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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

Outcomes in Special Education

Outcomes for students in special education are highly variable, reflecting the great diversity in the nature, degree, and co-occurrence of disabilities experienced by individual students. Three points are made in the following discussion: (1) much of the research on the effectiveness of special education is characterized by methodological problems; (2) the studies that have most strongly criticized special education, and are commonly cited by inclusion advocates, are somewhat outdated; and (3) studies of the effectiveness of special education can best be interpreted by grouping students with different types of disabilities, as summarized in Box 3.

Caveats Concerning Research

Studies of outcomes for special education students under various conditions are often characterized by methodological problems. Sample sizes are frequently small. Random assignment is rare because it would violate the student's IDEA guarantee of individually determined appropriate interventions. (See the article by Martin and Martin in this journal issue.) Further, comparison groups are unlikely to be truly comparable because students who are educated in more restrictive settings are likely to differ from other students in important but unmeasured ways, such as exhibiting more disruptive behavior.

The appropriateness of the measuring instruments used in many older studies of the efficacy of special education has been criticized. Because the progress of some students with disabilities is slow, the effects of an intervention in a small sample might be too small to be picked up by a standardized test.51 Further, studies reported in grade-equivalent scores can seriously exaggerate a student's progress or lack of progress.52

In addition, most school systems and state departments of education do not accumulate information on the academic achievement of students in special education. With few exceptions, schools routinely exclude special education students from schoolwide standardized testing.

Finally, outcome research in special education is commonly conducted by university-based researchers (including this author) who also design and supervise the implementation of the intervention in question, frequently providing substantial support to the classroom teacher. This degree of support is unlikely to exist in typical practice.

With these caveats, studies of outcomes for special education students under various conditions are reviewed in this section.

Older Studies Cited by Advocates

Proponents of inclusion frequently cite some older studies of the efficacy of special education as proof that special education does not work;53 however, this conclusion oversimplifies the results of these studies. In fact, this body of research should be viewed with caution.

It should be noted that these older studies were done so long ago that their relevance to today's classroom practices and student characteristics is questionable.54 There have been historical changes in such classifications as educable mental retardation (EMR), so that results of older efficacy studies of students with EMR may not be generalizable to the current population of students with EMR.55

Both Carlberg and Kavale56 and Wang and Baker57 conducted meta-analyses of a number of efficacy studies comparing general versus special class placement. Carlberg and Kavale,56 who examined the results of 50 studies, found that placement in general rather than special education classes resulted in better outcomes for students with mild retardation but poorer outcomes for students with learning disabilities or behavioral/ emotional problems. Similarly, Wang and Baker,57 who meta-analyzed 11 studies, concluded that placement in special education worked best for students with hearing impairments and worked well for students with mild retardation; however, it was not successful for students with learning disabilities. (It should be noted that Wang and Baker analyzed outcomes for students with hearing impairments only in terms of attitudes toward school and toward other students. They analyzed outcomes for students with mild retardation primarily in terms of attitudes, but measured outcomes for learning disabled students in terms of academic performance.)

Other researchers reviewed studies of outcomes associated with various types of placements. One review of the research literature58 reached the same conclusion as Carlberg and Kavale, that is, that students with learning disabilities or emotional/ behavioral problems were better off in special education resource rooms than in general education classrooms. A second review59 found "weak evidence" of improved educational and emotional outcomes in less restrictive environments, although these reviewers, as well as the authors of a third review,52 stated that the intervention itself, rather than the setting in which it is implemented, is related to student academic progress.

Although these older meta-analyses and literature reviews are still presented as evidence that special education is ineffective, in fact the authors of the meta-analyses concluded that special education was preferable for students with learning disabilities or emotional disorders. It is also important to remember that the research on which these studies are based cannot be assumed to reflect current teaching practices and current student populations.

