Special Education

Updated on Sep 2, 2010

As defined by U. S. law, special education is: “specially designed instruction, at no cost to parents, to meet the unique needs of a child with a disability, including instruction conducted in the classroom, in the home, in hospitals and institutions, and other settings; and instruction in physical education” (Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act, 2004) 20 U.S.C. § 1401 (29). The law also stipulates that students with disabilities are entitled to related services, as needed. Related services include such services as transportation, occupational and physical therapy, and psychological, counseling, speech/language pathology, audiology, and interpreting services.


For most students with disabilities, “specially designed instruction” is defined as involving intensive, relentless, structured, appropriately paced instruction, in small groups in which each student's progress is monitored frequently (Kauffman & Hallahan, 2005). According to Kauffman and Hallahan, all of these characteristics should usually be more evident in special education than is typically the case in general education. Intensive instruction translates into more teacher instructional time and more opportunities for students to respond to the instruction and more time to practice and review what they have learned. Relentless instruction involves repeating this sequence or parts of this sequence more often than is typically done with non-disabled students. Structured instruction refers to teachers being more directive, instituting more explicit rules, and providing more frequent consequences for appropriate or inappropriate behavior. The pace of the instruction in special education is tailored more to the needs of the student and is often slower, with teachers waiting for a longer period of time for a response after querying the student. Instruction in small groups facilitates the intensity, relentlessness, structured nature, and the individualized pace of instruction. Moreover, specially designed instruction means that a student's progress in learning is monitored frequently, often several times per week.

In addition to these general principles of instruction that apply to most students with disabilities, there are some that apply to specific categories of special education students. For example, for students with blindness or low vision, the “specialized designed instruction” may take the form of reading materials in Braille, large print, or audio recordings, and instruction in the use of a cane for mobility. For students who are deaf or hard of hearing, the instruction may involve sign language or hearing aids. Additionally, for students with emotional or behavioral disorders, instruction may require highly structured classrooms and teaching routines and use of functional behavioral assessment (FBA) and positive behavioral intervention and support (PBIS). FBA involves determining what factors help to set off and maintain inappropriate behaviors. And PBIS emphasizes “rewarding positive behavior, to make problem behavior less effective, efficient, and relevant and to make desired behavior more functional” (Hallahan, Kauffman, & Pullen, 2009, pp. 163–164).


Students served by special education fall into 13 disability categories. In order of prevalence they are learning disabilities, speech or language impairments, mental retardation, emotional disturbance, other health impairments (including attention deficit hyperactivity disorder), multiple disabilities, autism, orthopedic impairments, hearing impairments, developmental delay, visual impairments, traumatic brain injury, deaf-blindness. The federal government has provided definitions for each of these categories in order to give guidance to schools in finding students eligible for special education services.

Learning Disabilities. Students with learning disabilities are by far the largest category of special education, comprising between 5 and 6 percent of the school-age population and nearly half of all students identified for special education services. Although its historical roots can be traced back to work done in the 1800s in Europe (Halla-han & Mercer, 2002), learning disabilities as a condition and as a discipline was not formally recognized until the 1960s and 1970s. A major reason for the eventual recognition of learning disabilities as a condition warranting special education services came from parents and professionals who pointed out that there were many students who, although not scoring low enough on intelligence tests to qualify as mentally retarded, were nevertheless still displaying learning problems, especially in reading.

The federal definition of learning disabilities is as follows:

  • General—The term “specific learning disability” means a disorder in one or more of the basic psychological processes involved in understanding or in using language, spoken or written, which disorder may manifest itself in an imperfect ability to listen, think, speak, read, write, spell, or do mathematical calculations.).
  • Disorders Included—Such term includes such conditions as perceptual disabilities, brain injury, minimal brain dysfunction, dyslexia, and developmental aphasia.).
  • Disorders Not Included—Such term does not include a learning problem that is primarily the result of visual, hearing, or motor disabilities, of mental retardation, of emotional disturbance, or of environmental, cultural, or economic disadvantage (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act Amendments of 1997, Sec. 602(26), p. 13.).

Speech or Language Impairments. Speech impairments include disorders of articulation, fluency, and/or voice (American Speech-Language-Hearing Association, 1993). Articulation disorders often result from neuromuscular abnormalities resulting in omission, substitution, or distortion of speech sounds. Fluency refers to being able to produce smooth speech flow. Disorders of voice include such characteristics as abnormal pitch, loudness, or resonance.

