Most Students with Disabilities Spend Most of School Day in Special Classes, Study Finds

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by Alice Melão |

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Educational inclusion IDEA

Over the past 40 years, a clear majority — 55 to 73 percent — of students with intellectual disabilities spend most or all of their school day separated from peers without disabilities, in self-contained classrooms or schools, despite the requirements of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).

This finding was reported by Matthew Brock, PhD, an assistant professor of special education at The Ohio State University, in the study “Trends in the educational placement of students with intellectual disability in the united states over the past 40 years,” which has been accepted for publication at the American Journal on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities.

Its findings were detailed  in a university news article by Jeff Grabmeier.

The federal law was approved back in 1975 to improve education for children with disabilities, like those with Angleman syndrome. Under IDEA, disabled children and their families have the opportunity to benefit from free and appropriate public education and related services.

“Improving educational results for children with disabilities is an essential element of our national policy of ensuring equality of opportunity, full participation, independent living, and economic self-sufficiency for individuals with disabilities,” a government webpage on the law states.

According to the law, education of students with disabilities should be conducted in the “least restrictive environment,” and educational decisions made on an individual basis by an Individual Education Program team, which includes the child’s parents, teachers, and others.

To better understand the law’s impact, Brock analyzed national trends in educational placement for these students since the law was enacted.

He collected information from several sources to determine the proportion of students, ages 6 to 21, who were placed in each federally reported educational environment from 1976 to 2014. Since its enactment, definitions of placement categories have changed several times, which made it impossible to compare the records directly. Still, general trends could be detected.

In the first eight years — from 1976 to 1983 — the proportion of students with disabilities spending most of the school day in regular general education classrooms actually dropped from 38% to 30%. In the next six years — from 1984 to 1989 — the trend was not so clear. But from 1990 to 2014, the proportion of students in less restrictive placements increased and then stabilized.

Still, those in general educational environments were in the minority.

In 1998 about 14% of the students spent 80%  of their school day in general education classrooms. This proportion dropped to 11% in 2002, and hit a peak of 18% in 2010, followed by a slight decrease to 17% in 2014.

“Overall, the most rapid progress toward inclusive placements was in the 1990s, with more gradual progress in the 2000s, and a plateau between 2010 and 2014,” Brock said in the article.

“There are still people working really hard toward the goal of inclusion in some parts of the country, but that doesn’t come through in this national data,” Brock addd.

The researcher believes increased advocacy for special education during the ’90s can help explain the reported increase, at least on a national level.

“I don’t want to send the message that all kids with intellectual disabilities should spend 100 percent of their time in general education classrooms,” he said in the article. “But I think we need to find opportunities for all kids to spend some time with peers who don’t have disabilities if we are going to follow the spirit and letter of the law.”

His study is the first to look at national trends in education placement for students with intellectual disability since IDEA was enacted.