Pay attention! The times they are a ‘changing as we move beyond special education as we’ve known it for forty-plus years. In his courageous, thought-provoking piece, Kalman R. Hettleman, member of the Maryland Commission on Innovation and Excellence in Education and former Baltimore school board member, writes that it’s time to acknowledge the two distinct groups of students with disabilities—the “Truly Disabled” and the “Mainly Mislabeled.” He is on the right track.

Truly Disabled students have significant challenges. The 1975 federal special education law was written for them because, at the time, many were excluded from schools. Today no children with disabilities are excluded, as the special education community makes up around 14 percent of all pupils. Yet truly disabled students make up a small minority (15–20 percent) of today’s cohort.

Who are the rest? The vast majority (85–90 percent), the “Mostly Mislabeled,” are labeled with mild/moderate needs. They learn the general curriculum and spend most of their time in general education classrooms. Many are so-labeled because they struggle with reading—often because they did not receive adequate rigorous instruction in grades K–3. Hettleman reminds us that this labeling is “flat-out illegal,” as the law explicitly bars special education eligibility for students who lack appropriate prior instruction. Even worse, he writes that they don’t benefit from services the law provides. 

How did we get here? Over the years, we broadened the definition of “disabled” and built a complex, separate, siloed structure for students with disabilities—largely based on the ill-suited medical model. Unlike doctors, teachers don’t “cure” struggling learners by removing them and sending them back after they are “fixed.”

Notably, in these changing times, Hettleman’s important piece echoes the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2017 differentiation of two groups of students with disabilities in its unanimous decision, Endrew F. v. Douglas County. Most students are like Amy Rowley, the subject of the Court’s 1982 Board of Education v. Rowley decision. They advance from grade to grade in spite of their disability. A minority are like Endrew F., who do not. Most students receive “instruction in the regular classroom” and have a program that is “reasonably calculated to enable the child to achieve passing marks and advance from grade to grade.” The needs of students like Amy can usually be addressed in a regular classroom through sound educational practices, rigorous instruction, behavior management, early and continuous interventions, and other effective approaches. In fact, the initiative growing across the nation, the Multi-Tiered System of Supports, posits that if we put our resources into classrooms designed to meet the needs of each student, we can hope to educate all children without having to label them.

In 2017, the Court finally defined what the law requires for a student with severe or profound disabilities, who is “not fully integrated in the regular classroom,” and who will probably not reach grade level standards. For that child, the program “need not aim for grade-level advancement. But his educational program must be appropriately ambitious in light of his circumstances, just as advancement from grade to grade is appropriately ambitious for most children in the regular classroom. The goals may differ, but every child should have the chance to meet challenging objectives.” A common sense and realistic approach.

Yet current law and policy continue to ignore the reality of these two student groups and continue to push the one-size-fits-all approach with grade-level targets for all children mostly in inclusive classrooms—often setting up schools and students for failure.

For Hettleman’s 15–20 percent of pupils who are “Truly Disabled,” Congress needs to develop a new law that is innovative in meeting their needs. Undoubtedly, they need specialized programs and supports in order to learn, and ultimately, to be engaged in meaningful employment and be as independent as possible.

To Hettleman’s two groups, we would add the third—general education students—who comprise 87 percent of our nation’s student body, whose needs also should be met. Yet often, in making placement decisions for children with special needs in regular classrooms, the needs of peers can become sidelined or ignored. For example, this happens when a student needs an inordinate amount of the teacher’s time or when the learning of others is disrupted. After forty-plus years, it’s time to ask if this approach is appropriate and comports with the mantra that all children have a right to an effective instructional environment and no child has the right to disrupt the learning of others.

We leave for another day the question of whether “mainly mislabeled” students still need an individual entitlement. Among the current system’s unintended consequences are that we pay dearly for compliance and litigation, with their attendant anxiety and loss of trust—and most importantly, we divert resources from where they belong, educating all students, even as there is no evidence that the bureaucratic and adversarial one-size-fits-all law fosters excellence for all.

Let’s accept Hettleman’s two-group analysis, especially as it was confirmed by the Supreme Court, and move beyond special education as we know it. Continuing this one-size-fits-all approach does not serve all students with disabilities well, ignores the needs of general education students, is not sustainable, and will further erode faith in our public schools. It’s time to move beyond special education as we know it.

Anne Delfosse, M.S. is the Executive Director for Special Education, Capistrano Unified School District, CA.

Miriam Kurtzig Freedman, JD, MA is a school attorney and the author of Special Education 2.0: Breaking Taboos to Build a NEW Education Law.