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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

Experiences of Children in General and Special Education

To answer the question "What's 'special' about special education,"3 it is necessary to compare special education with general education (see Box 2). This section summarizes OSEP-funded research, including: (1) descriptive studies of general education; (2) descriptive studies and data about special education; and (3) student outcomes.

Common Practices in General Education

Recent studies have described typical practice in general education, emphasizing those factors that are critical for students with disabilities, such as classroom instruction, teacher attitudes and referral decisions, and schoolwide issues. The results of these studies apply to all grades unless otherwise noted.

Classroom Instruction

Numerous practices in the typical general education classroom conflict with known effective interventions for students with special learning needs. Undifferentiated large-group instruction appears to be the norm in general education.21 Individual assignments, small-group work, and student pairing occur, but much less frequently than whole-class instruction.21,22 Teachers typically follow the sequence of lessons outlined in teachers' manuals21 and focus on content coverage.22 Students with disabilities in these classes may be expected to cover the same content at the same pace as nondisabled students.22

Middle and high school teachers monitor the work of nondisabled students at higher rates than they do the work of students with disabilities.22 Research suggests that teachers are more concerned about whether students demonstrate interest in a lesson and do not create discipline problems than they are about whether a particular student experiences difficulty learning.22

Research also indicates that general educators do not usually adapt lesson plans in response to individual student confusion or low achievement.21,23 When surveyed, teachers do not perceive themselves as having the skill for adapting instruction in ways that facilitate individual or small-group instruction.24 When teachers modify instruction, they may be more likely to make adaptations (for example, providing reinforcement and encouragement, establishing appropriate routines, and adapting classroom management activities and/or test situations) that do not require preplanning.22,25 They may be less likely to develop individual objectives, adapt curricular materials, use alternative materials, and/or adjust scoring and grading criteria for individual students.22

Teacher Attitudes and Referral Decisions

The decision by the general education teacher to refer a given student for possible placement in special education is critical. In general, from 3% to 5% of the school-age population is referred in any given year, 92% of those referred are tested, and 74% of those tested are placed in special education.26,27 There may be biases in teacher referrals: males and African-American students are referred more often than other students.28 However, referred students have considerably lower reading achievement than those who are not referred.28

In deciding which children to refer for possible placement in special education, research shows that teachers consider their perception of the child's "teachability," the overall diversity of the classroom, and the philosophy and policies of the school district. Research also suggests that some teachers who are most effective at raising overall academic standards may have a lower tolerance for students with special needs.


  • Student Teachability. "Teachability" refers to the extent to which a student is alert, sustains attention in the classroom, and begins and completes work on time. A teacher's perception of a student's teachability plays a major role in the decision to refer.28,29 Other child characteristics that are related to this decision include language difficulties26,30 and behavioral problems, particularly aggression, opposition, and hostility.26,29 General education teachers will not tolerate disruptive and/or dangerous behavior.25,31

  • Classroom Diversity. General education instruction appears to be aimed at a relatively homogeneous group of students as teachers try to reduce "the sheer cognitive complexity of planning and instruction associated with broad ranges of student characteristics and abilities."29 Thus, teachers refer difficult-to-teach children who have serious academic and behavioral problems28 and who are markedly different from other students in the class.32 Not surprisingly, many teachers are skeptical of proposals to return all children with disabilities to general education classrooms because coping with the difficulties these children present may take time the teacher now uses for instruction.33

  • School District Factors. Teachers refer at different rates depending partly upon contextual factors such as sources of available assistance,29 the way in which the teacher is evaluated by administrators, the restrictiveness of special education eligibility criteria used in the school district, and district requirements regarding prereferral intervention.26

  • Classroom Environment. A child's school failure and likelihood of being referred to special education are influenced not only by the child's own characteristics, but also by the manner in which the classroom operates. Research suggests that the classroom environment most conducive to school failure is one in which a student in academic trouble does individual seatwork while the teacher engages other children in the class in small-group work. Students engaged in individual seatwork receive minimal assistance or corrective feedback while working, increasing the likelihood of failure and consequent referral.30

  • Effective Teachers and Special Education Referrals. Researchers34 have found effective teaching behaviors to include: reviewing and checking the previous day's work, and reteaching if necessary; promoting initial student practice of new content and skills, and checking for understanding; providing corrective feedback; giving students an opportunity for independent practice; and conducting weekly and monthly reviews of progress. In theory, such close monitoring and feedback-intensive practice should be well suited to the needs of special education students, as well as to the needs of the general student body. Unfortunately, research on teacher attitudes suggests that some effective teachers may not be willing to accept students with disabilities.35,36

For instance, data from one study34 showed that elementary general education teachers who were considered most effective were also the least likely to accept students with maladaptive behavior or disabilities into their classroom, and those teachers had a lower sense of responsibility for dealing with students' problem behaviors. Data from two other studies indicated that teachers with the most effective instructional and classroom management techniques had the lowest tolerance for maladaptive behavior and the highest expectations for behavior and achievement, and would be most likely to resist placement of a disabled student in their classroom,35 especially if the student were deficient in self-help skills, required adapted materials, or had impaired language ability.36

Schools and School Systems

The description of general education to this point has focused on classroom instruction and on reasons teachers refer students for special education. However, research also describes the context in which schools and school systems operate.


