What we can learn from a half-century of federal special education reform (part 3)

In part 1 and part 2 of this series, I described the five factors that shaped the past half-century of education reform focused on the rights and needs of individuals with disabilities: politics, deliberately designed policies and practices, history, emergent patterns of practices, and policy feedback. These factors can help explain some puzzles about this area of education reform – and education history more broadly. In some cases, the explicit and deliberative efforts have strongly shaped education – and here, the existence of political conflict does not take away from the fact that political dynamics are explicit and often deliberative. In other cases, outcomes follow the factors largely out of the control of delineated and deliberate effort: history, emergent practices, and policy feedback.

Differential Changes

In the education of students with disabilities, some things have changed far more or more quickly than others. By the end of the 1970s, schools were enrolling children with a much broader range of abilities and disabilities than they had before the PARC and Mills decrees in 1972. This “zero reject” principle of federal law was clear, as was the mandate to find children who had been excluded from schools, and local and state schools enrolled these children faster than they began to effectively teach them or teach them in the least restrictive environment. This lag between enrollment and teaching was because the five factors interacted to make it easier for schools to respond to the zero-reject obligation faster than to create effective, inclusive schooling. Because of the long history of most educators assuming that children with developmental and cognitive disabilities were literally uneducable, there had been little effort by researchers or educators to design effective teaching practices, let alone push the boundaries of assumptions that students with cognitive disabilities always belonged far outside the general classroom.[1] By the mid-1970s, Lou Brown was becoming nationally known for his work in identifying core principles of teaching students with more involved developmental and cognitive challenges: teach skills that are of immediate value, and teach them in the context where they are of value. The “Lou Brown Revolution” had such impact because there was no longstanding set of common practices – and long before the Internet, he reached a much smaller set of teachers than could have benefitted, let alone administrators, parents, and advocates who needed to know this was possible and the best-known way of defining appropriate goals. Against the history of presumed ineducability, and negligent practices that emerged in the wake of a mandate to enroll without a deep base of knowledge, the Lou Brown Revolution was of a smaller order of magnitude than the changes that school systems were trying to manage.

More recently, schools responded unevenly to new mandates written into the 1997 and 2004 updates of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, to define and create systems that could scale up the intensity and individualization of supports as needed by children. At least as far as the explicit federal policy was concerned, this systematic push was different from an earlier approach that created two steps for serving students with disabilities: first decide whether a student was eligible for services based on distinct categories of disability, and then decide on programming on an individual basis, a basis that nominally should be entirely distinct from the categories that were at the heart of the eligibility gateway. This two-step process embedded in the original 1975 law had led to overcomplicated identification processes and individual education plans that often were mapped to student disability categories even if they were supposed to be individualized.

The 1997 and 2004 updates of the federal law on special education services did not eliminate the older framework. Overlayed on the older framework, the new system asked that schools triage the needs of students: create a solid set of educational programming that served the academic and behavioral needs of all students, identify students who needed a little more support, and then provide individualized, intense supports for the students who weren’t substantially helped by the first effort to provide more support.[2] In my limited and partial observation, the implementation of the new expectations has been uneven. In districts where the processes were managed by educators with both the technical knowledge of a broad range of educational tools and the organizational authority to push them, these systematic changes happened in ways that did change both academic and behavior supports for students and teachers. But that has not happened everywhere; systemic change is hard.

Beyond the question of implementation, the fundamental question that one can ask about the systematic tiered approach now in federal law is whether it has addressed many of the troubling features of the education of individuals with disabilities identified and discussed before 1997: disproportionate representation of Black, Hispanic, and Indigenous students in special education programs and in discipline of students receiving special education services, especially discipline that excludes students from instructional environments; and discernible and troubling gaps in achievement and attainment between students receiving special education services and their nondisabled peers. At least as far as I can tell from the published literature, there is no evidence that as implemented, the 1997 and 2004 changes to federal policy affected those broader trends. Again, the key to understanding what happened is the differential changes in practice. Other changes have rolled out in federal law: for example, the requirement that students participate in the planning of their own transition to postsecondary education and adult life happened without much incident, and the inclusion of students with disabilities in state assessments (the latter, with greater involvement by state authorities and a new set of procedures for identifying which assessment would apply to individual students). These also were additional requirements, policy overlays. So the overlay of new systematic-service and identification requirements on the original 1975 structure is not enough to explain the lack of significant impact on disproportionate representation in both special education programs or discipline.

