Providing accessible education to children with special needs is a battle that educators, academic institutions, and legislators have been carrying out since before the creation and implementation of what is known as the IDEA. And while we’ve seen many improvements since it was first introduced in 1975, there remain a multitude of special education problems we are not solving.
This article aims to shed light on these enduring issues in special education and delineate strategies in which they are being tackled at a federal or state level. Recognizing the importance of continuous improvement and advocacy, it is imperative to address these challenges and foster an environment that nurtures equal opportunities for the holistic development of all students.
Key Challenges in Special Education:
- Budget and Resource Allocation: Special education funding rose from $13 billion to $15.5 billion in 2023; student participation grew from 13% to 15% over a decade.
- Teacher Recruitment and Retention: Over 45% of US schools have staffing issues, with 7% of all vacancies in the special education sector.
- Disproportionality in Special Education: White students frequently get IEPs for autism/ADHD, while students of color get them for emotional behavioral disorders; male students predominate in special education.
- Standardized Testing and Assessment Concerns: In 2015, only 5.7% of students with disabilities achieved reading proficiency, compared to 36.6% of the general student body.
- Post-School Transition and Adult Services: Employment for individuals with disabilities increased from 19.1% in 2021 to 21.3% in 2022, whereas those without disabilities rose from 63.7% to 65.4%.
What Are the Current Issues in Special Education and How Are We Solving Them?
Budget and Resource Allocation
Budget constraints and discrepancies in resource allocation significantly impact the quality and scope of services provided to students with disabilities, affecting their post-school outcomes.
- Federal funds went from $13 billion to $15.5 billion dollars in the fiscal 2023 year.
- Students in special education went from 13% to nearly 15% in the last decade.
- Out of the overall students in special education, approx. 75% are classified as having mild to moderate disabilities.
Fiscal-year budgets tend to be spent on severe disabilities, leaving out a sizeable part of the student body with IEPs. This requires continued advocacy for increased special education funding and more streamlined resource distribution for children with mild and mild to moderate disabilities on a national, state, and district level.
Teacher Recruitment and Retention Issues
Schools face an acute teacher shortage, especially in the special education sector. According to NCES data from October 2022:
- Over 45% of US public schools operate with a limited staff with 25% having multiple teaching vacancies.
- The highest turnover rates are in special education, making up 7% of the vacancies.
To mitigate this issue in special education, schools ought to enhance their staff’s professional development to increase retention rates and bridge gaps in critical positions. In September 2023, the US Department of Education awarded $35 million for the purpose of training teaching staff for more effective support for students with disabilities.
Disproportionality in Special Education
Examining racial and ethnic disparities alongside gender and socioeconomic gaps reveals a persistent pattern of disproportionality within special education.
Rachel Fish, a NYU Steinhardt Professor of Special Education, found in her 2022 study that:
- White students are more likely to receive an IEP for higher-classed disabilities – performance-affecting disabilities such as autism and ADHD, whereas students of color are more likely to receive such for lower-classed disabilities like emotional behavioral disorders.
- Male students, regardless of race, are more likely to be enrolled in special education programs than female students.
Moreover, recent research has concluded that culturally and linguistically diverse students face difficulties and are often mislabeled based on inaccurate English-language comprehension screenings, grade retention, and lack of parental awareness regarding special education.
To combat such issues in special education, it is important to expose staff to relevant coaching on cultural and language diversity, equity, gender bias, and socioeconomic gaps, thus minimizing subjectivity in disability assessments and addressing unique learning needs.
Special Education Policy Issues
A 2020 study published in the Journal of Disability Policy Studies indicated that inconsistencies in the implementation of laws across different states and districts often contribute to legal and compliance challenges, leading to disparities in the quality of services provided to students with disabilities. At the same time, lawsuits involving the transition of students with disabilities have increased steadily since 2004.
Programs such as Ori Learning aim to deliver high-quality, legally sound special education services to schools that establish baselines and scale students’ progress according to their IEP goals. This significantly aids special education directors to stay on top of compliance regulations and consolidates their strategies.
See what Ori Learning can do for your school or district
Standardized Testing and Assessment Concerns
Often, students with special needs will struggle to complete standardized tests as they don’t fit their level of reading or computational comprehension. As EducationWeek noted:
- In 2015, only 5.7 percent of students with disabilities met or exceeded the state’s proficiency standard in reading, compared to 36.6 percent of the general student population.
A solution to this challenge is to implement an accessible curriculum that allows for the accommodation of diverse needs and various ways of assessment. The Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is one such approach that provides a flexible educational framework, accommodating diverse learning styles, disabilities, and special needs based on the following three principles:
- Multiple Means of Engagement
- Multiple Means of Representation
- Multiple Means of Action and Expression
Post-School Transition and Adult Services
Preparing students for life after school and increasing access to adult services and opportunities remain central to ensuring the long-term success of a special education program. According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics:
- 21.3% of people who struggle with a disability were employed, up from the reported 19.1% in 2021.
- Meanwhile, the percentage of employed people without a disability in 2022 is 65.4.
Special education leaders should strive to implement comprehensive transition programs, establish strong community partnerships, and thus provide real-world training opportunities to equip students with the necessary skills and resources for independent living.
How to Improve Special Education?
Recognizing the gravity of the special education problems we are not solving, schools and districts (as well as the state and federal governments) have made significant strides in adopting innovative solutions and fostering a conducive environment for change.
Let’s take the Vermont Linking Learning to Careers – a five-year initiative, made possible with financial backing from the US Department of Education, that aimed to facilitate a better service to students with disabilities as they transition from school to adult life. The program’s evaluation report shows that special education students benefited greatly from improved services, increased enrolment in postsecondary education, and in some cases employment.
While there’s significantly more work to be done to truly transform the field, the change can be gradual and steady, made possible through a collaborative effort that involves policymakers, educators, parents, and the broader community. On an individual level, academic staff can also educate themselves on what their special education students need and what solutions are available. Moreover, they should inform themselves with data and the latest trends in the field to ensure inclusivity for different disabilities and socioeconomic backgrounds.
By embracing a culture of continuous improvement and learning, the special education community can pave the way for transformative and sustainable change, ensuring that every student has access to a quality education that nurtures their unique abilities and potential.
Solving Issues in Special Education: Next Steps
As we navigate the complex terrain of special education, it is essential to remain committed to the principles of equity, inclusivity, and continuous improvement. Here at Ori Learning, we are committed to creating a learning platform that reflects the diversity of our students, offers accessibility to content, and provides an inclusive environment where all learners can thrive.
We offer customized support to our district partners to meet individual needs and have extensive experience and success with research-based training and implementations that can scale and achieve strategic goals. Our platform is designed to be accommodating to a wide range of needs with features such as text enlargement, speech-to-text, read-aloud, as well as text translations into 130+ languages and read-aloud translation into 50+ languages.
Book a call with us today and together, let’s tackle the special education problems we are not solving by looking at them through a fresh, transformative perspective.