Special Education Services in Schools

THEORY TO PRACTICE, ISSUE NO. 3, FALL '11
Special Education
Myths about the impact of special education abound.

Myths about the impact of special education abound. Those misperceptions are wreaking havoc in the classroom as states, faced with soaring expenses and financial disrepair, turn their full attention to special education services. Against this uncertain backdrop, five members of the Lehigh community discuss the merits of special education.

Brenna Wood
Associate Professor of Special Education, Lehigh University

The field of special education has come a long way since the 1975 passage of P.L. 94-142, the precursor of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, a law that guaranteed a free and appropriate public education for all children. Prior to the passage of P.L. 94-142, children with disabilities had little or no access to educational settings. That would change over the next three and a half decades, as many families and children benefited from quality special education programs. However, there are those who question the efficacy of special education and its cost to state and federal governments.

When looking at the research, one can find many evidence-based practices that have improved academic and behavioral outcomes for students receiving special education services. Researchers suggest the important issues when looking at the efficacy of special education programs are, first, the extent to which effective practices are being implemented correctly and, second, teachers’ access to—and translation of—evidence-based research (Cook & Schirmer, 2003).

For example, in one of my studies, my colleagues and I found that students remained on-task 91 percent of the time when teachers implemented a function-based intervention correctly. Conversely, when the intervention was implemented incorrectly, students were on-task only 9 percent of the time.

Ours is an exciting field because the traditional boundaries of special education training are being expanded. Our dual teacher certification program provides pre-service teachers with the knowledge and skills needed to differentiate instruction and effectively support a classroom of diverse learners.

Special education requires a level of extraordinary commitment, and the rewards can’t be counted in days or weeks. Perhaps that’s our biggest obstacle. It is why we must continue to illustrate the quality and impact of the work we do using strong, empirical data in ways that all interested parties can relate.

Caitlin Lyons
Lead teacher, Centennial School

Current national and local media outlets often depict special education as a burden to public schools, which already suffer in times of economic difficulties. Contributing to the notion that special education can be burdensome to school districts are reports of the high-priced costs of special programs and placements, high costs of individualized transportation and sky-high costs of litigation. Reports also suggest that schools are unable to make “adequate yearly progress” due to their special education students who also are portrayed as challenges to their teachers because of their social behavior and idiosyncratic programming needs. Rarely are the celebrations and successes of special education publicized.

Special education teachers and parents of students with special needs together learn to celebrate small successes on a daily basis. These small increments of successes might go unnoticed for typical learners, but for students with special needs, small achievements such as matching numbers, writing their name and using coping skills when frustrated are often heralded with lavish positive praise and joyous celebrations among teachers, assistants and families. These celebrations derive from the hard work of teachers and students, best teaching practices, research-based instructional strategies, data-based decision-making, positive behavioral supports and collaboration between home and school environments.

It may be easy for some to focus on the connotation of special education being a financial money pit. Yet it is critical to remember that for those students who require special education they often face an uphill battle for the remainder of their lives, and it is the public schools responsibility to provide a free and appropriate public education to meet the needs of their students, despite the costs associated with programs.

Lee Kern
Iacocca Professor of Special Education, Lehigh University

Jenna is a bright young woman who excels in her high school. But she struggles with reading and must rely on audio recordings and similar supports to acquire the course content. Corey is a first grader who has great difficulty staying in his seat and paying attention to instruction. To succeed in school, he needs frequent breaks and hands-on materials to keep him engaged. Prior to 1975, at best Jenna and Corey would have struggled through school, having been retained several times and receiving poor grades. At worst, they would eventually drop out of school or have been required to leave. 

In 1975, Congress enacted the Education for All Handicapped Children Act (Public Law 94-142), which protected the rights of children with disabilities to receive an education and mandated supports to help them succeed in school. 

So, more than 35 years after this important act was passed, how are we doing?  About one of every 13 students in public schools in the United States receives special education services. Many of these students are able to succeed or even excel in school as a result of the supports they receive. At the same time, many students with special needs still struggle to maintain passing grades and dropout rates among students with disabilities far exceed the general population. This raises the question, “What’s special about special education?” As Cook and Schirmer (2003) suggested, education is made special when techniques are developed and used for students who have disabilities, those techniques are implemented as they were originally designed, and use of the techniques is unique to special education. 

This brings us back to the question of how we are doing. I assert that we have an arsenal of special techniques to effectively address the diverse needs of students with disabilities. Our downfall is that they are not being implemented as designed. 

Special education remains essential for the success of students with special needs. In schools where teachers are well trained, sufficient resources are available to deliver unique supports, and building administrators assure their implementation, students with special needs thrive. The problems that plague special education are no different from those that plague general education. Our efforts must focus on guaranteeing that teachers are sufficiently trained, regardless of their specialty, and school environments foster learning and success. Special education can.not go away. Rather, schools must improve in all areas to assure that every student reaches his or her potential.

Alicia Wolfe
High school coordinator, Centennial School

I had a unique experience in high school where I participated in a special education classroom working with students with multiple disabilities. It was rewarding for me to see students learning life skills and forming relationships with peers. As a result, I chose to go to college to become a special educator.

Through my undergraduate and graduate course work, I learned that many people have negative attitudes toward special education. I heard classmates sharing stories about the difficulties they had advocating for their students in the general education classroom, the lack of resources they had to perform their jobs and the abundant amount of paperwork. The comments made me ask, “What makes special education special and are those characteristics perceived as burdensome?”

To me, special education is an individualized approach to teaching and learning that gives students access to the specially designed instruction they need in order to learn the general education curriculum. Those adaptations and modifications should be carefully chosen to calculate meaningful benefit. They shouldn’t be a general list for all students with disabilities. Teachers need to know their students and communicate with all of their teachers to truly understand what works best for each individual student. Teachers also need to articulate these plans in writing. They need adequate training in professional writing to efficiently complete all the required paperwork.

The better that teachers are at completing the documents, the less burdensome they will be. Overall, teachers need time, training and support from colleagues to make special education special.

Kelly Price Spradlin
Elementary school coordinator, Centennial School

With an average of over 15 per.cent of the school-age population in Pennsylvania, special education numbers continue to rise and pose multiple challenges for educators. Aside from the financial implications of the provision of supports and services needed, it is clear that resources should focus on teaching teachers more appropriate ways to serve children with special needs. Special education, defined as providing individualized education for children and adolescents with special needs, is a simple concept ... yet extremely difficult to implement. Or is it?

Special education is teaching general education curriculum to individuals that may need to learn the content in different ways. Talented teachers do this naturally by creating classrooms conducive for learning, structuring environments for success, differentiating for various needs, promoting self-growth and using data to guide instruction. Poor knowledge and skills result in a lack of quality of services, the remedy of which is proper training and a solid understanding of what children need to be successful. It is not about pouring more money to purchase more; there needs to be a better use of the monies for properly preparing individuals who provide the services. Thinking outside of the box is required. It is essential for organizations to consider restructuring, identifying priorities and appropriate resources, and making data-based decisions.

The progress that students can gain in our schools will have a direct impact on our community—better prepared, more successful graduating seniors yield better community involvement and successful adults.