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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

Interventions Designed to Facilitate Increased Placement in General Education

A variety of interventions have been developed to facilitate increased placement of students with disabilities in general education. The goal of each of these interventions is to provide an appropriate education for the special education student in the general education setting. All of the promising interventions require significant resources for implementation, such as smaller class sizes, extensive consultation with specialists, added planning time for teachers, teacher's aides, and ongoing, intensive training.

Most of these interventions show some promise, though none show dramatic or consistent success for all or even most students. However, some of the caveats discussed earlier also apply to this body of research, especially the lack of random assignment. Therefore, the research must be interpreted with care.

These models are briefly described and conclusions summarized in Box 4.

Prereferral Interventions

Efforts to avoid referring students to special education by making instructional accommodations and adaptations for them in general classrooms are reasonably widespread. As of 1989, some 23 states required and 11 states recommended some form of prereferral intervention.82

However, there is limited evidence of the effectiveness of prereferral interventions. Research has generally looked only at whether the intervention succeeded in avoiding referral, not at student outcomes in general education. One review of research between 1961 and 1989 found that only 32 of 119 studies used student academic achievement to determine the success of the intervention.83 Further, much of the research discussed below may have shown positive outcomes because of extra, sometimes intensive, assistance from the investigators. Results from these studies may be difficult or expensive to duplicate.

Several models of prereferral interventions have been tried that involve consultation between two or more teachers (and sometimes specialists), followed by classroom changes targeted toward the problems of the identified student. Interventions range widely and are not described in the research literature. However, in this author's experience, prereferral interventions may include individualized behavior-modification programs, changed seating arrangements, teaching in small steps, or increased monitoring of student progress.

In the Teacher Assistance Team (TAT) model, a team of general education teachers plan classroom modifications for students with special needs; a recent review found that only 21% of students focused on by TATs were referred for special education.84 In another study, referrals were low (7% of targeted students), and teachers had an increased tolerance for a range of student abilities, though not for a wider range of student behaviors.85

Studies of Mainstream Assistance Teams, in which general education teachers consulted with special education teachers to design interventions, showed that teachers initially complained that extensive consultations leading to individualized programs for selected students were too complex and demanded too much time;86 a shorter, less complex form of consultation was equally effective in achieving positive outcomes.87 Students on average achieved between 66% and 72% of daily goals set by teachers.

Postreferral Teacher Consultation

The goal of postreferral consultation is to enable the general educator to deliver special education services in the general education classroom rather than sending special education students to a "resource room" for part of the day. A special educator consults with the general educator regarding the special needs of some students and suggests modified teaching techniques such as behavior management strategies or modified reading instruction.

There are relatively few data-based studies of these consultation programs that examine outcomes for special education students. 83 These studies are not conclusive: reported outcomes may be more related to initial differences among students than to the intervention itself. Two studies88,89 comparing consultative services in general classrooms against pull-out services in resource rooms showed no differences in outcomes. A third study90 in which the special educator provided both consultation and direct services in the general class showed slight improvement over outcomes achieved in resource rooms.

Other studies suggest that the consulting model may hold promise for all students (including nondisabled students) if the model involves additional teaching resources. One study91 of consultation at the first-grade level, where schools added 27% more staff, showed increased achievement across all levels of IQ. Another study found that students in schools using the consulting teacher approach scored higher than comparison schools on measures of achievement.92

Alternative Instructional Methods

Alternative instructional methods in the general classroom involve classwide changes, not individualized modification. As a group, they require lengthy (often multiyear) teacher training, teacher planning time, administrative support, and sometimes additional instructional staff. However, research indicates that these models of instruction are promising for improving outcomes for students with disabilities.

Direct Instruction

Direct instruction (DI) is a comprehensive curriculum, classroom management, and teaching system that includes teaching skills in small sequenced steps, providing immediate feedback, and offering frequent student-teacher interaction. It is designed to be a complete curriculum, rather than a supplement to an existing curriculum, and it requires the use of trained supervisors who work in the classroom.

A meta-analysis of 25 experimental studies of direct instruction involving students with mild, moderate, and severe disabilities found that 53% of the academic and social outcomes favored direct instruction, while no outcome measures favored the comparison treatment.93 Outcomes were assessed in reading, math, language, spelling, writing, health, and social skills. Research suggests that learning under direct instruction appears optimal for students with disabilities when they respond to many questions during the course of a lesson and the teacher provides step-by-step instruction.94 Data support the effectiveness of direct instruction for students with disabilities and also for low-achieving students who might be referred for special education.

Cooperative Learning

In cooperative learning approaches, teachers assign students to heterogeneous teams of four or five to achieve common academic goals.95 Cooperative learning appears to have potential for assisting students with mild disabilities; they progress academically and are perhaps better accepted by their nondisabled peers.

