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Improving the Implementation of the IDEA: Making Schools Work for All of America's Children - Supplement

Friday, April 26, 1996

April 26, 1996

National Council on Disability
1331 F Street NW
Suite 1050
Washington, DC 20004-1107

(202) 272-2004 Voice
(202) 272-2074 TT
(202) 272-2022 Fax

This document is available in alternative formats.

The views contained in the report do not necessarily represent those of the Administration, as this document has not been subjected to the A-19 Executive Branch review process.



Marca Bristo, Chairperson
John A. Gannon, Vice Chairperson
Yerker Andersson, Ph.D.
Larry Brown, Jr.
John D. Kemp
Audrey McCrimon
Bonnie O’Day
Lilliam R. Pollo
Debra Robinson
Shirley W. Ryan
Michael B. Unhjem
Rae E. Unzicker
Hughey Walker
Kate P. Wolters
Ela Yazzie-King


Ethel D. Briggs, Executive Director
Speed Davis, Executive Assistant to the Chairperson
Billie Jean Hill, Program Specialist
Jamal Mazrui, Program Specialist
Mark S. Quigley, Public Affairs Specialist and Editor
Brenda Bratton, Executive Secretary
Stacey S. Brown, Staff Assistant
Janice Mack, Administrative Officer


The National Council on Disability extends its appreciation to the following individuals associated with this supplement to the study Improving the Implementation of the Individuals with Disabilities Act: Making Schools Work for All of America’s Children:

The synthesis of reports from special education researchers and teacher trainers was prepared by H. Rutherford Turnbull III and Ann P. Turnbull, Co-Directors, Beach Center on Families and Disability, University of Kansas.

The National Council on Disability also wishes to extend its appreciation to the following individuals who prepared categorical reports as part of this research effort:

  1. Learning Disabilities, by Donald D. Deshler and Jean Schumaker.
  2. Mental Retardation, by Edward A. Polloway, Tom E. C. Smith, and Eugene Edgar.
  3. Serious Emotional Disabilities, by Lucille Eber and C. Michael Nelson.
  4. Severe and Multiple Disabilities, by Michael F. Giangreco and Martha E. Snell.
  5. Autism, by Glen Dunlap and Meme Eno-Hieneman.
  6. Physical Disabilities, by Sherwood J. Best and Gary A. Best.
  7. Special Health Care Needs, by Marilyn Ault.
  8. Visual Impairments, by Sandra Lewis.
  9. Hearing Impairments, by John Luckner.
  10. Traumatic Brain Injuries, by Ron Savage.

Finally, the National Council on Disability wishes to extend its appreciation to the following individuals who prepared topical reports as part of this research effort:

  1. Early Intervention and Part H, by Don Bailey and Pamela Winton with Pat Trohanis, Tal Black, Jim Gallagher, Gloria Harbin, Robin McWilliam, P. J. McWilliam, Virginia Buysse, Farley Bernholz, and Pat Wesley.
  2. Early Childhood Education, by Michael J. Guralnick.
  3. Least Restrictive Environment: Overview and Upper School, by Susan Brody Hasazi and Katharine Furney.
  4. Least Restrictive Environment: Early Childhood, by Samuel L. Odom.
  5. Least Restrictive Environment: Elementary and Middle School, by Kathleen Gee.
  6. Social Relationships, by Luanna H. Meyer.
  7. Self-Determination, by Michael Wehmeyer.
  8. Transition, by Frank R. Rusch.
  9. Supported Employment, by Paul Wehman and W. Grant Revell, Jr.
  10. Minority Issues, by Vivian Correa with Maria E. Blanes-Reyes, and Mary Jane K. Rapport.
  11. Collaboration, by Jacqueline Thousand with Richard A. Villa, and Ann Nevin.
  12. Parent-Professional Participation, by Thomas H. Powell and Patricia L. Graham.
  13. School Restructuring, by Margaret McLaughlin.
  14. School-Linked Services, by Wayne Sailor.
  15. Participatory Action Research, by Ann P. Turnbull and H. Rutherford Turnbull III.
  16. Positive Behavioral Support, by Robert H. Horner with Jeffrey R. Sprague, and George Sugai.
  17. Violence Prevention and School Safety, by Hill W. Walker.



Categorical Reports

Learning Disabilities
Mental Retardation
Serious Emotional Disabilities
Severe and Multiple Disabilities
Physical Disabilities
Special Health Care Needs
Visual Impairments
Hearing Impairments
Traumatic Brain Injuries

Topical Reports

Early Intervention and Part H
Early Childhood Education
Least Restrictive Environment: Overview and Upper School
Least Restrictive Environment: Early Childhood
Least Restrictive Environment: Elementary and Middle School
Social Relationships
Supported Employment
Minority Issues
Parent-Professional Participation
School Restructuring
School-Linked Services
Participatory Research
Positive Behavioral Support
Violence Prevention

Appendix: A Brief Description of the National Council on Disability

Synthesis of Reports from Nationally Preeminent Special Education Researchers and Teacher Trainers

Celebrating IDEA’s 20th Anniversary

In 1995, Congress and the nation celebrate the 20th anniversary of one of the most significant disability-rights laws ever enacted: the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). It is in every respect proper for Congress and the entire nation to celebrate that anniversary. Certainly no other disability-rights law has had such a powerful and positive impact on children and youth with disabilities, on their families, on educators, and on the nation itself.

At the same time, it is also entirely proper for Congress and the nation to recognize that the promises that Congress made in IDEA and the potential that IDEA can evoke in our country’s students, families, educators, and communities are still not yet fulfilled. IDEA is like anyone who comes out of adolescence and enters young adulthood: some promises have been kept and others await fulfillment. The potential for their fulfillment is visible but is in some ways still unimaginable. So much is in place, and so much more can be added. So it is with IDEA: The Act has encouraged and helped students, their families, and the nation’s schools to make phenomenal gains, but the results are by no means all that could and should have been obtained.

On the occasion of IDEA’s 20th anniversary, it is important to build on the framework and the successes that IDEA has engendered, and to do so on the basis of the best available data about IDEA’s accomplishments and shortcomings. In building upon this framework, guided by reliable data, IDEA itself will be improved, and state and local educational agencies will be equipped to implement IDEA even more effectively. It is especially appropriate for Congress to build on the framework and successes in light of the strong grassroots efforts to reform the nation’s schools–a movement that Congress itself acknowledged and assisted by P.L. 103-227, the Goals 2000: Educate America Act.

Six Basic Principles Supporting the Implementation of IDEA

IDEA is based on six basic principles which provide a framework within which states may develop effective special education programs. The current status of the implementation of these principles is described below.

  • IDEA’s zero-reject principle has opened schoolhouse doors to all students with disabilities; yet schools still try to expel or suspend students who present behavioral or other special challenges.
  • IDEA’s nondiscriminatory evaluation principle has ensured that in most cases students’ disabilities are identified and fairly and accurately assessed; yet schools still too frequently misclassify students, especially minority students.
  • IDEA’s appropriate education principle has helped most students benefit from special education; yet it is abundantly clear that the outcomes of special education are less than acceptable for far too many students.
  • IDEA’s least restrictive environment principle has allowed some students to be educated with their nondisabled peers. There has been some progress in physical, academic, and social integration; yet far too often the schools still fall far short in providing the supplementary aids and services that would enable many more students to benefit from education with their nondisabled peers.
  • IDEA’s due process principle has held schools and families accountable to each other; yet schools and families still find fault with federal and state monitoring and still face the financially and emotionally draining prospects of administrative and judicial hearings.
  • IDEA’s principle of shared decision making by parents, students, and schools has created effective education and a wholesome system of checks and balances for many of these stakeholders; yet professional dominance still is too often the norm.

In short, however effectively this law and its six principles have been implemented in some areas, there still remain far too many instances where schools have failed to implement IDEA properly.

Islands of Effectiveness, But Not a Mainland

The issue in 1995 is not whether to retain IDEA in its present form. IDEA has been effective. An entire national school-system response has been built on its principles, and countless students, families, educators, and other providers have come to rely on and apply its principles. Instead, as Congress reauthorizes IDEA, it should focus on the last of IDEA’s stated purposes: “to assess and assure the effectiveness of efforts to educate children with disabilities” (20 U.S.C. Sec. 1400(c)). The disturbing findings Congress discovered in 1975 are still a reality in far too many school districts in 1995. While it is true that the extent and types of education discrimination have been remarkably curtailed, education discrimination still exists and the equal protection guarantee has not been fully realized. The islands of excellence in special education do not yet constitute a mainland, and general compliance is short of the goal of universal compliance. The issue for 1995, then, is the same issue that Congress identified in 1975: to assure the effectiveness of efforts to educate all children with disabilities.

In 1995, on IDEA’s 20th anniversary and as school reform efforts gather speed and power, Congress should assure the effectiveness of efforts to educate students with disabilities in two basic and necessary ways:

First, Congress should reaffirm IDEA’s basic premises and principles, declaring in no uncertain terms that IDEA is a necessary and useful civil rights law that, through the framework of its six basic principles, implements the federal equal protection guarantee and the states’ own constitutional assurances of universal education for all of their children.

Second, Congress should fine-tune IDEA itself in a limited number of ways and significantly strengthen federal, state, and local special education capacities, thereby assuring more effective special education.

Assessing the Effectiveness of Special Education

Congress’s reaffirmation of IDEA’s basic principles and framework and Congress’s capacity-building enhancements to IDEA and its administration should build on the most recent and most reliable data. The National Council on Disability (NCD) has reviewed those data in light of seven questions:

  • What are the goals of special education?
  • How well have these goals been achieved?
  • What are the most promising practices for achieving these goals?
  • What are the most significant barriers to achieving these goals?
  • What should Congress do to further ensure the effectiveness of efforts to educate all children with disabilities?
  • What should federal agencies, especially the Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services (OSERS), do to ensure that federal, state, and local education agencies are most effective in educating all children with disabilities?
  • What should state governments and state and local education agencies do?

The National Council on Disability and the Beach Center on Families and Disability posed these questions to 27 nationally preeminent scholars in special education and personnel preparation, advising them to rely on the most recent reliable data in providing responses, to back up their reports with annotated abstracts of key data-based literature, and to profile programs that exemplify IDEA’s proper implementation across all areas of disability. The following represents, in general, what we have concluded after reviewing the data:

  • No matter how effective IDEA has been, there are still significant shortcomings in its implementation. Congress, OSERS, and state and local education agencies should do still more to ensure that every student with a disability has an individualized program of free, appropriate education in the least restrictive environment.

As Congress takes up IDEA on the Act’s 20th anniversary, it should again rise to the challenge that it met so well in 1975 and many times thereafter:

  • Reaffirm the basic civil rights of all students with disabilities to effective, equal educational opportunities; reauthorize the federal framework that has benefited these students so greatly; and encourage further activities to ensure their effective education.

Restating the Purposes and Goals of Special Education

Over the course of the last 20 years and as recently as 1990 and 1994, Congress has stated and restated the nation’s policies regarding citizens with disabilities. Restating these policies now, as Congress considers the reauthorization of IDEA, would seem appropriate. The overall purposes of IDEA are:

  • To ensure equal protection under the law, particularly equal educational opportunity. Such protection is afforded not only in IDEA, but in the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act Amendments of 1975.
  • To assist individuals with disabilities to enjoy lives characterized by equal opportunities, full participation and integration into local communities and society as a whole, independence, self-determination, economic self-sufficiency, and contribution to America. These are also the purposes of ADA and the Developmental Disabilities Assistance and Bill of Rights Act.

To these ends, IDEA has helped state and local education agencies to educate all students with disabilities, no matter what the nature or severity of their disabilities. It has done so by establishing procedural and substantive rights, providing financial assistance, and providing support for research, training, and technical assistance. What more needs to be done? The answer is straightforward and achievable: Congress should not rely solely on process and substance but should assure quality in special education. To do that, Congress should review special education’s particular goals, as they relate to the nation’s overarching disability policy. The goals of special education and IDEA are to:

  • Enhance students’ overall capacities: By receiving a free appropriate public education in the least restrictive environment, every student should acquire academic, vocational, and social skills so all can learn, work, live, have social networks, and participate in their communities with their peers who do not have disabilities.
  • Secure students’ participation in school and community with peers who do not have disabilities: Students should receive the services necessary for them to achieve success within less restrictive placements and to learn in general education programs, work and reside in typical settings, and have social networks with people who do not have disabilities.
  • Augment families’ capacities to respond to their children’s special needs: By participating in early intervention and later programs for their children, benefiting from related services, sharing decision making with teachers and other professionals, and participating in the activities of such discretionary programs as Parent Training and Information Centers and model demonstration programs, families should acquire the skills necessary to respond to their children’s special needs and to be equal decision-making partners with educators and other professionals.
  • Establish collaboration among families, students, and professionals: Family members, students, and professionals should have the skills to collaborate with each other, and the schools should provide a context for this kind of collaboration.
  • Create a seamless network of effective services through collaboration among service providers and the systems and agencies within which they work: Providers, their agencies, and their service delivery systems should create a seamless network of effective services for students and families, and this network should enable students to learn, work, live, have social networks, and participate in their communities.
  • Prepare all professionals to deliver free appropriate public education in the least restrictive environment: All professionals, particularly general and special educators, should have the attitudes and skills that enable them to be as effective as possible in providing a free appropriate public education to all students in the least restrictive environment.
  • Carry out model demonstration programs and conduct research to implement IDEA: Special and general educators, researchers, teacher trainers, other professionals, and families–acting together–should carry out model demonstration programs, provide technical assistance, and conduct research to improve the implementation of IDEA’s six principles.
  • Ensure school restructuring and effective governance: Students, families, educators and other professionals, as well as community members should reform schools and school governance to advance all of special education’s goals. School reform should be sensitive to and accommodate cultural and ethnic diversity in students, their families, and communities.
  • Assure safe schools: All schools should be safe for all who use them, and to this end educators and administrators should focus on reducing violence in schools and communities.
  • Increase and target federal, state, and local resources: Federal, state, and local governing bodies should increase their appropriations for special education and permit some funding streams to be used more creatively and flexibly while simultaneously targeting other funding streams to solve particular problems.

Progress to Date in Achieving the Purposes and Goals of Special Education

How successful has special education been in achieving these goals? The answer is both heartening and challenging. It is heartening that there are many promising approaches to achieving these goals. Indeed, identifying and applying state-of-the-art practices, supported in large part through federal resources, have almost always resulted in the achievement of these goals. It is challenging that state-of-the-art practices exist only in some school districts. There are islands of effectiveness. However, far too many school districts do not or cannot apply state-of-the-art or best practices. These districts constitute the current mainland of special education.

Promising Practices for Effective Special Education

What are the promising practices, the standards by which effective special education should be judged and the means by which all school districts can deliver effective special education? Promising practices can be found system-wide within a state, district-wide within a local education agency, and personally, for an individual student.

System-wide Promising Practices

At the state agency level, it is especially important to have the following:

  • Professional in-service training through a comprehensive system of personnel development;
  • Model demonstration programs and technical assistance;
  • Strong parent participation in designing, planning, implementing, and evaluating state and local agency plans, relying on a strengthened system of Parent Training and Information Centers;
  • The participation of special education in all school restructuring activities; and
  • Effective monitoring of and technical assistance to local educational agencies.

District-wide Promising Practices

At the local school district level, it is important to have the following:

  • A zero-reject capacity, including
  • early screening, identification, and intervention at all ages,
  • locally adapted services and plans, and
  • interagency collaboration and coordination of services, systems, and procedures;
  • A nondiscriminatory evaluation capacity, including alternative, nonbiased educational evaluations, especially for minority students;
  • An appropriate education capacity, including
  • student-focused–not system-focused–individualized education and services that lead to students’ mastery of learning skills and strategies,
  • coherent, easy-to-use, intensive, and comprehensive services based on validated procedures and methodologies,
  • a system of comprehensive personnel development that assures that all school personnel will develop the skills necessary to deliver a free appropriate public education in the least restrictive environment, and
  • adoption and implementation of “safe schools” plans; and
  • A least restrictive environment capacity, including
  • adaptations of general and special education curricula, especially to accommodate students in the least restrictive environment and to accept, in that environment and throughout the district, students who have challenging behaviors,
  • a full array of least restrictive placement options, with continuous dialogue among special and general educators, school administrators, and families and students about how to secure the least restrictive education for all students,
  • accessibility and other modifications in the schools’ physical environments, and
  • flexibility in programs and staffing arrangements, with planned times and places for collaboration among educators and families.

