Rethinking Special Education

Douglas, an 11-year-old 6th grader from Massachusetts, has dyslexia and Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). He struggled in school from kindergarten through 4th grade, feeling frustrated in a learning environment that did not meet his individual needs and caused him to question his ability to succeed.

Douglas recently wrote President Trump and asked, “How can you as our president help kids like me get the right tools so they don’t get left behind?”

I met with Douglas and his parents on behalf of the president and the U.S. Department of Education this spring when his family visited Washington. We discussed his previous struggles and frustrations as well as his parents’ determination to get Douglas the help he needed to succeed in school.

We must rethink special education in America for students like Douglas. “Rethink” means everyone questions everything to ensure nothing limits any student from being prepared for what comes next. That begins with acknowledging the unique needs of each child and then finding the best ways to prepare each individual for successful careers and a meaningful life.

As a former high school special education teacher and state special education director, I have learned that delivering on the promises we have made to children and parents will not be achieved by merely tinkering around the edges.

Rethinking special education will require an unwavering commitment to address barriers that stand in the way of improving opportunities and outcomes for each child, and to make needed changes at the federal, state, and local levels. We must be willing to confront anything that does not facilitate needed improvement. That includes structures that limit opportunities for children with disabilities; practices that put the needs of “the system” over the individual needs of a child; policies that, no matter how well-intentioned, do not have the impact of improving outcomes for students; or laws and regulations that constrain innovation. We cannot ignore the challenges that students, parents, teachers and schools face.

Any policy that could deny education services to a student who needs them would be a failed policy. So we must root out anything that separates students from the individualized education they deserve.

The Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services is committed to confronting these—and any other issues—that stand in the way of a child’s success. We will partner with parents and families, individuals with disabilities—anyone and everyone who is focused on raising expectations and improving outcomes for individuals with disabilities.

This commitment means acknowledging that states, school districts, and parents know the needs of their students better than we do. Our goal is to provide them with as much flexibility and support as possible so that they can ensure their students’ needs are being met.

Douglas’ parents told me it wasn’t until Douglas was tested, properly diagnosed, and enrolled in a school that understood his unique traits and addressed his needs that things began to get better for him. In a different school, Douglas told me he feels comfortable and confident. He said, “I’m getting the right tools I need and learning how my brain works.”

Every student deserves the same opportunity and the same individualized attention that Douglas has. To be sure, this is and will continue to be hard work. However, it’s not just about working hard. It’s about working differently and more collaboratively, because meaningful and effective collaboration with all those who have a stake in the success of individuals with disabilities is critical to improving the outcomes that we envision.

The changes we need won’t happen overnight or only through the commitment of a few; but the work is worth it, because at the heart of all our efforts are the individuals we serve and their futures.

It is unacceptable for us to watch another generation of kids fail to achieve the outcomes they could have achieved just because the adults around them would not commit to solving difficult issues. We must demonstrate the courage and persistence necessary to achieve the goals that we, and most importantly the individuals we serve, envision.

No two children are the same, so no two children’s learning experiences should look the same. A personalized, student-centered education empowers students with disabilities and gives them the hope of living successful, independent lives, while a one-size-fits-all approach to education only limits students’ potential. Each child’s education should embrace his or her diverse traits and aspirations.

As we start this school year, I ask you to join me in rethinking special education in our country. While we all have a stake in the success of children with disabilities, no one has more of a stake in their success than they do.

The work is too important, the need is too urgent, and the stakes are too high for us to settle for anything less than whatever it takes to deliver on the promises we have made to children and families in our country.


Posted by
Assistant Secretary Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services United States Department of Education


  1. Rethinking Special Education is needed, and it should start with one obvious challenge — this has been done several times over the last 16 years, with virtually no gains. We have worked with thousands of students and the challenges include: a wait to fail evaluation system; an RTI process that is consistently inconsistent; IEPs that meet minimum standards, but are not designed to get a child back to grade level; no real focus on Success by Third Grade; and a rejection of those who think outside the box.
    A real effort to Rethink Special Education needs to include those inside the system and some mavericks, who desperately want the system to succeed, and recognize it will take a different approach to significantly improve outcomes

    • Sadly are correct!
      My 13yr old son has and still is being swept under the rug. IEP meetings usually end with me in tears.The sad part is No Change is coming!

  2. As a parent of an adult student with a disability, I appreciate the thoughts expressed in this blog. The recent framework was encouraging and will inspire hope for parents like me everywhere.

    The reality is that the big roadblock to success for our children is the system itself, yet somehow the “states know best”? That is how we got where we are today, by allowing states and schools to make decisions with no accountability to anyone.

    Their decisions affect our children’s futures based on their own very significant limitations. You have to both WANT and have the ABILITY to make change within a school system. I hope it is not a surprise to learn that schools do not make IEP, instructional, or placement decisions based on a students unique needs. If it is a surprise, please attend an IEP meeting soon!

    We need some leadership and action on this soon please. Thank you for your effort and immediate action to make change happen.