Language impairments can include problems in production and/or comprehension that violate the rules of language pertaining to phonology, morphology, syntax, semantics, or pragmatics. Phonology rules govern how speech sounds are sequenced. Morphology refers to parts of words that indicate such factors as verb tense and plurals. Syntax involves word order that reflects proper grammar. Semantics refers to the meanings of words and sentences, and pragmatics involves using language for social purposes.

Mental Retardation. Most professionals use the definition of mental retardation provided by the American Association on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities (AAIDD): “Mental retardation is a disability characterized by significant limitations both in intellectual functioning and in adaptive behavior as expressed in conceptual, social, and practical adaptive skills. This disability originates before age 18” (AAMR Ad Hoc Committee on Terminology and Classification, 2002, p. 1). The AAIDD considers the following five points as crucial to understanding the context of the definition:

  1. Limitations in present functioning must be considered within the context of community environments typical of the individual's age peers and culture.
  2. Valid assessment considers cultural and linguistic diversity as well as differences in communication, sensory, motor, and behavioral factors.
  3. Within an individual, limitations often coexist with strengths.
  4. An important purpose of describing limitations is to develop a profile of needed supports.
  5. With appropriate personalized supports over a sustained period, the life functioning of the person with mental retardation (intellectual disability) generally will improve. (AAMR Ad Hoc Committee on Terminology and Classification, 2002, p. 1).

Emotional Disturbance. There is considerable controversy concerning the definition of emotional disturbance, which stems from the relatively subjective nature of the condition. In fact, even though the federal government uses the term emotionally disturbed, there are many professionals who prefer the term emotional or behavioral disorders because it more accurately conveys the socialization problems these students exhibit.

With respect to definition, many authorities agree on the following three features of emotional or behavioral disorders:

  • Behavior that goes to an extreme—that is not just slightly different from the usual;
  • A problem that is chronic—one that does not quickly disappear; and
  • Behavior that is unacceptable because of social or cultural expectations (Hallahan et al., 2009).

Other Health Impairments. According to the federal definition, other health impairments (OHIs) are medical conditions, such as asthma, diabetes, epilepsy, sickle cell anemia, which impair to such a degree that they adversely affect a student's educational performance. The key to the definition is that the condition must interfere with the student's educational performance. For example, not all students who have asthma have it to such a degree that it affects their ability to function in school.

Students with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) are also included in the federal government's category of OHI. The American Psychiatric Association (2000) recognizes three types of ADHD: (1) ADHD, predominantly inattentive type; (2) ADHD, predominantly hyperactive-impulsive type; (3) ADHD, combined type.

The reason behind the decision to place ADHD in the OHI category is an interesting lesson in disability advocacy and politics (Hallahan et al., 2009). In the late 1980s and early 1990s, parents of affected children lobbied intensely for ADHD as a new category of special education. Many surmise that the U. S. Department of Education was worried about creating yet another category, especially one that could potentially attract large numbers of students. Therefore, in 1991, they came up with the compromise of stating that students with ADHD could receive special education services if they were identified as having OHI, i.e., had a condition that interfered with their educational performance, thus leaving open the possibility that some students with ADHD would not meet the criteria of OHI because their educational performance was not adversely affected.

Multiple Disabilities. The multiple disabilities category consists of students who have two or more disabilities, “the combination of which causes such severe educational problems that they cannot be accommodated in special education programs solely for one of the impairments” (34 CFR, Sec. 300 [b][6]).

Autism. Many authorities in the early 2000s consider autism to be one of several similar conditions that fall on a spectrum, hence the term autism spectrum disorders. The conditions on the spectrum share impairments in three areas: (1) communication skills, (2) social interactions, and (3) repetitive and stereotyped patterns of behavior (Strock, 2004). Classic autism and Asperger syndrome are the most common conditions. Whereas students with autism have relatively severe deficits in all three areas plus severe cognitive deficits, those with Asperger syndrome generally have less severe deficits in all three areas, with their major problem lying in the area of social interactions and some having very high intelligence.

