What is "special education"?
Special education, or exceptional children (EC) services, is broad. Anything done in an educational setting to address the unique needs of a child with a disability, health impairment, or learning difference is considered special education or EC services.
This video from Great Schools, a national nonprofit that provides information on schools to parents, provides an introduction to special education in public schools.
The following terms are in federal law to describe disability categories. The Council for Exceptional Children provides a comprehensive list of terms and definitions, taken from the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.
- Autism Spectrum Disorders
- Deafness and hearing impairments
- Intellectual disabilities
- Multiple disabilities
- Orthopedic impairment
- Other health impairment
- Specific learning disability
- Speech/language impairment
- Blindness and visual impairments
- Developmental delays
The majority of students who receive special education services receive it within the general education classroom. They may receive tutoring, alternative methods of completing assignments, or testing accommodations. However, a small amount of students must follow a separate, adapted curriculum in order to receive the greatest educational benefit.
What federal policies govern special education?
Until 1975, the federal government did not require that children with disabilities be given the opportunity to be educated in public schools with their same-age peers. The Education of All Handicapped Children Act (EHA) of that year mandated that public schools must provide equal access to education for all children with disabilities. This is a direct result of the Brown v. Board decision nearly two decades prior which determined that children being forced into separate schools by segregation were inherently receiving unequal educations.
Now known as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, or IDEA, this law guarantees a free and appropriate public education (FAPE) to all students regardless of disability.
While IDEA is the largest piece of federal legislation devoted entirely to special education, countless other policies are in place to protect the educational rights of people with disabilities.
The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA) is a civil rights law that prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities in employment, state and local government, public accommodations, telecommunications, and all other areas of public life.
Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 was one of the first pieces of legislation that specifically protects people with disabilities against discrimination. Section 504 states that no one with a disability can be excluded from participating in any federally funded program, which includes public education. We sometimes hear of “504 Plans” in schools, which outline the accommodations needed to give a student equal opportunity to participate. This does not necessarily change the essential education of the student, and they are sometimes temporary. For example, a student may need to eat lunch in a peanut-free environment to ensure their health, safety, and ability to learn.
Within the U.S. Department of Education, the Office of Special Education Services (OSEP) is devoted to improving educational outcomes for students with disabilities from birth to age 21. This is the governing body for all special education services in the United States.
How is special education supported in North Carolina?
Special education in the state of North Carolina is supported in large part by the Exceptional Children Division of the Department of Public Instruction. Led by its director William J. Hussey, the division provides professional development opportunities, conferences and seminars, disability specific resources and support, research and data, as well as instructional resources for teachers and professionals.
“The mission of the Exceptional Children Division is to ensure that students with disabilities develop intellectually, physically, emotionally, and vocationally through the provision of an appropriate individualized education program in the least restrictive environment.” – EC Divison
Resources available through the EC Division include:
- A guide to dispute resolution
- Access to the private nonprofit Exceptional Children’s Assistance Center
- A comprehensive handbook on on parent’s rights and procedural safeguards
- A guide to all current state policies concerning children with disabilities
The 65th Annual Conference on Exceptional Children will be held November 18-20, 2015 in Greensboro, NC. The conference is open to parents. Visit here for details.
What is an IEP?
An Individualized Education Program (IEP) is a document developed by a team of parents, teachers, specialists, and administrators that outlines the modifications, accommodations, special education and related services that are to be used to meet the individual needs of the student. Sometimes called an Individualized Education Plan, the IEP lays out what must be done to ensure the student is receiving a free and appropriate public education.
In addition to academics, the IEP is required to address the functional needs of the student. An example of this is a child with an Autism Spectrum Disorder who receives instruction and support in social skills. While these skills are not typically included in the academic curriculum, they are considered alongside academic goals in crafting the IEP.
The IEP is comprised of several documents. A few of the standard documents are eligibility determination worksheets, disability specific worksheets, evaluations, and testing accommodations.
Resources for Parents and Professionals
- The DPI EC Division provides a list of statewide IEP forms, along with downloadable Word documents.
- IEP Essentials for Parents, from the U.S. Department of Education Office of Special Education Programs Center for Parent Information and Resources
- IEP Tips and Tools, including an IEP Checklist for Parents, from the NC-based Exceptional Children’s Assistance Center
What curriculum do students with disabilities follow?
Special education can be separated into two broad categories — general curriculum and adapted curriculum.
General Curriculum: North Carolina Standard Course of Study + Common Core Standards
- Standard End of Grade (EOG) testing
- Majority of public school population (around 98%)
- Receive additional services or accommodations as outlined in the IEP
Adapted Curriculum: Extended Content Standards + Extended Common Core Standards
- Participate in alternative testing, known as “Extend”
- Less than 2% of North Carolina public school population– these students are considered to have the most significant disabilities (typically intellectual/cognitive, or multiple disabilities)
- Learn a related, but modified and customized, set of standards.