Recent Studies of Outcomes in Special Education and in Effective Schools

First, this section examines outcomes for students with specific disabilities (summarized in Box 3). Then, this section considers studies of students without disabilities when students with disabilities are included in the classroom, concluding that no negative impacts have been indicated, though the research base is small. Finally, a discussion of generalized efforts to improve instruction for all students (the "school effectiveness" movement) concludes that improving the effectiveness of schools may do little to meet the special academic needs of students with disabilities.

Effectiveness of Special Education for Students with Disabilities

It is not possible to reach broad conclusions about all students with disabilities, and even within groupings, caution should be exercised. Distinctions between categories of disability are not absolute. Within categories, there is a wide range of severity, with and without co-occurring conditions.

Though caution is appropriate, it is necessary to consider some broad groupings of students with somewhat similar conditions to understand their needs and the services they require.


  • Students with Learning Disabilities. Students with learning disabilities (LD) constitute the largest single category of children with disabilities. (See the Child Indicators article by Lewit and Baker in this journal issue.) In general, studies conducted since 1980 indicate slightly better academic outcomes for students with learning disabilities who are served in special education settings. When these same students are served in general education settings, they have poorer self-concepts. The latter finding may be related to data showing that students with learning disabilities have one of the highest dropout rates of any group of students with disabilities. (See the article by Wagner and Blackorby in this journal issue.)

Special education settings appear to be superior in two recent studies,60,61 which compared academic outcomes for students with learning disabilities who were placed at different times in general and special education settings. A time-series analysis allowed researchers to compare the performance of the same students in each of the settings. One study60 of 11 poor readers who subsequently were diagnosed as having learning disabilities showed that these students gained nearly twice as many new reading words per week in special education as they had in general education. A separate study61 of 21 students with learning disabilities who had been in special education classes and returned to general education showed that the students made small but steady gains while in special education, but made no gains in general education.

While most research on the performance of students with learning disabilities has taken place in elementary schools, some has been done at the high school level. A study62 comparing the performance of secondary students with learning disabilities and their low-achieving nondisabled peers found that ninth-grade students with learning disabilities who were taught in general education had an average grade point average (GPA) of 0.99, significantly lower than the already low 1.38 GPA of the nondisabled students who were classified as low achieving. Additionally, 20% of the students with learning disabilities failed the ninth grade; during their ninth-grade year, 79% earned a D or less in social studies, 69% earned a D or less in science, and 63% earned a D or less in health. These results corroborate earlier studies23,63 showing that most secondary students with learning disabilities pass their classwork, although one study23 indicated that general educators give students with learning disabilities a grade of D simply for attending class. Thus, it is not known how much actual learning was taking place, but it is clear the students with learning disabilities placed in general education were not achieving even at the level of nondisabled, low-achieving students.

Research suggests that the self-concept of students with learning disabilities improves the most in the most segregated settings, despite the assertion by some proponents of inclusion that children with mild handicaps will improve in their self-perceptions when placed full time in general education.64 Various studies have found that (1) children with learning disabilities in general education classes had significantly poorer self-perceptions of academic competence and behavior than their nondisabled classmates,65 (2) students with learning disabilities who spent part of the day in resource room programs thought of themselves as more competent academically than did similar students who spent all day in general classes,66 and (3) the self-concept of students with learning disabilities who spent all day in special education classes was higher than that of similar students who spent one or two hours per day in special education resource classes.67


  • Students with Emotional/Behavioral Disorders and/or Serious Emotional Disturbance. As noted earlier, research consistently finds that general education teachers will not tolerate disruptive, aggressive, oppositional, defiant, or dangerous behaviors.68 Both elementary and secondary teachers are concerned that students follow classroom rules, listen to and comply with teacher directives, and carry out decisions—in short, behave in an orderly fashion. By definition, students with emotional/ behavioral disorders (EBD) or serious emotional disturbance (SED) have significant difficulty in these areas.