Promising Practices with Students and Families

In order to serve students and families in an appropriate manner, it is necessary for school districts to provide the following:

  • A zero-reject capacity, including
  • early intervention to address present special education needs and to prevent additional needs from developing, and
  • adoption and implementation of a “safe schools” plan;
  • A nondiscriminatory evaluation capacity, including nonbiased evaluations of students’ strengths and needs, especially if the students are from minority populations or present challenging behaviors;
  • An appropriate education capacity, including
  • developmentally appropriate and professionally validated practices,
  • appropriate, functional curricula, including instruction for all post-school activities described in IDEA’s transition provisions,
  • instruction in self-determination and self advocacy,
  • culturally responsive instructional methodologies and curricula,
  • appropriate extracurricular activities,
  • community-based work instruction and work opportunities, including supported employment,
  • education that teaches not only post-school vocational skills but also other independent living skills,
  • flexibility in students’ schedules so they can take advantage of integrated learning and work opportunities, and
  • use of positive and natural consequences as feedback for appropriate behavior;
  • A least restrictive environment capacity, including
  • education of the student in the most typical settings–neighborhood schools–so that all school environments are integrated by the presence of students with and without disabilities, and
  • age-appropriate and culturally appropriate teaching practices; and
  • A parent-student participation and collaboration capacity, including
  • family-centered services and family involvement, and
  • professional-family collaboration and shared decision making.

The Application of Promising Practices Across the Six Principles of IDEA

However much progress has been made in implementing IDEA and its six principles, it is clear that improved implementation is necessary and possible. Through applying the promising practices listed above, the implementation of the six principles underlying IDEA would improve in the following manner:

  • Zero Reject: Instead of excluding students from school, a variety of successful intervention techniques would be available to support the inclusion of all students in schools, the result being a zero tolerance for excluding any students, whatever the reason.
  • Nondiscriminatory Evaluation: Instead of classifying students on the basis of their ethnicity, race, color, national origins, or the schools’ existing administrative structures, students would be classified according to an accurate assessment of their strengths and needs across the curricular and functional requirements involved in their education.
  • Appropriate Education: Applying the promising practices listed above would result in a system of comprehensive and effective services and interventions, effective multidisciplinary and interagency collaboration, and a seamless network of beneficial services.
  • Least Restrictive Environment: Instead of current practice, which in many places encourages the segregation of students with disabilities, application of already-proven, promising practices would allow each student to receive his or her education in the least restrictive setting, supported by an individualized and appropriate array of supplementary aids and services that ensure that the student is physically, academically, and socially integrated into general education.
  • Parent and Student Participation and Shared Decision Making: With the application of current promising practices, parents, students, and educators would be able to engage in effective collaboration in designing and delivering a free appropriate public education in the least restrictive environment.
  • Procedural Due Process and Federal and State Monitoring: The application of the promising practices listed above would greatly reduce the number and frequency of due process complaints and shift the emphasis of federal and state monitoring and enforcement efforts from tracking “paper compliance” to quality enhancement.

Continuing Barriers to the Implementation of Promising Practices

Implementing the promising practices developed over the last 20 years of experience with IDEA would greatly enhance the quality of education for students with and without disabilities. Still, many barriers continue to impede the implementation of these practices in state and local education agencies. These barriers are as follows:

Zero-Reject Barriers

  • Schools are reactive instead of proactive in responding to students’ special needs. In particular, they too often exclude students instead of working with them to overcome their challenging behaviors.
  • Some schools still do not make the environmental modifications that would increase access, reduce the challenging behaviors of some students, and result in more effective special education.
  • Too often the absence of services and support systems for adults with disabilities restricts the development of effective transition programs for secondary-aged students.

Nondiscriminatory Evaluation Barriers

  • All too often schools rely on testing that targets the students’ needs instead of their strengths or testing that simply is inadequate to identify strengths and needs in minority students, thereby causing misclassification, erroneous educational placement, and inappropriate interventions.
  • Similarly, schools pay insufficient attention to the cultural dimensions of their students’ lives, and teachers are often not prepared to respond to the cultural diversity of their students.
  • For several groups of students, nondiscriminatory evaluation procedures are themselves inadequate.
  • Placement is still based on the categorical label assigned to students, not on their particular strengths or needs.

Appropriate Education Barriers

  • Schools still use inappropriate curricula.
  • The talents of many teachers and related service providers are misused.
  • Service and support systems are unavailable or ineffective.
  • Services, even within schools, are poorly coordinated.
  • Schools are generally not creative in identifying appropriate interventions or supportive services that might be employed when students are having difficulty in less restrictive placements.
  • Professionals do not know enough about other services available in their communities, particularly those services that could make students’ education and transition more appropriate and beneficial.
  • Schools turn too often to “educational faddism” and are driven too frequently by political rather than sound pedagogical motives.
  • School systems often lack instructional leadership by highly competent, well- trained administrators, master teachers, and support personnel.
  • Students continue to be disempowered by teacher-directed, deficit-based teaching methodologies.
  • Teachers need a great deal more preservice and in-service training.
  • Curricula often rely too much on specific–and outmoded–models for educating certain categories of students.
  • Teachers may not know how to work with parents or with each other in order to combine their strengths and resources.
  • Competent teachers are in short supply, especially for students with specific types of disabilities.
  • General educators often do not feel responsible for educating students with disabilities.

Least Restrictive Environment Barriers

  • Schools still operate improperly segregated programs and inappropriately place too many students in these programs.
  • Schools still isolate special education students from contact with people and events in their communities.
  • State and local funding patterns create disincentives to placing students in less restrictive programs.
  • State and local agencies still have organizational and administrative structures that perpetuate separate systems of special and general education.
  • Schools still use less intensive special education services for students who need more specialized and intensive teaching.
  • Political and attitudinal factors may lead to a lack of community support for schools’ efforts to integrate students with disabilities.
  • Schools may place students into less restrictive placements without the physical, academic, or social supports necessary to ensure that they will experience success in these placements.
  • School districts may have limited less restrictive placement options due to their historic use of more restrictive options.

Parent Participation and Procedural Due Process Barriers

  • Schools often lack sufficient accountability to their students and parents.
  • Schools still suffer from limited parental involvement.
  • Parent Training and Information Centers still do not reach as many parents as they might, especially parents of traditionally underserved or minority students.
  • Some parents are highly resistant to adaptive changes in programs such as less restrictive placement, the use of positive behavioral supports as the intervention of choice for challenging behaviors, or transition initiatives.

Funding Barriers

  • Special education is often underfunded at the federal, state, and local levels.
  • Some funding streams are too restrictive because they either prevent students who could benefit from it from receiving special education or they prevent districts from using the funds more effectively.

Administrative Barriers

  • School districts may have a long history of reliance on categorical programs requiring students to fit the service system rather than the service system to fit the student.
  • Placements may be determined on students’ categorical labels rather than on their strengths and needs.
  • Separate systems of special and regular education administration often discourage interdisciplinary and interagency collaboration.

Ideological and Attitudinal Barriers

  • Prejudicial attitudes regarding students with disabilities may exist among general and special educators, among parents, and among members of the general community.
  • Ardor for specific programs or teaching methods can vitiate individualized and effective instruction.

Federal, State, and Local Policy Barriers

  • Outmoded policies still inhibit accomplishment of the goals of IDEA and its full implementation. These policies too often restrict implementation of the principles of appropriate education, least restrictive education, and collaborative decision making.
  • These policies also stand in the way of effective school restructuring, school-linked services, and safe schools.

Personnel Preparation Barriers

  • Special and general education practices reflect teacher preparation, just as teacher preparation drives school practices. This symbiotic relationship between practice and preparation means that the implementation of promising practices is quite uneven on a national basis.
  • While many students preparing to be teachers benefit from experience with state-of-the-art practices in their education, far too many still do not have access to the quality of practices and preparatory experiences that should have been created by now. Therefore, outmoded and ineffective practices are reinforced and perpetuated.

Recommendations Derived from a Review of Scholarly Research on IDEA

While the implementation of IDEA has certainly not been flawless, it has provided educational opportunity to millions of students who were previously excluded from school altogether. Can IDEA be improved? Can its implementation be improved? The unequivocal answer to both these questions is affirmative. The data reviewed during this research process led to sound recommendations for improving IDEA and its implementation.

All efforts to improve IDEA, its funding levels and funding policies, and its implementation at the federal, state and local levels must be premised on capacity building and directed toward improving the abilities of those involved:

  • Improve the ability of schools to deliver services as IDEA envisions them being delivered.
  • Improve the ability of families to collaborate with educators and other professionals in sharing decision-making power related to their children and to service systems as a whole.
  • Improve the ability of students with disabilities to benefit from effective special education and to enjoy lives characterized by integration, productivity, and independence.

Every recommendation made by the 27 nationally preeminent scholars in special education and personnel preparation points to the need to build the capacities of schools, parents, and students in order to improve the implementation of IDEA. A summary of their specific recommendations is provided below.

Recommendations for Improving IDEA

One overall recommendation emerged from a study of the scholarly literature regarding the implementation of IDEA to date:

Congress should reaffirm the basic framework and underlying six principles of IDEA, acknowledge that it is essential legislation for assuring the equal protection and basic civil rights of people with disabilities, and focus on improving the quality of special and general education. Accordingly, Congress should fine-tune IDEA and give direction to federal, state, and local agencies so that they can ensure improved quality of special and general education.

Specific recommendations regarding the six basic principles supporting IDEA and related issues are presented below.

Zero Reject

To improve implementation of the zero-reject principle:

  • Incorporate the statement of national goals and policies for persons with disabilities as set out in the Rehabilitation Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act.
  • Change the timelines affecting eligibility for early intervention services and provide more funding for early intervention programs.
  • Require states to put into place systems that ensure collaboration and coordination of transition services.

Nondiscriminatory Evaluation

To improve implementation of the nondiscriminatory evaluation principle:

  • Provide financial incentives in model demonstration, systems change, research, and personnel preparation projects to ensure the use of nondiscriminatory evaluation instruments and processes with students from minority populations.
  • Fine-tune the definitions of “traumatic brain injury” and “severely emotionally disabled.”

Appropriate Education

To improve implementation of the appropriate education principle:

  • Provide financial incentives in model demonstration, systems change, research, and personnel preparation projects to ensure the use of best practices such as the following:
  • special education delivered to minority students in culturally competent ways;
  • collaboration among general and special educators and related service providers;
  • interagency collaboration, especially between educational, medical, social service, and other human service agencies;
  • interdisciplinary and interagency service delivery;
  • improved transition plan processes;
  • self-determination curricula as well as teaching and student participation in educational planning and decision making;
  • education in the least restrictive environment;
  • community-based work experiences before a student leaves school;
  • use of Participatory Action Research techniques in all research, training, and model demonstration programs; and
  • parent and student participation through shared decision making.
  • Improve technical assistance efforts.
  • Lower the age for mandatory transition planning from 16 to 14.
  • Ensure that students have a greater decision-making role in designing and carrying out their programs.
  • Allow students to be eligible for school-based transition services after they graduate.
  • Provide special education students with more useful and credible diploma options.
  • Strengthen transition planning so it focuses not only on work, but also on other post-secondary outcomes.
  • Appropriate more funds for post-secondary programs.
  • Exercise greater oversight with respect to Individual Education Plan (IEP) development, implementation, and appropriateness.
  • Allow the low-incidence population of students with physical disabilities to be included as one of the focus categories under Subchapter III.

Least Restrictive Environment

To improve implementation of the least restrictive environment principle:

  • Support personnel preparation, not only in special education teacher training but also general education teacher training, particularly in implementing the principles of least restrictive education, collaborative education with other professionals (related service providers and administrators), and relating to families in a culturally competent manner.

Parent-Student Participation and Collaboration

To improve implementation of the parent-student participation and collaboration principle:

  • Extend to older students and their families the family service provisions of the Individualized Family Service Plan now available to infants and toddlers under Part H.
  • Preserve and extend the Parent Training and Information Center programs to better serve minority populations.
  • Enact a presumption that research, training, and demonstration programs will utilize techniques of Participatory Action Research, directing OSERS to award extra credit in peer reviews to research, training, and demonstration projects that use this type of process.

Oversight and Monitoring

To improve oversight and monitoring of the implementation of IDEA:

  • Congress should exercise vigorous oversight and OSERS should conduct more stringent monitoring of IDEA’s implementation.


To improve the implementation of IDEA:

  • Congress should work toward full funding to the authorized maximum (40 percent of excess cost) or create or allow new and different funding streams.
  • Eliminate categorical funding provisions that provide disincentives to delivering special education in the least restrictive environment and create incentives for more education in the least restrictive environment.
  • Allow more flexibility in using funds for direct services, program administration, and eligibility.
  • Increase model demonstration program funding.
  • Increase technical assistance funding, especially for regional service centers that assist students with visual impairments.
  • Increase research funding.
  • Establish a formula grant category for services and supports that result in the successful employment for secondary-level students.
  • Expand Medicaid coverage to allow greater coverage of related services.

Recommendations for the Improvement of Personnel Preparation and Comprehensive Systems of Personnel Development

The special education researchers and teacher trainers were overwhelmingly disappointed by the quality of personnel preparation offered by institutions of higher education and in the comprehensive systems of personnel development operated by state and local education agencies. They unequivocally agreed that a great deal of work needs to be accomplished in the areas of teacher preparation and teacher in-service education.

At present, many recent graduates of the nation’s special and general education teacher training programs are not well prepared to apply best practices and state-of-the-art methods. Moreover, state and local agencies’ comprehensive systems of personnel development do not effectively remediate the problem created by inadequate preservice training. Similarly, state certification and evaluation standards and procedures for new or continuing teachers do not assure that teachers will be as effective as they should be in the classroom, in collaborating with each other and with professionals in other agencies, and in sharing decision-making responsibilities with parents and students.

These conclusions apply to preservice and in-service programs that focus on categories of disabilities such as learning disabilities, severe emotional disturbance, mental retardation, autism, traumatic brain injury, vision or hearing impairments, physical disabilities, and other health impairments. Likewise, they also apply to programs that focus on skills for early intervention, early childhood education, least restrictive environment and integration strategies, transition, supported employment, school-linked service delivery, interagency collaboration, responding to challenging behaviors through positive behavioral support, and violence prevention.

For example, many early interventionists and early childhood educators still are not utilizing proven successful practices. Special and regular educators are often not trained to carry out the principles of appropriate education and least restrictive environment. That is true, too, with respect to the overarching goal of independence for individuals with disabilities: Professionals are still not properly trained to enhance students’ self-determination and choice-making related to transition and employment. Special efforts are needed to recruit minority professionals as researchers, trainers, and district-based educators, especially for low-incidence populations such as students with hearing impairments. Finally, professionals still lack the necessary skills to collaborate with each other and with parents in making decisions about students’ education and about research and demonstration programs.

The good news is that there is a set of promising preservice and in-service practices and programs. The not-so-good news is that these practices and programs have not yet spread across the nation. The result is that, although some professionals receive superb preservice and in-service training, too many do not. Accordingly, students–who have a right to an education that benefits them and does so in the least restrictive environment–are being shortchanged. Education is by definition labor-intensive and labor-dependent. When the labor force–the professional cadre–suffers from inadequate preparation and in-service training, students also suffer.

Since the enactment of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (P.L. 89-750) in 1966, P.L. 91-230 in 1970, and P.L. 93-380 in 1974 (the predecessors to P.L. 94-142), the federal and state governments have shared the responsibility for personnel preparation in general and special education. There is a unique role for the Federal Government in developing a national leadership cadre of researchers and other leaders and in augmenting state efforts to train teachers. The leadership cadre, after all, performs nationally significant roles, whereas the teacher corps performs locally significant roles. By the same token, there is a unique role for state governments, acting through their institutions of higher education. This role is to prepare, certify, and evaluate teachers. This federal-state partnership is responsible for the present state of affairs in preservice and in-service education, and accordingly the Federal Government, state education agencies, and institutions of higher education have joint responsibility for improving preservice and in-service education.

Recommendations Regarding Research

Research should focus on interventions related to student needs. For example, research is still needed to achieve the following:

  • Improve student capacities through early intervention and early childhood special education.
  • Increase students’ self-determination and reduce their challenging behaviors.
  • Prepare students for transition into and out of special education and into supported employment.
  • Carry out IDEA’s principle of education in the least restrictive environment.
  • Enhance students’ social relationships and their abilities to participate with nondisabled peers and adults in the lives of their communities.
  • Ensure that students with challenging behaviors receive positive behavioral support from qualified educators.

Similarly, research is still needed to improve teacher-to-teacher collaboration and teacher-and-parent shared decision making and to enhance consumer participation in setting research priorities, conducting research, and disseminating and using research data. On a different level, research is still needed on the incidence and prevalence of some disabilities, especially mild mental retardation and traumatic brain injury. Indeed, improved data collection and follow-up studies are particularly relevant to some student populations, especially those with mild mental retardation. Finally, research on larger systemic issues such as nationally important initiatives in school reform, comprehensive services through school-linked service provision, and violence prevention has just gotten under way and should be continued.

