Social and Cultural Foundations of American Education/Curriculum Development/Special Education

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Why is special education an issue for all teachers?

Samantha (not her real name) was a student in my class a few years ago when I replaced a teacher who left on maternity leave at the end of April. Samantha was labeled by my team members as "one of the more difficult students" in the fifth grade. She rarely completed her class work, frequently asked for the pass to the bathroom/nurse/office and liked to challenge authority. At the end of my second day on the job, I decided to stay late to allow myself a sufficient block of time in which I could read through my students' files. What I found was astonishing.

According to Samantha's file, she had first been referred to the Child Study committee in second grade, then again in the third and fourth grades. Finally in the middle of the fifth grade, a 504 plan was written for Samantha. Unfortunately, had I not taken the time to read through her file, I would never have known about her 504, as neither the exiting teacher nor any other staff members mentioned her need for accommodations. Furthermore, after consultation with Samantha's mother and my fellow fifth grade team members, I learned that modifications were not being followed in any of Samantha's classes. Samantha, it turns out, was difficult at times…but with reason. She was being medicated with Lithium to control Bipolar Disorder. Perceived as excuses to skip class time, her frequent trips to the bathroom were really a means to go to the water fountain because she was always thirsty (a side effect of her medication). She often had headaches (another side effect of her meds) and had days when she just needed a break from the stress of the classroom. She was trying to cope as best she could. She was faced with a medical condition she did not understand and being educated by teachers who did not understand her special needs. She was not having a very successful or productive school year and felt her situation was hopeless.

Using my prior knowledge of Bipolar Disorder and based on my past experiences with students who suffered from Bipolar, Samantha and I were able to work out a plan that not only helped her cope with her disorder but also improved her class performance significantly. A year end Child Study meeting resulted in her finally receiving the IEP she needed.

This story exemplifies the reason why special education is an issue for ALL educators, not just those identified as special education teachers. Ignorance of law is not an excuse for failing to serve the needs of the special education students in your classroom. As educators, we pledge to serve ALL students in our class to the best of our ability. This, at times, means going the extra mile to find the methods that will best serve our students; and educating ourselves before we attempt to teach others.

What is Special Education?[edit]

According to the Virginia Department of Education Parent's guide to Special Education, Special Education is "specially designed instruction to meet the unique needs of a child with a disability. This includes instruction conducted in the classroom, home, hospital, institution, or other setting. ( There are five steps in the special education process. The first step is called identification and referral. This is an extremely important step for regular education teachers. A child's regular education/classroom teacher has first-hand knowledge of the student's strengths and weaknesses. If the teacher suspects that one of the students may be in need of special services, it is that teacher's responsibility as an educator to request an evaluation by writing or speaking with the special education administrator of the school or system. It is best to put this request in written form, so that the request is documented and the referral starts a special education timeline. Within five days, the special education administrator may request a review by the child study committee. The committee has ten days from the date of said request to decide whether or not to evaluate (Step 2). The special education administrator has sixty-five days from the date of the referral for evaluation to determine eligibility for special education and related services (Step 3).

A child study team will be created to evaluate the referred student's information. This team includes the person who referred the child (except in cases of confidentiality conflicts), the principal or his/her designee, at least one regular education teacher, and one specialist. If the referred child is found eligible for special education and related services, an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) will be developed by the team and the child's parents that best meets the needs of the child. This document will be reviewed annually (Step 4). Finally, step five, is re-evaluation, which requires a child study team to review the IEP every three years to determine whether or not services are still needed.

Mainstreaming and Inclusion[edit]

Mainstreaming refers to the idea of selective placement of special education students in one or more "regular" education classes; whereas, inclusion is a term which refers to the maximum appropriate time that a child would benefit from attending the "regular" education classes with special services coming to the child rather than moving the child to a separate class. Full inclusion means that all students, regardless of their disability, remain in the "regular" class full-time with an aide.

It seems that everyone has their own opinion on whether or not the idea of mainstreaming or inclusion actually is a successful concept; much like the idea of "tracking" students. Those who support mainstreaming say that it is a benefit to the special education student because it helps them to achieve socialization goals through improved self confidence, and greater skills and independence are achieved in integrated settings. "Regular" education students learn to appreciate the individual differences and regular education teachers learn to incorporate their "mainstreaming" techniques in their everyday lessons, which in turn, assists all students in the class.