Orthopedic Impairments. Orthopedic impairments include physical disabilities of the muscles and/or bones that negatively affect school learning. Two examples are muscular dystrophy (a hereditary condition resulting in muscle fiber degeneration) and juvenile rheumatoid arthritis.

Hearing Impairments. Students with hearing impairments fall into two categories: those who are deaf and those who are hard of hearing. How one differentiates between the two depends on whether one adopts a physiological or an educational orientation. A physiologically based definition relies on the measurable degree of hearing loss, with those having an impairment of 90 decibels or greater being deaf (0 dB is the level at which the average person can hear the faintest sound). An educationally based definition focuses on the ability to process linguistic information, with deafness indicating that the person cannot process linguistic information through audition even with a hearing aid (Brill, MacNeil, & Newman, 1986).

Developmental Delay. For many infants and preschoolers, it is often difficult to determine whether they have a true disability or have a temporary delay in maturation. In addition, it is sometimes difficult to determine the exact nature of very young children's disability. For these reasons, professionals are often reluctant to make a clinical diagnosis and, instead, refer to them as having a developmental delay.

Visual Impairments. Like hearing impairments, visual impairments are divided into two groups based on severity: blindness and low vision. Additionally, like hearing impairments, these two groups are defined differently according to whether one uses a physiological versus an educational approach. A physiological orientation (also referred to as the legal definition because it is used to determine certain government benefits) relies on measurement of visual acuity and field of vision. Visual acuity of 20/200 (normal acuity is 20/20, being able to see at 20 feet what a person with normal vision sees at 20 feet) or less in the better eye, even with correction (e.g., eyeglasses), or visual field of less than 20 degrees qualifies an individual as legally blind. Those having visual acuity between 20/70 and 20/200 are referred to as having low vision or being partially sighted. The educational definition focuses on mode of reading, with those needing to use Braille being considered blind, and those who can read print, even with magnifying devices or large-print books, being considered as having low vision or being partially sighted.

Traumatic Brain Injury. In 1990, the federal government added students with traumatic brain injury (TBI) to the list of those eligible for special education services. This decision was in recognition of the fact that TBI occurs much more frequently than was previously thought. For example, estimates are that about one million children and adolescents receive head injuries each year, with 15,000 to 20,000 incurring lasting effects (Council for Exceptional Children, 2001). TBI refers to trauma to the brain caused by an external force that results in behavioral dysfunction. Such injuries can be open head injuries (i.e., penetrating head wounds) or closed head injuries (i.e., damage caused by internal compression or shearing motion inside the head) (Adelson & Kochanek, 1998).

Deaf-Blindness. Basically, students with deaf-blindness meet the educational definitions of both deafness and blindness. The vast majority of students with deaf-blindness also have one or more other disabilities, such as mental retardation. Deaf-blindness can result from (a) prenatal causes, such as rubella, (b) postnatal causes, such as meningitis, or (c) genetic/chromosomal syndromes (Hallahan et al., 2009).


The history of special education reveals a pattern characterized by alternating periods of progress and optimism and regress and pessimism. In spite of these fluctuations, overall special education has progressed from a relatively primitive state to its present-day robust status as a viable service option in public schools and as a field of scientific inquiry. Special education history is presented below in four time periods, starting with its birth in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.


Historians of special education usually trace its roots back to the end of the eighteenth century and beginning of the nineteenth century (Hallahan et al., 2009; Kauffman, 1981). Prior to the French and American Revolutions, care for people with disabilities came largely in the form of asylums, created almost as much to protect the larger society from those considered idiotic or insane as to protect those housed within the institutions. With the revolutions, however, came principles of democracy and egalitarianism. Fueled by this idealism, many European and American physicians, clergymen, and other reformers tackled the issue of rehabilitating and educating children with a variety of disabilities.

Jean-Marc-Gaspard Itard (1775–1838) is generally credited as being the creator of many of the basic instructional principles upon which special education is built. A French physician, Itard was a specialist in deafness. In fact, it was his specialization in deafness that serendipitously led to his groundbreaking work with Victor, the “wild boy of Aveyron” (Lane, 1984). Found wandering in the forest in 1801, Victor was brought to the National Institution for the Deaf because he was thought to be deaf. Itard, who worked at a nearby hospital was called to the Institute to attend to a resident who had broken his leg on the very day that Victor arrived. Itard saw in Victor the opportunity to demonstrate that intensive instruction could ameliorate even the most intractable learning difficulties. Although Itard was not able to cure Victor and, in fact, considered his efforts largely a failure, others after him considered Victor's progress to be quite remarkable.