In many respects, the research community is just on the edge of significant breakthroughs in preventing and ameliorating the effects of disabilities, improving teaching methodologies, ensuring students’ participation in general education and in their own communities, and strengthening and even improving the capacities of schools, teachers, and parents to meet the needs of students with disabilities. Just as teacher preparation is a shared federal-state responsibility, so too is research. Although the greater portion of special education research funds are provided by the Federal Government, there are state-funded and state-supported research activities. Some states have their own research funds, but all states support faculty in their institutions of higher education to conduct research. Thus, both the federal and state governments can and should respond to these recommendations for research.

Recommendations Regarding Demonstration Programs

By the same token, Congress, OSERS, and state agencies should continue, expand, and redirect model demonstration programs. These programs should include rehabilitation research and training centers, systems-change efforts, technical assistance projects, policy analyses, and short-term (three-year) models to develop and disseminate state-of-the-art and promising practices. Just as preservice and in-service training and research funding are shared between the federal and state governments, so too with demonstration projects: Both levels of government are responsible for improving demonstration activities.

The overall effect of model demonstration projects is to develop new and improved techniques for teaching students, advancing IDEA’s six principles (especially the least restrictive environment principle), and preparing special and general educators, families, and students themselves for collaborative decision making. Historically, these demonstration programs have been at the forefront of advancing IDEA’s purposes and goals. At present, they need to be significantly more targeted on current implementation and improvement issues.

Recommendations for Policy Revision

As noted above, many federal, state, and local policies are problematic. Too often policies impede schools from implementing the principle of the least restrictive environment, and too rarely do they create incentives for schools to implement that principle. In some states, teacher union contracts limit regular or special educators in implementing the principle of the least restrictive environment. Moreover, some state laws, such as the Nurse Practice Acts, impede educators and other professionals from delivering school-based services to students with health-related needs.

Better federal and state-level interagency collaboration is required, especially to improve services to students with severe emotional disabilities and traumatic brain injuries and to help students with visual impairments have easier access to printed materials. In addition, the purposes, goals, and rights guaranteed under the Americans with Disabilities Act need to serve as the basis for future policy discussions and decisions regarding special education and the delivery of services to children and youth with disabilities.

Recommendations for Improvements in Special Education Practice

Congress, OSERS, and state and local agencies must take action to improve special and general education practices. Practices that reflect state-of-the-art service delivery are well known. They are in place and have been in effect for quite some time. The problem is that these practices are the exception, not the rule. Once again, islands of excellence do not constitute the mainland.

State and local education agencies are responsible for delivering special education. They are responsible for assuring that education benefits students and is delivered in the least restrictive environment. Unfortunately, far too many state and local agencies fall short in using promising practices and state-of-the-art services that would help them effectively discharge their responsibilities in the areas of appropriate education and least restrictive environment for students with disabilities. In particular, appropriate services are still unavailable consistently and uniformly throughout the country to students who have been classified as having, among other disabilities, learning disabilities, severe emotional disturbance, mental retardation, severe and multiple disabilities, other health impairments, autism, traumatic brain injuries, visual impairments, and hearing impairments. For many of these students, curricula are ineffective and dated. Their transitions from school to adulthood are haphazard. It is not the least surprising, then, that the results of their education are so disappointing.

Indeed, there also is evidence of a paucity of services–not merely an absence of best practices–for students with traumatic brain injuries, visual impairments, and hearing impairments. There is also evidence that minority students, as well as children in early intervention and early childhood education programs, are especially shortchanged by the lack of any services or the lack of appropriate services. It is one thing to lack services altogether or to not have appropriate education even if some services are provided. These problems are compounded when services are finally provided that do not reflect state-of-the-art or promising practices for serving students in the least restrictive environment.

In early intervention, early childhood education, and throughout the elementary-to-upper school years, practices in special and general education simply do not sufficiently comply with the principle of least restrictive environment. Much more could be done to decentralize large centers where too many students receive their education and to disperse specialized services throughout their home communities. The restructuring and dispersal of presently centralized services are long overdue. While it is true that some students still need highly specialized services, they need to have access to an array of services which will meet these needs in their home communities. Most students currently placed in these centers can be educated to a much greater degree in general education. Their current levels of physical, academic, and social integration leave a great deal to be desired.

Another problem with current practice is found in the relatively low quantity and quality of parent-student participation and collaboration. While many parents do share decision-making responsibilities with special and regular educators, there is compelling evidence that many do not and that the reasons for this noninvolvement have less to do with their willingness and capability to be part of their children’s education teams than with educators’ attitudes and practices. Time and again, schools and educators are reluctant to share responsibilities and decision-making powers with parents and students, to schedule meetings at times and places convenient to parents and students, and to develop the skills to collaborate with parents and to teach self-determination to students. In short, there are administrative, attitudinal, and skill barriers to implementing this important principle.

To improve performance in the areas of appropriate education, least restrictive environment, and shared decision making, state education agencies need to put into place more regular and stringent systems for monitoring local agencies. Monitoring involves more than paper-compliance reviews: It has to involve scrutinizing the actual quality of special education services. Moreover, monitoring and quality assurance have to be proactive. That is, they must involve technical assistance and improvements in comprehensive systems of personnel development, targeting resources toward improving the skills of special and regular educators to deliver an appropriate education in the least restrictive environment to students with disabilities in collaboration with one another and with parents and students.

The need for interprofessional and interagency collaboration and coordination is one that state and local education agencies must address during the next five years. To deliver services in the least restrictive environment, to assure transition from school to post-school opportunities that IDEA and ADA envision, and to make certain that school restructuring benefits students in special education, state and local education agencies–and especially state agencies as they monitor local agencies–have to reconceptualize themselves. They have to be willing and able to move from separate systems of special and regular education to a unified system where all schools “own” all students, where all indeed meansall, and where, if necessary or desirable, school-linked services emanate from comprehensive schools.

This shift will require state legislatures to design funding streams that unify school district administrative structures and services. It also will require state legislatures to ensure that state funding is based on the number of students needing special education (not just the number receiving IEPs) and on the needs of the students themselves (not on the categories into which they have been classified). State and federal funding has been too closely tied to the number of students having IEPs, thus penalizing states that provide special education to those who need it but who may not have an IEP. Furthermore, state and federal funding has been tied too much to categories of disability, so that students with a certain classification receive certain types and levels of service, rather than receiving what they actually need, without regard to their classifications.

In summary, state and local education agencies and even state legislatures themselves should move aggressively to adopt the promising practices that research, demonstration, and personnel preparation programs have developed and validated over the past 20 years of experience in special education, including reconfiguring service delivery, monitoring methods, and funding policies. It is clear that the knowledge base exists to improve special and general education practice. It is also clear that state and local education agencies and state legislatures have not, to date, put that knowledge to best use.

Recommendations for School Restructuring

The opportunities–and the risks–are high as state and local agencies begin to restructure themselves pursuant to the Goals 2000: Educate America Act. Opportunities exist to create new norms and forms for all students, to reshape schools so that excellence and equity coexist, especially for students with disabilities. Indeed, to the extent that comprehensive schools, serving as the hub of school-linked human services, can be created as restructuring moves forward, the chances increase for wider implementation of the principle of least restrictive environment. However, intensive oversight by Congress, OSERS, and state agencies is especially warranted due to the risk that school restructuring will proceed without special education constituents being substantially involved and will result in school norms and forms that reduce opportunities for students with disabilities to receive education in the least restrictive environment in neighborhood schools.


As Congress considers the reauthorization of the Individuals with Disabilities Act on the 20th anniversary of P.L. 94-142, the indisputable conclusions to be drawn from a review of scholarly literature and the work of nationally preeminent scholars in the fields of special education research and teacher training are as follows:

  • IDEA advances the equal protection doctrine of the Constitution. It is not one of the so-called “unfunded mandates.” It is, instead, federal assistance to the states so that the states and their local education agencies can carry out their own federal and state constitutional duties to educate all children with disabilities.
  • IDEA has been the single most significant vehicle for creating and implementing effective special education. Its 20-year history of positive impact on students, their families, educators, other professionals, and communities is both obvious and impressive.
  • Congress, OSERS, and state and local educational agencies must, however, improve IDEA and its implementation. The improvements will link the current islands of excellence in special education to the educational mainland. In time, they will create the mainland itself. When that happens, all students–those with and without disabilities–will benefit, all families and educators will benefit, and indeed the whole nation will benefit from the investment we have made through IDEA in advancing equality of opportunity, full participation, independent living, and economic self-sufficiency for students with disabilities.


Don D. Deshler and Jean Schumaker
University of Kansas


  1. The educational outcomes sought for students with learning disabilities relate to the same questions that are asked about individuals without learning disabilities: Are they achieving, are they staying in school, are they prepared to enter the work force after school, are they participating in meaningful post-secondary education or training experiences, and are they prepared for adult life?
  2. Significant progress has been made in the development of intervention procedures that enable these students to be successful. However, there are limited examples of systematic implementation of these validated procedures, as is evidenced by an alarmingly high dropout rate (as many as one-half of students fail to complete school).
  3. The following elements have been found to be central to promoting positive outcomes for these students: (a) early identification; (b) availability of a continuum of services; (c) intensive, coordinated, and comprehensive instruction; (d) use of validated procedures; (e) emphasis on mastery of critical skills and strategies; (f) sufficient time for planning and collaboration among teachers; and (g) coordination of efforts across all stakeholders, including various agencies.
  4. The following factors inhibit desired outcomes from being reached: (a) inadequate identification procedures, (b) educational faddism, (c) lack of instructional leadership, (d) inadequate teacher training, (e) lack of coordination within and across programs and agencies, (f) teacher isolation, (g) lack of felt responsibility for students by general educators, (h) unstructured instructional programs, and (i) programs that emphasize coverage versus mastery.
  5. Congress should improve the quality of services provided to these students by (a) giving direction relative to creating a “seamless web” of services through interagency coordination and (b) directing OSERS to create categorical funding initiatives related to learning disabilities for research, demonstration, and personnel preparation efforts.
  6. OSERS should (a) fund specific research initiatives focusing on learning disabilities, (b) fund demonstration centers that embody validated intervention procedures, and (c) fund personnel preparation efforts that enhance the competence of teachers and administrators to meet the needs of students with learning disabilities.
  7. State and local education agencies should (a) require local agencies to engage in a process of strategic planning when selecting new program components or emphases, (b) shift the focus of monitoring activities from basic compliance to program quality indicators, (c) direct that personnel preparation activities follow sound principles of staff development and focus on the mastery of validated interventions, and (d) require that local education agencies create and operationalize an interagency plan.

1. What outcomes within the categorical area are recognized as important for students to obtain?

The educational outcomes sought for individuals with learning disabilities should answer the same questions as are asked of students without learning disabilities: Are they achieving; are they staying in school; are they prepared to enter the work force after school; are they participating in meaningful post-secondary education or training experiences; and are they prepared for adult life? (National Council on Disability, 1989) Included among the important educational outcomes for students with learning disabilities are (a) having basic literacy and academic skills to enable them to benefit from educational and training experiences as well as to compete in the job market; (b) having basic social and interactive skills to enable them to function successfully in academic, employment, community, and family situations; and (c) possessing, at a minimum, a standard high school diploma that makes available meaningful opportunities for post-secondary education or training experiences or gainful employment.

Given the very unique and heterogeneous nature of the population of individuals with learning disabilities, individual outcomes will vary. Thus, placement and programming decisions need to be tailored to meet the individual needs of each student. Additionally, because the needs of individuals in this population are so great (their deficits are so encompassing), educational plans for these students need to incorporate sufficient accommodations for intensive instruction in targeted areas of difficulty in order to enable these individuals to meet the demands in mainstream environments in such a way as to achieve the desired outcomes. When programming is designed to coincide with their unique learning needs, individuals with learning disabilities can become successful in both academic and employment pursuits (Robinson & Deshler, 1995).

2. To what extent have these outcomes been achieved in the last five years?

The application of IDEA to improve the outcomes of individuals with learning disabilities has had mixed results. On the one hand, the law has contributed significantly to the field’s knowledge base concerning effective instructional procedures for individuals with learning disabilities. For example, when instruction is systematic, intensive, and tailored to the individual needs of students with learning disabilities, it can favorably impact their performance in the classroom and the workplace (e.g., Carnine, 1994b; Mercer & Miller, 1992; Talbott, Lloyd, & Tankersley, 1994). Unfortunately, instances of appropriate and widespread application of these known principles of instruction are very limited (Carnine, 1993).

Perhaps related to this reality is the mounting evidence that the outcomes specified in Question #1 are not being met for a large percentage of individuals with learning disabilities. Specifically, the dropout rate for students with learning disabilities is alarmingly high. Varying estimates indicate that as many as one-half of students with learning disabilities fail to complete school (Edgar, 1987; Wagner, 1991; Zigmond & Thornton, 1985). Inasmuch as individuals with learning disabilities do not generally have supported living alternatives in their post-school lives (like many individuals with developmental disabilities), these figures are especially discouraging in terms of the grave consequences that they foreshadow as these individuals move into adulthood.

Even for those students who do remain in school, however, there is evidence that their educational programs may be insufficient to adequately prepare them for the demanding rigors of core curriculum offerings (Deshler & Schumaker, 1993) or meaningful employment options after school (Halpren, 1993). Indeed, evidence suggests that these students enter secondary school reading and writing at the fourth-grade level (Schumaker, Deshler, Alley, & Warner, 1983). Because of this large gap between their skills and what they are expected to do in secondary school, most of these students receive failing or barely passing grades in core subject courses (Donahoe & Zigmond, 1990). In order for these students to be able to achieve the desired outcomes (in and outside of school), educational systems need to be optimally equipped to meet the needs of this heterogeneous population. Currently, schools do not provide a complete range of programming alternatives that are sufficiently broad in scope and yet sensitive enough to be responsive to unique nuances and variations of student learning patterns and needs. As a result, the majority of the desired outcomes have not been realized by individuals with learning disabilities.

3. What educational models/procedures are most effective for achieving these outcomes?

The educational programs that are most effective for enabling students with learning disabilities to achieve educational outcomes comparable to those of their peers have several features. First, they provide for the early identification of children who are at risk and ensure that those children receive appropriate and effective services immediately. Second, they include a continuum of services that are tailored to meet individual student needs across the grades and beyond school. This continuum of services ranges from intensive one-to-one or self-contained instruction for students with severe learning disabilities to the full inclusion of students who have mastered the skills and strategies necessary for success in mainstream settings. Third, instruction is intensive, comprehensive, and coordinated. That is, sufficient time and resources are devoted to targeted areas of difficulty such that the students’ learning and performance are systematically addressed across settings and time. Fourth, the instructional methods that are used are those that have been validated for individuals with learning disabilities. Fifth, there is an emphasis on mastering skills and strategies as well as information within an age-appropriate curriculum. Sixth, teachers who provide services to students have sufficient time to regularly plan and solve problems together. Seventh, parents, teachers, other support personnel, and the student work together to create an individual plan for the student that ensures progress and a successful transition to post-secondary life. Finally, there is evidence of interagency cooperation relative to programming for students across the age continuum.

Within these effective programs, there are two instructional foci. First, instruction focuses on the necessary skills and strategies that students need to succeed across ages in a variety of educational and work-related settings. As students mature, the demands of the curriculum become more complex, and students need to be able to meet these demands if they are to earn average or above-average grades in required courses and remain in school. (Typically, students who earn lower grades are prime candidates for dropping out.) Second, instruction is delivered in such a way as to improve the understanding and retention of the information to be learned. Each of these instructional foci have critical features that make them successful.

In order for students to become fluent in targeted skills or strategies, teachers need to incorporate critical principles of learning into their instruction. Specifically, the skill or strategy needs to be broken down into its component parts and explicitly described to the student, it needs to be modeled in its entirety (including cognitive processes), and there need to be numerous opportunities for the student to practice using it and receive specific and individual feedback on its use. Practice opportunities need to be planned in such a way as to ensure the student’s success through the use of guided practice and a programmed sequence of easy-to-difficult practice activities. Since some students have difficulty generalizing their use of a newly learned skill or strategy to other settings and situations, instruction also needs to focus on ensuring that students learn to generalize. Throughout the instructional process, student progress needs to be measured and displayed, and motivational procedures need to be applied.

