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Education Week: "Better recognition" behind increase in kids in special ed

Oct 10, 2023, Education Week: 3 Reasons Why More Students Are in Special Education

Almost 7.3 million students, or 14.7 percent of all public school students nationwide, needed special education services in the 2021-22 school year. That meant the share of students in special education was at an all-time high since federal law began to guarantee all students with disabilities the right to free, appropriate public education, according to the latest National Center for Education Statistics data.

In 2011-12, that share was about 13 percent of all students. In 1976-77, the first year when the U.S. Department of Education collected this data following the 1975 passage of the Education for All Handicapped Children Act, students in special education made up 8 percent of the overall student population.

Under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), which the nation’s special education law has been called since 1990, every student in special education has to be served by an individualized education program, also known as an IEP.

Schools and parents collaborate to develop an IEP to meet each student’s unique educational needs. There can be dozens of reasons a student needs an IEP, including physical or mental health conditions, learning disabilities, and developmental delays.

The increase in the percentage of students on IEPs isn’t necessarily a bad thing, according to experts. While it could signal that traditional classrooms are less suited to meet the instructional needs of a growing segment of America’s student population, it could also mean that educators have become better at identifying when students need special services and parents have become less resistant to seeking them out for their children The increasing share of students who need special education can mean that a larger share of students aren’t getting their needs met through regular education.

“General education has become less, not more, capable of accommodating the needs of a lot of kids,” said Doug Fuchs, a research professor in the special education and psychology departments at Vanderbilt University….

The increase in students with IEPs can also be attributed to better recognition and diagnosis of common conditions such as autism spectrum disorder and ADHD, as well as less stigma among parents about seeking special services for their children, according to Tessie Bailey, principal consultant for the American Institutes for Research and director of the federally funded PROGRESS Center, which conducts research and advocates for students with disabilities.
Another positive reason IEPs are increasing is educators are recognizing students who need additional support, she said.


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