Special Education Research Paper

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Special education is intended for students who are exceptional—significantly different from the average. The difference may be either desirable or undesirable. Just how different from average and in what ways a student must be different to merit special education are perpetual controversies. Furthermore, a difference alone does not entitle a student to special education under current law: the difference must interfere to a significant extent with his or her education. Just what constitutes significant interference with education is a matter of judgment and therefore another perpetual issue. In spite of controversies, special education is now an integral part of public education about which every teacher should know (Kauffman & Hallahan, 2005; Huefner, 2006).

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Most students receiving special education have disabilities. They are far below average in one or more of the following abilities, with related special education categories included in italics: thinking (cognition; mental retardation), academic learning (learning not consistent with intellectual ability; specific learning disability), recognizing and controlling emotions or behavior (emotional disturbance), using speech in communication (communication disorder), hearing (deafness or impaired hearing), seeing (blindness or impaired vision), moving or maintaining physical well-being (physical disability or other health impairment). Special education categories also include autism (or autism spectrum disorders), traumatic brain injury, and severe or multiple disabilities (e.g., deaf-blindness). These students have been or can be predicted to be unsuccessful in the general education curriculum with instruction by a regular classroom teacher (Kauffman & Hallahan, 2005).

Special education is also appropriate for students whose abilities are significantly above average—those with special gifts or talents. Gifted education receives comparatively little attention and has not been mandated by federal law as of 2007. It has been left to state and local education authorities (Hallahan, Kauffman, & Pullen, 2009).

A variety of words may be used to describe exceptionality, including emotional or behavioral disorder (rather than emotional disturbance), autism or Asperger syndrome (instead of autism spectrum disorder), challenge (rather than disorder or disability), or a more general term, such as developmental disability. The variety and change in labels makes special education difficult to study, but the key points are that students with disabilities have problems that significantly impede their school progress and gifted/ talented students learn extraordinarily fast.

History of Special Education

Special education was offered in mid-19th-century institutions for blind, deaf, and mentally retarded persons. By about the mid-20th century, special education for blind, deaf, physically disabled, mentally retarded, emotionally disturbed, communication-impaired, and gifted students was common in American public schools. Most special education in that era was provided in special classes and special schools.

In the later decades of the 20th century, special education categories of specific learning disability, autism, and traumatic brain injury were added. Other disabling conditions, such as attention deficit disorder (ADD, later called attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD) were recognized in the 20th century but were not then accorded a specific category in special education law. Beginning in the 1970s, special education was mandated by federal law for all students with disabilities in the legally recognized categories. Those with problems not having a particular category (e.g., ADHD) were covered under the law only if they could be included under an existing category (e.g., specific learning disability or other health impairment in the case of ADHD; Hallahan et al., 2009).

Professional and Parent Organizations

Organizations of professionals and parents have played a major role in the development of special education. In the 1920s, the Council for Exceptional Children (CEC) was founded. It is an international organization, primarily composed of educators dedicated to advocacy of special education for disabled and gifted students. Most other professional organizations with concern for students with specific exceptionalities originated in the early to mid-20th century. Other parent organizations advocating services for children with particular exceptionalities, such as The Arc (originally the Association for Retarded Children), also date from the 20th century. Many advances in treatment and law would not have occurred at all or would have been delayed for a much longer time without the advocacy of parents (Hallahan et al., 2009).

Federal Special Education Law

Until 1975, special education for students with disabilities was left to state or local law. In 1975, the federal law now known as IDEA (in its 2004 version, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act, IDEIA) mandated special education for all students judged to have disabilities. The law has been renamed and revised several times since 1975, with the most recent revision as of this writing being in 2004 and sometimes referred to as IDEA 2004 (Huefner, 2006; Yell, 2005).

The federal law was enacted primarily in response to the demands of parents of children with disabilities that the needs of their children be addressed by public education. IDEA requires not only appropriate education for all students with disabilities but related and supplementary services as well. Major provisions of the law from its inception until its 2004 version include a free appropriate public education (FAPE) in the least restrictive environment (LRE) chosen for each individual from a continuum of alternative placements (CAP) and delivered according to an Individualized Education Program (IEP). Related and supplementary services allow the student to receive FAPE and might include transportation, physical therapy, or other help.

Not all of the requirements of IDEA are mentioned here, only the central ones. Furthermore, IDEA is not the only law addressing disabilities and special education or the only federal law governing public education.

