Since the mid 1970s, federal law has mandated that students with special needs be given access to the same free, public education as other children their age. With the passage of that law, the model of special education turned from one of exclusion (and even institutionalization) to one of inclusion.
On paper, this means that special education students should receive whatever help, support and individualized attention they need in order to keep pace with their classmates to the extent possible. The ultimate goal of many special education teachers is to have their students learn alongside their peers in the very same classrooms. Unfortunately, California's special education program rarely meet this goal, and many education advocates believe that major reforms are needed.
Too often, students identified as having a learning disability, a developmental disability or are otherwise "special needs" get put into their own secluded classrooms. While they do receive an education, it may not be as vigorous as that of other students. Graduation rates tend to be much lower for special needs students, as do rates of college attendance.
In March, a group of California's top education experts released a report about what should be done to reform the state's special education system. Suggested reforms include:
- Identifying special needs students early on and providing them with the services they need to be successful in a learning environment
- Changing teacher training and preparation programs so that all teachers are fairly well-versed in both general education and special education
- Improve collaboration between special education and general education teachers (in part by reforming teacher training)
- Hold all students to high achievement standards, regardless of special education status
- Strive for a "one system" model that helps all students learn to their highest potential
- Ensure that funding for special education is commensurate with need and is always available
Will fixing a complex system like this be easy? Of course, the answer is no. But like most things worth doing, the ease of implementation should not be a considered factor. All students deserve a good public education. And right now, that's not always happening.