My best explanation of persistent disproportionate representation and exclusionary discipline is a combination of the long history of disproportionate treatment of students in schools, on the one hand, with a subtle feedback mechanism in the original 1975 federal law that emphasized individualized programming. The history of racism in American schools is well-documented, and deeply rooted in a number of patterns, from private discriminatory actions in the real-estate market and labor market to public policy that gives disproportionate power to wealthier parents and wealthier communities in schooling – in both public and private schools. The longer structural history means that equitable treatment is an uphill battle – possible at any moment and in any classroom or school, but something that can be toppled in a moment of miscommunication, microaggressions, and opportunity hoarding in a context where the majority of educators are white, middle-class, and with greater formal credentials than many parents. In many places – not all – this is expressed in part as disproportionate placement in special education programs of students who don’t “fit in” to educators’ expectations writ large; or racially disproportionate exclusionary discipline.

One additional feature comes into play here: the difference between the discursive and legal framework in special educational services and the framework in general education. The basic federal law in 1975 governing special education services channeled disagreements between parents and schools into an individualized administrative law context – each state has a due-process hearing structure that addresses those conflicts where relationships are utterly unrepairable. The key is the individualization of the conflict, I think: there is no broader pattern of discrimination that is recognized in due process hearings, and I have never read a hearing officer decision that even mentions discrimination by race or national origin as a potential finding. The obvious recourse in case of conflict essentially rules out identification of discrimination and disproportionate treatment. In special education law, hearing officers look for violations of legal obligations within the narrow confines of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, relevant state law, and regulations. The recourse to due process hearings has thus channeled activism and legal training through this individualized lens, even as the broader patterns of disproportionate treatment is a part of public discussion. Individualized programming that fits each child is the idealistic goal of federal law; individualized conflict management is a far clearer outcome.

The Complexity of Change in Schools: Deliberate and Chaotic

The 1997 and 2004 revisions to federal law on special educational services attempted to address disproportionate placement in special education programs by requiring demographic analysis of special education service recipients and specific steps in cases of malapportioned services. On the whole, those steps have not changed the overall national pattern, and Bal, Sullivan, and Harper (2014) suggested a different way of looking at racial disproportionality in special education – both in placement in programs and in terms of exclusionary discipline. What they called “a dynamic topography of disproportionality” (p. 8) is part of a systemic pattern beyond the reach of individual actors, what they termed a runaway object of organizational dynamics.

In many ways, the concept of a runaway object explains the broad variety of education reform outcomes, not only in this discussion but more generally. Some systemic and organizational patterns are bounded, if still messy – political dynamics and deliberate planning and practice dominate those outcomes, such as the acceptance of the zero reject principle of the 1975 federal law, the mandate of individualized programming, and mandates for transition planning in adolescence to post-secondary education and life. Other patterns are unbounded, and at least in specific contexts, more deliberative and explicit factors are dominated by the weight of history, emergent behavior, and policy feedback. This mix of bounded and unbounded outcomes is clearly visible in the half-century of education reform efforts focused on the rights and needs of individuals with disabilities, and arises out of multiple factors shaping education reforms as they happen.


[1] The federal government had invested in such research starting in the 1960s, and it was important in starting programmatic research. It was also limited in comparison with the needs.

[2] The 1997 law introduced the idea of Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports, the 2004 reauthorization extended that concept and applied it to academics with the Response to Intervention framework, and collectively the approach is often called the Multi-Tiered System of Supports.

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