  3. Despite the fed’s and the efforts of Federalist Society politicians’ (who are in control from bottom to top now) to put out this message that they are doing something, I will not have faith until we actually see the effort and the fruit. We have had months now with nothing from Ms. DeVos targeting the improvement of reading, and the inclusion of students with disabilities, because they do not want the responsibility of enforcement at the federal level. They do not believe in it. So, there should be enforcement at the state level they say. However, that has usually NEVER happened. Parents who cannot afford attorneys or advocates are forced to spend more hours each night researching how to file complaints with DOJ, OCR, the OIGs in ever state, the Professional Standards commission, and sometimes with their local police.. and anywhere else they can find to get the services they need. Then, the District’s lawyers try to teach staff how to fight parents. These same lawyers are partners in firms with state legislators, so they KNOW the issues and know children are not being treated equally, as students without disabilities. In Georgia the GNETS (not a school) defrauds children, and abuse, neglect, segregation occurs every day as millions are spent on a program that has not worked for decades. We are tired of speaking out and seeing that no one does anything, even after lawsuits have been filed. This is fraud, waste and abuse of the highest order happening to our children, whom God has given us. They are our future, and they are the segment of our society that is under employed, and under appreciated by our society. God has called us to more.

  4. As a resident of a state that put a limit on the number of students receiving special education services, giving them more decision making ability would be disastrous.

  5. “Rethinking Special Ed” is nothing more than continuing the DeVos agenda of eliminating all Federal oversight and turning special ed into the wild, Wild West! This will destroy the promise of a free appropriate public education and restore inequity and a bar of expectations that has no low!

  6. This is nothing but a poorly veiled attempt to eliminate all federal oversight and restore local control. Local control is code for inequity and the end of the promise of FAPE.

  7. As a resident of a state that blatantly limited students needing special education services, I can honestly say that giving our state more decision making authority is a horrific idea.

  8. Secretary Collette:
    If you have a sincere desire to improve literacy outcomes in this nation you will support initiatives to fund teacher prep programs that REQUIRE Science-Based Reading Instruction. You would support initiatives that REQUIRE reading and spelling skills to be taught in tandem. And, you would support an initiative to REQUIRE full funding of IDEA, which has been underfunded since 1975. Finally, you will REQUIRE everyone in the OSERS office read this publication:

  9. Dear Assistant Secretary Johnny Collett,

    Please dig deeper.

    All the information you need is already available to you and to every education official in the nation.

    Two fundamental barriers prevent disabled children from receiving a high quality, equitable and inclusive education that prepares them for higher learning, employment and independent living:

    1) Less than half of all states are IDEA compliant (USDOE). Enforce and uphold compliance, accountability and transparency at the local, county, state and federal levels to combat our nation’s systemic failure to comply with IDEA;

    2) Parents are rarely, if ever, equal IEP team members. School officials in my community (Whittier, CA) for example, employ two SPED attorneys each of whom earns approximately $200,000 annually to protect the interests of the school and fight against our disabled children and their parents. Uninitiated parents – who lack SPED training, and the robust legal, financial and educational resources enjoyed by school officials – endure emotional, physical and financial duress in their attempts to access and enforce parental safeguards, protections and due process rights in mediation and formal hearings controlled by administrative law judges and teams of school officials and school attorneys.

    Parents need equal access to SPED training, education and legal support from education officials at the local, county, state and federal levels. With no equal access to the intensive training and legal resources that inequitably benefit school officials exclusively, “equal IEP team member” status for parents remains a fallacy.

    Yes, our schools are failing to teach our children with disability how to read, write and do math. In my community specifically, 2017 failure rates in language arts and math were approximately 80% to 96% (CAASPP). The systemic, pervasive and longstanding lack of importance and sense of urgency, and lack of accountability, transparency and compliance at the highest levels of school administration in my community drive the failures.

    Yes, another generation of kids are failing to achieve the outcomes they could have achieved because school officials (the adults around them) are failing to perform and solve difficult issues.


    Parent Advocate Group for an Equitable Quality Education (PAGE QE)

  10. You can start by removing the IDEA regulation that allows schools to remain out of compliance with IDEA for up to one year following identification of noncompliance. See 34 CFR 300.600(e) “…in exercising its monitoring responsibilities under paragraph (d) of this section, the State must ensure that when it identifies noncompliance with the requirements of this part by LEAs, the noncompliance is corrected as soon as possible, and in no case later than one year after the State’s identification of the noncompliance.”

    As for thinking local control will help students with special needs because “…states, school districts … know the needs of their students better” than USDE, think again. Just because a state or school district knows what a student needs does NOT mean they will actually provide what the student needs. They DON’T, and they WON’T.

    Ellen M. Chambers, MBA

  11. There is enough confusion and mayhem in the states’ interpretations of the regulations. Providing states with even more choices will only perpetuate the low quality of education in those states below 25th place in their providing acceptable education.