Eduoard Seguin (1812–1880), along with other students of Itard, carried forward many ideas that served as the foundation of special education: individualized instruction, careful sequencing of instruction, stimulation of the senses, careful structuring of the educational environment, immediate reward for correct performance, instruction in functional skills for independence, and an assumption that all children can make some progress (Hallahan et al., 2009). Seguin established the first known school to serve mentally retarded children in France in 1839 before immigrating to the United States. In 1866, he published Idiocy and its treatment by the physiological method, which is often cited as the first textbook on instruction for persons with mental retardation.

In addition to Seguin, several other reformers were influential in establishing educational programming for students with disabilities in the United States. The physician Samuel Gridley Howe (1801–1876), who had been the one inviting Seguin to the United States, helped establish the first school for the blind in 1832 in Water-town, Massachusetts, the Perkins School for the Blind. The minister Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet (1787–1851), after visiting European educators of the deaf, founded the first residential school for the deaf in the United States in 1817 in Harford, Connecticut. In 1841 the social crusader Dorthea Dix (1802–1887) lobbied state and federal legislatures to provide funding for asylums for the insane.


Much of the optimism and interest in quality care that characterized the early part of the century began to wane in the late nineteenth century (Kauffman, 1981). Depressing economic conditions in the aftermath of the American Civil War (1860–1865), combined with an influx of immigrants and rapid industrialization and urbanization, led to a decrease in interest in educating and rehabilitating those with disabilities.

But even in the face of dwindling interest and resources, several positive developments occurred, including Congress establishing a U. S. Department of Education, special classes and day schools for children who were deaf, the addition of a Department of Special Education in the National Education Association, and special education teacher training programs usually housed in institutions for those with disabilities. It was during this time, too, that numerous professional organizations sprung up for those working with students with disabilities.

But counteracting these positive developments, the close of the nineteenth century witnessed a growing pessimism about what could be done for students with disabilities, especially those who were mentally retarded. The prevailing professional opinion was that mental retardation was incurable and that the most that could be done was to provide protection from and for retarded individuals by housing them in large institutions.


The early twentieth century brought mostly positive developments for students with disabilities, with a smattering of negativism, especially toward those with mental retardation. During this time, the eugenics movement gained influence. Henry H. Goddard's The Kallikak Family: A Study pf The Heredity of Feeblemindedness in 1912, purportedly showing the hereditary spread of mental retardation, fueled the passage of legislation in several states to sterilize residents in institutions of mental retardation. Interestingly, later examination revealed strong evidence that he fabricated or altered much of his so-called data (Smith, 1985).

During this time, some of the more progressive public schools began to offer special education classes and resource rooms for students with various disabilities. Elizabeth Farrell (1870–1932), a New York City special education teacher, advocated for the establishment of classes for students with disabilities. In 1922 she helped found the Council for Exceptional Children, which remained into the early 2000s as the major professional organization for educators of students with disabilities. With the spread of these programs, special education began to be recognized as part of the curricular offerings in school systems.

This period also saw the emergence of many issues concerning education of students with disabilities that persist into the 21st century. For example, there were vigorous debates in the professional literature about segregation versus mainstreaming of students with disabilities, early identification and prevention of disabilities, more federal aid for special education services. In short, the stage was being set for special education to become a discipline of study.


One of the most, if not the most important development of the late 1900s was the emergence of parent groups and organizations. For example, the National Association for Retarded Children (subsequently called The Arc) was founded in 1950 and the Association for Children with Learning Disabilities (later called the Learning Disabilities Association of America) was founded in 1963. Such organizations were instrumental, along with professional organizations, in lobbying for legislation and services for students with disabilities.

The end of the 20th century was a time of increased expansion of special education research and services. In the research domain, the federal government funded research that generated an expanding body of literature on best practices in identification and intervention for students with disabilities. These competitive research grant programs focused on individual researchers or small teams of researchers as well as large, interdisciplinary research centers. Additionally, personnel preparation grants helped fill the growing need for pre-service and in-service special education teachers, as well as university-level teacher educators.

