What is Special Education?
Special Education in Schools
What is special education? Many educators today are thinking about how to meet the needs of a diverse range of learners effectively. Special education is that aspect of schools and teaching that is devoted to meeting the needs of learners with cognitive, developmental, emotional and behavioral disabilities. These are usually disabilities that impact students' capacity to participate in school.
A special education teacher is a teacher who has completed extra coursework in special education. Usually, becoming a special education teacher involves taking classes on developmental variations and on how to modify curriculum and instruction to meet the needs of learners with disabilities. Some special educators may specialize, for instance, in teaching students with autism or with emotional and behavioral disabilities.
Special education varies from one setting to another and from one state to the next. In general, the teacher's goal for special education is to do the best they can to help students' learn regardless of any diagnoses or disabilities they carry. Special education sometimes gets conflated with remedial education, or teaching and curriculum that is designed to close gaps in what students have previously learned. While there is sometimes overlap between remedial and special education, special education usually focuses more directly and definitively on meeting the needs of students with special needs.
Most special education teachers focus on working with students who have formal IEPs, or individualized education plans. These plans define clear goals for annual progress for students in the special education system. Special education teachers often work in close communication with families, but also with general education teachers and ancillary service providers, like physical therapists, occupational therapists, and speech and language pathologists, as well as guidance counselors and school psychologists.
Special Education Acronyms
Understanding special education is not always simple. There are many special education acronyms, and learning what these acronyms stand for and overall represent is a big part of understanding special education practice today.
Today, special education is often used in the context of RTI, or response to intervention. RTI frameworks involve offering students tiered supports depending on their level of need, so that students with the most severe need get the most specialized and intensive interventions in school.
Another important acronym in special education is SLD, or specific learning disability. Students with SLDs need support to help them with reading and writing, or math, specifically, in spite of an overall strong cognitive capacity.
Some special education acronyms also have to do with policies and laws. For example, IDEA stands for the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act. This law covers the basic guidelines for how students with disabilities are meant to be educated. For example, the IDEA states that students should be schooled in the LRE, or least restrictive environment that can still meet their educational needs.
Most special education teachers will learn how to read an IEP, or individualized education plan. This is a document that articulates students' goals and plans for achieving them. The same teachers might learn to complete an FBA, or a functional behavior assessment. This assessment gives teachers a sense of what students are capable of behaviorally. Some students with autism might be educated according to a BIP, or behavior intervention plan.
In addition to students with learning disabilities and developmental delays, special educators often help support students with OHI, or other health impairments.
History of Special Education
The history of special education in American schools is complicated and checkered, with a tremendous amount of discrimination against students with disabilities. Key court cases over the years, and especially over the course of the second part of the twentieth century, helped significantly in reducing the amount of discrimination that students with disabilities face in schools. Some key cases include PARC vs. the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, which gave students with mental disabilities the right to due process under the law. The Rehabilitation Act Section 504 further allows accommodations for students with temporary disabilities and medical needs that impact their ability to participate in school.
A major court case that impacted all Americans with disabilities was the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990. This in turn led to the passing of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act of 2004, which has four parts stipulating the key things that students with disabilities should have legal access to as a part of their education. One of the most important guarantees of the act is the right to a free and appropriate public education regardless of cognitive and mental status. The act also provides procedural safeguards, or protocols that students with disabilities and their families can follow if they are being discriminated against in school.
Many of the current trends in special education arise from trying to understand what it means to offer a fair and equitable access to education while also meeting the needs of a diverse set of learners. For instance, many schools today are thinking about mainstreaming vs. inclusion, learning that there are advantages and disadvantages to putting students with special needs in the mainstream classroom.
Special Education Law
In many senses, the history of special education is a legal history as well as a social one, and special education law is important to understand. The federal government plays an important role in education overall, and of course federal support and funding have made a big difference in special education as well. For example, even federal decisions about what officially constitutes a disability have impacted special education. Civil rights movements over time have impacted cultural as well as legal and political views on the rights of Americans with disabilities. Just a few of the many laws governed by federal policy include regulations for Section 504 and how it should be handled in schools, regulations governing the differences between IEPs and 504 plans, and some regulations regarding what must go into an IEP to make it legally appropriate.
In the United States, many issues and laws governing education are decided on the state level. In addition, some special education issues are determined and funded at an even more local level within a particular school district. Still, even at this local level, it is important for parents and students to know that some basic constitutional rights govern the needs of students with disabilities.
Further, some might be surprised to know that federal laws like the ADA and the IDEA are also relevant in private and parochial schools. There are even laws and guidelines governing how students can qualify for special education services. A careful knowledge of special education law can aid in the formation of an IEP team as well as in using an IEP appropriately.
One important legal issue in special education today has to do with discipline. Many schools and teachers are learning more about how to address disciplinary issues in the classroom in a more just and fair way. This might include learning more about the disciplinary cycle that has historically caused unfair problems within the legal system for individuals with disabilities.