Special Education Programs in the US: Where to Go From Here

There are many things that are unique in America. The land is a melting pot of cultures and yet its citizens find a way to live together without starting a war every other decade. It is a wonder how such a huge land mass can be ruled not by a dictator but by a President that could be booted out of office every four years if the public so desires.

The word “freedom” evokes a different meaning – perhaps a richer meaning – when one is inside the United States of America. There is that healthy tension between the need to see the rule of law prosper and at the same time an eagerness to challenge restrictions every time the citizen’s sense of freedom is being challenged.

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Historians and other social scientists would argue that all of these are due to a history that is also like no other. And here is a little review: America was founded by those who yearn for freedom not only for themselves but to see it experienced by others as well irregardless of race, status, and religious convictions. That was unheard of during those times.

The experience with the British Empire and the successful revolution that earned independence made an indelible mark in American society. This in turn became a guiding philosophy. And today one can see that philosophy at work in the legislation of laws, formulation of policies in the national and local levels and the overall mindset of the people. One of the areas of society that was forever affected by the idea of freedom and the sensitivity to the right of others is the American School System. It has to be said that the path to maturity was never a smooth and easy road. One has only to recall that not so long ago, schools were segregated. But since then, the same ideals of freedom, equality and respect for human rights has echoed in the halls of US schools and the legislative branch of government.

It is therefore not surprising that along with the development of education the concept called special education was integrated into the journey towards progress. It was the right thing to do back then and still is the best course. But it seems many are beginning to question the wisdom of having to spend a lot of money and allocate significant amount of resources for special education. Those in opposition to the special education in general may perhaps be coming from those whose children are not suffering from any form of disability or handicap. Other minor yet critical voices against said special program may be coming from those who just want to question the current practice of resource allocation when it comes to special education. The rest may even be objecting to the current phenomenon of increasing number of children needing special education. This study will try to explore this issue and try to find out what the fuss is all about.

This study would like to find out if there is basis for removing special education programs as practiced in the current school system. If this is not the case then what is the rationale for continuing said programs?

The Emergence of Special Education

There are at least two related ideas that try to give an explanation why America is currently experiencing the kind of special education programs in the present. These illustrate the why critical voices are being heard against the current state of special education programs.

The first one comes from Richardson, in his book about the institutional shape of special education; he traced the humble beginnings of this specialized teaching as far back as when America was a struggling new nation. Richardson asserted that when the United States was being formed there were forces that at work that no one was prepared to handle and he wrote:

When states established a compulsory system of primary education, schools lost a measure of control over admission, and the composition of students became more diverse. This diversity was economic and cultural, but was highlighted by physical and mental differences. (1999)

It is indeed easy to understand where Richardson is coming from. With freedom comes a lot of deregulation. No one can impose anything that is too rigid for the public after all this is democracy. This resulted in the loss of control. There is nothing more irritating and disheartening to any school administrator than the loss of control. Using this line of thinking Richardson then remarked that what the system did to fix this anomaly came in the form of redefining classification of students. Richardson then elaborated on this point by saying, “A response of schools to this diminished control was the construction of an ungraded or special class that gave to public schools a measure of control within their jurisdiction and secured a ‘site’ for the development of special education categories” (1999).

The second explanation accounting for the rise of special education was given by Scott B. Sigmon, and he asserted that:

On the most basic level, any form of schooling is predicated upon a set of beliefs, values or ideology […] the same holds true with special education. At first, there was no education for the handicapped, then institutionalization, then special classes, etc. (1990)

The Importance of Special Education

It is easy to understand why special education programs must be integrated in the school systems of the United States. It is a common fact that not all are born equal. There are those who were born with deficiencies and defects that make them unable to compete or just plainly grow in the same speed and ease as other children. Yet even if there is no real equality in physical and mental attributes, the law still sees everyone as equal. So with regards to the educational system the only way to break this impasse is to create a program for kids with special needs. That is the only way where equality can be practiced.

The other reason for the need in the continuance of special education programs lies in the simple truth that society will benefit from taking pains in educating the handicapped, disabled, impaired, and all those with special needs. The world will be a better place and this is not empty talk; this is based on a rationale view coming from the proven positive effects of education. The government is therefore on the right track in its campaign to allow access to as many children as possible.

The Challenges

If nothing is involved, no one would care. The thing is, special education is very costly. Not only in terms of the money needed to support such programs but also on the significant channeling of human resources. The best teachers are needed in this field because kids require a lot of nurture and more sophisticated teaching techniques in order to catch up with the “normal” kids. In the world of resource allocation, special education programs will always be an item that needed to be discussed over and over again until efficiency can be expected each and every time or until cost could be brought to a minimum.