During this time, too, several pieces of landmark legislation were passed that mandated special education as a civil right for children with disabilities and their families. This legislation, discussed in the following section, established special education as a major piece of the educational landscape in U.S. K-12 schools and universities.


Beginning in 1975 and continuing into the 21st century, federal legislation has worked to define the needs of special students and through laws to design ways of serving this population.

Public Law 94-142. The 1975 Education for All Handicapped Children Act (PL 94–142) was a groundbreaking law that established the fundamental parameters of how special education services are defined and implemented in the United States. Key provisions such as a free appropriate public education (FAPE), individualized education programs (IEP), least restrictive environment (LRE), and procedural safeguards (such as due process procedures) defined in the original statute remained primary to the law in subsequent reauthorizations.

Prior to the passage of PL 94–142, many children and youth with disabilities were excluded from public schooling. For the majority of those students, that meant lack of access to appropriate assessment, education, rehabilitative services, and community support. Other federal legislation laid the groundwork for PL 94–142, but these statues did not wield the same power in terms of firmly establishing the rights of individuals with disabilities access to public education. Notable legislation includes the Training of Professional Personnel Act of 1959 (teacher training for working with individuals with mental retardation), Teachers of the Deaf Act of 1961 (teacher training for working with individuals who are deaf or hard of hearing), the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 (funding for the education of children with disabilities), and the Handicapped Children's Early Education Assistance Act of 1968 and the Economic Opportunities Amendments of 1972 (establishment of early childhood programs for children with disabilities). These laws helped to articulate instructional practices specific to the needs of students with disabilities and establish models for teacher training that would be included in PL 94–142.

Since 1975 several substantive changes have been made to the law through the reauthorization process. The 1986 reauthorization extended FAPE to include children ages 3 to 5 and established Early Intervention Programs (EIP) and the Individualized Family Service Plan (IFSP) for children ages from birth to 3 years.

More significant changes occurred in the 1990 reau-thorization. First, the law was renamed the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). The title change reflected three important points. First, the reach of the law expanded (birth to age 21) with the term “individuals” replacing “children.” Second, people-first language “individuals with disabilities” replaced “handicapped children” to emphasize the individual nature of disability— people with disabilities should not be defined by their disability and individuals with the same disability will demonstrate great diversity. Third, the term “disability” replaced “handicapped” to more accurately define the population served. The 1990 reauthorization also included the provision of transition services for students, created new categories of autism and traumatic brain injury, and re-crafted the language of LRE to place greater emphasis on the need for students with disabilities to receive education with their non-disabled peers.

The 1997 reauthorization extended this LRE position by including specific language that students with disabilities should have “access to the general education curriculum” (PL 105–17). The 1997 reauthorization also included more explicit guidelines regarding disciplinary procedures for students with disabilities. Specifically, the law recommended the use of FBA, discussed earlier, in order to provide preventative instruction or conditions to promote pro-social or desired behaviors. Taken together the reauthorizations of IDEA that occurred between 1986 and 1997 served to strengthen the core mission of the law and provide increased clarity on who is served under the law and what practices should surround the development of special education.

The Role of the Federal Government in Education. To understand how IDEA and other federal statutes affect local educational decision-making, it is important to examine the relationship between the federal government and the fifty states. The U.S. Constitution does not allocate specific power to the federal government in terms of education. As a result, states determine the policies, procedures, and requirements school districts must follow. The federal government does not possess the power to establish a national curriculum or set national standards for performance. From time to time, however, the federal government passes legislation that allows for the provision of funds to states for the purpose of improving education. Examples include grants to build infrastructure (e.g., land grants) or grants to improve educational outcomes for children in poverty (e.g., Head Start). When states accept these funds, they must also uphold the specific requirements associated with that funding stream. Even though the funding provided by the federal government has historically not exceeded 10% of a state's education budget, states do rely on these funds (Yell & Drasgow, 2005). This relationship supplies the power to the federal government to shape and influence education.

Standards and Special Education. In 1983, under the leadership of the Secretary of Education, the Commission on Excellence in Education issued the Nation at Risk report. Many viewed the report as a wake-up call to the mediocre levels of student achievement in the country. One recommendation contained in the report urged the development of challenging, measurable academic standards. The push for standards came again in 1989 when President George H. W. Bush convened the fifty governors at the first National Education Summit. Many of the goals and priorities established as a result of the summit became a part of the educational plans of President Bush and then of President Clinton.