An article describing the characteristics and outcomes of children with serious emotional disturbance appeared in the summer/ fall 1995 issue of this journal.69 The author concluded that improved long-term outcomes (employment, post-school education, and residential independence) for students with serious emotional disturbance were associated with parental involvement, vocational education, and social integration into the school through participation in sports or other groups. Another critical factor was appropriate placement: higher-functioning students with serious emotional disturbance benefitted socially and held constant in academic achievement when returned to general education. However, lower-functioning students (those with more course failures) were more likely to drop out of school altogether when placed in general education.

Students with serious emotional disturbance who have the most severe problems may be taught in a separate school or residential treatment program. Logically, these students are more likely to be accepted in a less restrictive environment if teachers in both the special and general schools are able to devote time and resources to planning and carrying out the transition.

That, indeed, was the finding of one recent study involving the resource-intensive reintegration of 10 students with emotional/ behavioral disorders from a self-contained day school into neighborhood schools.70 The intervention consisted of 18 weeks of planning and intervention. Research staff spent an average of 20 hours per week for 18 weeks working with school personnel, while special and general education teachers spent 10 and 8 hours, respectively, on transition activities. This intensive use of resources appeared to be effective. One of the 10 students entered a mainstream class, while the other 9 were placed in special education classes in the public school. Only 5 students in a comparison group of 10 EBD students were reintegrated into public school settings. The students who received the intervention were considerably more positive about their adjustment in the public school, and the behavior of the comparison students was more disruptive in the public school than that of the students who received supportive interventions.


  • Students with Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. Children identified as having attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) have behavioral problems involving poor impulse control, attention deficits, and sometimes hyperactivity. A diagnosis of ADHD does not by itself make a student eligible for special education, though some of these children qualify under one or more of the disability categories spelled out in the IDEA. While children with ADHD may or may not be considered disabled under the IDEA, they often show improved behavior in school if they receive medication as prescribed by a physician. A review71 of research on the use of stimulants (for example, Ritalin) on children identified as having ADHD, suggests that stimulants are successful in the temporary management of hyperactivity, inattention, impulsivity, aggression, social interactions, and academic productivity. However, there is no evidence to indicate that significant improvement of reading skills, social skills, learning, or of achievement results from medication.


  • Students with Hearing Impairments. One literature review72 concluded that, on average, hard-of-hearing students do not perform as well as normal-hearing children in any setting and that the difference in performance increases with age. The same researchers also concluded tentatively that hearing-impaired students gain some academic advantage but suffer regarding self-concept in mainstreamed classes. The development of auditory/oral skills appears critical to the success of hard-of-hearing students in mainstream settings. A study involving such students, 90% of whom received support services from speech/hearing teachers or from teachers of deaf students, found that the three factors most related to their academic performance were oral communication, personality (for example, motivation, self-concept), and linguistic competence.73 The students in this study were not so impaired as to need an interpreter in the classroom. Students with more profound hearing loss who use manual sign language might have great difficulty in general education classrooms: manual sign language has its own rules of grammar, and teachers who use standard English may not be effective at communicating complex concepts to these students within the constraints of a general education classroom.74


  • Students with Educable Mental Retardation. While definitions vary, students with educable mental retardation (EMR) generally have intelligence quotients (IQs) between 50 and 70, combined with deficits in adaptive behavior. Research suggests that such aspects of the educational environment as teacher characteristics, instruction, and classroom climate may be even more important to the success of students with EMR than they are to other students.

In one of the most extensive studies involving students with educable mental retardation and nondisabled students,42 the academic achievement of students with educable mental retardation was predicted by a variety of classroom environment factors (teaching style, classroom climate), while that of non-handicapped students was predicted by their family background (parents' education, economic status). Variations in the classroom environment accounted for nearly a quarter of the variance in the social acceptance or rejection of the students with mental retardation by their peers. The classroom factors associated with better outcomes for students with educable mental retardation were active involvement of the students in teacher-directed and supervised instruction (as opposed to passive individual seatwork) and the use of cooperative learning approaches, which promoted students' frequent interaction with non-handicapped peers.