If cost is the primary concern for those against funding future expansion of special education then the best thing to start is in the classification of students. According to Lyn Gelzheiser, “One’s model of disability is a concept which shapes how disability is seen. A model of disability enhances the importance of certain factors related to a handicapping condition and conceals the importance of other factors” (1990). Logic then dictates that it is of utmost important to have a correct model but as pointed earlier by Sigmon, school systems are made up of ideology, beliefs and traditions. These factors can cause problems and in fact Gelzheiser already made that conclusion when she said, “The identification of students as learning disabled is one aspect of special education where appropriate practice is debated and innovations have been recommended.” (1990).

A more systematic and scientific classification is needed. The following categories explain that need: specific learning disabilities (SLD), mentally retarded (MR), speech or language impaired (SI), and seriously emotionally disturbed (SED). Unfortunately the problem with being able to correctly identify the correct category for each child is just the tip of the iceberg.

A more serious problem is the way special education programs are being integrated in American school systems and how the concepts within these programs are being practiced. Hagerty and Abramson assert that focus must be given on the obvious overlap and conflict between special education and regular type of education. Hagerty and Abramson were never oblivious to the extreme difficulty of the challenge being faced by school and government officials with regards to change and they explain why:

While considerable uniformity exists about the general changes needed (for both special and regular education), specific and, at times, far-reaching change is difficult to detect. This is particularly true where independent and dual systems of education exit, such as “regular” and “special,” each with its own pattern of funding, instruction, and administration […] Such a dual system perpetuates inefficiency and unnecessary competition in the delivery of educational services to all students.(1990)

Possible Solutions

The direction that could be taken by the Federal government and the education officials for each state, is to go with guidelines for changed gleaned from a “…spate of national reports and manifestos generated by both public groups” (Hagerty ; Abramson, 1990). The following components must be improved with an eye towards special education:

The establishment of clear educational goals in the local, state, and federal sectors.
The level of measurable, meaningful student performance.
The competence and training of current practitioners and the new teachers.
The curricular content and instruction available to all students at all levels of education.
The accountability of school systems and the investment of the public in education.
The management, leadership and fiscal support of educational system.
An example of how to proceed is an intervention technique called the Strategic Intervention Model. The advocates of this method explain how this works, “This approach has been designed to teach students how to learn rather to teach students specific curriculum content” (Deshler ; Schumaker, 1990). The proponents of this intervention method argue on the need for handicapped children to learn sets of skills that will prepare them for a much tougher secondary level of education. If content is the emphasis then the children will not only fail the class but they will also have no way of going further into the educational system. The consequence is plain to see: 1) waste of time and money in the formative years for there was basically no learning done; 2) handicapped kids are unnecessary barred from higher learning.


Scott Sigmon is determined to know what is going on in America’s school system. What he found out did not go well with him and he wants to make a difference. With regards to what he felt and as part of his understanding of the intricate web of policies, ideology and traditions that are influencing how schools are run, Sigmon quoted a portion of Kenneth Clark’s comments regarding truth:

Truth is more complex, multifaceted and value-determined that is the usual fact. Fact is empirical while truth is interpretative. Fact is, in itself, unrelated to value: it merely is. Truth, as the understanding – in the fullest sense – of fact, is related to value, and, for that reason, more fully human. (1990).

The above statements about the difference between fact and truth may well be the needed qualifier that can break the deadlock between two opposing camps. These two groups were seen early on determined to make their respective opinions heard and embraced by the public. The first one would love to put a halt to the current expansion of special education programs while the second group would prefer a continuous implementation and expansion of special education programs.

The deadlock was brought about by the following facts: 1) fact 1 – Special Education Program are expensive; 2) fact 2 – taxpayers money channeled to Special Education Programs were not spent in an efficient manner based on cases of misdiagnosis and the lack of a system for accurate classification of student capabilities; 3) fact 3 – P.L. 94-142 The Education of All Handicapped Children Act.

Now is the time to use Clark’s ideas about fact and truth. In order to break the stalemate truth is needed to come between the two camps. The truth is simple. America cannot turn its back against less fortunate children. America has a moral responsibility to educate the next generation. It does not matter what the facts say or what the numbers say, America has to do it.

Therefore the next step is not to scrap Special Education Programs but to modify and reform it in order for the school system to measure up to the truth.