Those who disagree with mainstreaming/inclusion feel that if the concept is not executed properly, mainstreaming can result in greater prejudice and rejection for the special education student. Large class size can hinder the teacher's ability to meet the needs of the special education students and both the regular and special education students in the class suffer. Adequate support from the special education team is essential for the idea of mainstreaming to succeed.

Bottom line, the concept of mainstreaming is one that can be a success, if appropriate training and support is provided to the regular education teacher. The regular education teacher needs to understand the student's disability and plan lessons and activities accordingly. The teacher needs to get to know the student, meet frequently with his/her special education teacher, attend parent conferences, plan the day to include promoting social interaction, giving extra help when needed, respecting confidentiality rights, and above all, being realistic! The teachers should not be afraid to ask for help in developing new teaching strategies or assisting in assessing the effectiveness of your lessons. For the student, the teacher needs to provide clear and concise directions to ensure the student's daily success. Use a variety of teaching techniques and integrating the special education student into your classroom should also be incorporated in the student's daily activities. Finding opportunities to recognize the student's progress (i.e. catch them being "good") helps the student to identify self-worth, achievement, and success. Inclusion and mainstreaming really does work, and done the right way is extremely beneficial to all the students in your classroom!

The Importance of High Expectations[edit]

If we prophesy (expect) that something will happen, we behave (usually unconsciously) in a manner that will make it happen. We will, in other words, do what we can to realize our prophecy

—Spitz, 1999, p. 200

My daughter was identified as having cognitive deficits as early as her eight month well baby check up. She began an early intervention program when she was eighteen months old, and rode her first school bus to school when she was two years old. The public education system has done a lot to improve my child’s chances for a more fulfilling life, but individuals she has encountered within that system have unfortunately hindered some of her progress. Much of the hindrance has been a result of teacher expectations, or lack thereof, and my own ignorance of how to fight for her right to an education. It has been our unfortunate experience that some special educators view their role as more a babysitter whose purpose is to keep her safe, teach only self-help skills, not challenge academically, and pacify parents that this is the most our child is capable of. Case in point, my daughter was in sixth grade last school year. I went in to observe a “science experiment” in which her teacher was guiding the class. The teacher had bought these little paleontology activities- lumps of hard packed sand that surrounded small plastic dinosaurs. The children were allowed to chisel away at the sand to search for the dinosaur. There was no preliminary discussion about paleontology, or relating the activity to the digging up of fossils, no explanation of what fossils are, no stories about dinosaurs or comparisons between meat eaters and plant eaters, not even a comparison of the different structures of the dinosaurs the children revealed. There was no follow up activity at all. The only activity I observed on this day was six children chipping away at a lump of sand. My daughter didn’t even find her dinosaur. I asked her what she learned from the activity, and her response was “I don’t know.” This is a perfect example of a teacher having low expectations of a child’s potential academic achievement. Her plan for the day was to keep the kids busy and out of trouble, not challenge them to achieve a higher level of understanding about the world in which they live. I found an article that discussed Arthur Binet’s battery of tests that sought to assign an IQ to a child to whom they were administered, and a psychologist named Cyril Burt who claimed that based on the IQ, a child’s academic potential is set. Binet used the information from the IQ tests to determine strengths and weaknesses so that the educational program enhanced the child’s educational experience; Burt used the IQ tests to pigeon-hole a student into a particular tract. In the sphere of education today, educators are supposed to be embracing Binet’s “cup half full” ideal of academic expectation, but the reality is that many teachers ascribe to Burt’s “cup half empty” idea that you can’t put a gallon of milk into a pint jug. Students will fulfill the prophesies that their parents and teachers give them- low expectations will yield low effort and poor results, whereas high expectations yield stronger effort and good results. The concept works for children with disabilities every bit as much as their contemporaries without.

Cooperative Teaching[edit]

Cooperative teaching is described as "an educational approach in which general and special educators work in co-active and coordinated fashion to jointly teach heterogeneous groups of students in educational settings…In cooperative teaching, both general and special educators are simultaneously present in general classroom, maintaining joint responsibilities for specified education instruction that is to occur in the setting" (Bauwens, Hourcade, & Friend, 1989, pg.36)

In collaborative teaching, both the general education and special education instructors bring their own set of skills, training, and resources to the team. This combination enriches the educational benefits for the students in the class. Whereas, the general education teacher's strengths tend to lie in the content area, the special education teacher brings the assessment and adaptation specialization to the classroom. An effective collaborative team will work together in all areas of planning, teaching, and assessment.