  • Students with Severe Mental Disabilities. Of all disability groupings, the students with severe/profound mental disabilities (generally with an IQ below 50) and those with emotional disturbance are the most likely to spend their school time in restricted, isolated settings. Lessening this social isolation is a major goal expressed by severely mentally disabled students and their parents, and research on this group has examined social outcomes rather than academic performance. Social interaction between severely disabled students and nondisabled students has increased in more integrated settings.75

Students with severe disabilities have been successfully reintegrated into neighborhood schools, and others have successfully avoided placement in restricted, residential settings. In one study,76 researchers developed, field tested, and evaluated an intervention to return students with severe mental limitations from residential placements to their neighborhood schools and/or to avoid placing other students in residential programs. Considerable external support was provided by university researchers in the form of technical assistance and access to specialists such as "integration facilitators," speech/language pathologists, occupational therapists, and paraprofessionals. Of 77 students in this study, 58 successfully made the transition to their home school and avoided re-referral to an out-of-school residential placement; the remaining students continued to be maintained in general education classes in their home schools.

The Effects of Inclusion on Students Without Disabilities

Parents and teachers often have expressed concerns about the likely impact on students without disabilities when children with special needs are moved to the general classroom. Although the body of literature examining this issue is small, in general these studies have indicated that students without disabilities do not suffer from being in classes also serving students with mild disabilities (learning disabilities or mild behavior disorders) or severe mental disabilities.

Nondisabled elementary students have shown no difference on California Achievement Test scores, whether they were assigned to typical classes or to an Integrated Classroom Model (ICM), a highly structured class composed of one-third students with and two-thirds students without disabilities.77

Similarly, nondisabled students have benefitted academically from a program78 that created an integrated classroom composed of one-third mildly disabled students and two-thirds nondisabled students. These classes also had two teachers, giving a low teacher-to-student ratio of about 1 to 14. The nondisabled students in the integrated classes benefitted most in a comprehensive test of reading, math, and language skills, showing greater gains than both nondisabled students in general classes and students with disabilities in integrated classes.

In an analysis of behavior and time management, one study79 examined the behavior of 89 nondisabled students in grades 1 through 5 in five classrooms where 11 students with learning disabilities had been placed for an eight-month period. When the students with learning disabilities were added to the class, the non-handicapped students spent the same amount of time (35% to 40%) in academic instruction; nonacademic behavior decreased significantly during math instruction. Further, the time devoted to waiting and classroom management activities decreased significantly in reading.

Research on the integration of students with severe mental disabilities has emphasized the social and emotional benefits to nondisabled children and teachers, showing increased awareness of the needs of persons with disabilities, increased levels of social development in nondisabled children, increased willingness to work with students with disabilities, and increased skills for teachers.80

Studies Based on School Effectiveness Literature

Theoretically, "effective schools" should be well matched to the classroom needs of special education students. Characteristics of effective schools include improved academic achievement, strong educational leadership, an orderly school climate, high achievement expectations, systematic monitoring of student performance, and an emphasis on basic skills. While the literature on effective schools is large, few studies examine the outcomes of special education students. However, research suggests that making schools more "effective" will not eliminate the need for special education. Two studies discussed below have demonstrated only modest gains for special education students in effective schools, while another has shown a negative impact.

One project,45 studying 2,604 students in grades 1 through 6 at 32 schools, indicated that effective schools facilitate inclusion of special education students. Researchers found that students with mild disabilities in integrated programs in effective schools had better academic achievement and better social behavior than did similar students in special education classes in similar effective schools. However, these students consistently did more poorly than their low-achieving but nondisabled classmates. Another study of 758 students (255 in special education, the remainder low achieving) showed some positive academic impact for students with mild disabilities attending effective schools but not enough to bring the special education students to the level of the low-achieving nondisabled students.45

On the other hand, a study of 58 effective schools81 showed a negative relationship between general education students' reading performance (on the California Achievement Test) and that of special education students (on the Basic Academic Skills Sample).