Several instructional programs that are based on this instructional process have been validated through research for individuals with learning disabilities. They include direct instruction (e.g., Carnine, 1989; Woodward & Gersten, 1992), classwide peer tutoring (e.g., Delquadri, Greenwood, Stretton, & Hall, 1983; Maheady, Harper, & Sacca, 1988; Maheady, Sacca, & Harper, 1988; Mathes & Fuchs, 1993), peer tutoring (e.g., Scruggs & Osguthorpe, 1986; Top & Osguthorpe, 1987), learning strategy instruction (e.g., Schumaker & Deshler, 1992), math strategy instruction (e.g., Mercer & Miller, 1992), social skills instruction (e.g., Hazel, Schumaker, Sherman, & Sheldon-Wildgen, 1982; Vernon & Schumaker, 1993; Vernon, Deshler, & Schumaker, 1994), and self-control/self-advocacy instruction (e.g., Van Reusen, Deshler, & Schumaker, 1989).

To enhance the delivery of content information for these students, teachers need to think carefully about what content needs to be learned, transform that content into easy-to-understand formats, and present the content to students in memorable ways. As they transform and present the content, teachers need to focus on these principles: Information needs to be experienced through several modalities, abstract ideas need to be translated into concrete forms, important information needs to be highlighted and cued, new information needs to be tied to prior knowledge, information needs to be organized so that its structure is obvious, and relationships need to be explicitly explained. Additionally, as teachers present the content, they need to make students active partners in processing the content.

One program has been empirically validated for students with learning disabilities that is based on these methods. It has been used successfully in middle and high schools to improve the performance of students with learning disabilities who have been enrolled in regular subject-area classes. Called Content Enhancement, this approach encompasses a variety of routines that general education teachers can use to plan and present critical information to classes of diverse learners (Bulgren, Schumaker, & Deshler, 1988; Lenz, Bulgren, & Hudson, 1990; Schumaker, Deshler, & McKnight, 1991).

4. What educational models/procedures most inhibit these outcomes?

Several factors serve to inhibit the achievement of expected outcomes for students with learning disabilities. They include:

  • Inadequate identification procedures. There is limited evidence that current classification and diagnostic models used to identify students with learning disabilities provide practitioners or researchers with useful information to make informed placement and programming decisions. Consequently, current practice largely relies on data from technically inadequate measurement instruments that are viewed within conceptual and theoretical frameworks that have not been clinically or empirically validated (Lyon, 1993).
  • Educational faddism. Educators often make policy decisions based on the latest educational fad rather than on what has been shown, through research, to work with students with learning disabilities. As a result, programs tend to be transformed on a moment-to-moment basis from one approach to another with little basis for the transformation. Sometimes, due to teacher confusion, no approach is emphasized, thus limiting the effectiveness of the instruction that is provided.
  • Lack of instructional leadership. At the state and local levels, there is a dearth of instructional leaders who are willing to commit to an instructional program that is comprehensive and coordinated across the grades and across special and general educational settings for this population. Instructional leaders are often not informed about what works best, and, as a result, their decisions with regard to allocating resources (e.g., for training, for collaborative opportunities) are not the most appropriate.
  • Inadequate teacher training. Although several methods are now available that have been shown to help students with learning disabilities meet the expected outcomes, teacher-training experiences do not necessarily focus on these methods. Indeed, at the annual meeting of the Professional Advisory Board of the Learning Disabilities Association in March 1994, there was widespread concern expressed that special education teachers are no longer being trained how to teach students with learning disabilities how to read. Teacher-training experiences often focus on an awareness of various materials that are available and do not ensure that the teachers master the skills needed to implement the comprehensive types of instructional programs needed by this population within a continuum of services (National Joint Committee on Learning Disabilities, 1987). In-service training experiences are typically one-shot affairs with no follow-up or expectation that the methods will be actually implemented. As a result, the status quo remains intact.
  • Lack of coordination within and across programs and agencies. Frequently, the left hand doesn’t know what the right hand is doing! (Adelman, in prep.) Programming efforts started in the elementary grades are often totally abandoned when a child moves into middle school; still another programming emphasis may prevail in high school. When services are not coordinated, students lack the concentrated and intensive instruction required to improve their performance. Even more alarming is the fact that there is often a total lack of services prior to children’s entering public schools and very unpredictable service offerings following high school. For young adults with learning disabilities, a variety of agencies could potentially impact their performance; however, the lack of interagency coordination more often than not minimizes the probability that meaningful intervention and support will be provided. In short, the lack of a “seamless web” of services significantly reduces the gains that individuals with learning disabilities can make in overcoming learning deficits.
  • Teacher isolation. Teachers often have little contact with each other, and there are limited opportunities built into the school routine for regular collaborative work. This hampers teachers’ abilities to serve students with special needs because the instruction for these students needs to be well coordinated (Johnston, Allington, & Afflerbach, 1985). Students need to learn the skills and strategies that enable them to meet the demands of the classes they will face, but, if teachers are not communicating, those demands will not be clear, and the instruction will probably be lacking.
  • Lack of felt responsibility for students by general educators. General educators often feel that special education teachers are responsible for educating students with learning disabilities, and they are responsible for educating students without disabilities. As a result, when they are approached to learn new methods for planning, transforming, and presenting their content, some general educators indicate that they are not interested or feel overwhelmed with their currently assigned duties and responsibilities (McIntosh, Vaughn, Schumm, Haager, & Okhee, 1993). Nevertheless, the involvement of these teachers is critical if students are to succeed in required mainstream educational experiences.
  • Unstructured instructional programs. Often, programs are based on unstructured, discovery-learning approaches. That is, students are expected to “discover” the skills or information that they need to learn. Students with learning disabilities typically do not do well in these types of instructional environments. They do not “discover” how to learn to read or how to interact in social situations, for example. They need to be explicitly taught these skills and strategies through instructional methodologies that emphasize explicit teacher description and modeling of targeted behaviors, multiple practice opportunities with feedback, mastery of targeted skills or strategies, and programmed generalization across settings (Mather, 1992).
  • Programs that emphasize coverage versus mastery. Because students with learning disabilities need multiple practice opportunities to learn something new, they typically need more practice than their nondisabled peers. Thus, programs that emphasize the coverage of information and skills and that do not allow for additional practice opportunities for those who have not mastered the information and skills are problematic for them. This is another reason why collaboration among teachers is critical to ensure that these additional practice opportunities are made available.

5. Provide two or three specific recommendations for action by Congress.

Congress can improve the quality of services provided to students with learning disabilities by (a) giving direction relative to creating a “seamless web” of services through interagency coordination and (b) directing OSERS to create categorical funding initiatives for research, demonstration, and personnel preparation efforts.

Direction to Provide Services Through Interagency Coordination

Congress should give direction to the Departments of Education, Labor, and Health and Human Services relative to the creation of a seamless web of services for individuals with learning disabilities. To prepare individuals with learning disabilities to enter adulthood in a position to compete effectively in the job market and to contribute to the community commensurate with their abilities, they must be provided well-coordinated services across the 3-21 age continuum. The heterogeneous nature of the condition of learning disabilities necessitates that services rendered by agencies representing various perspectives and resources be coordinated so that optimal gains will be made by individuals with learning disabilities as they transition from one age, school level, or agency to the next.

Congress should hold oversight hearings one year following enactment of the interagency mandate to determine the degree to which various federal agencies are responding to the establishment of meaningful interagency coordination of services. Additionally, as a condition of states receiving federal funds, state education agencies should be required to give assurances of compliance with state, regional, and local interagency planning.

Directing OSERS to Provide Categorical Funding for LD Initiatives

Congress should direct OSERS to create targeted funding opportunities to support research, demonstration, and personnel preparation efforts in the learning disabilities field through IDEA appropriations. Currently, there are no funding initiatives that are directed specifically at learning disabilities! This is not only ironic but exceedingly alarming given the fact that the largest number of individuals with disabilities receiving services under IDEA are classified as having a learning disability. Currently, there are separate funding programs for other categorical areas (e.g., deaf-blind, severe disabilities, and emotional disturbance) but nothing for learning disabilities. Additionally, a large percentage of current IDEA appropriations is set aside for age groups outside of school-aged children. That is, there are specific programs for early childhood/preschool efforts and transition/post-secondary efforts. However, no specific funds are targeted for innovative efforts for school-aged individuals, the largest percentage of the exceptional population.

The primary area under current IDEA appropriations where any innovative work (be it in research, demonstration, or personnel preparation) can be conducted is through the Division of Innovation and Development. Unfortunately, proposals targeted at learning disabilities must compete with proposals from other categorical and age-group areas as well. This open competition attracts large numbers of applications on populations that are also funded under specific categorical and age-group programs (e.g., emotional disturbance, early childhood). In essence, because of this “double dipping” opportunity for some and the lack of categorical funding for learning disabilities efforts, very little research, demonstration, and personnel preparation efforts are being supported for the largest group of individuals with disabilities in the United States: school-aged individuals with learning disabilities.

6. Provide two or three specific recommendations for improving IDEA’s implementation through federally-funded activities, including but not limited to monitoring, technical assistance, personnel preparation, demonstration, and research, to be carried out over the next five years.

OSERS should (a) fund specific research initiatives focusing on learning disabilities, (b) fund demonstration centers that embody validated intervention procedures, and (c) fund personnel preparation efforts that enhance the competence of teachers and administrators to meet the needs of individuals with learning disabilities. In order to appropriately address each of the areas outlined below, OSERS must establish categorical funding priorities for learning disabilities as specified in the response to Question #5.

Fund Research Initiatives Focusing on Learning Disabilities

OSERS should specify a research agenda that addresses the following targets:

  • The development of valid frameworks for reliably identifying and classifying the population, including cost-efficient procedures that require minimal assessment for placement and reevaluation of students with learning disabilities.
  • The development of effective and efficient instructional procedures and models that promote academic, social, and life-adjustment competence for individuals with learning disabilities. This research should establish the instructional conditions that are necessary in order for students with learning disabilities to demonstrate mastery and generalization of a targeted skill or strategy as well as mastery of required information in core subject areas.
  • The development of innovative models that promote effective utilization of research knowledge by various stakeholders engaged in practice (e.g., policymakers, practitioners, parents, students, etc.). Research in this area should establish ways to close the gap between research and practice so that the growing body of validated intervention and programming procedures can be integrated into practice on behalf of individuals with learning disabilities.

Fund Demonstration Centers That Embody Validated Intervention Models

OSERS should specify an agenda that addresses the following targets:

  • The development of a set of standards by which demonstration sites should be developed and maintained over an extended period of time to determine the separate factors and overall dynamics that impact the successful implementation of an instructional program for individuals with learning disabilities at a given grade level.
  • The development of demonstration sites that cut across multiple age levels and agencies and that provide both comprehensive and extended services to students over time. These projects will shed light on the requirements to establish a seamless web of services across time, settings, and agencies for individuals with learning disabilities.

Fund Personnel Preparation Efforts That Enhance the Competence of Administrators and Teachers with Regard to Serving Individuals with LD

OSERS should specify an agenda that addresses the following targets:

  • The development of preservice and in-service personnel preparation programs that require the development of high-level expertise in special educators serving students with learning disabilities relative to the proficient application of validated practices in assessment, intervention, and collaboration.
  • The development of preservice and in-service personnel preparation programs that foster appropriate attitudes and competencies by general educators (e.g., how to plan for, directly instruct, and collaborate with special educators) to meet the unique needs of students with learning disabilities as well as other students in their classes.
  • The development of preservice and in-service personnel preparation programs for school administrators that will enable them to provide strong leadership and to make informed decisions regarding the provision of services that meet the needs of individuals with learning disabilities in their setting.

7. Provide two or three specific recommendations for improving IDEA’s implementation by state and local education agencies.

State and local education agencies should (a) require local agencies to engage in a process of strategic planning when selecting new program components or emphases, (b) shift the focus of monitoring activities from basic compliance elements to program quality indicators, (c) direct that personnel preparation activities follow sound principles of staff development and focus on the mastery of validated instructional methods, and (d) require that local education agencies provide assurances that programming for individuals with learning disabilities involves an interagency plan.

Require the Use of a Strategic Planning Process When Selecting New Program Components

To prevent policymaking that seeks to meet educational challenges by embracing the latest educational fad, districts should be required to use a process that engages them in systematic decision making regarding the selection of new programs. A process that embodies, at a minimum, the following components should be followed: (a) setting improvement goals, (b) defining the scope of the improvement plan, (c) identifying validated approaches (i.e., tools and practices that are effective, sustainable, accountable, equitable, and cost efficient), and (d) planning and managing the implementation plan (Carnine, 1994a).

Shift the Focus of Monitoring Activities from Compliance to Quality

In order to enable individuals with learning disabilities to acquire desired outcomes (see Question #1), states must concentrate their monitoring activities on the quality of services provided to individuals with learning disabilities. Measures of the amount and nature of instruction (e.g., time on tasks that are directly related to IEP targets, intensity of instruction, consistency and coordination of instruction, etc.) should be conceptualized and used to monitor programs.

Direct That Personnel Preparation Activities Follow Sound Principles of Staff Development and Focus on the Mastery of Validated Interventions

The use of any flow-through dollars for staff development purposes should be restricted to districts that follow a plan for personnel preparation that is based on established principles associated with effective staff development and system change (e.g., Fullan with Stiegelbauer, 1991). Currently, most in-service sessions are “one-shot” presentations with no expectations for mastery or implementation. Additionally, fund availability should be made contingent on the delivery of content that has been empirically validated for the target population.

Certification requirements for preservice education should be reexamined to ensure that they emphasize validated practices and that students are required to demonstrate mastery of the targeted skills and not merely awareness of them. Additionally, certification requirements for administrative personnel should be amended to require them to become knowledgeable in current trends, issues, and methods related to assessing and instructing individuals with learning disabilities.

Require That Local Education Agencies Construct and Operationalize an Interagency Plan for Programming for Individuals with LD

The requirement to conceptualize and operationalize a plan of action for delivering services to individuals with learning disabilities should be established for local education agencies to provide a seamless web of services for individuals across ages and agencies.


Adelman, H. S. (in prep.). Restructuring education support services: Toward the concept of an enabling component. Los Angeles, CA: University of California at Los Angeles.

Bulgren, J. A., Schumaker, J. B., & Deshler, D. D. (1988). Effectiveness of a concept teaching routine on enhancing the performance of LD students in secondary-level mainstream classes. Learning Disability Quarterly, 11(1), 3-17.

Carnine, D. (1989). Teaching complex content to learning disabled students: The role of technology. Exceptional Children, 55(6), 524-533.

Carnine, D. (1993). Criteria for developing and evaluating instructional materials. Eugene, OR: National Center to Improve the Tools of Educators.

Carnine, D. (1994a). A handbook for creating smart schools. Eugene, OR: National Center to Improve the Tools of Educators.

Carnine, D. (1994b). Introduction to the mini-series: Diverse learners and prevailing, emerging, and research-based educational approaches and their tools. School Psychology Review, 23(3), 341-350.

Delquadri, J., Greenwood, C. R., Stretton, K., & Hall, R. V. (1983). The peer tutoring game: A classroom procedure for increasing opportunity to respond and spelling performance. Education and Treatment of Children, 6, 225-239.

Deshler, D. D., & Schumaker, J. B. (1993). Strategy mastery by at-risk students: Not a simple matter. The Elementary School Journal, 94(2), 153-169.

Donahoe, K., & Zigmond, N. (1990). Academic grades on ninth-grade urban learning disabled students and low-achieving peers. Exceptionality, 1, 17-27.

Edgar, E. (1987). Secondary programs in special education: Are many of them justifiable? Exceptional Children, 53(6), 555-561.

Fullan, M. G., with Stiegelbauer, S. (1991). The new meaning of educational change. New York: Teachers College Press.

Halpren, A. S. (1993). Quality of life as a conceptual framework for evaluating transition outcomes. Exceptional Children, 59(6), 486-498.

Hazel, J. S., Schumaker, J. B., Sherman, J. A., & Sheldon-Wildgen, J. (1982). Application of a social skills and problem-solving group training program to learning disabled and non-learning disabled youth. Learning Disability Quarterly, 5, 409-414.

Johnston, P., Allington, R., & Afflerbach, P. (1985). The congruence of classroom and remedial reading instruction. The Elementary School Journal, 85(4), 465-477.

Lenz, B. K., Bulgren, J. A., & Hudson, P. (1990). Content enhancement: A model for promoting the acquisition of content by individuals with learning disabilities. In T. E. Scruggs & B. L. Y. Wong (Eds.), Intervention research in learning disabilities(pp. 122-165). New York: Springer-Verlag.

Lyon, G. R. (1993). Preface. In G. R. Lyon, D. B. Gray, J. F. Kavanagh, & N. A. Krasnegor (Eds.), Better understanding learning disabilities: New views from research and their implications for education and public policies (pp. xvii-xix). Baltimore: Paul H. Brookes.

Maheady, L., Harper, G. F., & Sacca, M. K. (1988). Peer-mediated instruction: A promising approach to meeting the diverse needs of LD adolescents. Learning Disability Quarterly, 11, 108-113.

