Is Special Ed In Need of Reform?

As a parent, it is not easy hearing that your child needs special education services.

As a parent whose teenage autistic son has been in special ed for his entire life, I am grateful for the federal Individuals With Disabilities Act (IDEA), according to which students with disabilities in the U.S. are entitled to a “free and appropriate education.” Charlie’s school day is not that of a typical teenager — his curriculum is focused on pre-vocational training and instruction in skills of daily living — and prior to the enactment of IDEA in 1975, families were very much on their own to provide an education for a child with disabilities.

That said, the implementation IDEA and the process whereby one obtains special ed services for a child leave much to be desired. After students are referred and tested, parents, teachers, therapists, case managers (who could be a school psychologist or social worker) meet to discuss the student’s Individualized Education Plan (IEP). While this all sounds fairly cordial, the actual experience often ends up being far from that, with parents and educators often clashing over what are “appropriate” services and supports for a child. Lawsuits are not uncommon, with parents suing school districts and, in some cases, school districts suing parents (yes, I know someone who such happened to).

Two Lawyers On the Problems of IDEA and Special Ed

Miriam Freedman, a Boston lawyer who has represented public schools in special education, writes in The Atlantic that IDEA is based on “private enforcement, charging parents with the responsibility to advocate for their children and pitting them against their children’s schools.” Indeed, school districts are mandated to abide very closely to IDEA’s terms and can face legal action if they do not.

Also in The Atlantic, Chris Borreca, another lawyer representing schools (both public and private), says that, along with Section 504 and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), IDEA has become one of “most litigated federal statutes in existence.” In 1986, Congress amended the law to allow parents, should they prevail in hearings and court filings, to obtain attorneys’ fees”; Borreca says that the result has been that special education is now a “litigious mess.”

Freedman also describes how, since 1975, the population of students served by the law has changed:

The law was written for students with severe and profound disabilities, but now some 70 to 80 percent of the students served are identified as having mild to moderate disabilities, such as speech, attention, and learning challenges — diagnoses that have a greater degree of subjectivity.

IDEA has, says Freedman, “has created a vast diagnosis industry that serves as a gatekeeper to the entitlement.” With more than 6 million students covered by IDEA, over 20 percent of school districts’ budgets is often allotted to special ed.

Freedman and Borreca are both writing from the perspective of school districts. IDEA is a “regulatory and bureaucratic nightmare for schools,” as Freedman says — but scrapping together something of an education for a child with serious learning difficulties in the days before IDEA could be described as a “nightmare” too. As one mother of a 50-something autistic man — while fully sympathetic to Charlie’s struggles — once said to me, “You parents now have it handed to you with a silver spoon! I had to fight for every, every single thing for my son.”

Suggestions For Reforming Special Ed: Pros and Caveats

Freedman lists four proposals to reform special education that they do warrant discussion. She calls for an end to “private enforcement” of IDEA, perhaps by having “mediators and ombudsmen or federal and state enforcement mechanisms” instead, and also for a stop to a “compliance-based” approach whereby educators and parents do not constantly have to check on, and in some cases to police, each other. She also calls for an end to the “medical model” of basing eligibility for services on a specialist’s diagnosis; she rather suggests “improving regular education for all students,” as  better “regular education” would mean that “fewer students need to be identified for special education services.”

As a parent, I have found that a surprising amount of special ed teachers’ and therapists’ time is spent filling out paperwork that is beyond writing up lesson plans. Students’ progress has to be carefully charted on numerous forms by every single teacher and therapist. IEPs are long documents that have to spell out everything, from transportation arrangements to numbers of occupational therapy sessions to interventions in crisis situations, along with the specifics of a student’s academic programs. All this paperwork is important and the more so, as I know, as my son Charlie has very minimal speech and can’t tell us if he is not getting taught such and such.

IDEA does create headaches for school districts and their lawyers, but parents and students rely on the law to ensure that students with disabilities get educated in ways that actually teach them.

