Stats show that few special ed students fully re-enter general education

With regard to one of the primary mandates of special education legislation - the obligation "to search and serve" - schools have done remarkably well. Since 1976, shortly after the first federal omnibus special education law was passed, the percentage of children served has risen from 8.3 percent to 13.2 percent.

But national and state statistics show two other phenomena that are a bit more surprising and considerably more disturbing.

The first apparent trend is that the exit rates are in stark contrast to the entry levels. Many may enter but very few get out, thereby partially negating the intent of the law which is meant to ensure "access to the general education curriculum in the regular education classroom, to the maximum extent possible... ."(IDEA,Public Law 108-446)

However, there is another statistical deduction even more unsettling. Early intervention in special education, at least in regard to reducing the need for the continuation of specialized instruction, is just not working.

There has been surprisingly little data compiled on the frequency of re-entry into the standard program from special education - a fact that is telling in and of itself - but the information that is available is revealing.

Based on two separate sources, it can be reasonably estimated that in 2007-08, 51,786 students with disabilities between the ages of 14-22 transferred back to regular education, about 2 percent of the special education population for that age group. Another researcher estimates that the overall exit rate is 7.5 percent. If that percentage is correct, given the fact that special education is available for students from the age of 3 to 22, less than four-tenths of 1 percent transfer to the mainstream environment each year.

Consider this: Approximately two-thirds of the students with disabilities are classified into three categories where there happens to be likelihood for academic gains (emotionally disturbed, learning disabled, or speech/language impaired). Assuming successful remediation beginning in the third grade, at just 5 percent per year for that set, then at least 29.7 percent of students with disabilities students should be joining their peers in regular education! A far cry from what the actual statistics indicate.

The depressed rate for exits from special education have remained stagnant since the late 1970s in spite of the expansion of special education support for families with young children that was codified in federal law in 1986.

Which leads to the last point regarding early intervention: while the figures and corresponding research articles indicate that there can be little question as to the overall effectiveness of preschool services when it comes to various indicators of effectiveness - improved reading performance, less grade retention, higher graduation rates, less criminal activity, even better overall physical health, to name just a few - the success story does not extend to reintegration of special education students into the mainstream population.

There are some longitudinal studies that show a decline in special education placements for particular populations served in general education pre-schools. But these reports are specific to minimizing special education retention for those students who are served in regular settings and then found eligible for special education in the primary grades, not to pupils who start receiving special services prior to kindergarten.

The national numbers are startling in that there is no evidence that early intervention in special education per se correlates with a transition from special education to general education.

On the contrary, the IDEA Infant and Toddler Association reported that there was a 60 percent increase in the number of children served under Part C from 2000 through 2008. During that same interim, the percentage of students with disabilities climbed from 13.3 percent of the pupil population to 13.8 percent in 2004-05 before leveling off to 13.2 percent, the same percentage as in 1999 - 2000.

As if to acknowledge the trend, the Office of Special Education Programs has emphasized four goals that should be pursued as students with disabilities transition to kindergarten, and none of them address fading supports or reducing special education involvement. In fact, there is an emphasis on the opposite - "to ensure continuity of services."

Last year, 2010, marked 35 years since special education became an integral part of America's schools. Since that time, there has been an expansion in the breadth and intensity of available services along with a marked increase in the number of students found eligible for assistance. Unfortunately, the record suggests that there has been little attention given to reducing supports so that these students can thrive independently in general education. more