Maheady, L., Sacca, M. K., & Harper, G. F. (1988). Classwide peer tutoring with mildly disabled high school students.Exceptional Children, 55(1), 52-59.

Mather, N. (1992). Whole language reading instruction for students with learning disabilities: Caught in the cross fire.Learning Disabilities Research and Practice, 7, 87-95.

Mathes, P. G., & Fuchs, L. S. (1993). Peer-mediated reading instruction in special education resource rooms. Learning Disabilities Research and Practice, 8(4), 233-243.

McIntosh, R., Vaughn, S., Schumm, J. S., Haager, D., & Okhee, L. (1993). Observations of students with learning disabilities in general education classrooms. Exceptional Children, 60(3), 249-261.

Mercer, C. D., & Miller, S. P. (1992). Teaching students with learning disabilities in math to acquire, understand, and apply basic math facts. Journal of Remedial and Special Education, 13(3), 19-35.

National Council on Disability (1989). The education of students with disabilities: Where do we stand? Washington, DC: Author.

National Joint Committee on Learning Disabilities (1987). Learning disabilities: Issues in the preparation of professional personnel. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 20(4), 229-231.

Robinson, S. M., & Deshler, D. D. (1995). Learning disabled. In E. L. Meyen & T. M. Skrtic (Eds.), Special education and student disability: Traditional, emerging, and alternative perspectives (pp. 171-212). Denver, CO: Love Publishing.

Schumaker, J. B., & Deshler, D. D. (1992). Validation of learning strategy interventions for students with LD: Results of a programmatic research effort. In Bernice Y. L. Wong (Ed.) Contemporary intervention research in learning disabilities: An international perspective (pp. 22-46). New York: Springer-Verlag.

Schumaker, J. B., Deshler, D. D., & McKnight, P. C. (1991). Teaching routines for content areas at the secondary level. In G. Stover, M. R. Shinn, & H. M. Walker (Eds.), Interventions for achievement and behavior problems (pp. 473-494). Washington, DC: National Association of School Psychologists.

Schumaker, J. B., Deshler, D. D., Alley, G. R., & Warner, M. M. (1983). Toward the development of an intervention model for learning disabled adolescents: The University of Kansas Institute. Exceptional Education Quarterly, 4(1), 45-74.

Scruggs, T. E., & Osguthorpe, R. T. (1986). Tutoring interventions within special education settings: A comparison of cross-age and peer tutoring. Psychology in the Schools, 23, 187-193.

Talbott, E., Lloyd, J. W., & Tankersley, M. (1994). Effects of reading comprehension interventions for students with learning disabilities. Learning Disability Quarterly, 17(3), 223-232.

Top, B. L., & Osguthorpe, R. T. (1987). Reverse-role tutoring: The effects of handicapped students tutoring regular class students. The Elementary School Journal, 87(4), 413-423.

Van Reusen, A. K., Deshler, D. D., & Schumaker, J. B. (1989). Effects of a student participation strategy in facilitating the involvement of adolescents with learning disabilities in the individualized educational program planning process. Learning Disabilities, 1(2), 23-24.

Vernon, D. S., & Schumaker, J. B. (1993). Who benefits for social skills instruction in the mainstream classroom?Exceptionality Education Canada, 3(1), 9-38.

Vernon, D. S., Deshler, D. D., & Schumaker, J. B. (1994). Cooperative strategies in the classroom. Final report. Bethesda, MD: National Institutes of Health.

Wagner, M. (1991). Dropouts with disabilities: What do we know? What can we do? Menlo Park, CA: SRI International.

Woodward, J., & Gersten, R. (1992). Innovative technology for secondary students with learning disabilities. Exceptional Children, 58, 407-421.

Zigmond, N., & Thornton, H. (1985). Follow-up of post secondary age learning disabled graduates and dropouts. Learning Disabilities Research, 1(1), 50-55.

Annotated Literature Abstract


Deshler, D. D., & Schumaker, J. B. (1988). An instructional model for teaching students how to learn. In J. L. Graden, J. E. Zins, & M. J. Curtis (Eds.), Alternative Educational Delivery Systems: Enhancing Instructional Options For All Students (pp. 391-411). Washington, DC: National Association of School Psychologists.


The authors describe the Strategies Instructional Model, a comprehensive instructional model designed to teach students with learning disabilities how to learn and how to perform academic, social, or job-related tasks efficiently, effectively, and independently. Each participant in the model has varying, yet complementary, responsibilities. More specifically, support service teachers teach students with learning disabilities the skills and strategies needed to succeed in school and work. Mainstream class teachers teach content using content enhancement routines to improve student understanding and memory. Students with learning disabilities take responsibility for learning new skills and strategies and apply them to acquire content and respond to other mainstream demands. Parents, administrators, and ancillary staff provide external support for students with learning disabilities and their teachers. When working in concert, the participants can significantly improve the academic and social success of students with learning disabilities.

Key Points and Quotes

1. Support service teachers must systematically teach strategies to students with learning disabilities in an intense and direct fashion.

“To enable students to master strategies, a teaching methodology, based on sound instructional principles, has been developed (Deshler, Schumaker, & Lenz, 1984; Ellis, Deshler, Lenz, Schumaker, & Clark, 1991). This methodology has two major phases: the acquisition phase and the generalization phase. The purpose of the acquisition phase of the teaching methodology is to give students the knowledge, motivation, and practice necessary to apply a strategy successfully in the support setting…[whereas in the generalization phase teachers provide] multiple exemplars, daily reminders about where the strategy can be used, and actual application of the strategy to mainstream class assignments and materials.” (pp. 397-398)

2. Mainstream teachers can use content enhancement routines to improve the learning of all students enrolled in their classes.

“Recent research has clearly demonstrated that mildly handicapped students and low achievers can experience success in responding to the demands of the mainstream curriculum if content teachers…(Bulgren, Schumaker, & Deshler, 1987; Deshler, Schumaker, Bulgren, Hudson, & McKnight, in press; Lenz, Alley, & Schumaker, 1987; Schumaker, Deshler, Hudson, McKnight, in press)…teach content to their classes through the use of specific teaching routines so as to enhance the understanding and memory of that content by all students.” (p. 403)

Annotated Literature Abstract


White, W. A. T. (1988). A meta-analysis of the effects of direct instruction in special education. Education and Treatment of Children, 11, 364-374.


The author describes a meta-analysis on the effects of Direct Instruction programs in special education. Twenty-five experimental studies were included in the meta-analysis. The studies targeted teaching students with learning handicaps (e.g., learning disabilities) in basic skills (e.g., reading skills, math skills, and social skills). An effect size was calculated for each dependent measure on which the experimental (Direct Instruction) and comparison treatments were compared. Analysis of the effect sizes indicated that not a single outcome measure in any of the 25 studies favored the comparison treatment, whereas, 53 percent of the outcome measures significantly favored the Direct Instruction treatment.

Key Points and Quotes

1. The effectiveness of Direct Instruction on student learning of basic skills is supported with a strong research base.

“Not a single outcome measure in any of the 25 studies significantly favored the comparison treatment. The means show that, on the average, 53 percent of the outcome measures significantly favor DI (Direct Instruction). This value far exceeds the 5 percent that would be expected by chance if there were actually no differential effects between DI and the comparison treatments. The average advantage of .84 standard deviation units that DI treatments maintain over comparison treatments is well above the standard of .25 to .33 that has been typically used to determine educational significance of an educational treatment effect (Stebbins, St. Pierre, Proper, Anderson, & Cerva, 1977).” (pp. 367-368)

2. Direct Instruction is a robust instructional methodology proven effective in varying skill areas with varying ages and groups of students.

“The 25 studies on Direct Instruction treatments of over a week in length found a strong, consistent effect for the treatment. The strength is not limited to a particular age range, or handicapping condition, or skill area. The meta-analysis indicates that, based on 25 studies, instruction grounded in Direct Instruction theory (Engelmann & Carnine, 1982) is efficacious for both mildly and moderately/severely handicapped learners, and in all skill areas on which research has been conducted.” (p. 372)

Model Profile

Wethersfield Public Schools in Wethersfield, Connecticut, is a school district in a middle-class, residential suburb of Hartford, that is about 13 miles square. The student population of 3,019 attends seven schools (one for kindergartners, four for grades 1 to 6, one for grades 7 and 8, and one for grades 9 to 12).

Wethersfield’s superintendent, Dr. Richard Zanini, is committed to providing effective services to at-risk students. He has provided the resources necessary to support a teacher, Rosemary Tralli, to become a Certified Trainer in strategic instruction and content enhancement, developed at the University of Kansas Institute for Research in Learning Disabilities. Annually, he provides the resources necessary for this trainer to offer a three- or four-day sequence of formal professional development experiences to teachers in the district and an additional four days of visitation to classrooms for support and feedback experiences. He also supports informational workshops for parents provided by the special education teachers. He regularly publicizes accomplishments of the instructional program through the media and speaks regularly with the Board of Education to obtain the necessary support and resources.

Administrative personnel, including the Director of Pupil Personnel, the Supervisor of Special Education, and school principals, work together with special education teachers to ensure the success of the program for students with learning disabilities in the district. As a result, a continuum of comprehensive services is available within the district for students with learning disabilities ranging from self-contained classes to full inclusion in mainstream classes for those students who have mastered the necessary skills and strategies. A team of district personnel has created a district plan for serving students with learning disabilities that includes a scope and sequence of instruction of skills and strategies that is used flexibly to meet individual student needs.

Typically, in the early elementary grades, students learn the basic skills necessary to prepare them for later instruction in strategies. For example, they learn basic reading and math skills, how to pronounce and spell the prefixes and suffixes, and how to identify the verb and subject of a sentence. In the later elementary grades (5th and 6th grades), they begin instruction in simple learning strategies. For example, they learn the Sentence Writing Strategy (Schumaker & Sheldon, 1985), a strategy for writing a variety of complete sentences; the Word Identification Strategy (Lenz, Schumaker, Deshler, & Beals, 1984), a strategy for decoding words; and the Paraphrasing Strategy (Schumaker, Denton, & Deshler, 1984), a strategy for transforming the main ideas and details of a passage into the reader’s own words. In middle school, students learn the Error Monitoring Strategy (Schumaker, Nolan, & Deshler, 1985), a strategy for correcting one’s own writing errors; the LINCS Strategy (Ellis, 1992), a strategy for learning the meaning of vocabulary; and the Test Taking Strategy (Hughes, Schumaker, Deshler, & Mercer, 1988), a strategy for approaching tests in a structured way. At the high school level, students learn the Paragraph Writing Strategy (Schumaker & Lyerla, 1990), the Theme Writing Strategy (Schumaker, in prep.), and the FIRST-Letter Mnemonic Strategy (Nagel, Schumaker, & Deshler, 1986), a strategy for mastering information. They also learn and use the Education Planning Strategy (Van Reusen, Bos, Schumaker, & Deshler, 1987), a self-advocacy strategy for planning one’s own education and transition to adult life and leading one’s own IEP and transition planning meetings.

General education teachers regularly complete a “demands questionnaire” about the demands of their courses so that teachers and students know what strategies will be needed for each course. Special education teachers and general education teachers regularly meet to coordinate instruction and problem solve regarding particular students. Special education teachers often provide strategy instruction within general education classes. Also, pairs of students with learning disabilities provide learning strategy instruction in general education classes. Some general education teachers independently teach learning strategies in their classes and utilize Content Enhancement procedures to plan and deliver information in their classes. A cumulative file of student progress in strategy instruction follows the student from school to school within the district to ensure coordination and continuity.

Tyren is an eleventh grader in the district. He began instruction in learning strategies in eighth grade, when strategy instruction was first offered to students in self-contained special education classes. At that time, he was reading at the fourth-grade level and had severe decoding problems when he needed to read grade-appropriate textbooks. Although he could write basic sentences, he could not spell (his spelling score was below the 10th percentile). He had been enrolled in self-contained classes because whenever he was enrolled in low-track regular education classes, he received barely passing grades.

In eighth grade, Tyren learned the Word Identification Strategy, the Paraphrasing Strategy, the Error Monitoring Strategy, and the Test Taking Strategy by attending a strategies class five days per week for one period per day. During eighth grade, he was enrolled in mainstream low-track classes (classes for low-achieving students) in every subject except math (he attended a special education math class). By the end of eighth grade, he was earning Bs and Cs in his low-track classes and was reading at the eighth-grade level.

In ninth grade, Tyren received additional strategy instruction for three class periods per week, improving his fluency and effectiveness with the strategies he had learned in eighth grade and learning the Paragraph Writing Strategy and the Education Planning Strategy. He continued to earn Bs and Cs in his low-track mainstream classes. He continued to receive math instruction in a special education math class. For the tenth and eleventh grades, Tyren has enrolled in regular-track classes in every subject except math class, which has been a low-track class. He has received additional strategy instruction for two class periods per week and has been an honor-roll student throughout both years. He and his parents are currently making plans for Tyren to go to college.

Tyren is not an exception in the Wethersfield district. Of the 34 students with learning disabilities and/or attention deficit disorders currently receiving strategy instruction in the resource room at the high school level, at least half of them are on the honor roll each semester. All of them are enrolled in regular-track classes in which they have earned at least C grades. The majority of these students have had strategy instruction since sixth or seventh grade. In the past six years, only two students in this program have not attended college, and all those who have attended college have been successful.

For more information, contact:

Dr. Richard Zanini, Superintendent
Ms. Rosemary Tralli, Special Education Teacher
Wethersfield Public Schools
Wethersfield, Connecticut
Phone: 203-563-8181


Ellis, E. S. (1992). The LINCS Strategy: Instructor’s manual. Lawrence, KS: Edge Enterprises, Inc.

Lenz, B. K., Schumaker, J. B., Deshler, D. D., & Beals, V. (1984). The Word Identification Strategy: Instructor’s manual. Lawrence, KS: The University of Kansas.

Hughes, C. A., Schumaker, J. B., Deshler, D. D., & Mercer, C. M. (1988). The Test Taking Strategy: Instructor’s manual. Lawrence, KS: Edge Enterprises, Inc.

Nagel, D. R., Schumaker, J. B., & Deshler, D. D. (1986). The FIRST-Letter Mnemonic Strategy: Instructor’s manual. Lawrence, KS: Edge Enterprises, Inc.

Schumaker, J. B. (in prep.) The Theme Writing Strategy: Instructor’s manual. Lawrence, KS: The University of Kansas.

Schumaker, J. B., Denton, P. H., & Deshler, D. D. (1984). The Paraphrasing Strategy: Instructor’s manual. Lawrence, KS: The University of Kansas.

Schumaker, J. B., & Lyerla, K. (1990). The Paragraph Writing Strategy: Instructor’s manual. Lawrence, KS: University of Kansas.

Schumaker, J. B., Nolan, S., & Deshler, D. D. (1985). The Error Monitoring Strategy: Instructor’s manual. Lawrence, KS: The University of Kansas.

Schumaker, J. B., & Sheldon, J. (1985). The Sentence Writing Strategy: Instructor’s manual.Lawrence, KS: The University of Kansas.

Van Reusen, A. K., Bos, C., Schumaker, J. B., & Deshler, D. D. (1987). The Education Planning Strategy: Instructor’s manual. Lawrence, KS: Edge Enterprises, Inc.


Edward A. Polloway
Lynchburg College
Tom E. C. Smith
The University of Arkansas at Little Rock
Eugene Edgar
The University of Washington


  1. The four most important outcomes are employment, development of independence, the acquisition of life skills, and inclusion within the school and community.
  2. In the last five years, these outcomes have been achieved to a mixed degree. While progress has been made on conceptualizing the issues and concerns, limited impact on individuals’ lives has been accomplished.
  3. Models which have facilitated achievement of outcomes have included (a) the extension of supported empowerment initiatives, (b) the development of models of empowerment and self-determination, (c) the emergence of life skills models which broaden the concept of adult adjustment beyond just vocational skills, and (d) dialogue on appropriate ways to achieve placements within functional curricular programs.
  4. Inhibitors that have affected success include (a) realities within the community, (b) absence of supports in adulthood, (c) implementation of least restrictive placements in school and community without necessary supports, and (d) continued reliance on nonfunctional curricula.
  5. Specific recommendations for action by Congress include (a) the clarification of funds being available to follow students into post-secondary educational placements and (b) the strengthening of the requirement for comprehensive transition planning.
  6. Implementation would be enhanced by (a) targeting research and model programs funds for students who have been considered mildly mentally retarded, (b) modifying data reporting procedures to provide a specific focus on those with mild retardation, and (c) requiring state education agencies (SEAs), or local education agencies (LEAs), to conduct periodic follow-up of students after school exit.
  7. Implementation would be enhanced via (a) an increased commitment to appropriate curricular alternatives at the secondary level, (b) the assurance that quality transition planning takes place, and (c) the adoption of the concept of supported education as central to least restrictive placements vs. that of physical integration.

