What is Special Education? | K-12 Schools

For decades, public schools have had to provide children with disabilities with “free and appropriate education”. The system for this is a complex network of abbreviations and rules governing services and support. We call it special education.

Special education refers to a set of federal and state laws and regulations designed to educate millions of children with disabilities and serves as a safety net for those who are unable to reap the benefits of a regular school program without assistance.

“Special education laws recognize that students with disabilities cannot access education like other students without special support,” said Ron Hager, managing lawyer for education and employment for the National Disability Network. . “Special education gives students with disabilities what they need to succeed.”

Special education in numbers

Special education in the United States is governed by the iconic Education for People with Disabilities Act, sometimes referred to as the IDEA. The law states that children with cognitive, physical, emotional, and medical conditions are eligible for special services, support, technology, and individual planning and goals outside of the general education program.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, more than 7 million students, or about 14% of them aged 3 to 21 in public schools, were eligible for special services and housing to help with their studies in the 2019-20 academic year.

The percentage of students enrolled in special education also varies by state, with differences probably due to inconsistencies in how states define eligibility as well as issues related to the diagnosis of disability. New York serves the largest percentage of students with disabilities.

Across the country, the system helps children with disabilities to receive basic education, acquire life skills and integrate with their peers.

During the pandemic, when schooling went online, this support continued in many cases, says Lindsay Kubatski, director of policy and advocacy at the National Center for Disability with Learning.

“As school systems moved with the pandemic, [special education laws] guaranteed that teachers continue to provide quality, tailored education for students with disabilities, regardless of the circumstances, ”he wrote in an email. “In any educational institution, students are still guaranteed the housing and resources needed for successful learning. The law protects the rights of students with disabilities even in the most difficult times. “

However, Hager says there is still a lot of work ahead.

“During the pandemic, no student got what they needed,” he said. “In the future, the special education system will ensure that students with disabilities are caught up.”

Who receives special education services?

According to the Pew Research Center for the 2017-18 academic year, the majority of students with disabilities – about two-thirds – are men.

Among all students receiving special education services that year, 34% had specific learning difficulties that are usually defined as the difference in how they think, speak, read, write, or write. Dyslexia, a learning impairment that affects the ability to read, is perhaps the most common learning impairment. But over the years, other key issues have been identified, such as dysgraphia, which affects writing, and dyscalculia, which affects math and related classes.

Another 19% had speech or language impairments. According to NCES, in the 2017-18 school year, autistic children accounted for about 10% of students with disabilities in the country, compared to about 1.5% in 2000-2001.

“Before, every 10,000 people had autism, and now every 100,” says Hager. “If you ask five different people why this is so, you get six different answers, including environmental factors. But the fact is that autism and the need for services on people’s radars is much greater. And there is an understanding that autism is a spectrum in which you can be highly functional, but also need special educational services, especially social and emotional.

A special case of ADHD

Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder is a special case when it comes to getting support and services at school. ADHD is not defined as one of the 13 federal categories of disability that are guaranteed services, although there are ways in which children with ADHD can receive assistance.

If a child has severe ADHD that results in two classes below their level, the disability may be classified as “otherwise deteriorating health,” and the student may be eligible for services under federal law. Less severe cases of ADHD and other people with disabilities can receive special educational services through what is called Plan 504, which provides conditions such as preferential seating or long-term tests.

“From both a medical and educational point of view, our understanding of ADHD continues to improve, but there is still a great deal of confusion about what constitutes ADHD,” wrote Elena Silva, director of education at PK-12 at the New America Political Organization in Washington. District of Columbia. email.

Hager says students with ADHD are often dismissed as “lazy or disorganized” when in fact they need special educational support and housing. “Students with ADHD are often sidelined,” he says.

Obtaining special educational services

The first step in receiving special education services is to identify the school or district as a student in need of assistance. The teacher, parent, or physician will document the child’s concerns and justify the services under the 13 federal disability categories.

Meetings and evaluations will take place, and a specialized plan, known as the Individual Education Program, or IEP, may be developed to codify individual goals and conditions. This plan will be reviewed regularly to determine whether the disability classification is valid and whether the child is eligible for special education services.

However, Kubatski says the system is not always in line with the challenges some students face.

“Each student with disabilities also has a unique and individual set of needs,” he says.


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