International Scope

The historical foundations of special education can be traced to Europe in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Special education flourished in many European nations during the 20th century, and it also became a prominent part of American public schooling in the 20th century. By the late 20th century, special education had become a part of public education in all developed nations of the world. All of the major concepts and issues discussed here apply to all nations of the world in which special education is offered (Hallahan et al., 2009).

Major Concepts in Special Education

In the late 20th and early 21st centuries, approximately 1 in 10 students in U.S. public schools received special education. Before the federal law was passed, many students with disabilities received no education or were institutionalized. After federal law required schools to provide special education in 1975, the percentage of the school population receiving special education grew substantially and fewer children were sent to institutions. Understanding basic concepts about exceptionality and special education will help teachers avoid making inappropriate assumptions and referring students for special education who do not need it (Kauffman & Hallahan, 2005).

Inability Versus Disability

An inability is not always a disability, but a disability is always an inability. Inability simply means that a person cannot do something, but the reason may be due to a disability, age, or a lack of receiving effective instruction. A disability means that a person cannot do something that most people of the same age receiving similar instruction can do. Before identifying a student as having a disability, it is critically important to make sure that he or she has had sufficient opportunities to learn.

Disability Versus Handicap

A disability is something a person cannot do, although the circumstances (e.g., age, instruction, environment) would lead you to expect that the person should be able to do it. A handicap is a circumstance imposed on a person so that they cannot do what they could if the conditions are changed or the environment is altered. For example, lack of a ramp imposes a handicap on a person who uses a wheel chair. The person may have a disability in walking or climbing stairs but have a handicap when it comes to entering a building or classroom that has no access other than stairs. Appropriate adaptations remove a handicap for a person who can use a computer but cannot use it in the standard way because of a disability (e.g., cannot type using his or her fingers because of physical impairment). For these reasons, appropriate modifications and adaptations are mandated in school facilities, equipment, and programs.

High- and Low-Incidence, Mild and severe, and multiple Disabilities

Some disabilities occur more often than others. Disabilities that occur relatively frequently—high-incidence categories—include communication disorders, specific learning disability (SLD), mental retardation (MR), and emotional disturbance (ED).

Most disabilities are mild; relatively few are severe. Communication disorders, SLD, MR, or ED can be severe even though they are high-incidence disabilities. Significant impairment of hearing or vision is comparatively uncommon, so both are considered low-incidence disabilities. Total deafness or blindness is severe and low-incidence as well.

Disabilities may also occur in combination. For example, a student may have both mental retardation and emotional disturbance; brain injury and communication disorders in combination with emotional disturbance; physical disability, impaired vision, mental retardation, and communication disorders. Combinations of disabilities—multiple disabilities—make an individual’s problems more difficult to address and may make the person’s disability severe even though the separate disabilities are relatively mild. Deaf-blindness, which is by definition a multiple and severe disability, is extremely low-incidence. Some disabilities (brain injury and autism spectrum disorders, for example) are nearly always multiple (Stichter, Conroy, & Kauffman, 2008).

Nature and Degree of Difference

Both disabilities and giftedness are differences of degree in particular abilities. Exceptionalities are differences in abilities valued by a society. Differences in color of skin, hair, or eyes, for example, do not matter much to most people, although differences in ability to move, talk, read, and reason do matter a lot in our society for purposes of defining disability or giftedness. Not every difference from the typical defines a disability in our society—only differences judged to be significant do. Ability to reason, for example, may be considered a disability only if it is far below that of typical individuals the same age or a gift only if it is far above those the same age. Disabilities and gifted-ness are just matters of judgment that (a) the difference in question matters for purposes of defining exceptionality in education and (b) the difference is extreme enough to meet a stated criterion.

Disabilities and Abilities

A major concept in special education is that a person’s disability does not preclude finding that the person has important abilities. For example, a child may have a severe physical disability but have average or even superior cognitive ability. Assuming that an individual who cannot move very much or very skillfully cannot think well is a mistake that special education is designed to avoid. Moreover, it is now well understood that some individuals are twice exceptional—that is, they have extraordinary gifts or talents combined with a disability, perhaps even severe and multiple disabilities. Special education is intended to focus on making the maximum use of the abilities a student has regardless of any disabilities that he or she might have.

