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Journal Issue: Special Education for Students with Disabilities Volume 6 Number 1 Spring 1996

Special Education for Students with Disabilities: Analysis and Recommendations
Donna L. Terman Mary B. Larner Carol S. Stevenson Richard E. Behrman

Can Regular Education Meet the Needs of More Students?

Students with disabilities as a group have significant potential to be educated and productive, but are not responsive to typical regular education. Most of these students will respond to intensive, consistent, individualized instruction, though instruction cannot be expected to negate the full impact of a disability. States and school districts should consider in what setting students are most likely to receive the education they need. Some students will continue to require special education, but a larger proportion of students can be served in regular education if increased resources are provided, substantial changes are made in typical instructional practices, and local school districts are committed to greater inclusion.

Of students found to be eligible for special services under the IDEA, only a small percentage (about 5%) are now served in locations entirely separated from the regular school building, such as hospitals, day schools, residential programs, or home study. Of the remaining students served by the IDEA, about one-third spend most of their day in the regular classroom, one-third spend most of their day in the regular school building but in separate classrooms, and one-third spend roughly half the day in each setting. (See the article by Hocutt in this journal issue.)

As noted by both Hocutt and Reschly, classroom teachers are the primary source of referrals to special education, and the decision to refer may be largely shaped by factors such as class size, increasing pressure to raise classroom test scores, teacher tolerance for diversity in ability or learning styles, and teacher tolerance for impulsive or inattentive behavior. Still, the teacher's decision to refer the student for assessment is critical because the majority of students referred by teachers are found to have a disability.18

Here, some characteristics of special education are discussed. Then the ways in which regular education might be changed to meet the needs of more students with disabilities are described.

Special Education

It is difficult to reach conclusions about the effectiveness of special education. The research is not strong, and it particularly lacks comparisons to comparable control groups. Even when control groups have similar diagnoses (such as learning disabilities), random assignment is rarely possible, and it is likely that unmeasured differences (such as behavior) influenced which children were assigned to which group. Most studies also look only at short-term interventions and short-term outcomes. It is also meaningless to compare outcomes for students in special education with nondisabled students because the groups are not comparable.

In this journal issue, Hocutt reviews the literature about students with disabilities and concludes that outcomes are affected more by the characteristics of the instruction provided than they are by the student's placement in a regular or special education classroom. Students with specialized needs respond best when instruction is more intense, consistent, and individualized than that provided in the typical classroom. Because many students in special education spend the majority of their time in the regular classroom, their instructional needs may not be met by a few hours of special services provided each week. Therefore, some students have better academic outcomes in fulltime special education, where instruction is more likely to be adapted to their specific needs.

The majority of students with disabilities will find school a continual challenge, even with good special education. Students who learn skills such as lip-reading or reliance on pneumonic devices must make greater efforts than students without disabilities and are naturally subject to greater fatigue and frustration. The fatigue factor alone makes it difficult for many students to keep up with the pace of regular education. The exceptions are those students with relatively few, specific deficits, who are taught compensating skills and who have other strengths (for example, stable home environment, higher IQ, higher tolerance for frustration). Students with disabilities who also have a good constellation of strengths may do quite well.

Most students who are found eligible for special education will continue to receive services under the IDEA until they leave school. Data collected by the Department of Education from 16 states in 1993 indicate that only 1% to 12% of special education students over the age of 14 are declassified each year.50 Declassification data are not collected for younger children.

Regular Education

For fiscal, educational, and social reasons, there is increasing pressure to serve more students in regular classrooms, a movement known as inclusion. "Inclusion" as used by educators involves more changes to regular education than the earlier concept of "mainstreaming." Mainstreamed students spend part of the day in the regular classroom but are often "pulled out" to separate settings for special services. Under inclusion, regular education is expected to change in significant ways so that all or most of the individual student's special needs are met in the context of the regular classroom.