Teachers need preparation and classroom support from administration for collaborative teaching to be a success. Joint planning time is essential and must be consistent throughout the school year. Individualized instruction, multiple learning styles, team teaching, frequent evaluations and joint planning are all beneficial to every student in the class. Combined expertise and planning helps the instructors to meet the need of all learners in the classroom.

Regular Education Teachers' Rights in Special Education[edit]

Many regular education teachers do not understand their rights regarding special education. First and foremost, the regular education teacher has the right to seek help for any student in their class they believe needs special assistance. Teachers have a duty to provide the best possible educational opportunities to all children in their classroom, and as such, it is their responsibility to refer any child for evaluation that they feel would benefit from additional services/resources. The ADA does recognize teachers as child advocates; therefore, retaliation, intimidation and reprisals for teachers who advocate for children are forbidden. The regular education teacher has the right to know all information that is pertinent to the referred child's education, and has the right to receive teacher training needed to serve said child. The general education teacher has the right to participate in the IEP process so that all their questions regarding the education of said child can be asked and answered. The regular teacher has the right to request special materials and related services be provided in the regular classroom to meet the needs of the special education child, and has the right to participate in assessing the effectiveness of the program. The general education teacher should above all be treated like a professional and should never be treated as soldier expected to carry out a general's orders. They have the right to ask questions and to act as an advocate for all the children in the classroom. If the placement of a special needs child in the regular education classroom is having an adverse effect on the other students in the class, the special education child's right to learn in "the least restrictive environment" should not outweigh the right of other students to learn in a safe, nurturing and peaceful environment. The general education teacher has the right to voice their concerns in this matter as well.

Skills Needed by All Teachers[edit]

There are certain skills that should be utilized by educators, not just those in special education. Teaching is a complex process, one which requires planning, time management, and organization. Educators need to decide what their teaching priorities are so that they understand how to use their instructional time wisely. Devise a blueprint and stick to it. Map out the methods and exercises you are going to use in the classroom that will maximize the time you have with your students. Vary your teaching and learning methods (teacher lead instruction, student oriented tasks, group projects, peer tutoring). Model concepts and lessons and ask for feedback from your students. Give your students opportunities to contribute and ask questions. Make your expectations clear and encourage your students to become active in the learning process. Reevaluate the strategies that you use in the classroom to determine the ones of greatest value. Prepare lessons that are interesting, keep students on task and provide instruction that is relevant.


All teachers need the skill and knowledge to work with special needs students. Mainstreaming and inclusion are part of our current school system, and most students with disabilities spend the majority of their day in a regular education classroom. Therefore, all teachers need to be trained in methods or strategies for teaching special needs students. All students, even those deemed "regular education students" need specialized attention and instructional plans to assure that they will achieve their very best.

Take the time to read your students' files. Read about their disabilities and learn as much as you possibly can about their needs before they come to your classroom. Educate yourself about the laws concerning special education and work as an advocate for all students in your classroom. The future of our world depends on the leadership and dedication of our teachers to assure that the next generation is prepared for what lies ahead. All of our students are "special", and as educators, we need to meet them at their present educational levels and help them build their own path for success


Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) refers to special education and related services that: are provided at public expense, under public supervision and direction, and without charge; meet requirements of the Virginia Board of Education; include preschool, elementary school, middle school, or secondary school education in the state; and are provided in keeping with an individualized education program.

Individualized Education Plan (IEP) is a written statement for a child with a disability that is developed, reviewed, and revised in a team meeting. The IEP specifies the individual educational needs of the child and what special education and related services are necessary to meet the child's needs.

Least Restrictive Environment (LRE) means that children with disabilities are educated with children without disabilities to the maximum extent appropriate. The child must not be placed in special classes or separate schools unless education in regular education classes with aids and services cannot be achieved satisfactorily.

Section 504 of The Vocational Rehabilitation Act of 1973 states that people cannot be excluded from any federally funded program because of their handicapping condition. A handicapping condition is defined as " any physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more life activities." In this case, school staff must develop a plan that provides the student with need services or changes to the regular school program. One of the frequent reasons for the 504 plan is related to student who have been diagnosed as ADD or ADHD.

Multiple Choice Questions[edit]

Click to reveal the answer.