Major Controversies in Special Education

Special education is characterized by controversies generated by three realities: (1) special education now accounts for a substantial proportion of the school population and an even greater proportion of the education budget, (2) American society has been sensitized to abuse and neglect of people who have disabilities, and (3) American society is ambivalent about education for its gifted students. These critical realities must be considered in addressing any of the controversies discussed here; otherwise, any proposed solution will fail eventually, if not immediately. Both the monetary and the social costs and benefits of special education must be considered to garner public support (Hallahan et al., 2009; Kauffman & Hallahan, 2005).


The language of special education can be very confusing. Not only is it characterized by many acronyms (e.g., LRE for least restrictive environment; SLD for specific learning disability; CEC for Council for Exceptional Children), but it often includes labels that are indistinguishable in practice (e.g., emotional disturbance, emotional and behavioral disorders, behavior disorders, behavioral challenges, and so on).

Specific labels generate a lot of controversy, in part because they are sometimes used inappropriately or abusively, as epithets rather than as helpful descriptors. Certain terminology is denounced by nearly everyone as both outmoded and derogatory (e.g., idiot, moron, imbecile, which were 19th-century terms used to designate various degrees of mental retardation). Other terms, such as mental retardation, are now said by some, but not most, people to be regressive and derogatory. The organization first known as the American Association on Mental Deficiency (AAMD) later changed its name to the American Association on Mental Retardation (AAMR) and then to the American Association on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities (AAIDD). In general, attempts have been made to change words (labels) to signify the same phenomenon with terms considered less offensive. Thus, disabilities and disorders are sometimes called challenges under the assumption that challenge is a less stigmatizing term.

In essence, some argue that labels with negative connotations should be studiously avoided because they are stigmatizing. Others counter that the problem of stigma is not found in the word itself but in how people interpret the term (e.g., that mental retardation is stigmatizing only because of how people view what we call mental retardation, not because of the term itself). Changing the term, they argue, confuses people temporarily but does nothing to resolve the problem of stigma because people soon attach the same meanings to the new term as to the old one. Using a euphemism (a supposedly more pleasant term) to refer to undesirable characteristics fools people for a short time and results in a backlash of ridicule when people figure out what the euphemism refers to.

One controversy regarding language is whether we should use what is called person-first language. Advocates of person-first language consider it inappropriate to refer to an emotionally disturbed child; rather, they contend, one should use the construction child with emotional disturbance. The idea is that individuals are not their disabilities. Hence, it is wrong to refer to a physically disabled young man because the inference could be drawn that the disability defines the young man or sums up his existence. Young man with a physical disability is ostensibly better language because it signifies the young man first and indicates that he has a disability, not that he is a disability or that his disability defines him. Others argue that person-first language is not only cumbersome but calls special attention to a person’s disability by its unusual construction. For example, we consider it perfectly acceptable to refer to a car salesman and do not urge people to use the construction man who sells cars instead, and we may call a woman in a bank a teller or a redhead without assuming that being labeled as such leads us to assume that such designations define everything about her. Yet, the circumlocutions required by person-first language have been widely adopted.

Another argument about language is that the differences we call disabilities should not be considered undesirable. Accordingly, some do not wish to use terminology such as person with a disability but only speak of a person with differing abilities. Although some embrace this point of view, others observe that if disabilities are not recognized as such and considered undesirable there will be lots of confusion about what disabilities are and little or no motivation to address the special needs of those who have them.

Some have argued for an end to all labeling because labels are stigmatizing. Others counter with the observation that labels cannot be avoided unless we stop talking about the phenomenon to which we refer. They note that a label is only the word we use to describe something, and we cannot give up labeling it without giving up communication about whatever that thing is. Although it is true that we can change labels or stop saying words that are in common use, the alternative to common labels is to speak in code or use euphemisms.


Identification of disabilities and giftedness by test scores alone or by judgment alone (whether that of a teacher, a psychologist, a parent, or someone else) is highly suspect. Those who identify students for special education, whether due to disabilities or giftedness or both, are expected to use their judgment in addition to the results of tests and measures of the student’s performance. By law, no single test score and no one person’s judgment is to be the basis for identification. In the past, it was too easy to identify a student as needing special education, or to overlook those who needed it, without sufficient evidence. Both false identification and failure to identify exceptionality are rightly considered abusive of a student’s right to appropriate education.

Still controversial are the particular tests, performances, and judgments that should be used in identification. Also at issue, even given the particular tests, performances, or judges, is the criterion or cutoff for identification. The controversy about identification thus involves both measurement and judgment.