Regular education, if appropriately modified, could assume more of the responsibility of providing education to students with disabilities. Many students with learning disabilities, mild mental retardation, or orthopedic impairments, for example, might be good candidates for inclusion. Still, decisions should be made on the basis of individual student needs, not on disability category.12 Good reasons to consider shifting more responsibility to regular education are to cut down on disruptive pull-out programs, to increase social interaction between regular education and special education students, and to provide benefits for the whole classroom, such as smaller class size. However, inclusion is not likely to cut overall educational costs. Most or all of the resources currently allocated to special education are likely to be needed to implement inclusion effectively.51

It cannot be overstated that regular education has great difficulty accommodating students with special learning needs. The majority of students served under the IDEA were referred to special education because their regular classroom teachers were not able to deal with their chronic academic and/or behavioral problems. Typical instructional practice in regular classrooms is substantially different from practices which show the greatest success for students with disabilities. (See Box 1 in the article by Hocutt in this journal issue for a comparison of typical practices in special and regular education.)

Research does not make a compelling case either for or against inclusion. At best, several models of inclusive programs have shown modest positive effects and have required considerable resources in the form of training and assistance for teachers, planning time, access to additional supportive services, and administrative support.

Teachers and parents of students without disabilities often express concern about the impact on the classroom when students with disabilities are included. In this issue, Hocutt summarizes the small body of research on this topic, which indicates that students without disabilities did not suffer in terms of academic achievement or proportion of time engaged in academic instruction under inclusion programs. And they may benefit academically from increased resources in the regular classroom. In one study, where additional resources allowed the inclusive classroom to maintain a teacher–student ratio of 1 to 14, nondisabled students in the inclusive classroom showed greater academic gains than their peers in regular, noninclusive classes.52

Advocates of inclusion, however, make their arguments on the basis of fiscal, educational, and social reasons only modestly supported by research. The cost of special education is apparently a strong motivating factor. As school budgets tighten, many school boards and administrators ask whether resources used for special education might be combined with regular education in ways that would have educational and social benefits for all students. Also, advocates for students with severe disabilities seek greater integration in the regular classroom for social reasons.

The expectations for inclusion are great: advocates hope it will be at least as effective as special education, allow schools to allocate more resources to regular classes, promote local flexibility, and be less stigmatizing to students with special needs.9

It is possible to improve outcomes through inclusion programs, but successful programs must meet several stringent requirements. These requirements, each of which is challenging, include retaining the full range of services and placements, providing increased resources in special education, initiating major changes in instruction supported by intensive training of classroom teachers, and making a local commitment to inclusion.

Full Range of Services and Placements

As Hocutt discusses in this issue, some students thrive when returned to the more challenging atmosphere of regular education, but others are more likely to be socially isolated or to fail courses, strong risk factors for dropping out. It is critical that the option of receiving appropriate services in a separate setting be retained for those students who would benefit and that such determinations be made separately for each student. Students with serious emotional disorders, in particular, may not be able to adjust their behavior to expectations in regular classrooms and may need separate placements.38 Many students with learning disabilities also benefit from separate placement.53

Increased Resources

Several types of inclusive classrooms have been tested in research settings using various combinations of resources. Typical resources include smaller class size, teachers' aides or co-teachers, and frequent consultations with psychologists or other professionals to design interventions or adaptations for individual students. A combination of all these resources may be needed, especially when dealing with challenging student behavior.

Many students with disabilities present behavioral challenges. Low-severity central nervous system impairments, such as those associated with ADHD or learning disabilities, have been estimated to affect between 5% and 15% of schoolchildren and are commonly associated with behavioral difficulties and social adjustment problems.24 These behavioral difficulties include consistently speaking out of turn or impulsively jumping out of one's seat, which is disruptive in the classroom, but not aggressive or dangerous. Most teachers respond to inappropriate classroom behavior primarily through disciplinary modes, for example, imposing sanctions such as staying in at recess, doing extra homework, or being expelled.38 Few are trained to implement structured behavior modification programs designed to help a student gain skills of self-control.