Freedman’s proposals are not unproblematic. While obtaining a medical diagnosis to determine a child’s eligibility for services does take time and can mean a gap between identifying a student as needing services and actually providing them, it is important to have outside, independent specialists evaluate children, rather than simply leaving it to school districts.

In addition, Freedman’s proposal to improve education for all students is appealing. Nirvi Shah, writing in Education Week, discusses a similar point in the form of universal design for learning (UDL), “an instructional method that involves creating lessons and classroom materials flexible enough to accommodate different learning styles.” Some examples of UDL are using closed-captioning in a noisy gym and having students show their knowledge of, for instance, vocabulary words not only by taking a test but by “using journals, doing some kind of project, or carrying out a computer activity.”

UDL is an attractive concept. My own son (who definitely has a medical diagnosis of autism and attends an out-of-district school for autistic students) does needs to be taught in ways far more specialized than UDL could address. Innovations that improve education for “typical” students wil not necessarily be best suited for students with a range of learning disabilities, who can require not only different means of being evaluated and showing what they know, but different teaching strategies, period.

Does special ed cost school districts too much? Are not the costs worth it, to provides students with disabilities with the academic programs that actually helps them learn?

Related Care2 Coverage

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Elite NYC Schools Must Admit More Students With Disabilities



Photo by LizMarie_AK


Kimberly J.
Kimberly J5 years ago

Improving Regular Education for all students is a great idea, but the only way it will work is to get rid of NCLB & high stakes testing. Then teachers will be able to teach again.

Yes, Special Education does need to be reformed. Mentally handicapped & autistic students are in special classes where they get all of the help they need. Learning Disabled students are included in the regular classrooms where they are expected to do the same work in the same amount of time as the other students. Funding has been cut so much that most schools don't have the money to hire teacher's assistants to help with the included students, so many times the regular classroom teacher begins to feel overwhelmed.

Our government (Federal, State & Local) need to increase, not cut funding for education. Our students deserve better than what they're getting from the politicians.

Kelly Rogers5 years ago

Thank-You, for this article

federico bortoletto
federico b5 years ago

Grazie per l'articolo.

federico bortoletto
federico b5 years ago

Grazie per l'articolo.

ii q.
g d c5 years ago


Brenda Towers
Brenda Towers5 years ago

Special Educational reform should be in the hands of the teaching profession!

Linda T.
Linda T5 years ago

I can think of many changes that need to be made to the whole Special Education process. 1). Special Education teachers should be given the authority to advocate for the children in their class with protection from retribution from the school district. 2). If a parent ask that their child be tested for educational deficiencies the teesting should be done with-in 4 weeks. 3). The Office of Civil Rights need to be the protecters that they are meant to be and that means to actually punish school districts that are blantely ignoring Federal mandates involving Special Education. You are not mediators you are there to protect and enforce the law. Every school in the country should have a program for Autistic children. They children need an adquate program and sticking your head in the sand in not going to make these children go away. Children with disruption behavior should not be punished but you should take the time to find out why the child is being disruptive. Duh their is a problem and putting them in juvinile detention is not going to make the childs problem go away. I could go on and on.

John Mansky
John Mansky5 years ago

Thank you for the article...

Blake W.
Blake W5 years ago

We throw so many resources toward educating those with little to no hope of ever really becoming educated, and so few resources toward fast-tracking those on the other end of the spectrum who show great potential. It is a travesty that intelligent students are so rarely allowed to skip ahead and graduate early so they can move forward to higher education, and that resources that could be used to accelerate their growth and provide more geniuses for our society are so frequently denied to them.
So yes, we need to reform this stuff!

Roy M.
Roy M5 years ago

Today we have dozens of diagnostic tests to reveal many alleged disabilities, conditions, handicaps etc. Once diagnosed, nothing much is done for the student other than separate and stigmatize. Many school boards spend up to one-third of their budgets on special education. It's such a waste. Special education doesn't work. If it did, there would be a steady stream of students successfully re-integrating back into the mainstream.