In 1994 President Clinton reauthorized the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 (ESEA). The reauthorized act, renamed Improving America's Schools Act, reflected the standards framework recommended by the Nation at Risk report and articulated in President Bush's America 2000 and President Clinton's Goals 2000: Educate America Act. This reauthorization established a precedent for an expanded role of government in education and lay the groundwork for the next reautho-rization, which would prove to be both controversial and far-reaching.

No Child Left Behind Act. The 2001 reauthorization of ESEA brought yet another title change for the law. The No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (NCLB), under President George W. Bush, adopted many of the principal features (e.g., academic standards, accountability, and adequate yearly progress) included in the 1994 reautho-rization of ESEA (Yell & Glasgow, 2005). The departure from prior educational legislation came in the form of demands—to bring all students up to standards within a certain time frame and the establishment of sanctions for schools that did not perform. In essence, NCLB was the first instance of federal educational legislation that had the power to enforce itself. NCLB passed by an overwhelming bipartisan majority in both the House and Senate, yet shortly after its passage political schisms in regard to implementation of the law occurred.

The confluence of standards/accountability represented in NCLB and the increasing emphasis on access to the general education curriculum in IDEA resulted in a federal position on the education of students with disabilities that looked more similar to general education policies than ever before in the history of special education. Several provisions in NCLB had direct influence on the reauthorization of IDEA in 2004 and on the ensuing instructional practices for students with disabilities. Specifically, NCLB required (a) accountability for results, including the results of students from identified subgroups (i.e., students with disabilities, ethnic and racial minorities, students who are economically disadvantaged, and students who are limited English proficient); (b) the use of instructional practices based upon scientifically based research; and (c) that necessity that all students be taught by a teacher who meets the federal definition of “highly qualified.” The 2004 reauthorization of IDEA included NCLB's definition of highly qualified special education teacher and a similar requirement for the use of materials and practices based upon scientifically based research.

Under NCLB, states were required to report disaggregated data on the various sub-groups, including students with disabilities. Although these data led to greater transparency in regard to the educational outcomes of students with disabilities and greater accountability for demonstrating educational progress, the fact that at least 95% of students with disabilities were required to participate in the state-wide assessments caused concern for some. In addition, only 2% of students with disabilities could participate in modified achievement standards or alternate tests. Questions related to which assessments (grade-level or ability-level), accommodations or supports, and populations of students under IDEA should be selected challenged states' initial implementation of the law. NCLB's highly qualified teacher requirement also proved challenging in its implementation.

In addition to incorporating the language and fundamental principles of NCLB, IDEA 2004 included several other important provisions that would have direct influence on the identification of and instructional practices for students with disabilities. For example, the concept “universal design” was used throughout the amendments to underscore the importance of selecting materials, methods, and assessment techniques and technologies that allow for access by a wide-range of students. For teachers, universal design means selecting instructional strategies that provide benefit to a range of learners—from students with disabilities to high-achieving students—or creating assessments that allow a range of students to demonstrate knowledge of high academic standards.

Two other changes to IDEA 2004 reflected the trend towards unifying general education and special education practices. These changes included providing more flexibility to schools in terms of the discipline of students with disabilities and the removal of short-term objectives on the IEP for the majority of students with disabilities. In terms of discipline, the law shifted the burden of proof in manifestation determination reviews to the parents and made it easier for schools to remove children for disciplinary infractions other than weapons, drugs, or dangerous behavior. The removal of short-term objectives for all students, except those who participate in alternate assessments and follow alternate standards (less than 1% of students with disabilities), reflected the increasing emphasis on participation in general education standards and accountability.

Perhaps the most significant addition to IDEA 2004, though, was the inclusion of additional procedures for the identification of students with specific learning disabilities. States were no longer required to use a “severe discrepancy” between achievement and intellectual ability as an identifying factor. In addition, states could now allow processes that measured a “child's response to scientific, research-based interventions” as a gauge for identification. Commonly referred to as response to instruction or RTI, this provision dramatically changed the language (and some would argue, practice) of special education. Special educators would differentiate between “core instruction,” the instruction received by the majority of students in general education, and “levels of intervention,” the qualitatively different instruction that was delivered to students not making progress in the core program. These levels of intervention were not necessarily delivered in settings outside the general education classroom but could be.

