Contemporary Issues of Special Education Essay

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Several issues are currently in the forefront of special education. First, some minority groups continue to be disproportionately represented among those in special education. As demographics in the United States become increasingly diverse, professionals continue to be challenged with identifying students who truly need special education services and supports. Second, the question of where to educate students with identified disabilities remains a central problem. Current practices range from educating students in separate settings to believing that every individual, even those with the most severe disabilities, should participate in educational and living environments that are as close to normal as possible. This leads to a third issue: As more students with disabilities are included in general education classrooms, the role of the special education professional continues to change. Shifting responsibilities of special education professionals entail consultation, collaboration, and facilitation of student learning. Thus, the challenge of preparing all teachers to share knowledge, skills, and expertise is also critical in this entry’s discussion of the present state and future developments in the field of special education.

Disproportionate Representation

A variety of factors contribute to the underachievement of culturally and linguistically diverse (CLD) students. However, the continued low progress of CLD students in schools today is very pertinent to the special education field. Students who do not perform well academically end up being referred for special education services. Although prereferral interventions exist to ensure that students are not placed erroneously in special education, students from CLD backgrounds continue to be disproportionately represented in certain programs and disability categories.

For example, African American males continue to be overrepresented in classes for students with emotional/behavioral disorders, whereas Latino students are overrepresented in programs serving students with learning disabilities. Moreover, African American, Latino, and Native American students are underrepresented in programs for the gifted and talented, whereas Asian American and European American students are overrepresented in these programs.

One reason for disproportionate representation that has been discussed in the literature includes the possibility that lower socioeconomic status contributes to disability. However, some scholars argue that the deficit perspective of some education professionals as they view students and families from CLD backgrounds leads to misidentification. Supporting this claim, existing research has pointed out the fact that CLD students are disproportionately represented in those categories that are socially constructed (e.g., behavior disorders, learning disabilities) or based on professional judgments as to what normalcy means. CLD students are not disproportionately represented in disability categories that entail biological traits or conditions (e.g., deafness, blindness).

Other reasons for the disproportionate number of minority students in special education programs that have been espoused by educational researchers are existing cultural biases in the assessment process and the cultural mismatch between CLD students and their predominantly European American, middle-class educators.

Inclusion Of Students With Disabilities

Students with disabilities are increasingly being integrated in general education classrooms, where general educators are responsible for providing services to meet individual students’ needs. This philosophical belief, known as normalization, states that every student should be educated in the least restrictive environment (LRE) to the maximum extent possible. Some professionals and advocates of students with special needs argue that the LRE is in the general education classroom where students without disabilities are educated.

Increased integration has led to fostering recognition that people with and without disabilities have the right and capability to make their own decisions (i.e., self-determination) and to become contributing members of society. However, there exists significant controversy about whether people with more severe and profound disabilities are provided a free and appropriate public education in settings where individual supports are not provided. For this reason, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act states that educational programming for students with disabilities is to be built upon a variety of service delivery options.

Professionals working with a student with special needs and the student’s parents are to determine, from a continuum of services ranging from separate schooling to full inclusion in general education, which is the best setting in which the student can be educated. If a general education classroom is deemed the most appropriate setting in which a student with special education needs will receive services, it becomes critical that the general educator and special education teacher collaborate to make the inclusion of that student successful.

Collaboration Between General Education And Special Education

The coordination between general education and special education programs tends to be informal and in accordance with meeting the requirements of the law (e.g., general educators’ attendance to the special education student’s individualized education plan meetings). These limited interactions between general and special education teachers, who are both responsible for providing services to students with disabilities, can sometimes prevent the provision of more appropriate services for students with special needs. If these students are to be successful in any setting, including general education classrooms, it is of utmost importance that special education and general education teachers work together.

Through collaboration, professionals can learn from one another’s areas of expertise and share knowledge conducive to the improvement of intervention strategies and instructional practices to work with diverse groups of students. For example, in working more closely together, general education teachers and special educators could better address cultural, linguistic, and disability-related needs of individual students. However, educators have limited opportunities to collaborate with teachers outside their area of expertise. They may participate in professional development, but there are few opportunities available to share knowledge across disciplines. Even when teachers have the intention of learning how to improve their practices in working with students with disabilities, systematic, ongoing planning times and opportunities for teacher collaboration must exist in order for this to happen.

In addition to opportunities for professional development across their respective disciplines, increased collaboration and planning together can lead to developing a shared knowledge base among teachers to facilitate a diverse student body’s learning. It is critical that general education teachers and special educators seek to coordinate their efforts to meet the unique needs of students with identified disabilities. Developing a sense of ownership and shared responsibility for students among school personnel provides a context in which the academic and social development of all students can be supported. Together, teachers can observe students with special needs in different settings and identify important academic and social areas to be addressed. Opportunities for co-teaching also contribute to supporting the integration of students with special needs and allow general educators and special education teachers to meet regularly and discuss student progress.


Many controversial issues continue to be discussed in the special education literature about how to best educate students with disabilities. Differing opinions exist about appropriate identification, the inclusion of students with disabilities, and the amount of collaboration between general education and special education. However, as more empirical research continues to be conducted in the field, answers to questions from professionals working with students with special needs may emerge. At the same time, different challenges will come to light. It is these challenges that must be viewed as opportunities for growth and continued change in the improvement of service delivery for students with and without disabilities.


  1. García, S. B., & Ortíz, A. A. (2006). Preventing disproportionate representation: Culturally and linguistically responsive prereferral interventions. Teaching Exceptional Children, 38(4), 64–68.
  2. Harry, B., & Klingner, J. K. (2006). Why are so many minority students in special education? Understanding race and disability in schools. New York: Teachers College Press.
  3. Losen, D. J., & Orfield, G. (2002). Racial inequity in special education. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press.
  4. Peterson, J. M., & Hittie, M. M. (2003). Inclusive teaching: Creating effective schools for all learners. Boston: Allyn & Bacon.
  5. Sands, D. J., Kozleski, E. B., & French, N. K. (2000). Inclusive education for the 21st century. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.

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