All measurement contains error, regardless of the test or assessment procedure. That is, no measurement is perfect. Any test or other attempt to measure performance will result in errors, both those known as false positives (false identification in this case) and false negatives (errors in which the individual should have been identified but was not). Consequently, the most accurate measurement—the measurement tool and procedure producing the fewest errors—is important so that as few individuals are falsely identified and as few are overlooked as possible. But another issue is judging which is the worse error to make—falsely identifying a child who has no disability or failing to identify a child who does. With any given procedure, false negatives will increase as false positives decrease, and vice versa; there is a reciprocal relationship between one type of error and the other. Although accuracy is important, one must weigh the consequences of the proportion of errors—mistakes in identifying students in proportion to mistakes in not identifying students.

Because of the inherent difficulties in measuring the things that are used to define disability and giftedness, some educators have proposed giving up measurement altogether. Their argument is that measurement is a useless, unreliable, biased, demeaning, and wasteful exercise. Others counter that measurement is essential for accountability and that giving up on measurement means reliance on unspecified, subjective judgments alone.

The criterion for any exceptionality is arbitrary. That is, a particular level of difference is chosen as the threshold for defining disability or giftedness, and it can be changed. Arbitrary in this context does not mean fickle, random, or detached from objective criteria, but merely chosen from among possibilities—constructed willfully, not determined by nature. Although this kind of arbitrariness characterizes many important rules and laws in our society (for example, voting or driving age, income defining poverty or a tax bracket, or the score required to pass a state test), we recognize the importance of having a criterion or cutoff.

Because defining exceptionality, regardless of how exceptionality is measured or judged, is arbitrary in the sense that the criterion can be (and in some cases has been) changed, some educators have argued for abandonment of identification. Their argument is that we should simply recognize that all students are different, and that differences are not something about which we can make good yes/no judgments regarding exceptionality. They object to sorting students into categories. Others counter that we cannot provide special education for students without identifying those who should receive it and that this requires sorting those who do have from those who do not have exceptionalities.

Perhaps the most controversial aspect of identification in IDEA 2004 is the introduction of the notion of response to intervention (RTI) as a means of identifying learning disabilities. RTI requires that the general education teacher use instructional practices and other interventions that scientific evidence supports and monitor their student’s response. If the student responds to practices that scientific evidence supports, then he or she is not identified as needing special education; only if the student does not respond is special education considered. RTI is proposed as an alternative to identification of specific learning disability by a discrepancy—the difference between a student’s performances on intelligence and achievement tests (with those showing a marked discrepancy between estimated ability and achievement being identified as having a specific learning disability). Some see RTI as the solution to improper identification; others see it as only another, and inferior, way of assessing individuals and determining whether they need special education. Those who question RTI ask how much response how quickly to what intervention is enough to avoid identification of a specific learning disability.

Identity and Self-Concept

Much has been made of the feelings of inferiority, disgust, fear, and other negative feelings attached to having a disability or to having a family member who has a disability. Ruined identity is one of the reasons for trying to find language that is easier to accept. But the designation of disability, regardless of the language used to describe it, seems always to bring disappointment, pain, and anxiety. In response to such reactions and in attempts to improve self-concept, some have taken the position that a particular difference (e.g., deafness) is not really a disability. They might argue that loss of a difference considered disabling threatens a person’s cultural identity.

Others have noted that the most radical advocacy of disability rights seems contrary to the notion that disability does not define identity. A person can be proud of his or her identity without attaching positive value to all of his or her characteristics. People need affiliation some of the time with others who share their particular interests, problems, or characteristics, and people with exceptionalities are not exempted. Such affiliation is not always based on positive characteristics (consider Alcoholics Anonymous, for example). Furthermore, disabilities are, by definition, characteristics that most people in our society see as disadvantages that should be removed if possible. Finally, the counterargument goes, the disadvantages we call disabilities are not matters that can be humanely redefined as characteristics that do not matter or do not cause disadvantage. True, disappointment, pain, and anxiety accompany the designation of disability, but the same is true of physical illness or addiction. The most humane response to any exceptionality is not denial or redefinition but recognition, acceptance, and effective treatment.


