP documents what a team that includes special and general educators, school administrators, parents and the student in question (as appropriate), among other appropriate professionals deems necessary so that the child may benefit from her/his education. The IEP may be thought of as a "blueprint." All who read it can know what the plan is for the child and what must be done to fulfil that plan. It includes a statement of educational needs, brief histories of past educational experiences with an emphasis on what has and has not worked, and stated annual goals and short-term objectives. The plan also specifies unique related services the child will require in order to participate in her/his special education (e.g., Braille print, counselling services, physical access).

The IEP must be updated at least annually. It is a lengthy document, and even in non-contentious cases (which are the majority of special education cases) can be laborious to complete. Despite attempts to shorten the IEP team planning process and streamline the IEP document, paperwork burden has been a persistent problem since the inception of the special education law. Special educators find it difficult to prepare IEPs and many educators complain that the result does not adequately inform daily instruction.

What's more, the process of developing the IEP is often seen as sparking disagreements between parents and schools, which is the exact opposite of what was intended with the Parent and Student participation provision. From personal experience I know that when I talk to special education parents they often complain of educators fixated on circumnavigating the law and when I speak with educators they speak of irrational parents with aggressive advocates.

Commonly, these charges and counter charges come from schools and families trying to collaborate on the same IEP team. Perhaps the lesson is "be careful what you wish for," regulating social change such as special education and a system to ensure its integrity may replace an old set of problems (unacceptable as they were) with newer ones.

Children are entitled to special education in the public schools providing they are the right age, 3-21 (extended to birth by a special amendment to the law, and capped when the individual exits secondary education in most cases), have a qualifying disability, and need special education.

To begin the process of determining eligibility the child must be referred for evaluation. In obvious cases of disability and need the need for special education must still be established, although this is readily determinable in instances of significant impairment. When eligibility is determined, the evaluative data is used to formulate the special education plan. On an on-going basis, the child's progress in special education is used to cyclically inform the goals and objectives and the curriculum used with the child.

In the first decade of special education children were often physically segregated and removed from the general education curriculum. I can remember as a high school resource room teacher being told that I could not have access to the general educators' books and materials for use with my students, and that the IEPs from which I worked typically left me to divine my students' curriculum. Resource rooms were the common place for special education service delivery. For students who were mainstreamed, a term for those who spent a portion of the school day participating in the general education environment, the special education program was looked upon as a place for tutoring support and not as an instructional classroom with its own curriculum (goals and objectives) to be met.

Thus, despite a wide range of options for placement, the LRE was often both a physical segregation and an academic segregation. The more severe the disability, or "intensive the need" if stated somewhat more appropriately, the more justifiable such a placement was. In the case of mild/moderate disabilities, those we are most likely to "include" today, children were often removed from the classroom and curriculum for reasons of behaviour and the complexity of meeting their special needs curriculum. Disproportionately, the students identified for special education were from low-income families and those of colour; among their special education identified peers, they were also the ones more likely to placed into segregated settings. The circumstances behind the litigation that originally inspired the national special education law had found their way into special education practices, as had the social stratification causes and effects that Marshall had warned of in the Brown case. Children with disabilities have been considerably more likely to drop out of school than their non-disabled peers since the law began and continue to be so today.

A focus on basic skills (read: functional, in some cases) curricula and remediation served to further separate those in special education. As the behavioural era of instruction began to be eclipsed by holistic and social-constructivist curriculum in the 1960s and 1970s, special education remained rooted in behavioural approaches such as Direct Instruction and Curriculum-Based Assessment. Popular special education instructional practices were characterized as precision teaching or drill & practice, to reflect their emphasis on incremental skill mastery. The children tended to reach targeted skill proficiency levels but questions as to whether they attained usable skill and application levels that were maintained outside of the instructional context could not be avoided. The famous concept of the "six hour mentally retarded child," who was only retarded during the school day, illustrated to criticism of so-called medical model approaches to teaching.