1. What outcomes within the categorical area are recognized as important for students to obtain?

Note: The focus within this section is on individuals, and programs for individuals, who traditionally have been classified as mildly mentally retarded.

The four primary outcomes that are recognized as important for students with mild mental retardation are productive employment, self-sufficiency and independence including empowerment, functional life skills, and inclusion within the schools and the community. In terms of employment, the specific desired outcome goals most notably include paid, competitive work, nonpaid integrated volunteer activities that contribute to an individual’s quality of life and sense of empowerment, and training programs to enhance work skills. The centralized focus of this outcome area is on the productive involvement of the individual within the workplace in the community.

In the area of self-sufficiency and independence, the need for individuals with mild mental retardation is to become responsible for themselves in adulthood. Specific aspects of this focus include empowerment, self-determination, and choice-making.

The acquisition of life skills focuses on the above concerns as well as on the importance of competence in everyday life activities. This area includes, but is not limited to, successful community use, home and family involvement, social skills, health and safety skills, leisure, and successful participation in the community as associated with citizenship (e.g., compliance with legal and cultural standards).

The fourth outcome, inclusion, is critical for the successful development of individuals with mental retardation. The primary goal of inclusion is successful involvement in the community. As a necessary step toward this goal, individuals should be included within school programs to the maximum extent possible while there still is assurance that such placement facilitates their school success. The key element of community and school inclusion is that individuals are welcomed and accepted into such integrative environments and that appropriate opportunities are ultimately available for inclusive living arrangements, socialization opportunities, and meaningful work in the community at large. The significant distinction to be made is between true inclusion, wherein an individual functions as a viable and valuable member of a community, and mere physical integration, in which placement is achieved without assurance of involvement or participation. Merely placing students in general education classrooms when they are not socially integrated, and when they are not actively participating in classroom activities, is not the intent of inclusion (Smith, Polloway, Patton, & Dowdy, 1995). Likewise, adults with mental retardation who live in the community but do not participate in community activities are not able to fulfill the true spirit of inclusion (Gardner & O’Brien, 1990; Storey, 1993).

2. To what extent have these outcomes been achieved in the last five years?

In terms of employment, more individuals with mental retardation are now working in inclusive settings (ARC, 1993), opportunities for increased skills have been effected through various training models, and the use of comprehensive sheltered workshops has decreased while the reliance on transitional programs which prepare individuals for competitive and/or integrative work opportunities has increased (Gardner, 1990; Revell, Wehman, Kregel, West, & Rayfield, 1994). However, while those with more severe disabilities have had enhanced employment outcomes in recent years, through greater access to adult supports, it is not clear that those with mild retardation, often not with such access, have progressed as positively. Moreover, definitional, and hence population, changes in the field have hindered the careful tracking of the adult lives of individuals who have mild retardation.

In terms of independence, the benefits of the federally funded self-determination projects are just beginning to be realized (Wehmeyer, 1994). As the outcomes from these projects are being disseminated and as their appearance in the literature increases, there is beginning to be a clearer reflection of this area as a critical outcome of concern. It can be anticipated that curricular advances will begin to follow that will support self-determination and independence.

In terms of independent living, many individuals with mild retardation, as many young adults in general, are likely to live with their families after school completion (Affleck, Edgar, Levine, & Kortering, 1990). For those who are in the community, limited data are available. Certainly it is more likely that they are “on their own” when compared to those with more severe disabilities (who are more likely to be in supported housing), but it is likely that many are living in substandard environments.

With regard to life skills, there has been significant work done in the last five years to increase the focus on the preparation of individuals for community life, reflecting the fact that successful adult adjustment is not just a function of work skills. To a large extent, this emphasis has grown out of the transition focus in educational program development. Curricular changes further reflect the increased attention being provided to these emphases (Polloway, Patton, Epstein, & Smith, 1989). There has been an increased call for the inclusion of such a focus in the curriculum of elementary students as well (Polloway, Patton, Smith, & Roderique, 1992). However, the relatively limited data available in this area suggest that more work needs to be done to enhance life skills acquisition.

In terms of inclusion, it is clear that the number of individuals with disabilities in general who are spending increased time in the general education classroom has increased. At the same time, these numbers have not changed as significantly for individuals with mental retardation. According to the Sixteenth Annual Report to Congress (U.S. Department of Education, 1994), the percentage of students (ages 6-21) with mental retardation served in regular classes is now 5.04 percent. Because these data reflect the 1991-92 academic year, it may be that the inclusion of all students with mental retardation has increased more noticeably in the past two academic years. Within the community, individuals with mild retardation have historically not been excluded. However, it is likely that their physical presence has not yet signaled a high degree of acceptance and involvement in many communities.

A potentially major contribution in the future to the achievement of the inclusion goal has been the adoption of the new definition and classification system of the American Association on Mental Retardation (Luckasson et al., 1992), which clearly advocates for the development of inclusive environments. Most notably, this manual has a significant focus on the importance of supports as a necessary condition for successful inclusion of individuals with mental retardation in both school and community.

3. What educational models/procedures are most effective for achieving these outcomes?


A variety of models and procedures promote more positive employment outcomes for students with mental retardation. There has been an increased emphasis on supported employment (Gardner, 1990; Test, Hinson, Solow, & Keul, 1993), although its usage has been more common for individuals with more significant disabilities (Revell et al., 1994). Schools increasingly have appropriate models for vocational training programs, both within general and special education (Clark & Kolstoe, 1995). Edgar and Polloway (1994) provide an outline of effective vocational training programs offered under the respective umbrellas of special and general education. However, the existence of such models does not ensure that students receive this focus; too often the curricular emphasis remains on academic, nonfunctional programs at the secondary level. It could be argued that the work study program models of several decades ago (e.g., Kolstoe & Frey, 1965) better served this population than have such contemporary nonfunctional curricula. This concern has relevance for the other three outcome areas as well.

Independence, Self-determination, and Empowerment

A number of models have the potential for guiding future educational practice in this area. These include the model developed by Field and Hoffman (1992) that focuses on the individuals’ needs to understand and value themselves and to possess the ability to define and achieve personally relevant goals. Another model has been provided by Polloway, Smith, Patton, and Smith (in press). It is derived from the work of Geller (1994) and focuses on empowerment, stressing the interrelationship between social control, self-efficacy, self-esteem, optimism, and belongingness. Consistent with this trend, Wehmeyer (1994) reports positive results from two ongoing projects to improve the self-determination of individuals with mental retardation. Wehmeyer’s (1993) emphasis on self-determination stresses the development of skills necessary to act as the primary causal agent in one’s own life. This conceptualization has great potential for the further development of educational models.

Life Skills

A variety of life skills models have been developed and refined in recent years in order to provide appropriate structure for educational interventions. For example, these include programs developed by Brolin (1992), Cronin and Patton (1993), Dever (1988), and Smith and Schloss (1988). Appropriate emerging models reflect increased emphasis on life skills within individual transition planning, the increased emphasis on the importance of social skills (see Sargent, 1991), and the more widespread acceptance of the importance of community-based instruction (Smith & Hilton, 1994).


In terms of models to enhance increased inclusion, several noteworthy aspects relate to the interaction of a life skills focus with inclusion. For example, Smith and Hilton (1994) have advocated that the curricular needs of individual students should be paramount in the consideration of educational programs. Towards this end, Beck, Broers, Hogue, Shipstead, and Knowlton (1994) reported on a model for teaching life skills within an inclusive setting. Specific community-based areas which also reflect the recent increased inclusion within community settings include independent and supported living (Gardner, 1990; Lozano, 1993; Walker, 1994). The challenge is to apply such models to individuals with mild mental retardation who often are not the beneficiaries of them.

4. What educational models/procedures most inhibit these outcomes?

While a number of initiatives have advanced a positive focus on appropriate outcomes for students with mental retardation, there are a number of models, procedures, and variables that continue to inhibit achievement of these outcomes. An overriding concern is the fact that the specific needs of individuals with mild retardation are not often acknowledged both in terms of needs of appropriate curricula in school and necessary supports in adulthood.

In terms of employment, several community variables are particularly problematic. These include limited job opportunities, various changes and complexities within the work force, economic fluctuations and uncertainties, and possible financial disincentives for working related to the loss of benefits (Carnevale, Gainer, & Meltzer, 1990; Gardner, 1990). In addition, the continued use of sheltered employment models contributes to limited competitive employment opportunities. The role of technological changes presents both advantages and challenges. Technology in some areas has decreased the need for employees in positions that might otherwise have been occupied by individuals, including those with mental retardation. At the same time, technology has also made possible opportunities through the use of assistive and augmentive devices. The lack of widespread training opportunities in technological fields also hinders individuals’ job placement. The absence of a clear commitment to relevant vocational training programs for individuals with mild mental retardation is particularly problematic. Further, the absence of paid work opportunities within the school experience is a significant contributor to the school dropout rate. In reference to the dropout rate, the fact that the number remains quite high for individuals who have mental retardation (at a rate of at least 19.55 percent) (U.S. Department of Education, 1994) certainly has significance for the acquisition or achievement of all of the important outcomes. The lack of social skills training also inhibits the success of individuals with mental retardation in work settings (Butterworth & Strauch, 1994).

The period of time immediately following completion or withdrawal from secondary education has been referred to as a time for “floundering” (Edgar, 1987). One reason for this, in addition to the obvious developmental reasons, is the fact that the field of special education has not yet fully implemented successful educational models to develop individuals’ independence and empowerment. This problem is further aggravated by a generalized fear of risk-taking, a fear that is common to both family members and individuals with mental retardation themselves. In addition, traditional reliance on extrinsic forms of reinforcement in special education programs can encourage dependence and perhaps even learned helplessness among students. An increase in the relatively infrequent use of cognitively based interventions with students with mental retardation would respond to this concern (Polloway, Patton, Smith, & Buck, in press). Given the relative recency of self-determination and empowerment models, it is likely that educational programs have yet to fully address these concerns within the curriculum.

A number of procedures have inhibited the successful implementation of a life skills focus within educational programs (Halpern & Benz, 1987). The competing curricular goals of relevance and inclusion are illustrated by the commitment to placement within general education classrooms in spite of the frequent nonfunctionality of many such programs. Further, aspects of the school reform movement which resulted in an increased emphasis on basic skills have often resulted in attention to less career-relevant programs. On balance, the irresponsible emphasis on inclusion per se without attention to curricular needs can jeopardize the opportunity for the acquisition of functional skills in individuals with mental retardation. As Smith and Hilton (1994) indicate, programs should be based on individual needs rather than philosophical generalities. The recent stance assumed by The Arc, for example, in advocating a scorecard approach to school inclusion can distract attention from the importance of evaluating the quality of programs by focusing attention solely on the practice of physical integration. Finally, teacher preparation programs have not responded well to the importance of transition education and, in part related to that fact, teachers often fail to appreciate the importance of life skills instruction or do not know how to incorporate them into the curriculum.

In terms of inclusion, a significant problem has to do with the readiness of general education to change to accommodate individuals with mental retardation and related disabilities. While teacher and administrator attitudes are an important part of this, equally significant are the related factors of inflexibility within the curriculum, the question of treatment acceptability (i.e., teachers’ openness to adaptations and modifications that promote successful learning in the general education classroom), and inadequate training for teachers. Previously utilized service delivery models, including full-time self-contained classes, are still not uncommon for students with mental retardation in the schools, as data from the U.S. Department of Education (1994) indicate (i.e., 59.2 percent), and thus it is still relatively uncommon for general education teachers to have students with mental retardation in their classes (Bursuck, Polloway, Plante, Epstein, Jayanthi, & McConeghy, in press). In addition, appropriate supports are often not available and/or are insufficient to promote successful learning in inclusive settings. The absence of vocational and life skills curriculum within general education can also have a negative effect on the possibility of inclusion because the choice is often between segregated settings (with or without functional curricula) and inclusive classes without a functional focus for these students. Finally, in some communities, the lack of acceptance and the tardiness in, or absence of, the development of support mechanisms can hinder community inclusion (Lozano, 1993).

5. Provide two or three specific recommendations for actions by Congress.

Congress should improve IDEA by focusing on post-secondary and transition issues.

Funding Post-secondary Education for People with Disabilities

Congress should clarify that IDEA and state-local funds provided for students with mental retardation can follow them into post-secondary school environments. Many students with mental retardation continue to enroll in educational programs beyond the age of 18, and in some states beyond the age of 21. Educational supports should be available to these individuals so that these programs and opportunities can be provided alternatively through local community and junior colleges and vocational-technical schools as opposed to being provided within high school settings. Such a change in funding patterns would provide for a more age-appropriate educational environment for students, encourage the development of responsive post-secondary programs for students with mental retardation, promote the development of appropriate social skills through interaction with same-age peers, and increase the likelihood that students will remain in school and pursue advanced training.

Planning for Transition

Second, it is critical that quality transition planning be required of all schools and states receiving support under IDEA. Currently, many of the efforts under the name of transition planning represent perfunctory attempts to comply with federal legislation. Congress should give more specific directives concerning the minimal standards for comprehensive transition planning within the individualized educational program process. Further, Congress should require transition planning to take place no later than age 14 (as opposed to 16 in current legislation). In addition, Congress should clarify that it is necessary for other agencies (e.g., vocational rehabilitation, employment commissions, social services) to participate in the transition process. While educational programs are required to follow the tenets of IDEA, it is difficult to ensure that such planning is appropriate and comprehensive if there is not a comparable requirement and commitment governing the involvement of other related agencies.

6. Provide two or three specific recommendations for improving IDEA’s implementation through federally funded activities, including but not limited to monitoring, technical assistance, personnel preparation, demonstration, and research, to be carried out over the next five years.

OSERS can improve IDEA’s implementation in several ways.

Targeting Grant Support

Targeted funds within the field of mental retardation have been virtually nonexistent at the federal level when consideration is given to those students traditionally referred to having mild mental retardation. While personnel preparation program initiatives and research dollars have frequently targeted students with learning disabilities, emotional and behavioral disorders, severe disabilities, and sensory impairments, there has been no comparable commitment in the field of mild mental retardation. While reasons for this absence of support may vary, the consequences are apparent. There is virtually a nonexistent data base from the 1980s and 1990s on the nature of, and the efficacy of educational programs for, this population. Specific questions remain unanswered and thus are more commonly dealt with by professional opinion and bias rather than empirical support. A particularly important example is the need for research on the impact of inclusion on the successful development of the individual who is mentally retarded (Storey, 1993). To date, such targeted research has not been supported for this population and consequently the research literature is virtually bereft in this area. Further research on the empowerment of individuals with mental retardation would also be a welcome addition (Wehmeyer, 1994). Finally, there is a significant need for the attention of research and/or a task force to the life status of individuals in the 70-85 IQ group; these individuals may have been classified in prior decades as having mild mental retardation but are rarely so in the 1990s.

Improving School Data Reporting

The annual reports to Congress by the Department of Education have been critical research documents for legislators, administrators, researchers, and other policy-makers. The data on number of children served, school placements in which educated, and school exit have been invaluable tools for these groups. However, in the field of mental retardation the data as reported have been limited by the use of the generic mental retardation category rather than some system that differentiates individuals who are so labeled. The breakdown of data in such a way that summaries would be available for students who have traditionally been referred to as having mild mental retardation would greatly assist in discussing trends in terms of the relative prevalence of the condition, degree of inclusion, and their status of this group upon exit from school.

Securing Follow-up Data

There is a relative dearth of data on the adult outcomes of students with disabilities. Regulations which dictate the need for, and provide financial support for, conducting follow-up studies by state and/or local education agencies would greatly advance our understanding of the lives of young adults. In the absence of these data, the initiative for curricular change and the documentation of the need for employment and learning supports remain more of a presumed need than a documented necessity.

7. Provide two or three specific recommendations for improving IDEA’s implementation by state and local education agencies.

State and local education agencies have important roles in improving IDEA’s implementation.

Increasing Secondary-Level Curricular Options

The first recommendation for improving implementation by state and local education agencies includes increasing the commitment to curricular options at the secondary school level. Effective programs need to be in place in all schools to offer students the opportunity for successful preparation for vertical transitions into community life in the same way that they are available within college preparation programs. Such programs should offer opportunities for students to graduate with their peers and earn legitimate diplomas that facilitate subsequent employment.

Planning for Transition

The second recommendation concerns the requirement that quality transition planning take place. In order to be comprehensive, such planning should focus on realistic adult outcomes; active involvement of the student and family in the identification of needs, interests, and preferences and in planning; connections between educational programming and adult services and supports and full participation by relevant community agencies.

