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Special Education

Screening and evaluation, Over- and under-referral, Race, mainstreaming Location of services and inclusion

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.

mainstreaming Location of services 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) 620–3660.

Learning Disabilities Association of America. 4156 Library Road, Pittsburgh, PA 15234, (412) 341–1515.

Additional topics

Psychology EncyclopediaPsychological Dictionary: Perception: early Greek theories to Zombie