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

Effectiveness of Special Education: Is Placement the Critical Factor?
Anne M. Hocutt


Recently, both The Wall Street Journal ("Special Ed's Special Costs")1 and U.S. News and World Report ("Separate and Unequal: How Special Education Programs Are Cheating Our Children and Costing Taxpayers Billions Each Year")2 accused special education of being costly, ineffective, and perhaps even immoral (for example, it promotes "segregation"). As noted by Fuchs and Fuchs,3 such articles in the media echo criticisms by some professionals in the field. Critics of current practices propose either a substantial decrease in or elimination of special education altogether so that students with disabilities will be taught in general education classes. This movement is called "inclusion," and it is controversial because of its emphasis on placement, that is, the classroom to which a student is assigned rather than what happens in that classroom.

The purpose of this article is to review research conducted since 1980 which is directly relevant to inclusion, including research on the effectiveness of special education in general. The majority of the research reviewed here was funded by the Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP) in the U.S. Department of Education. Selected older studies will be referenced as appropriate. Efficacy of interventions is assessed in terms of either academic progress or improved social-behavioral skills for students with disabilities.

Overall, many models in both the special education and the general education classroom show moderate academic and social improvement for some special education students, though improvements have not been uniform or dramatic. Virtually all interventions showing positive impacts involved considerable additional resources.

This article has four major sections. First, basic information about definitions, current student placements, and positions taken by various constituencies is presented. Second, data are provided regarding what typically happens in the general education classroom and in the special education classroom, emphasizing features salient to the needs of special education students.

Third, data about outcomes for special education students are summarized. Although various interventions can have some positive impact on academic and social outcomes, no intervention reliably improves special education student performance to the level of nondisabled students. The more effective interventions have employed an intensive and reasonably individualized approach to student instruction, combined with frequent monitoring of student progress.

Fourth, interventions designed to facilitate inclusion of special education students in the general classroom are considered. The research does not support inclusion for all students with disabilities. At the same time, the research indicates that, given adequate resources, schools should be able to assist more students to be more successful in general education.