Effective management of misbehavior in the classroom requires systematic, consistent interventions; multiple opportunities for students to practice new behavior and social skills; treatment matched to the needs of individual students rather than generic programs; and treatment with multiple components, such as combinations of remedial, behavioral, psychopharmacologic, or family treatments.54 Even with these components, management of behavior is a challenging, long-term task. Learning effective behavior management skills requires a great deal of practice on the teacher's part, and the process by which teachers learn how to teach self-management skills to children with disabilities should be monitored and supervised by a school psychologist or other professional in behavior management.

Changes in Instruction, Supported by Teacher Training

Research summarized by Hocutt in this issue shows that characteristics of classrooms that are more effective with special education students include intensive instruction; individualized instruction; close, frequent monitoring and feedback; multiple methods of behavior control; lengthy, often multiyear teacher training; curriculum modification; consultation and supportive services; and teacher willingness to work with students who have special needs.

To a large extent, this description may sound like "just good teaching." What is the difference between good teaching and special services in the regular classroom? There is a significant overlap between the two. In fact, studies of "effective schools" show that effective teachers employ frequent individualized monitoring and feedback, along with intensive instruction, practices that have been shown to benefit special education students. In many instances, special education students may not need different interventions so much as they need good teaching with greater consistency and intensity than other students require.

The extensive literature on effective schools gives some reasons for optimism: practices common to the most effective teachers are practices that have been demonstrated to be effective with many special education students. Although this similarity of teaching techniques is encouraging, effective schools and special education differ significantly in terms of pacing. That is, effective teachers tend to cover a great deal of material in a relatively short time, a pace that is difficult or impossible for many special education students to sustain. In addition, effective teachers tend to have less tolerance for students with unusual individual needs or challenging behaviors. Indeed, studies indicate that effective teachers are more likely than other teachers to resist having difficult students placed in their instruction groups.55

There are not sufficient research data to recommend specific ways to resolve this dilemma. One possibility is increased modification of the curriculum, where students with different abilities in the same class have different types of assignments on the same subject. This is a challenging way to teach, requiring additional planning time on a daily basis, as well as additional curricular resources. Another possibility is to group special education students in selected regular classrooms with more receptive teachers56 and with additional resources such as smaller class size or more teaching staff, rather than trying to distribute the students with special needs equally among all the district's classrooms.

It appears that inadequate preparation of teachers by colleges of education and increasing expectations for classroom teachers are major causes of overreferral of students with special needs.9 Few undergraduate teaching programs routinely provide students with specific skills designed to meet the needs of students with learning disabilities, and few state certification programs require regular education teachers to have those skills.57 It is not sufficient for certification programs to require a single survey course on children with disabilities. Indeed, the National Association of State Boards of Education has called such courses "inherently superficial."9 Schools of education should provide prospective teachers not only with information about various disabilities, but also with detailed strategies for working with students and opportunities to practice these strategies in realistic classroom situations.

Virtually all school districts provide some form of ongoing, in-service continuing education for teachers. Such programs typically consume two to four days of the school year. In contrast, the training provided to teachers in successful inclusion programs was much more extensive and consultative in nature. Typically, special educators, university faculty, and/or behavioral specialists were on site for most of the school day and for multiple years, observing, consulting, and coaching teachers who were learning new skills.

Deciding which inclusion model to implement should generally be a local decision. Different models call for different types of resources and use different teaching techniques, and the choice among them should take into consideration local resources and preferences.

Local Commitment

In this journal issue, Hocutt notes that teacher willingness to work with students who have special needs is an important factor in the success of inclusion programs. Such willingness cannot be taken for granted. As was discussed earlier, classroom teachers are the primary source of referrals to special education because of the teacher's perception that the child's needs cannot be met in the regular classroom. In a recent descriptive study of inclusion efforts at sites in Kansas, Minnesota, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Washington, observers expressed multiple concerns about poor planning, inadequate services, and lack of commitment to improved outcomes. 58 These concerns suggest the appropriateness of experimenting with inclusion gradually—for example, making changes in only a portion of the schools in a district, assessing the positive and negative impacts, and making revisions to programs based on experience—rather than implementing dramatic across-the-board inclusion programs in a short time frame.