Perhaps the most contentious issue in special education of the late 20th and early 21st centuries is place—in which schools and classrooms exceptional students should be taught. Using acronyms common in special education, IDEA calls for FAPE in the LRE chosen from a CAP— federal law requires free appropriate public education in the least restrictive environment chosen from a continuum of alternative placements. But the federal law is open to interpretation, and therein lies the controversy. Some, who advocate full inclusion (education of exceptional students in regular schools and classes only), deem education appropriate only if it is delivered in the regular classroom and consider the regular classroom least restrictive in all cases (or the LRE idea as outmoded). They also replace the requirement of a continuum of alternative placements with the idea of a continuum of alternative services (meaning that widely differing, alternative services can all be delivered in the regular classroom). Full inclusion is sometimes tempered to mean that inclusion in the regular classroom to the greatest extent possible is the most important goal— more important than effective instruction. That is, full inclusion, even in its tempered version, suggests that the place of instruction is more important than the effectiveness of instruction or that instruction is most effective only if it is delivered in a regular classroom.

Those who question inclusion (whether full or not) as the priority of special education point out that IDEA requires the following: (a) placement decisions made on an individual basis, not a policy of automatic inclusion or exclusion of all students with disabilities; (b) placement decisions made after, not before, determination of instructional needs; (c) greater concern for instruction than for location; and (d) not only a continuum of services but a full continuum of placement options including hospital or homebound instruction, residential education, special day schools, self-contained classes, resource rooms, and instruction in regular classrooms with special assistance as needed. IDEA prohibits placing a student in a group based solely on his or her categorical label, placement decisions made before determination of instructional need, elimination of placement options, and placement made because it is already available in a school district.

The inclusion controversy continues in special education because the place and the nature of instruction involve conflicting notions of discrimination, rights, and fairness, as well as conflicting criteria for success and interpretations of law. The controversy will not be resolved without agreement about achieving the goals of equal rights and fairness for students with exceptionalities. (Crockett & Kauffman, 1999).


Some categories of special education contain proportions of students whose gender or ethnic identities are markedly discrepant from their proportion in the general school-age population. The most controversial disproportionalities involve the overrepresentation of African American students in special education for those with emotional disturbance and mental retardation and their underrepresentation in special education for the gifted. Some suggest that African American students are more often identified as having certain disabilities and less often identified as gifted because of racial bias or prejudice.

Others observe that African American children more often experience disadvantages and deprivations that may account for these disproportionalities. Research evidence to support unequivocally either explanation of the disproportionalities is lacking. Nevertheless, sound arguments have been made that social justice in American life requires that the inequities in education and disproportionalities in special education be addressed effectively and without delay. Clearly, this is one controversy involving the possible abuse and neglect of students by education, whether general or special, and by other agencies as well.

Still another issue involving special education is perception of the negative aspects of identification as having a disability and the benefits to those who receive special education because their disability is recognized. Those who decry the disproportional identification of African American students for special education for students with disabilities emphasize the spoiled sense of self that accompanies such identification and downplay the benefits of special education. Those who see disproportional identification in less negative terms tend to emphasize the benefits of receiving special education.

Relationship to General Education

The relationship between general and special education is a long-standing controversy. The proper role of each in relation to the other has been hotly debated, and attempts to improve the education of all children, such as the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), have added to the contentiousness. The issue is complicated by the placement of some students in regular classrooms for some subjects under IDEA.

In the past, students receiving special education because they had disabilities often did not take state-mandated tests, so their progress could not be compared to that of other students. Under IDEA and NCLB, most students with disabilities now must take the same tests as their non-disabled peers. Proponents of this requirement argue that most students with disabilities should be expected to pass the same tests as nondisabled students—in fact, that they can and will pass the same tests if they are given appropriate instruction. Those who question this expectation point out that it is unreasonable and unfair, and that although students with disabilities should be expected to achieve all they can, the average for those with disabilities will always be lower than the average for those without disabilities, even if both groups receive the best possible instruction.

In the 1970s, it became popular to call for the integration of general and special education, such that the difference between them would become increasingly imperceptible. A common suggestion was that general and special education should not be separate systems but a single system that serves all students. Those who questioned the demand for a single, integrated system pointed out that special and general education are both part of public education and, therefore, already part of a single system. They argued that any effective subpart of a system must have its own identity, authority, budget, and personnel (e.g., just as teacher education must have these in a university, special education must have them in public schools; and just as a research and development unit in a business must have these, various subunits of the public schools, such as athletics or music, must have them).