  • Schools' Capacity for Teaching Behavior Management Skills. Many students with disabilities have very poor social skills, and some have behavioral and/or emotional disorders. Public schools often do not address social skills, and teachers have not been trained to use positive behavior management strategies rather than punishment. Mental health and other services are usually not available or, if available, are not integrated into the regular program.37

  • Higher Standards for Academic Performance. Further, schools and school systems are operating in a climate of increased accountability.38 Many reports and studies have accused the U.S. educational system of being mediocre.38 These reports have resulted in a national drive for excellence in education, generally interpreted as higher standards, more courses, and more homework. The focus is now on student outcomes, for example, higher scores on tests and increased high school graduation rates. Some states are using enrollments in advanced courses, the amount of homework given or completed, and SAT scores as measures of school performance. These raised expectations occur in a climate of large classes and large teacher loads (for example, 150 students per day per teacher in secondary education).38 Consequently, it is not surprising that many special educators doubt that general education will be able to successfully educate more students with disabilities for more hours during the school day.39

Common Practices in Special Education

Current data from the U.S. Department of Education show that class size in special education averages 15 students per teacher,5 smaller than typical general education ratios. Small classes facilitate more individual attention and small-group instruction. Also, more special education teachers have advanced degrees, with nearly 55% having a master's degree and 11% having an educational specialist or doctoral degree in comparison with 40% and 6%, respectively, for general education teachers.3 The special education curriculum is more oriented toward the development of functional skills, and the pace at which students cover materials is slower.40

As noted earlier, approximately 95% of special education students are educated in the public schools; these students spend an average of 70% of their time in general education settings5 (see Figure 1). Younger students are more likely than older students to be placed in integrated settings (that is, settings which have both general and special education students).5

Comparison of Instruction in General and Special Education

Although a majority of studies comparing instruction in general and special education have found numerous differences, a minority of studies have found few differences. For instance, one study comparing special education, resource-room instruction with typical classroom instruction in reading and math found no significant differences in a variety of instructional practices, including teacher modeling, opportunity for student responses, amount of guided and independent practice, and pacing of lessons.41 Other studies have indicated that general and special education teachers perform similar instructional tasks.42,43

Teaching Strategies and Interventions

For the most part, research shows differences between general and special education instruction, though findings have not been consistent across studies. Some comparison studies have focused on the differences in the teaching strategies and interventions used by general and special education teachers, and this literature consistently shows differences. One study, which compared teacher planning and adaptation for students with learning disabilities, found that general educators preferred to use manipulative and audiovisual activities, while the special educators preferred detailed intervention programs designed for special education students, for example, direct instruction and cognitive strategy instructions.44 (Direct instruction and cognitive strategy instructions are described later in this article, in the section on inclusion efforts.) Another study of instruction for children with educable mental retardation (EMR) in general and special settings found that special educators showed more flexibility in selecting strategies with which to manage and monitor the classroom.42

Teacher Monitoring of Student Progress

The research comparing teacher monitoring of student progress is also consistent in showing that general and special education teachers approach this task differently. General education teachers prefer to determine progress or success through informal observations in the classrooms; when tests are involved, they prefer tests directly based on material taught (as opposed to standardized tests such as the California Achievement Test).44 On the other hand, special educators are generally more data-based.42,45 Further, with smaller classes, special education teachers can be more knowledgeable about their students and can tailor educational programs for specific students.42

Student-Teacher Interaction

With regard to student-teacher interaction in the two settings, results are somewhat inconsistent. One study, which compared the interactions of students with learning disabilities with a group of nondisabled students in general education classes, found that the students with learning disabilities had more interaction with the teachers, but that the teachers asked academic questions and provided feedback more to the students without disabilities.46 Other researchers have found that the proportion of exchanges focused on academic content is greater in special than in general education.44,47

A study of beginning general and special education teachers also found that special educators monitored and praised their students with learning disabilities more than did general educators. During teacher-initiated interactions, the special educators were more likely to provide more answers to their own questions and less likely to ignore students' inattention or disruptive behaviors.48 A follow-up study49 with different general and special education teachers produced similar findings.

Effective Teaching Literature

Some studies comparing instruction in general and special education come from the effective teaching literature. Advocates for inclusion have often cited this literature because they assume that students with mild handicaps are essentially the same as low achievers and will respond well to the same interventions that have been effective with low-achieving students.50 This is a controversial assumption because recent research indicates that there are differences in brain structure and functioning between children with dyslexia (a common learning disability) and other children and that there is a biological and possibly genetic factor in some reading disabilities. (See the article by Lyon in this journal issue.)

One study compared instructional behaviors of general and special education teachers from the perspective of the effective teaching literature to identify behaviors that differentiated teachers whose students had high and low proportions of on-task behavior. Overall, special education teachers were more likely than general educators to monitor student behavior, praise, show positive regard, give the answer, and reject students' verbalizations. More effective general and special education teachers had materials ready, began lessons promptly, oriented learners to the lesson, made assignments more often, exhibited more teacher-directed than student-directed learning, praised student responses more, and had to manage student inattention/disruption less often.49

It appears that differences in instruction between general and special education teachers are common. Some of these differences may be a function of smaller class sizes; others may be related to teachers' professional training. Given the existence of these differences, it is reasonable to ask whether outcomes for students with disabilities are determined more by the setting in which they are educated or by what happens in that setting.