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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


What Works in Educating Students with Disabilities?

The intervention studies cited above suggest that these various intervention models can, in some instances, have a positive impact in (1) improving academic outcomes for students with disabilities, (2) improving relationships between students with and without disabilities, or (3) reducing referrals for special education.

However, these studies also indicate that, even when academic outcomes for students with disabilities are positive, no intervention eliminates the impact of having a disability on a student's level of achievement. In no study did the students with disabilities achieve commensurately with their nondisabled peers. Even when relationships between students with and without disabilities are the focus, the research suggests that acceptance rather than friendship is the more likely outcome.

Further, the interventions that were effective in improving academic outcomes for students with disabilities required a considerable investment of resources. As a group, these interventions involved intensive retraining of teachers; ongoing support, supervision, and technical assistance from university faculty and other outside staff; supplementary curricular materials and training manuals; and administrative support from school or district personnel, particularly in providing time for training, planning, and various types of meetings. Also, both the intervention and descriptive research included in this article indicate that other supports—for example, smaller class sizes—may be required. Some researchers argue that, given the effort required by these interventions, teachers should volunteer for this work, not be forced to participate. However, this could affect the proportion of children with disabilities who would be in each volunteer teacher's classroom.

This research suggests that the most effective interventions for students with disabilities have the following characteristics: a case-by-case approach to decision making about student instruction and placement; intensive and reasonably individualized instruction combined with very close cooperation between general and special education teachers; and careful, frequent monitoring of student progress. All of these elements require significant teacher time and supportive resources.

Is Placement the Critical Factor?

There is no compelling evidence that placement is the critical factor in student academic or social success; the classroom environment and quality of instruction have more impact than placement per se on the success of students with disabilities. Unfortunately, descriptive research on the condition of general education indicates that typical practice is different from the model programs that showed greatest success for students with disabilities. There is little evidence of the capacity of general educators as a group to make the extensive changes that are needed to facilitate more, and more successful, mainstreaming or inclusion, particularly if adequate resources are lacking.

The research does not support inclusion for all students with disabilities. On the contrary, it appears that there is a clear need for special education to continue, through preservation of the continuum of services. At the same time, the research indicates that, given adequate resources, more students could be assisted to become more successful in general education settings.

What Are the Cost Implications?

Inclusion is not likely to lead to savings in the costs of education. Referring fewer students for special education and reducing the current expensive requirement of individual assessments should lead to some savings. It is unclear whether or to what extent current special education staffs would be reduced or retained. Depending on circumstances, special educators might be needed to operate pull-out resource rooms, consult with general educators, or work on a regular basis in the general classroom.

The interventions described in this article required considerable investment of expensive resources. Possible savings mentioned above might be offset because school districts might need to (1) hire more teachers or more paraprofessionals to handle increased membership in general education classes and (2) provide considerable amounts of ongoing professional development activities to general educators and paraprofessionals. Increased time probably would be required for planning instruction and for problem solving about individual students, which in turn would demand innovative scheduling and release time.

In summary, research does not support assertions such as those in The Wall Street Journal or U.S. News and World Report that special education is cheating students academically or socially or that it costs more than adequately educating students with disabilities in general education settings. Instead, research supports the continuation of efforts to improve academic and social outcomes for students with disabilities in both special and general education settings and indicates that instruction, not setting, is the key to achievement of success as measured by student outcomes.