  12. Rethinking???

    Is it an honesty, good faith inquiry to bring educational services for students with disabilities in line with the technology, best practises, and current science or is it another attempt to cut the budget or advance a political agenda or maybe a little of both? The current , shrill ideological debate the drowns out the ability reason , making it hard to see the path, but it perhaps it can be a start

    ” the SpecialEdMarine”

  13. We need to rethink the role of the regular education teacher. They are all-too-often left out of the special education process – and they are the de facto special education teachers for the vast majority of all mild/moderate sped students.

    In my district, reg ed teachers teach 80% of the disabled students (some are severe) for 95% of the day. Our IEPs often state that both the reg ed teacher and the sped teacher are both responsible for the Specialized Academic Instruction. It would be nice if we reg ed teachers understood exactly what we are supposed to do. Instead, we often go months before we find out that a student in our class has an IEP. We are handed a truncated version of the IEP with little information.

    I went to an IEP training today. The presenter was a special education lawyer who has appeared before the 9th District Circuit – and won. She told us that despite the specific wording in the IDEA that the IEP team must include “a regular education teacher of the student,” the school district can invite any regular education teacher to the IEP meeting. Think about this. It would behoove a cash-strapped district to invite someone who won’t know enough to advocate for services, ask too many questions, or expect special training. And that’s exactly what happens.

    We need to train the regular education teachers so they can effectively help sped students meet their goals. If the mild/moderate sped teachers are too time-strapped to give the reg ed teachers basic information about sped students, then maybe they should just stick to their paperwork and let the reg ed teachers, who know their students best, do what they do anyway – teach every child.

    • Informed parents need to know that they can specifically request those particular teachers at the IEP prior to the IEP….and plan accordingly. It’s the law.

      • Dear Trish,
        Not so according to the presenter – parents cannot dictate which staff members to invite. She advised sped folks to list the LEA IEP meeting participants by their title only so that a different person could easily be subbed in. As a caring teacher, I have had to use a valuable personal day and come as an advisor of the parent – even though I was the only regular education teacher of the student. I filed a state complaint and lost on that part. California Ed Dept said that ANY reg ed teacher would do. It seemed to me that such a policy would violate the student’s right to confidentiality.

        • In our case we wish more general education teachers would attend the case conferences. We ask and beg for attendance and input for goals. We get minimal response from some!

  14. President Trump,
    I like the OSERS Framework. Can we please apply this Framework to improve healthcare organizations? People with special needs are also affected by healthcare institutional cultures that protect institutions and status quo over people and improvement.

  15. This is not about funding. Its easy to say its a funding issue. This is about what professionals believe and think about education. We need to think differently about how we educate ALL children and then we will have a system that supports individual learners. Currently the Special Education/IDEA practices are very specific, limiting and cumbersome. Also, these practices are “skill deficit based” and NOT pro-active nor compatible within most education systems. I say throw out the baby with the bath water and start over!

  16. It is nice to see that finally after 27 years of working on this— that the door to schools is finally cracked open. Getting the tools to our kids who struggle with reading may now be possible. Do not be too quick to label them. Disabilities limit our youth—inabilities that are corrected —leap frog them forward. These kids work very hard and yet hear words like “lazy” or “the small bus.” Once they get the help they need & books are back in their hands and fluency in reading can once again become a reality—those new labels might be “remarkable” “so smart” “who knew…etc.
    I say keep going we have just begun to make Change Happen for all!

  17. I agree. We need your help. Our programs are not funded to ensure the supports are available to put some great services in place. Our teachers are not prepared for the job coming out of college. There is a huge disconnect between gen ed and special ed. Why can’t it just be EDUCATION?? General education teachers MUST see all students as their students. Can we operate as specialists in student support vs “special” education??

    • I agree with Kim Adkins’ reply. Before and after diagnosis and the school accepts eligibility, ALL INCLUSION STUDENTS IN GENERAL EDUCATION whether identified or not, are affected by the educational culture of status quo and institution over progress and person.

      General education teachers and principals have no mandate, support, or financial incentive to learn special education. This must change to Make America Great Again.

    • I agree. We beg to go to training and there is no money. We ask for more staff so we can identify more preschool aged children and it takes years to get even a portion of the staff we need. The best leave for other jobs because ten hour days destroy your own family and kids at home and any less and you cant even partially do your job. The population grows and grows and the staff numbers stay the same. The retirees in my county vote down every tax increase for schools. Kids who need speech therapy would benefit from daily therapy but we do once per week because it is all we can afford with the number of staff we are allowed to hire. All staff wants to do better. Until someone votes to give us more money to pay more people to teach special education, they will keep giving just above the minimum. That is the level we are staffed at. minimum. Please understand “the schools” are not the enemy here. It is the misunderstanding between those who fund the schools and those who vote for those who fund the schools that must change. We need easily twice the number of speech therapists for example. Twice the school psychologists. Half the students in classrooms (18 max in 6th grade may really change something instead of 30!) We need more teachers and more training (not messed up nonsense webinars that profit the service or the DPI but real training by those who work with kids and have the success to back it up!) Help us. Vote for whoever will put more money into education for all so we can do right by our students!!!!

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