  • Regular education can and should assume more of the responsibility of providing education to students with disabilities. Effective implementation of inclusion requires (1) retaining the full range of services and placements because not all students should be moved to the regular classroom; (2) increasing resources in regular education; (3) initiating major changes in instruction, supported by intensive training of teachers; and (4) making a local commitment to improved student outcomes.
Some Successful Interventions

One of the more successful educational interventions for high school students with disabilities has been vocational education. Before the passage of the Carl D. Perkins Vocational Education Act in 1984, researchers found that special education students did not have adequate access to vocational education programs.59 The Perkins Act, however, made a dramatic difference in accessibility. By 1989, the National High School Transcript Study showed that students with disabilities earned more vocational education credits than did students without disabilities.59 Indeed, Wagner and Blackorby in this journal issue note that 99% of all students with disabilities took at least one vocational course in high school and that students with learning disabilities were most likely to take a concentration (four or more related courses) in vocational education.

Vocational education courses, especially in concentrations, were closely associated with improved employment for students with disabilities in the National Longitudinal Transition Study of Special Education Students. Students with mild disabilities who took a concentration of vocational courses were 40 percentage points more likely than their peers who did not take concentrations to be competitively employed after high school and earned an average of $6,247 more per year.

These data do not confirm a cause-and-effect relationship. The students who chose to take concentrations were obviously self-selected and may not have been fully comparable to their peers who chose not to enroll in concentrations. Even so, it seems clear that access to vocational education had a substantial positive relationship to employment outcomes.

In this era of increasing fiscal pressures and increasing academic requirements for high school graduation, school boards are sometimes tempted to cut nonacademic courses such as vocational education, especially if enrollment is lower than in some other classes. It is important that school districts resist cuts to vocational education classes and offer courses in concentrations when possible.



  • Vocational education is strongly associated with positive employment outcomes for students with mild disabilities and should be reinvigorated.

Another area of successful intervention is early intervention for children with problems in basic reading skills. Recent research, summarized by Lyon in this issue, indicates that many more children with learning disabilities in basic reading skills could be identified and effectively helped in the early elementary grades through specialized instruction on phonological awareness.

Deficiency in basic reading skills is the most common form of learning disability, by one estimate affecting 17% of all elementary students.60 Certainly, it is critically important that students learn to read with fluency, and new research indicates that specific, highly structured early intervention is effective at increasing most students' ability to decode individual words rapidly and fluently. These interventions are promising, especially for students with less severe learning disabilities. Such intervention can be accomplished in the context of the regular classroom, but it requires teachers thoroughly trained in teaching phonological awareness and related skills. Few schools of education are currently preparing early elementary teachers to teach reading in this manner, apparently because of lack of demand for the instruction and lack of qualified university faculty. State teaching standards boards should encourage or require schools of education to offer training in reading instruction emphasizing phonological awareness, decoding, and word-recognition skills.

An increased emphasis on such teacher training is a necessary, though not sufficient, step to address the problems of students with learning disabilities. Research shows that well-trained teachers providing sustained, intensive instruction can significantly improve the reading skills of students with learning disabilities. In fact, these are among the most successful interventions for any form of LD. However, it must be pointed out that most of these students will have other, additional manifestations of LD. Improved basic reading skills are important, but they will not, by themselves, solve the problem of additional manifestations of learning disabilities and related behavior problems.

Overall, the interventions for learning disability in basic reading skills recommended by Lyon in this issue are most successful when the student's level of disability is less severe; the instruction is provided at the kindergarten and first-grade level; the instruction focuses on phonological awareness, decoding, and word-recognition skills rather than primarily on context and reading comprehension; the instruction is of sufficient intensity and duration; and the teacher is well trained.


  • Early reading instruction emphasizing phonological awareness is promising and should be expanded. Schools of education should prepare early elementary teachers to provide such instruction.