The Present

Ten years into implementation of the EHA the nation took stock of how it was fulfilling its desire to appropriately educate children with disabilities. In the 1980s Ronald Reagan was president and the nation was focused on downsizing Federal government in its size, its expenditures, its regulation over states, and its system of social supports that had their genesis in the civil rights era -often criticized by Reagan (whose political image was the rugged individualist cowboy -one version of how the American dream is realized) as "social welfare" and personally disabling.

The director of the US Office of Special Education and Rehabilitation Services (within the US Department of Education), Madeline Will, herself a parent of a school-age child with a disability, published Educating Children with Learning Problems: A Shared Responsibility. In that document she claimed that special education under the EHA had become a bloated bureaucracy, created a second layer of school administration, resulted in the re-segregation of children with disabilities by placing them in separate programs in restrictive environments, and, she further criticized, took children in but seldom released them from special education services when they no longer needed them. In other words, special education was not sufficiently effective because many of its children were not being "cured" of the need for differentiated services (and, some argued, diminished outcomes). The notion of normalization had the backing of the US Department of Education.

Consistent with the Regan administration's focus on empowering individuals and reducing government control, it directed Federal social service programs to focus on preparing individuals for the world of work and self-sufficiency. The Welfare to Work Initiative directed that Federally sponsored education services, among those of various welfare programs, prison rehabilitation and adult education programs, should provide services in a time-limited capacity whenever possible and with employment as a program outcome. Thus, special education policy was a component of a larger social-political agenda.

At the same time the Federal Administration was redirecting the focus of special education, which incidentally it found to be problematically expensive, there were social theory and pedagogic pressures to re-imagine special education as well. While Director Will's motivations have always been considered by some of her dissenters as disingenuous excuse making to mask an agenda of cutting funds for social services, they were also consistent with progressive calls for true inclusion of students with disabilities.

The Disability Rights Movement in the US never achieved the broad social acknowledgment and support of rights movements such as women's rights, race/ethnicity-based rights, and, most recently, gay rights, but schooling was one arena where the topic was generally well known. Progressive special educators decried the segregation of which Will wrote. Thus, two forces with decidedly different inspirations were united.

The EHA was clarified to extend to school social activities and non-academic functions such as the cafeteria, clubs and transportation, in the spirit of true inclusion. It also "encouraged" normalization in goals, instruction, and settings.

Reasoned questions were asked such as how could non-disabled peers come to know and respect their peers with disabilities if they inhabited the same school building but only saw each other at a distance down the hallway? (recall the Brown decision). Furthermore, it was asserted, children with disabilities could participate in general education more often than they were allowed to in many cases, and they could make meaningful contributions in the classroom. In the case of some special education students, particularly those with mild disabilities receiving remediation in basic academic skills and those with behaviour disorders, how they could learn constructively from others if their own classmates shared similar "abnormal" skills was questioned.

Thus, two major foci of special education become inclusion and transition. Despite considerable opposition from within the special education profession, inclusion, known initially as "the REI movement" (for Will's Regular Education Initiative) became an assumed special education standard. Successive reauthorizations of the EHA came closer and closer to mandating inclusion particularly for those with mild disabilities. The LRE had increasingly become synonymous with the general education classroom, as opposed to that simply being the standard by which placement was judged.

Transition planning was the response to concerns that children never get back out of special education and that special education was not being accountable for meaningful outcomes such as employment and self-sufficiency. Thus, the law mandated that by age 14 transition planning begin and that by age 16 a transition plan be enacted, for all students in special education for whom transition out of school was considered a concern by their IEP team. An ITP (Individualized Transition Program) became a part of special education for some.

Transition planning and services were also available to those in special education at other ages for whom a service or placement change was considered risky. This included those who might exit special education to re/enter general education; the notion being that special education should be a temporary support service whenever possible, and that re-entry to special education was to be prevented.

In 1990 the Congress once again reauthorized the EHA, only this time to signal that it had so many new features (from funding formulae to service delivery requirements such as inclusion and transition) it was given the new name "the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act" or IDEA. It took the nation almost 200 years to enact special education, it was taking a bit longer to refine our vision and realize it.

