School is a delicate period in a child’s life, where every experience can trigger a series of positive or negative outcomes. Special education is a field full of challenges, as not every school receives the same amount of funding or specialized training to address the needs of children with disabilities.
It is common practice to place special ed students in different classrooms than their general education peers. However, this practice has become increasingly challenged in recent years since it has proven to be — in many cases — an ineffective solution. This is clear in the case of California, where “only 13% of students in special education met or exceeded the state’s math standards in 2018-19, compared to 43% of their peers, even though the majority of students in special education have conditions such as dyslexia, epilepsy, deafness or speech impairments that don’t affect their cognitive abilities,” as pointed out by Carolyn Jones from EdSource, citing a study by the Learning Policy Institute.
Balancing the Old with the New
This so-called achievement gap has been a reality for years, despite the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) requiring that institutions offer an accessible, equal, inclusive, and free education to all students. An already dire situation was made considerably worse after the pandemic, as the lack of access to technology and appropriate solutions has taken a toll on special ed students.
The U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) published a study at the end of 2020, which found that the services specified under IDEA were either not being delivered or suffering in quality because of the shift to an online platform. Although most schools and instructors worked tirelessly with parents and districts to offer the best possible education, the study still found that “delivering related services — such as occupational therapy, physical therapy, or speech therapy — for students with complex needs was particularly difficult to do remotely.” Other factors such as race, socio-economic background, immigration status, and not speaking English as a first language have also diminished the accessibility of schooling.
Technology and Special Education
It is unclear whether the education system will ever revert to the way it was before the pandemic. However, it is evident that educators must welcome technology and integrate their students into the digital world.
“Universal Design for Learning,” or UDL, is a series of principles that all students can use, with or without disabilities. It can broaden the accessibility of class materials by using tools such as closed captioning, platforms with a variety of mediums to express the same idea (photos, audio, video), and letting kids choose the way to demonstrate what they’ve learned, among other things. Luckily, there are several ways to integrate UDL principles into classroom instruction.
Another study emphasizes the potential of general education to help those in special education. Research conducted by Elizabeth Setren throughout Boston Charter Schools found that investing in high-quality general education is extremely effective for students with disabilities and “can lead to remarkable progress for special education students.” In fact, she notes that “attending a Boston charter school makes special education students 1.4 times more likely to score proficient or higher on their standardized tests, resulting in a 30 percent reduction of the special education achievement gap.”
However, placing special ed students into charter schools or general education contexts without preparation and strategy won’t be enough. This is a multi-layered issue, and if teachers are unprepared, they will struggle with the needs of a child with disabilities. Educators must improve both general and special education to integrate both pools of students in a less-restrictive environment.