Other Influential Laws. Two other laws directly influence the education of students with disabilities: Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (Section 504) and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990. Both Section 504 and ADA are civil rights acts that protect qualified individuals with disabilities from discrimination of benefits or services on the basis of disability. These nondiscrimination laws apply to any organization receiving federal financial assistance, which would include public schools. Although 504 and ADA have much in common with IDEA, the fundamental purposes of these laws differs from the charge of IDEA.

The purpose of Section 504 is to create equal opportunity for students with disabilities through the elimination of barriers or the provision of accommodations for equal access. In other words, for students who can be successful the general education classroom with the provision of minor instructional accommodations or structural changes, Section 504 may be the only law these students need. In contrast, the intent of IDEA is to provide specialized services and supports that differ in some way from the education received by students without disabilities. Students with disabilities who require more intensive instructional modifications or supports (regardless of placement—in the general education setting or in a more restrictive setting) would benefit from the protections and services provided under IDEA.

To qualify under Section 504, students must (a) have a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits a major life activity (e.g., learning, walking, seeing, hearing), (b) have a record of an impairment, or (c) be regarded as having an impairment. Some students with disabilities who would not qualify under one of IDEA's 13 disability categories may qualify under Section 504's broad definition of disability. Section 504 protections can be important for students with communicable diseases, chronic health conditions, and students with ADHD who would not or choose not to qualify under IDEA but are in need of instructional supports. Unlike IDEA, schools do not receive funding for Section 504 services, but schools are under the same federal obligation to comply with the law. As such, some schools are hesitant about offering such services or making Section 504 information widely available to parents. Yet, Section 504 protections must be in place and available for interested parents, teachers, and student advocates.

The Americans with Disabilities Act reflects similar language (e.g., definition of disability) and objectives as Section 504 but applies to a broader spectrum of organizations—public transportation, employment, and state and local government. Basic provisions under ADA require organizations to provide “reasonable accommodations,” physical access (e.g., ramps for individuals who use wheelchairs), and freedom from discrimination based upon disability status. Both ADA and Section 504 are administer by the Office of Civil Rights and are considered identical for the purposes of compliance monitoring.


In the context of increased accountability, greater emphasis on the use of scientifically based practices, and a focus on high standards for students with disabilities, the landscape of special education has become simultaneously more uncertain and more articulated. One example of this contradictory position occurred in the introduction of the concept of responsiveness to intervention (RTI). With the passage of the 2004 amendments to IDEA, RTI was established as an alternative to the use of ability-achievement discrepancy as a means for identifying learning disabilities. The law also positioned RTI practices as a tool for ensuring the systematic delivery of research-based interventions to all students not making appropriate gains in the general curriculum. Many heralded the inclusion of RTI in the 2004 statute, yet questions remained regarding issues of implementation and scale (Hallahan & Cohen, in press; Fletcher, Lyon, Fuchs, & Barnes, 2007). Specifically, some in special education have questioned whether the distinction between specialized services and general education practices would be blurred and result in less intensive supports for students with disabilities, while others felt that the move would result in even clearer articulation of levels of instruction and the identification of specific interventions for students with disabilities.

In 2005 the National Joint Committee on Learning Disabilities (NJCLD), consisting of representation from the major professional organizations devoted to learning disabilities, issued a report on RTI in which it identified potential strengths and highlighted areas of future research. In underscoring the potential of RTI methodologies, the NJCLD noted the promise of early and/or preventative remediation, the application of high-quality interventions, and the ability to yield a “true population” of students with learning disabilities. The underlying assumption of RTI is that the application of effective instructional methodologies will result in the majority of students making satisfactory gains while other students will fail to respond to the instruction. These students who continue to struggle while receiving high-quality instruction are students with learning disabilities. Therefore, these students require the more intensive, specialized instruction provided under IDEA.