You have a student in your class you rarely completes his class work, daydreams, can not stay on task, and does not actively participate in class activities, and struggles to grasp basic concepts. You should...
A. Contact his parents.
B. Read his student file.
C. Refer him to the child study committee for evaluation.
D. All of the above.

D. All of the above.

Cooperative teaching is best described as...
A. Combining the regular ed. teacher's lesson plans with those of the special ed. teacher
B. The special education teacher assisting in the regular education classroom
C. General and special education teachers working in co-active and coordinated fashion
D. All of the above

C. General and special education teachers working in co-active and coordinated fashion

Regular education teachers have the right to...
A. Opt to send special education students to an alternative class.
B. Act as an advocate for the children in their class.
C. Know all important information pertaining to special education students in their classroom.
D. A & B
E. B & C
F. A, B, & C

E. B & C

It is the responsibility of _________________ to make sure that special education accommodations are met in the general education classroom.
A. the "regular" classroom teacher
B. the special education teacher
C. the principal
D. All of the above

A. the "regular" classroom teacher

The best way to foster ownership and self confidence in learning is through...
A. Teacher-led lectures
B. Child directed activities
C. Peer tutoring
D. A & C
E. B & C

E. B & C

According to Cyril Burt, a child who scores low on an IQ test should be...
A. Placed in inclusion classes.
B. Given on opportunity to achieve grade level academics.
C. Placed in a class with students of similar results on IQ testing.
D. Placed in a job training program.

C. Placed in a class with students of similar results on IQ testing.

The greatest advocate for a child with developmental or cognitive deficits is...
A. Himself
B. His teacher
C. His parents
D. The special ed. coordinator for a school system

C. His parents

Teachers and parents who expect much academic success from their students will...
A. See an increase in effort and achievement.
B. See a decrease in effort and achievement.
C. See no difference in a child's performance or outcome.
D. Always be disappointed.

A. See an increase in effort and achievement.

Essay Question[edit]

Click to reveal a sample response.

You have a new transfer student in your class. He moves frequently, and as such, has never cycled completely through the Special Education process. He has neither a 504 plan nor an IEP, but his parents have expressed concern over his poor grades and lack of attention in school. How can you best serve this child?

There are several ways in which you can assist this child. The first thing you should do is read through the child's student file. This will help you assess the child's strengths and areas of improvement. Meet with the child parents so that you can document and address their concerns regarding their child's education. Ask them about their child's interests and hobbies, areas that they see as their child's strengths are subjects/topics in which their child would benefit from additional support. Meet with the child and do the same. After the initial meetings with the child and parents, determine whether or not the child should be referred to the Child Study committee for evaluation. If the child does meet the criteria for referral, you may as the regular education teacher, develop interim modifications for the child within your classroom to assist with the transition and integration into the class. Try a variety a different means of communication (written, verbal, hands-on) of new information and vary the method of student participation (individual, peer tutoring, group assignments) to allow the student to excel in the medium that works best for them. Provide additional support if you notice the child struggling with concepts and help re-direct their attention and participation. Lastly, be an advocate for the child and fight for their right to receive an education in the environment in which the child is least restricted.


  • Axline, Virginia M. (1964). Dibs in Search of Self. Ballentine Books.
  • Martin J.D., Reed. Regular Teachers Rights In Special Education. Retrieved from the world wide web at
  • McGrew, K. S., & Evans, J. (2003). Expectations for students with cognitive disabilities: Is the cup half empty or half full? Can the cup flow over? (Synthesis Report 55). Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota, National Center on Educational Outcomes. Retrieved from the World Wide Web:
  • Spitz, H. H. (1999). Beleaguered Pygmalion: A history of the controversy over claims that teacher expectancy raises intelligence. Intelligence, 27(3), 199-234.
  • Virginia Department of Education. A Parent's Guide to Special Education. (2001).
  • Special Education. Retrieved from the world wide web at
  • California Department of Education (CDE), Special Education Division. (2001) Special Education programs in California: A statistical profile: Part II program characteristics. Sacramento, CA: CDE. Retrieved from the world wide web at
  • Bauwens, J., Hourcade, J.J., & Friend, M. (1989). Cooperative teaching: A model for general and special education integration. Remedial and Special Education, 10(2), 17-22. EJ 390 640
  • Dieker, L.A., & Barnett C.A. (1996). Effective co-teaching. TEACHING exceptional children, 29 (1), 5-7. EJ 529 433