Enabling Supported Education

The third recommendation is to assure that inclusion in general education classes is based on the concept of supported education rather than just physical integration. While the latter reflects simply “presence” in the room, the former requires that appropriate supports, including as-needed special education professionals, paraprofessionals, and other personal and natural supports, be in place as a precondition for inclusion. In order to foster success, state regulations should reflect an increased commitment to the training of all general educators in the characteristics, nature, and educational needs of students with mental retardation and to the development of collaborative skills for working with professionals and parents.


Affleck, J. W., Edgar, E., Levine, P., & Kortering, L. (1990). Post-school status of students classified as mildly mentally retarded, learning disabled or non-handicapped: Does it get better with time? Education and Training in Mental Retardation and Developmental Disabilities, 25, 315-324.

ARC (Nov.-Dec., 1993). Second national status report on inclusion reveals slow progress. ARC Newsletter, p. 5.

Beck, J., Broers, J., Hogue, E., Shipstead, J., & Knowlton, H. E. (1994). Strategies for functional community-based instruction and inclusion for children with mental retardation. Teaching Exceptional Children, 26 (2), 44-48.

Brolin, D. (1992). Life-centered career education (4th ed.). Reston, VA: Council for Exceptional Children.

Bursuck, W., Polloway, E. A., Plante, L., Epstein, D. H., Jayanthi, M., & McConeghy, J. I., (in press). Report card grading and adaptations: A national survey of classroom practices. Exceptional Children.

Butterworth, J., & Strauch, J. D. (1994). The relationship between social competence and success in the competitive work place for persons with mental retardation. Education and Training in Mental Retardation and Developmental Disabilities, 29, 118-132

Carnevale, A. P., Gainer, L. J., & Meltzer, A. S. (1990). Workplace basics: The essential skills employers want. San Francisco, Jossey-Bass.

Clark, G. M., Field, S., Patton, J. R., Brolin, D., & Sitlington, P. (1994). Life skills instruction: A necessary component for all students with disabilities. Career Development for Exceptional Individuals, 17, 125-133.

Clark, G. M., & Kolstoe, O. P. (1995). Career development: Transition education for adolescents with disabilities, Boston: Allyn & Bacon.

Cronin, M. E. & Patton, J. R. (1993). Life skills for students with special needs: A practical guide for developing a life skills curriculum. Austin, TX: Pro-Ed.

Dever, R. B. (1988). Community living skills: A taxonomy. Washington, DC: AAMR.

Edgar, E. (1987). Secondary programs in special education: Are many of them justifiable? Exceptional Children, 53, 555-561.

Edgar, E., Parker, W., Siegel, S., Johnson, E. (1994). Curricular options at the secondary level: Preparing youth for the 21st century. Preventing School Failure, 38, 7-12.

Edgar, E., & Polloway, E. A. (1994). Education for adolescents with disabilities: Curriculum and placement issues. Journal of Special Education, 27, 438-452.

Field, S., & Hoffman, A. (1992). Steps to self-determination: The self-determination curriculum. Unpublished manuscript, Wayne State University.

Gardner, J. F. (1990). Introduction. In J. F. Gardner & M. S. Chapman (Eds.), Program issues in developmental disabilities(pp. 3-18). Baltimore, MD: Paul H. Brookes.

Gardner, J. F., & O’Brien, J. (1990). The principle of normalization. In J. F. Gardner & M. S. Chapman (Eds.), Program issues in developmental disabilities (pp. 39-58). Baltimore, MD: Paul H. Brookes.

Geller, S. (1994). The human element in integrated environmental management. In J. Cains, T. V. Crawford, & H. Salwasser (Eds.), Implementing integrated environmental management (pp. 5-26). Blacksburg, VA: Virginia Tech.

Halpern, A. S., & Benz, M. R. (1987). A statewide examination of secondary special education for students with mild disabilities: Implications for the high school curriculum. Exceptional Children, 54, 122-129.

Kolstoe, O. P., & Frey, R. M. (1965). A high school work study programs for mentally subnormal students. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press.

Lozano, B. (1993). Independent living: Relationships among training, skills, and success. American Journal of Mental Retardation, 98, 249-262.

Luckasson, R., Coulter, D., Polloway, E. A., Reiss, S., Schalock, R. L., Snell, M. E., Spitalnik, D. M., & Stark, J. A. (1992).Mental retardation: Definition, classification, and systems of supports. Washington, DC: AAMR.

Polloway, E. A., Patton, J. R., Epstein, M. H., & Smith, T. E. C. (1989). Comprehensive curriculum for students with mild handicaps. Focus on Exceptional Children, 21(8), 1-12.

Polloway, E. A., Patton, J. R., Smith, J. D., & Roderique, T. (1992). Issues in program design for elementary students with mild retardation: Emphasis on curriculum development. Education and Training in Mental Retardation and Developmental Disabilities, 26, 142-150.

Polloway, E. A., Smith, J. D., Patton, J. R., & Smith, T. E. C. (in press). Historic changes in mental retardation and developmental disabilities. Education and Training in Mental Retardation and Developmental Disabilities.

Polloway, E. A., Patton, J. R., Smith, T. E. C., & Buck, G. H. (in press). Mental retardation and learning disabilities: Applied and conceptual issues. Journal of Learning Disabilities.

Revell, W. G., Wehman, P., Kregel, J., West, M., & Rayfield, R. (1994). Supported employment for persons with severe disabilities: Positive trends in wages, models and funding. Education and Training in Mental Retardation and Developmental Disabilities, 29, 256-264.

Sargent, L. (1991). Social skills for school and community. Reston, VA: CEC-MR.

Smith, M. A., & Schloss, P. J. (1988). Teaching to transition. In P. J. Schloss, C. A. Hughes, & M. A. Smith (Eds.),Community integration for persons with mental retardation (pp. 1-16). Austin, TX: Pro-Ed.

Smith, T. E. C., & Hilton, A. (1994). Program design for students with mental retardation. Education and Training in Mental Retardation and Developmental Disabilities, 29, 3-8.

Smith, T. E. C., Polloway, E. A., Patton, J. R., & Dowdy, C. A. (1995). Teaching students with special needs in inclusive settings. Boston: Allyn & Bacon.

Storey, K. (1993). A proposal for assessing integration. Education and Training in Mental Retardation and Developmental Disabilities, 28, 279-286.

Test, D. W., Hinson, K. B., Solow, J., & Keul, P. (1993). Job satisfaction of persons in supported employment. Education and Training in Mental Retardation and Developmental Disabilities, 28, 38-46.

U.S. Department of Education (1994). Sixteenth annual report to Congress. Washington, DC: Author.

Walker, P. (1994). Expanding options for people with severe disabilities: Housing and support services. NARIC Quarterly, 4(1), 1-7, 16-17.

Wehmeyer, M. (1994). Perceptions of self-determination and psychological empowerment of adolescents with mental retardation. Education and Training in Mental Retardation and Developmental Disabilities, 29, 9-21.

Wehmeyer, M. (1993). Self-determination as an educational outcome. Impact, 6(4), 16-17, 26.

Annotated Literature Abstract


Edgar, E., & Polloway, E. A. (1994). Education for adolescents with disabilities: Curriculum and placement issues. Journal of Special Education, 27, 438-452.


A predominant emphasis on placement has often resulted in diminished attention to important questions concerning the content of educational programs. In particular, curricular concerns warrant paramount attention for adolescents who have disabilities. This concern is reinforced by the literature on adult outcomes, which paints a rather pessimistic picture of adult adjustment for students exiting from special education programs. Therefore, issues of educational service delivery should be secondary to an emphasis on outcomes and the nature of the curriculum. In particular, the curriculum for students in the secondary schools should provide multiple pathways that emphasize the development of skills and opportunities to become productive citizens with a reasonable opportunity to enjoy a positive quality of life. The paper also discusses current and emerging curricular models for students with mild disabilities, which are related to the concern for successful adult adjustment.

Key Points and Quotes

1. Curricular needs should be the primary determinant of educational programs.

“The key programming consideration for adolescents with mild disabilities is the availability of curricular options. The primary concern of the curricular options should be their functionality in terms of meeting the needs of the individual student as related to his or her post-school goals. The concept of comprehensive curriculum refers to a program guided by the reality that each student is in school on a time-limited basis; the test of a curriculum’s validity is how helpful it is once students exit the program. Hence, curriculum design should be driven by a focus on subsequent environments.” (p. 445)

2. Current educational efforts have not resulted in positive adult outcomes.

“For students with mild disabilities, the post-school status outcomes for high school graduates indicate low employment rates, underemployment, low attendance at post-secondary educational programs, very poor rates of completion of post-secondary education programs, and generally a poorer adjustment to young adulthood than their peers without disabilities. The status for youth with mild disabilities who do drop out is even worse, which is a critical concern as large numbers…of these youth fail to graduate.” (p. 441)

Annotated Literature Abstract


Clark, G., Field, S., Patton, J. R., Brolin, D., & Sitlington, P. (in press). Life skills instruction: A necessary component for all students with disabilities. Career Development for Exceptional Individuals, 17, 125-133.


The article reflects the position of the Division on Career Development and Transition on the importance of teaching life skills. The authors define life skills instruction, provide a rationale for their importance, discuss where they can be taught, and establish professional responsibilities for their coverage. The main focus of the article is the critical need to prepare students with disabilities for dealing successfully with the complexities of adulthood.

Key Points and Quotes

1. Life skills instruction that is based on the competencies associated with adulthood and determined by individual need is required for all students with disabilities.

“A growing body of literature suggests that appropriateness of education must be determined in terms of individual needs for dealing with the demands of adulthood…. Curricular content should emphasize instruction in such areas as personal responsibility, social competence, interpersonal relationships, health (physical and mental), home living, employability, occupational awareness, job skills, recreation and leisure skills, consumer skills, and community participation. Individual goals and objectives for life skills on the IEP should be determined on the basis of current level of functioning in these areas, taking into account individual students’ specific needs, interests, and preferences, as well as their next expected environments.”

2. Life skills instruction can occur in inclusive settings.

“The first consideration for where life skills should be taught should be general education settings and the community….Many of the same strategies and procedures that are recommended for accommodating students with disabilities in academic content settings can be applied to life skills instructional content….Instructional activities provided in community settings and in competitive employment are highly inclusive and provide an ideal situation for promoting inclusion and teaching life skills.”

3. The need for life skills competence is lifelong.

“The Division on Career Development and Transition renews its commitment to the need for providing life career development and transition programming beginning in early childhood and continuing through adulthood….The Division recognizes that meeting the personal-social, daily living, and occupational adjustment demands that students currently have, as well as those demands they will have in the future, will not occur for many students with disabilities through a traditional academic approach. Response to this concern must involve curriculum considerations and not just an instructional environment nor instructional strategy response.”

Model Profile

There is a limited data base on effective educational models and programs for students who would traditionally be considered as having mild mental retardation. As noted earlier, there has been limited financial support provided to effect comprehensive research programs. Hence there is an absence of a clear consensus as to what might represent best practices. However, the discussion below focuses on efforts that have the potential to positively impact individuals with mild retardation.

An exciting alternative for students with disabilities, including mental retardation, as described by Edgar and colleagues (Edgar, Parker, Siegel, & Johnson, 1994), is a curriculum based on teaching citizenship skills in conjunction with occupationally relevant skills through an apprenticeship. There are three components.

First, the curriculum option must be socially valued by the community (i.e., students and their parents, teachers implementing the program, administrative staff, other teachers in the building, peers, and the community at large). These diverse constituencies must be included in planning and implementation.

Second, the curriculum must address student outcomes that are valued by the larger community and that will provide the students with skills and attitudes to enable them to be viewed as competent citizens. Such skills include process skills (e.g., collecting and synthesizing information, making decisions, working with peers), facts relevant to the community in which the students live (e.g., cultural factors, geography, local attitudes and values), occupationally relevant information (e.g., the inner workings of a wide variety of jobs, employer-employee relationships, and economic issues), attitudes (e.g., gender and multicultural issues, work ethic, honesty, dependability, being a responsible citizen, individual rights), and other skills (e.g., reading, math, writing, computer skills, independent living, healthy behaviors, specific job skills). A number of these areas have clear relationships to the life skills model discussed earlier.

Third, the curriculum addresses the instructional method that will be used to achieve the desired outcomes. Examples of instructional methods include an integrated, activity-based learning model portfolio measurement to evaluate performance and learning taking place in a community context (i.e., learning is directly related to the community). An emphasis is placed on cooperative learning activities (e.g., students work in groups, share in the work, process conflict and equity issues, practice ethical compromise).

For more information, contact:

Dr. Eugene Edgar
EEU, WJ-10
University of Washington
Seattle, Washington 98195
Phone: 206-543-1827
FAX: 206-543-8480


Lucille Eber
LaGrange Area Department of Special Education
C. Michael Nelson
The University of Kentucky


  1. Priority outcomes for this population include improved academic, social/personal, and vocational functioning to more closely approximate that of typical peers.
  2. These outcomes have not been satisfactorily achieved in the past five years. These students are significantly underidentified, resulting in a total lack of services for many and in uncoordinated, restrictive, and ineffective services for those who are identified.
  3. Promising models include (a) systematic screening to identify children at risk at the preschool and primary school levels, (b) early intervention aimed at preventing the emergence or further aggravation of emotional and behavioral disorders, (c) “wraparound” services for child and family needs, and (d) a full continuum of services, including those in natural home and community settings as well as those involving out-of-home placements.
  4. Barriers include (a) early identification and intervention, (b) the shortage of school- and community-based professionals, (c) the tendency to identify these students as “bad kids” and to exclude them from school without the benefit of appropriate special education and related services, and (d) services that are uncoordinated and reactive.
  5. Congress should (a) amend the existing federal definition of serious emotional disturbance for special education purposes and (b) promote the elimination of existing bureaucratic barriers which have resulted in programs that fail to address the range of a child’s and family’s needs across delivery systems.
  6. Congress and OSERS should encourage the development of (a) integrated service delivery models for children and their families, (b) technical assistance networks co-funded by multiple federal agencies, (c) collaboration at the federal level across education, juvenile justice, mental health, health, child welfare, and vocational rehabilitation, and (d) integrated training of more professionals.
  7. (a) States should develop integrated planning, policy, and funding initiatives with mental health, education, juvenile justice, child welfare, and health agencies, stressing systematic screening and early identification, early intervention, and intensive community-based treatment that wraps support around child and family needs. (b) Families should be an integral part of strength-based intervention strategies. (c) Programs should be developed to meet the needs of children and families for coordinated services across life domains. (d) A full continuum of services should be available.

1. What outcomes within the categorical area are recognized as important for students to obtain?

Students with serious emotional disturbance, conservatively estimated to comprise 2 percent of the school-aged population or approximately one million school-aged children, are the most underidentified and underserved group of all students with disabilities. The lack of agreement on definition and eligibility across the country results in uneven identification rates for these students, ranging from 0.04 percent to over 2 percent of school-aged children (U.S. Department of Education, 1994). The debate over eligibility and definition results in exclusion from service for many of them. Indeed, these students’ behavioral and emotional problems must reach chronic levels before they receive special education services, which frequently are inadequate and restrictive. This lack of prevention and early intervention has created a reactive climate for service delivery, with little or no coordination across various child-serving systems. Elevated concerns about violence and discipline in schools cause further hesitation about including students with labels that are synonymous with disruption.

Overriding the enormous problem of lack of service coordination is the shortage of services to coordinate (Kauffman, Lloyd, Hallahan, & Astuto, in press). The 2 percent prevalence estimate used by the Federal Government underestimates the true prevalence in the school-aged population by at least 100 percent (Kauffman, 1993; Institute of Medicine, 1989). Thus, two million or more school-aged youngsters probably have significant emotional or behavioral problems that interfere with their academic and social learning. Even if all the societal resources currently serving children and youth with serious emotional disturbance were fully coordinated, they would be overwhelmed by the sheer magnitude of need.

Desired outcomes for these students include education with their typical peers in least restrictive educational settings; achievement of their academic, social, and vocational potentials; and opportunity to contribute to society as free, law-abiding citizens. Serious emotional disturbance is a disability that often coexists with other disabilities (e.g., learning disability), and there is wide variance in how the disability is manifested. Therefore, expected outcomes in educational, personal, and economic domains must be individualized and will vary from student to student. However, specified outcomes should be based on expectations for typical peers. This can result in more proactive supports and services focused on how to assist the student to achieve rather than just be controlled or maintained. Programs and services should strive toward the following outcomes:

  • Improved learning in academic, social/personal, and vocational areas to levels that are commensurate with their individual abilities and that approximate those of their typical peers.
  • The ability of children and families to more successfully manage serious emotional disturbance so as to function more effectively in their natural home, school, and community settings.
  • The ability to interact with peers, siblings, and adults in their homes, schools, and communities so that their personal needs and goals are met in socially appropriate ways.
  • The ability to live independently (or with appropriate supervision) in natural community settings and to work, play, and enjoy the rights and responsibilities of citizens in society.

