Special Education Students Doubled Over 45 Years?

September 6, 2023

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By Dr. Judy Jankowski, CBA Head of School

Understanding the Surge: Special Education Student Identification

Education Week recently published an article on the identification of students for special education services. The piece references data from the National Center for Education Statistics showing that, since the passage of P.L. 94-142, which requires free and appropriate public education (FAPE) for every child with a disability across the country, the number of children identified with a learning disability has doubled. In 1975, 8% of the school aged population was identified as having a disability as demonstrated by the number of students receiving Individualized Education Plans (IEP’s). In 2021-2022, 15% of students had an IEP.  While this seems like a big increase, it is only the tip of the iceberg. There is a lot more beneath the surface that bears closer examination.

Certainly, the numbers are an indicator that we have gotten better at understanding and identifying learning differences. Psychoeducational assessments were developed over this period, making the diagnosis of these challenges easier. Assessments frequently become a roadmap for the design of instructional interventions to support a child’s learning challenges. The first step when a child is referred for the possible receipt of an IEP is the administration of such a battery by the school psychologist.

The challenge for school districts is that these batteries are expensive to administer and, often, the district will defer when parents ask for one to be conducted. The result is that parents with the means to do so will seek out an educational psychologist to privately conduct testing. Those without financial resources are forced to wait until the district makes the determination that the child’s difficulties are significant enough to initiate the process.

Ultimately, children from more affluent families begin receiving services privately, outside of the public school system. Parents give up on public schools and gain access to needed services because their families can pay. Meanwhile those most at-risk, those who are socioeconomically disadvantaged, will wait, and wait, and wait.

So, while it sounds like a dramatic increase to say that the number of students receiving services has doubled, there are many more students who would benefit from services yet are not even engaged in the process. Official statistics fail to recognize both those children waiting for their needs to be acknowledged by the mechanisms of the diagnostic process, and those students whose parents to opt-out of the public system. The result is that the number of children receiving an IEP is really an underestimate of the children who would actually benefit from an individualized program. While it is a positive step that students’ special needs are being recognized and addressed more often than they were forty years ago, the educational community can still do more.

As the leader of an independent school serving children identified with learning challenges, I sincerely believe that children are enabled or disabled by the educational environments in which they are served. Perhaps it is time for educators to turn the mirror away from the students and rather look at ourselves and the way we deliver instruction. When large numbers of children are not being adequately educated, it’s time for us to revisit the concept of school as it is currently configured. COVID caused the disruption that began a revolution in education. Let’s embrace that momentum and use it to create learning environments that better serve all learners.

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