Another decades-old line of argument is that special education should develop and give to general education those ways of working with exceptional children that have been found successful, such that special education will gradually become superfluous (i.e., work itself out of business). Still another is that general education should become so effective and supple that it meets the needs of all students without the necessity of identifying any for special education. Those questioning these ideas have pointed out that realities of measurement preclude the elimination of low achievement and that special education will always be necessary to serve the extremes, regardless of how good general education becomes.

A popular idea of the late 20th and early 21st centuries is that general and special education teachers should work together. That is, they should collaborate and consult with each other to discover what is best for the student or coteach classes in which some, but not all, students are identified as having exceptionalities. Although collaboration, consultation, and coteaching captured the imagination of many, research has not shown that these are better than instruction from a special education teacher alone in meeting the needs of exceptional children. Those who question the collaboration, consulting, and coteaching models point to the necessity of individualized, focused, intensive, persistent instruction that a trained special education teacher alone can provide. They argue that although special education teachers do need to help general education teachers accommodate a wider range of pupils, students with disabilities need the specialized instruction that only a special education teacher working alone can provide.


Special education costs more per student than general education—in fact, several times more. Thus, although special education may serve 10% of the school population, it may account for 25% of the budget. The disproportional cost of special education is a particularly hot issue for administrators and taxpayers.

The extra costs of special education are not difficult to explain. Perhaps the most obvious and greatest contributor to higher cost is the student-teacher ratio; special education teachers generally teach much smaller groups of students than do general education teachers. Furthermore, special education students often require special transportation and other related services and special materials or equipment.

Those who decry the high cost of special education are likely to argue that too many students are identified as needing it and that equity demands equal expenditures for all students. Those who attempt to justify the high cost of special education are likely to argue that only those students who actually need special education have been identified and that equal opportunity for these students demands higher expenditures. The argument becomes how much is too much and how little is too little to spend for special education.

Special education is funded by a combination of local, state, and federal monies. The federal contribution to the extra cost of special education has never come close to that mentioned in federal legislation. Consequently, the cost of special education has become a particularly controversial issue for state and local authorities.

What Makes Special Education Special

Some have argued that special education is not really special, that good teaching is good teaching regardless of the students. According to this reasoning, a good general education teacher individualizes for students and can provide, as part of a truly flexible general education, anything that a special educator can provide.

In response, others have noted that special education often has not been what it should be, that it is often provided by poorly prepared teachers, and that it shares the same dimensions of instruction used in general education.

They argue that what makes special education truly special is not placement but instruction. Specifically, special education is instruction that is more highly individualized and makes use of special methods that are not feasible in general education. (Cook & Schirmer, 2006; Kauffman & Hallahan, 2005).


One point of view is that individualization is part of teaching. That is, all teachers are expected to be aware of what each individual student is doing and make accommodation for individual differences. To the extent that a teacher does not meet these expectations, he or she is professionally inadequate.

A competing point of view is that special education teachers focus on the individual; general education teachers necessarily focus on the group. In fact, some have pointed out that IDEA is about education for individuals, whereas NCLB is about education for groups. According to this view, special education teachers go well beyond what general education teachers can be expected to do in the way of individualizing goals, making instructional adaptations, and meeting students’ individual needs.

One can make the case that special education is not special because it individualizes for students whereas general education does not, but because it involves greater individualization. As is true of many other distinctions in life (consider the very definition of disability), the difference is one of degree, not of kind. Therefore, the distinction between general and special education is the degree of individualization, not the total absence of individualization (general) versus individualization (special).

Dimensions of Instruction

Greater individualization of education is possible in special education because of its modulation of several dimensions of instruction. Again, general education involves the use of all of these dimensions of instruction, and special education becomes special because of the degree to which a teacher is able to alter them. All teachers, whether in general or special education, use the same basic instructional strategies, but this small reality belies the larger truth that the degree to which these strategies are used matters a great deal.

The dimensions of instruction that a special education teacher may alter include at least the following: pacing or rate, intensity, persistence, structure, reinforcement, pupil-teacher ratio, curriculum, and monitoring or assessment. Special educators, to a greater degree than general educators, may vary the speed with which tasks are presented or the rate at which students proceed in subject matter. They may also vary to a greater degree the intensity of instruction, for example its demandingness, the repetitions required, and the size of the steps in learning. To a greater degree, they are able to alter the structure of their classrooms, meaning such things as rules, expectations, and teacher control. They may also vary to a greater degree the consequences of performance (reward, for example), pupil-teacher ratio, and the curriculum (what is taught). Finally, the frequency and type of monitoring and assessment of progress may be more finely attuned to the individual in special education.

