According to the National Education Association, student enrollment in special education services has increased 30 percent over the last decade. Of the students who receive special education services, 75 percent receive all or a portion of their education in general education classrooms, affecting how instruction and services are delivered to all students in the public education system.
It is difficult to imagine that 60 years ago, students with disabilities were fighting just to be able to have an education, while today’s schools support an inclusive model. The landscape of special education has shifted dramatically in public schools and certainly for the better. But what special education is? How it has changed in public schools over the years? And what it looks like today?
What is Special Education?
If students have disabilities that affect their abilities to learn, they receive specialized support and instruction. This is special education. According to the U.S. Department of Education, students who receive special education services have disabilities that fall within 13 different categories: learning disabilities, speech or language impairments, intellectual disabilities, emotional disturbances, multiple disabilities, hearing impairments, orthopedic impairments, other health impairments, visual impairments, autism, deaf-blindness, traumatic brain injuries and developmental delays. Once a student is considered eligible for services by the Committee for Special Education (CSE), he or she is given an Individualized Education Program (IEP) that describes the specific supports he or she will receive at school to optimize learning. The IEP is a legal document that is reviewed at least once a year. The IEP also describes the educational settings in which the student will learn. Some examples of educational settings for students with disabilities are full inclusion within the regular classroom (special education services are brought to the student), partial inclusion with some academics in a resource-room setting, a self-contained classroom and a residential school for students with significant disabilities.
Special Education’s Evolution
There was once a time when many children with disabilities were sent to live in institutions, often in unstable environments without any education. Wrightslaw explains that the case of Brown v. Board of Education was a game changer in 1954. While the case focused on the rights of African American students, the civil rights movement helped stimulate families and individuals with disabilities to demand the right to a free public education. In 1975, the Education for All Handicapped Children Act made this hope a reality, mandating a free appropriate education for all. Despite this major benchmark, it took decades for students with disabilities to be welcomed into regular classrooms. The norm was to place all of the students with disabilities into self-contained classrooms until 1997, when the Individuals with Disabilities Act pushed for more inclusive practices.
Today, special education takes an individualized approach to a student’s education. A “one size fits all” approach has never been effective in education, hence the need for an IEP. Many special education teachers oversee a group of students, like a case manager, and may teach in a resource room, as a co-teacher in a general classroom, as a consultant teacher. Since students should be taught in the “Least Restrictive Environment,” many students with disabilities are educated right alongside their “typical” peers, with special modifications or accommodations in place to help them meet grade-level standards.
Sarah Fudin currently works in community relations for the University of Southern California’s online Masters in Education program, which provides current and aspiring teachers to earn a Special Education Certification. Outside of work Sarah enjoys running, reading and Pinkberry frozen yogurt.