By this time, American special educators were increasingly moving away from skills-based instructional approaches popular since the 1950s and 60s, such as Direct Instruction, to more holistic instruction considered to be better aligned with social constructivists theories of learning and pedagogy. Special education seemed to be the last branch of education to make this shift.

The Future

Over time, special educators have come to accept the inclusion movement, if not to embrace it in some quarters -most often in the case of those with mild/moderate impairments. Interestingly, general educators have become the party more resistant to it. Many general educators question how they can be held accountable for students with disabilities "on top of" their regular class loads. They are told that the answer is to differentiate instruction. To that end, in the most recent reauthorizations of the IDEA a portion of earmarked special education funds have been moved over to general education, ostensibly to support general educators in learning effective practices for all.

Now, for students with disabilities, instructional accommodations and related services are routinely specified on their IEPs, and teams must provide written justification for any LRE other than the general education environment.

We didn't get it right at the start. Arguably, it was right for then, and undeniably it was a start. (Like many nations, that is the same logic by which we sanction the injustices in our past.) Moved by larger economic and social forces as well as by progressions in educational and social theory, and by lessons learned from where we started, special education has evolved. The six provisions are still with us. Some of the early problems of representation are still with us, as are most of the problems Will outlined (adults with disabilities in the US remain significantly under employed, for example).

The barriers to effective inclusion and outcomes are also pedagogic. Fortunately, we do know of some things that work. In the 1990s, the US Department of Education's Office of Special Education and Rehabilitation Services spearheaded a massive initiative to scientifically document what practices work in special education.

Thus, we rely on progressive outgrowths of the directive instructional approaches popular up through the 1960s. We also rely heavily on strategic teaching and learning. That is, we focus not just on basic skills (which for some with disabilities are painfully slowly learned) but also on the grade level appropriate content (despite whether the student's skill level might indicate she/he is "ready" for it) and the cognitive processes of learning.

I know from my own limited contributions to research on strategic teaching and learning that students with disabilities and their inclusion peers (we still need to learn that its not really inclusion if only one of the two populations is considered as "included") benefit from simultaneous instruction in content and the processes of learning that content.

Historically, we had great successes teaching strategies to students with disabilities, but tremendous difficulty in getting them to generalize those skills to daily practice. The late Candace Bos envisioned the teacher transitioning from instructor to coach to facilitator as the student gained control over her/his own learning processes. Integrated strategies instruction may prove to be a feasible response to this pedagogic dilemma.

Flexible and differentiated instruction are the hallmarks of good teaching now. The special educator is more likely to consult or collaborate with the general classroom teacher than to pull students out. The question has shifted from how we prepare the child in special education for "regular" education to how we modify the regular education environment to make it individually more appropriate for all learners. Would Linda Brown have been better off in fourth grade if her public schools were suddenly declared "colour blind"? Probably not, not in a place where the rest of society was still not (notions such as "colour blindness" may be a fallacy, but respect and responsiveness were not in practice either).

If special education goes away will all educational disabilities be effectively "cured"? Of course not. Segregation was not a good thing; we the people learned that lesson. Normalization is now being tested. Will treating those with different educational needs as equal and to the same standards further reduce the barriers between those with and without disabilities? Will the confluence of factors that are propelling us forward contribute to fulfil the educational "rights" of children with disabilities? "We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" (Declaration of Independence of the United States of America). The future may soon yield answers as to how equal all school children are.

[1] I am particularly indebted to Mary Meaney and the staff of the National Disability Authority who invited me to this conference and who impressed me even before I travelled over the Atlantic with their wisdom, skill, and dedication on behalf of students with special needs.

[2] The significance of the wording of the Brown decision is in its purposeful restatement of an 1896 Supreme Court decision that declared no harm is done in segregating the races and that, in fact, "separate is equal. "This was the high court’s response to 30 year old shoemaker Homer Plessy who argued that as a Black American he should not be required to ride in a separate first class train car.