Curriculum and Methods

Some students with exceptionalities study the same curriculum as general students, and their teachers use the methods considered appropriate for students without exceptionalities. In fact, one of the more successful accommodations for gifted students is acceleration, merely moving them ahead of their age mates in school grade. Other students require highly specialized curriculum (e.g., Braille and orientation and mobility skills for blind students; sign language for deaf students; basic self-care skills such as toileting, grooming, cooking, and dressing for those with severe mental retardation).

With IDEA 2004 and NCLB has come the expectation that all (or nearly all) students will learn the same curriculum and be assessed by the same tests. Thus there has been considerable pressure to align special education with the general education curriculum. Some special educators have suggested that Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) for students with disabilities should not be aligned with the general education curriculum because students with disabilities often need to learn different things in different ways compared to their peers who do not have disabilities.

Sometimes the curriculum and methods of instruction have been inappropriate for exceptional students receiving special education, as has been the case for students in general education. At its best, or in its truest sense, special education ensures that students who are exceptional, whether they have disabilities or are gifted or both, receive the specialized instruction that is most suitable for them as individuals. What is studied and how it is taught are not the same for all students.

Future Directions in Special Education

The direction that special education will take in future years is anyone’s guess (Hallahan et al., 2009). One possible scenario is that special education will collapse entirely, becoming an invisible part of general education. In fact, special education seems likely to vanish if two arguments are taken seriously: (1) whatever schooling is right and good for one student is right and good for all, and (2) all students should be expected to meet the same standards. Another possibility is that special education will shrink, such that only those with the most severe disabilities will be eligible for it. This seems likely if authorities recognize that a few students have truly special needs but argue that special education has become too large, serves too many children, is often provided to children who do not actually need it, and takes too large a proportion of the education budget. Still another possible direction is resurgence and acceptance of assertions that special education is a good idea and that only improved teacher preparation and specialized, effective instruction can make special education what it should be. This is likely to occur only if there is agreement that special education is primarily about instruction, not place; that special education teachers must have special instructional skills; that special education is worth the extra cost; and that success should be judged by what students achieve with versus without special education, not by whether the achievement of exceptional children approximates that of typical students.

The future of special education depends on two primary considerations: (a) judgments of economic feasibility, given the fiscal constraints faced by the nation, states, and localities; and (b) public conceptions of fairness and social justice. Special education has always been in part about money and in part about society’s attitudes toward children, fairness, and opportunity. Fairness and the worth of education for exceptional children will always be issues.


Special education is designed for exceptional learners— those far above or far below typical students in particular knowledge or skills. Exceptional learners may have special gifts or talents or have one or more disabilities: mental retardation, specific learning disability, emotional disturbance, communication disorder, impaired hearing, impaired sight, physical disability or other health impairment, autism spectrum disorders, traumatic brain injury, or severe or multiple disabilities. Sometimes other labels are used for these categories. Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is sometimes considered a learning disability or is included as other health impairment.

Special education became a part of American public education in large cities in the late 19th century. Parent and professional organizations date from the early 20th century. The federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) dates from 1975 and requires free appropriate public education (FAPE) in the least restrictive environment (LRE) chosen from a continuum of alternative placements (CAP) and delivered according to an Individualized Education Program (IEP). Special education is international in scope.

Major concepts in special education include: (a) distinction between inability and disability; (b) difference between disability and handicap; (c) related services; (d) recognition of mild, severe, high-incidence, low-incidence, and multiple disabilities; (e) nature and degree of difference; and (f) both abilities and disabilities are important and individuals can be twice exceptional, that is, have disabilities and special gifts or talents at the same time.

Major controversies in special education include:

(a) the language used to describe exceptionalities; (b) identification, identity, and self-concept of individuals with exceptionalities; (c) placement; (d) disproportional identification; (e) the relationship between general and special education; and (f) cost. Special education is made special by individualized instruction and alteration of one or more of the following to an extent not feasible in general education: pacing or rate, intensity, persistence, structure, reinforcement, pupil-teacher ratio, curriculum, and monitoring or assessment.

The future of special education is unknown and could take any one of several directions. Its future will depend on judgments of economic feasibility, given the fiscal constraints faced by the nation, states, and localities, as well as public perceptions of fairness and social justice.


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