One example of an RTI model is as follows:

  • Implementation of Tier 1 (high-quality general education instruction) with universal screening to identify at-risk students and the use of regular progress monitoring.
  • The provision of Tier 2 interventions (typically 8–12 weeks in duration) provided within the general education classroom for the identified at-risk students.
  • Continual progress monitoring is provided in order to determine responsiveness to the intervention.
  • Finally, students failing to respond to Tier 2 are referred for eligibility for special education in Tier 3, which consists of more individualized, intensive tertiary interventions, thus defining Tier 3 interventions as special education.


Instructional practices for students with disabilities take into consideration (a) the unique characteristics of the learner, (b) the nature of the content or skill to be taught, and (c) the intersection of those characteristics and content. Given the fundamental role both learner and content play in the development of special education practices, special educators need to be well-versed in both the characteristics of the students they serve and the nature of the content to be taught. Some characteristics may be unique to a category of disability identified under IDEA, such as social impairments associated with autism, or the characteristics may cut across a range of categories, such as difficulty with memory and information processing associated with students with learning disabilities and students with mental retardation.

Fundamental to the practice of designing specialized instruction is task-analysis—breaking down the content of instruction to all the requisite skills and constructs. Identification of requisite skills and constructs allows teachers to select appropriate strategies, scaffolds/supports, and accommodations or modifications to meet the unique needs of the individual student. Three common elements to the implementation of effective special education instruction are: (a) explicit, systematic instruction, (b) continual progress monitoring, and (c) behavioral analysis and supports.

As stated previously, the hallmark of special education instruction is the delivery of intensive, relentless instruction with frequent opportunities for student response. Research on effective practices in special education has demonstrated the power of explicit instructional practices such as direct instruction—fast-paced, well-sequence, highly focused instruction with high student responses rates—and strategy instruction that focus on organization, elaboration, or generative thinking for students with disabilities (Gersten, Schiller, & Vaughn, 2000). Key features of explicit instruction include careful sequencing and organization, enhancing student motivation through early and frequent success, and scaffolding (decreasing levels of support to foster mastery). Specific instructional strategies that reflect these principles and have been demonstrated as effective for students with disabilities include: structured peer-tutoring (Fuchs, & Fuchs, 1998), direct instruction (Adams & Engleman, 1996), mnemonic instruction (Mastropieri, Sweda, & Scruggs, 2000), and learning strategies (NICHY, 1997).

Progress monitoring was first introduced in the field of special education in the 1970s as data-based program monitoring and later as curriculum-based measurement (Deno, 2003). The underlying concept was that teachers would use repeated measures of student performance in order to determine the effectiveness of instruction and then make needed changes to their teaching if students were not responding. Incarnations of curriculum-based measurement/progress monitoring as of 2008 involve tracking student performance over time and instructional decision-making using predetermined targets or benchmarks. Decades after its inception the fundamental constructs of progress monitoring and instructional decision-making based upon data have become paramount in the field of special education. Further, what began as a special education practice came in time to influence the conceptualization of effective instruction for all students.

Another component of effective special education is the application of behavioral analysis for the purpose of determining appropriate supports, frequently referred to in special education as positive behavioral supports. Meta-analyses, statistical procedures that measure the overall efficacy of a strategy or approach, have demonstrated the power of positive behavioral supports to reduce undesirable behaviors and increase pro-social or desired behaviors (Gersten, Schiller, & Vaughn, 2000). The development of positive behavioral supports begins with an analysis of environment and student behavior. The environment includes all elements associated with the delivery of instruction (e.g., instructional methods or strategies used, materials selected, physical design), and student behavior includes communication, social interactions, and malad-aptive responses. Special educators or IEP teams collect data on the behavior(s) of concern in an attempt to determine the function or purpose of the behavior. Analysis of the data leads to the development of a hypothesis of the function of the behavior. The educator or team then identifies teaching procedures intended to (a) reduce the undesirable behavior and (b) teach a more acceptable or adaptive behavior. Data continue to be collected in order to determine the efficacy of the supports and instruction selected.

In summary, the basic principles that served as the foundation of special education remain a vibrant part of the instruction of students with disabilities today. Research in the field of special education has served to refine and improve specific practices such as progress monitoring, the delivery of instruction, cognitive strategy instruction, functional behavioral analysis and positive behavioral supports, and the identification of a range of disabilities. Legislation in the early 2000s and to come will continue to influence and shape the context of the education of students with disabilities, but fundamental principles of individualization, remediation, and measured-growth will remain an essential part of what special educators do.


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