Two models have shown positive academic results for students with disabilities but researchers have not been able to replicate those results consistently. A study of one model, Team Assisted Instruction (TAI), found increased learning in math computations (52% of a grade equivalent more than control students) for "academically handicapped" students,96 though another study with a shorter intervention time (8 weeks versus 24 weeks) had disappointing results.96

Similarly, the Cooperative Integrated Reading and Composition (CIRC) model showed better achievement for mainstreamed special education students in reading comprehension (gained 1.9 grade equivalents more than controls) and vocabulary (gained 1.4 grade equivalents more than controls) in one study,97 while another study of this program with a shorter intervention period (12 weeks versus one year) found no significant differences.97

Positive social outcomes for students with disabilities have been more reliable. Research comparing teams of students working under cooperative and competitive conditions consistently shows significantly more friendship choices of academically and emotionally handicapped students by nondisabled peers in cooperative conditions.98 Another model helped decrease rejection for mainstreamed students but did not increase friendships.99

Studies of whole schools using cooperative learning have shown positive academic and social outcomes. An evaluation after one year of implementation found that students with disabilities in cooperative schools had significantly higher achievement (a 10% to 100% grade equivalent higher than their matched peers in control schools) with regard to reading vocabulary and reading comprehension.95 Students with disabilities in the cooperative schools were also 30% more likely to be selected as friends by classmates.

Implementation of cooperative learning requires special curricular materials, extensive training, substantial time for planning and problem solving among teachers,100 and considerable administrative support. Additional staff members are not required but may be desirable.

Peer Tutoring

Under peer tutoring, students work in pairs or in teams where one member serves as a tutor. While the primary goal of peer tutoring is to improve academic achievement, other goals include development of cooperative work habits and increased positive social interaction. A meta-analysis101 of 19 studies found the performance level of the tutor and tutee were increased more than one-half a standard deviation above the performance level of control groups.

Peer tutoring may facilitate academic growth; however, among students with disabilities, it appears to promote fluency rather than initial acquisition of information. Consequently, it may be that peer tutoring is best used as a supplement to another intervention.

Cognitive Strategy Instruction

The research on children with learning disabilities indicates that these children are inactive learners who lack strategies for attacking problems;102 that is, these students do not understand what strategies can be used to solve problems, and they have difficulty in spontaneously producing appropriate learning strategies.

The Strategies Intervention Model (SIM)103 trains students with learning disabilities to use specific strategies to solve problems and complete tasks independently. Research suggests that the SIM can assist students with learning disabilities to remain in general education classrooms.104 However, the general educator must use specific routines to cue the students with learning disabilities to use these strategies. Without this support, the students do not use the strategies in the general classroom to the same extent they did in the special education resource room, where they originally learned the strategies. The developers of the SIM believe that three to five years are needed to fully train teachers in its use.

Transenvironmental Programming

Transenvironmental programming105 is a process to assist students in special education classrooms to reintegrate into the general education classroom. In the transenvironmental programming model, the special education teacher determines what academic and behavioral skills the student needs to succeed in general education and teaches these skills to students in special education. Once the student has moved to the general classroom, the special educator monitors whether the skills are used by the student in the general classroom.106 Student progress is monitored through frequent testing.

Transenvironmental programming appears to improve student academic progress initially but has not been shown to be sustainable in the general classroom. In one study, a group of students with learning disabilities who were being reintegrated into general education had greater achievement than did members of the control group.105 However, a time-series analysis showed that the improvement occurred only in the special education class. A separate study showed that reading improvement also occurred only in the special education class.107

There is some question as to whether faithful adherence to transenvironmental programming is feasible in general education. Implementation of transenvironmental programming requires considerable specialized teacher training, expertise, and time for evaluation, planning, and consultation between the special educator and the general educator.

Schoolwide Models

Is it possible to enhance the capacity of a school as a whole to meet the needs of all children? One of the priorities of research programs in the Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP) was to develop and evaluate schoolwide models for educating students with disabilities in general education. Three OSEP-funded projects used multiple schoolwide interventions—including teacher consultation, peer tutoring, intensive prereferral services, cognitive strategy instruction, and cooperative learning—toward this end. These three projects created a common base of student outcome data.108 Two projects required inclusion for all students and eliminated resource pull-out programs, while the third project used case-by-case reintegration and retained the continuum of services. Most of the students with disabilities were identified as having learning disabilities.

Outcome data showed that 54% of the students with learning disabilities achieved gains on reading achievement in excess of the standard error of measurement. Fifty-one percent of the students with learning disabilities moved up in standing relative to the nondisabled students in these schools, while the remaining 49% lost ground. Forty percent of the students with disabilities had academic gains of less than half the size of the gain made by the average student without disabilities.

The best outcomes were attained by the project that used


  • case-by-case reintegration of students into mainstream settings (as opposed to reintegration of all students);
  • maintenance, rather than elimination, of the pull-out special education program;
  • ongoing assessment and intensive instruction in special education;
  • transenvironmental programming to increase the similarity of the instruction, curriculum materials, and behavioral expectations between the general and special education classrooms; and
  • frequent, structured meetings between general and special education teachers.