2. To what extent have these outcomes been achieved in the last five years?

Public school-based programs for students identified with serious emotional disturbance have been criticized as ineffective and inappropriate. Seldom is a full continuum of services available. Many students are left in the mainstream with limited or no support services. Others participate in part-time pull-out programs with minimal support for social/emotional needs and excessive use of negative disciplinary responses (i.e., detention, suspension, or expulsion). When the serious emotional disturbance escalates further, students are placed in segregated classrooms or schools where the emphasis often is on control and containment instead of proactive interventions. Many students are shunted off for expensive residential services, often provided by mental health or social services. Often families, frustrated by lack of meaningful services, struggle alone, depleting private insurance and other family resources before turning to public agencies. Indeed, fewer than one in three children with serious emotional disturbance receives appropriate services in schools (Koyanagi & Gaines, 1993). Years later, they consume continuous care, yet long-term public residential placement might have been prevented for millions of adults if they had received early identification, early intervention, and intensive family-focused services. Efforts have not been directed toward preventing such long-term restrictive placements by early identification, early intervention, and intensive family-focused services. Seldom are special education services coordinated with services provided by other agencies such as mental health, social service, and juvenile justice. Underidentification, exclusion, and inadequate services have resulted in the dismal outcomes currently reported in the literature. These include:

  • Higher proportions of students with serious emotional disturbance are placed on homebound instruction and in residential, hospital, and other restrictive settings than any other group of students with disabilities (Koyanagi & Gaines, 1993).
  • Students with serious emotional disturbance fail more courses and are retained in grade more than any other students with disabilities. Only 42 percent of this population earn a high school diploma, compared with 50 percent of all students with disabilities and 76 percent of youth in the general population (Chesapeake Institute, 1994).
  • Only about 18 percent of youth identified with serious emotional disturbance go on to college or vocational schools as compared to 22 percent of all students with disabilities (McLaughlin, Leone, Warren, & Schofield, June 1994).
  • Students with serious emotional disturbance have difficulty maintaining jobs. Although about three-fourths of all these students were employed at the time they left school, only 44 percent still had jobs three to five years later (McLaughlin, Leone, Warren, & Schofield, June 1994).
  • About a fifth of all youth identified as having serious emotional disturbance have been arrested while in school and 58 percent are arrested five years after leaving school. Of the students with serious emotional disturbance who drop out of school, 73 percent are arrested within five years of leaving school (Chesapeake Institute, 1994).
  • African Americans and males are significantly overrepresented in special education programs for students with serious emotional disturbance, compared with their proportions in the general school-aged population (Chesapeake Institute, 1994).

As America moves forward on Goals 2000, realization of the first goal, that every student will enter school ready to learn, seems remote for children with developmental or environmental barriers to early learning and healthy adjustment. Section 27 is the only part of IDEA that supports preventive services to children who have not yet been identified with a disability.

3. What educational models/procedures are most effective for achieving these outcomes?

The widespread failure of existing programs that rely on segregated treatment of children with serious emotional disturbance by the education, mental health, juvenile justice, and child welfare systems has led to the emergence of a new model of comprehensive, community-based services for children and their families (Epstein, Quinn, Nelson, Polsgrove, & Cumblad, 1993). This system of care approach involves a comprehensive and coordinated network of services which can be accessed flexibly to meet the changing needs of children and adolescents and their families (Stroul & Friedman, 1986). A system of care is characterized by parent-driven interagency service planning, unconditional and sustained commitment to serve identified children and families, strength-based assessment and intervention, family-centered services, creative use of resources in natural environments, and flexible responses to changing child and family needs. Improved outcomes can be achieved through the creation of an integrated service plan that wraps supports around individual children and families in natural home, school, and community settings (Burchard, Burchard, Sewell, & VanDenBerg, 1993; Cole & Poe, 1993; Stroul, 1993). Effective collaboration among agencies is facilitated by interagency agreements that specify agency responsibilities, funding of services, joint system planning, and collaborative programming. For the past several years, this model has been implemented primarily through mental health and social services (Cole & Poe, 1993; Stroul, 1993), and attempts to include education as an equal partner are less than satisfactory (Eber, Osuch, Redditt, under review; Lourie, 1994).

Local education agencies are logical entities for coordinating multiagency service delivery. Although pilot projects ranging in scope from single school districts to entire states have been involved with various aspects of the system of care model (Nelson & Pearson, 1991), schools traditionally are not accustomed to collaborative service delivery arrangements with other agencies (Lourie, 1994). In order for students with serious emotional disturbance to achieve positive outcomes, “schools also must engage in supporting families through the coordination and integration of educational, health, and social services” (McLaughlin et al., 1994, p. 18). School-based system of care projects have been implemented in a number of public school districts, including Ventura, California; La Grange, Illinois; Indianapolis, Indiana; Keene, New Hampshire; and Cheney, Washington. Preliminary data suggest that these innovative models can more effectively support students in their homes, schools, and communities, as opposed to placements in restrictive segregated settings.

These community-based models also focus on early intervention, rely less on segregated education and residential placement options, and drastically increase the level of supports and services for students, families, and teachers. Specific examples of these effective procedures that need to be implemented more systematically across education are summarized below:

  • Rather than being limited by the traditional placements usually offered (i.e., residential, special school, self-contained classroom), educators and other service providers can create individualized plans drawing from people and resources across various segments of the system. This means specialized supports (i.e., in-school respite, consultation, therapy, etc.) are not solely tied to the most restrictive placements but instead follow individual students to more natural settings, which serve as sites for interventions (Eber, 1994).
  • Integration of community-based mental health services through schools can ensure access for children and families and prevent movement to restrictive settings (Catron & Weiss, 1994; Clarke, Schaefer, Burchard, & Welkowitz, 1992; Eber et al., under review). These mental health services should be individualized and accessible to students across educational settings, not just available for students placed in restrictive treatment settings.
  • Family-based services that address the needs of each family should be widely available and accessible. These family services must be coordinated with education, mental health, social service, and juvenile justice through an integrated service plan (Nelson & Pearson, 1991). This service plan must be coordinated by an identified case facilitator from either mental health, juvenile justice, social service, or education, depending on the primary needs emerging through the individualized planning process. School social worker roles can be restructured as family service facilitators (Eber, Wilson, Notier, & Pendell, 1994) to support the integration of education and these services.
  • Focused prevention and early intervention services should be available to students at first signs of being at risk for serious emotional disturbance. This includes systematic screening procedures, coupled with comprehensive community-based interventions that are coordinated across agencies. These early interventions include services for the child, family, and teacher.

4. What educational models/procedures most inhibit these outcomes?

Special education programs for students with serious emotional disturbance have been a particular target of criticism because of their failure to offer an appropriate, individualized curriculum based on students’ needs. Instead, they have provided a “curriculum of control” (Steinberg & Knitzer, 1992) that stresses teaching conformity to a system of arbitrary rules and standards regarding behavior. Limited resources, including teacher shortages and higher rates of teacher burnout than all other areas of special education (Epstein et al., 1993), have contributed to gaps in a full continuum of special education and related services. In addition, significant disincentives exist for identifying and serving these students, in that suspension and expulsion disciplinary options are severely restricted in the case of identified students. Collaborative education, social service, mental health, and juvenile justice programs are inhibited by rigid funding streams; many public educational agencies hesitate to embrace multiple life domain service plans for fear they will become fiscally liable for costly mental health and other services.

Special education services tend to emphasize placements, so that students are assigned to a location in which services are provided. Typically, the students are assigned to a place (e.g., self-contained special education classroom) where services are directed at changing them. Students frequently are denied access to natural settings until they are “fixed” through interventions in an artificial, externally controlled setting. Consequently, students placed in restrictive programs tend to stay in them for many years.

Teachers of students with serious emotional disturbance, both in regular and special education settings, are isolated and expected to address complex and challenging issues without the support of multidisciplinary teams. Where such teams are available, they often do not include members with needed skills in consultation, mental health, and behavioral strategies, and they frequently do not ensure access to resources outside the school. Hands-on classroom-based supports are limited, and, when available, are not part of a coordinated and flexible service plan. Time for teachers to plan, coordinate, and strategize with a child/family team is lacking. Follow-up support for teachers and ongoing technical assistance also are not available.

A curriculum for the preparation of regular education personnel contains little in the way of effective strategies or models for early identification and intervention for at-risk students. A powerful methodology exists for systematic screening and early intervention with at-risk pupils and their families (Feil & Becker, 1993; McConaughy & Achenbach, 1989; Walker & Severson, 1990), yet very few educators have the knowledge or skills to implement it.

In the absence of early identification and other proactive services, schools, like other social agencies, are forced into a reactive position when it comes to dealing with students. Programs tend to be the “pull-out” variety, in which the student is moved to another placement where needed services presumably are available. Few school system administrators have the preparation or the resources to implement systems of prevention, early identification, and intervention for the estimated 3-6 percent of school-aged children with mental health problems (Institute of Medicine, 1989). At the present time, few school districts have collaborative working relationships with other child-serving agencies that enable them to develop a better community-based continuum of services.

Although special education programs that use interventions effectively do exist, many programs fail to employ best practices. Outcomes are inhibited by models and procedures applied inappropriately or haphazardly:

  • Program structures assume that level of severity or service need dictates restrictiveness of placement and therefore all available services are clustered in restrictive settings. In these cases, behavior interventions tend to be external and applied equally to all students in the classroom or program in spite of the wide range of their needs. These settings tend to focus on control and containment, resulting in lowered expectations for learning and social/emotional functioning.
  • Interventions are based on disciplinary responses to inappropriate behavior rather than the development of creative proactive supports and interventions. Typically, these models offer no coordination with other community services, and families are blamed rather than supported and used as resources.
  • Programs move students to progressively more restrictive settings instead of changing interventions and service options within less restrictive settings.

5. Provide two or three specific recommendations for action by Congress.

Congress should amend IDEA in three respects.

Revising the Current Definition of Serious Emotional Disabilities

The existing definition of serious emotional disabilities has received much professional and parental criticism because of its ambiguity and restrictiveness (Council for Children with Behavioral Disorders, 1987). This definition places severe limitations on education agencies’ ability to serve students who exhibit antisocial, aggressive, or conduct disorders that can be construed as “social maladjustment.” Efforts to discriminate between children who are delinquent and those who are emotionally disturbed have not been productive because many youth with emotional disturbances commit antisocial acts and because the majority of children with serious emotional disabilities exhibit acting out, externalizing patterns of behavior (Kauffman, 1993).

An alternative definition has been developed by the National Special Education and Mental Health Coalition (Forness & Knitzer, 1992). It was approved by the 1992 Delegation of the Council for Exceptional Children and has been endorsed by the National Association of State Directors of Special Education, National Association of School Psychologists, National Association of Social Workers, National Mental Health Association, American Psychological Association, American Psychiatric Association, Federation of Families for Children’s Mental Health, Council for Children with Behavior Disorders, and a dozen other associations invested in educational and mental health needs of children. This definition does not exclude from services students whose emotional and behavioral disorders include antisocial behavior. Remarkable similarity exists in the etiological factors leading to emotional disturbance and antisocial behavior (Nelson, Rutherford, Center, & Walker, 1991). This means that efforts to identify and provide early intervention for young children at risk for antisocial behavior also would benefit those at risk for other forms of emotional and behavioral pathology.

Requiring Pass-Through Funds to Support the Development of Comprehensive Service Networks

IDEA pass-through funds should be used to develop integrated school-linked comprehensive service networks in local communities and for prevention and early intervention of serious emotional disturbance. Funded initiatives should be extended for at least five years to allow full impact in schools and communities. In addition to specialized education, counseling, vocational, and therapeutic services available in schools and communities, services within these systems of care should include comprehensive networks of classroom-based supports, school-based treatment options, intensive in-home family-based services, therapeutic foster care, as well as short-term residential care. This expansion and improvement of the continuum of integrated services should move schools from reactive containment to proactive support and intervention for children and their families.

Requiring Federal Agencies to Plan and Fund Integrated Service Delivery Systems

Service integration has been strongly encouraged at the state and local level to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of services, to eliminate waste and duplication of services, and to improve service accessibility for children and families. To ensure these practices, isolated program administration practices and bureaucratic funding streams should be eliminated at the federal level. Congress should conduct oversight hearings to encourage federal agencies to collaboratively plan and fund integrated service delivery systems that better address the comprehensive needs of children with or at risk of serious emotional disturbance and their families.

6. Provide two or three specific recommendations for improving IDEA’s implementation through federally funded activities, including but not limited to monitoring, technical assistance, personnel preparation, demonstration, and research, to be carried out over the next five years.

Congress and OSERS, among other federal agencies, should encourage the development of integrated service delivery models. Several activities are appropriate to achieve this goal.

Merging Federal Budgets to Support Collaborative Initiatives

Congress should merge and appropriate funds from discrete federal budgets (e.g., the Department of Education, the Department of Health and Human Services) to support research and demonstration initiatives that are linked at the federal, state, and local levels and extend for at least five years. Such research is among the most difficult to design and conduct appropriately, but it is critical to ensure the best use of funds (Burns, 1994; Forness & Hoagwood, 1993). Research initiatives should study effective strategies to facilitate home, school, and community inclusion and develop models that provide comprehensive resource networks to students with or at risk of serious emotional disturbance and to their teachers, regardless of the setting in which the student is educated. Research and demonstration initiatives should include support for mandatory screening, early identification, and integrated early intervention projects targeting early childhood special education programs, at-risk preschool programs, and primary classrooms.

Supporting a Technical Assistance Network

Congress should support the development of a national technical assistance resource center to focus technical assistance efforts on students with or at risk of serious emotional disturbance. This network should be jointly funded by the Department of Education, the Department of Justice (Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention), and the Department of Health and Human Services, in collaboration with the technical assistance hubs being established by Community Mental Health Services. The basis for such a network currently is available through the National Institute of Mental Health’s Child and Adolescent Service System Program (CASSP) technical assistance centers; however, the addition of funding and agency representation from the Department of Education, Department of Justice, and other federal agencies would strengthen its effectiveness and provide a model for change. This technical assistance network would make available screening, early identification and intervention, and system of care resources; provide training to professionals and families in the implementation of these strategies; and provide a national knowledge transformation and utilization system to disseminate information and training regarding effective state-of-the-art practices.

Increasing the Supply of Trained Specialists and Integrating Training

Congress should support initiatives directed toward increasing the supply of specialists trained to provide consultation and support to regular and special education teachers working with students who have serious emotional disturbance or who exhibit behaviors that are troubling or difficult to manage. Additionally, Congress should increase support for integrated training of child-serving professionals, at both the pre- and in-service levels, in the design and delivery of coordinated interagency services across the full continuum from screening and early intervention to intensive residential treatment. This training should target regular and special educators, mental health workers, health care providers, social service professionals, and juvenile justice personnel.

7. Provide two or three specific recommendations for improving IDEA’s implementation by state and local education agencies.

State and local education agencies should take action across several fronts.

Implement Early Screening and Intervention

State-mandated early screening and intervention programs should be implemented for preschool-aged children at risk for learning failure due to socioeconomic or developmental factors that may lead to serious emotional disturbance. These programs must include collaboration with other agencies and must include parents as full partners in the planning and delivery of services that are based on identified strengths in the family and community.

Creating Integrated Initiatives

Integrated planning, policy, and funding initiatives by all state children’s services agencies to support local systems of prevention and care should be encouraged. The model for such an effort already exists in the Developmental Disabilities Planning Councils presently funded by the Administration on Developmental Disabilities. A similar Child Mental Health Council should be supported in each state, with representation from education, mental health, juvenile justice, social welfare, and other agencies. Full participation by families of children and youth with serious emotional disturbance would be required and would include interventions that are based on family and community strengths through collaborative partnerships.

Implementing a Comprehensive Range of Services at the Local Level

Local systems of care should put into place a comprehensive range of services, many of which are linked to public education. The aim should be to create a network of services that can be coordinated across such life domains as school, family, recreation, and work. These services should be integrated into a variety of settings. School personnel may need to assume expanded roles, such as family/school service facilitators, service coordinators, technical assistance providers, and in-school respite workers. Parents must be included as full partners and decision makers in the process of service delivery.

Encouraging the Business Community to Invest in Better Services for Children

States should establish incentives for private business to invest in community-based programs that promote community stability and pride. The programs could focus on prevention of crime in the community, recreational and educational alternatives for children, and after-school day care. Volunteer programs, such as Men Against Drugs (MAD Dads) in Lincoln, Nebraska, have generated proactive strategies for engaging youth in appropriate educational and leisure activities. By contributing to more stable, safe, and caring local communities, businesses would gain a population of workers who are themselves more stable and productive and who feel that their employers have an investment in the community.

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