Update on Implementation of IDEA: Early Returns from State Studies

Martha L. Minow, Professor at Harvard Law School and Co-Director on Policy for the National Center on Accessing the General Curriculum

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We've just celebrated the 25th anniversary of the federal law in this area, now carrying the inspired acronym of IDEA—for the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act[1] . Similar laws have been adopted by most states. The federal law requires all states accepting federal funding for their educational programs to make sure that all children with disabilities receive a "free appropriate public education" in the setting that is the least removed from regular classrooms as possible.

Congressional hearings in 1966 indicated that two-thirds of children with disabilities in the country were either totally excluded from public education or else "sitting idly in regular classrooms awaiting the time when they were old enough to drop out."[2] The federal law sought to ensure a free appropriate public education for all children, and also dramatically altered the tradition considered the most enlightened path between the years 1820 and 1960 of segregated education for children with blindness, deafness, epilepsy, or other disabilities. The civil rights struggle against racial oppression helped to galvanize an equality movement for people with disabilities challenging not only exclusion but also segregation.

Integrating students with disabilities to the extent feasible with other students is vital if they are all to gain exposure to the same curriculum, the same expectations, and indeed, to one another. Accordingly, the 1997 amendments to the federal law make clear that a child with a disability is to be removed from the regular educational environment only when "the nature or severity of the disability is such that education in regular classes with the use of supplementary aids and services cannot be achieved satisfactorily."[3] This inclusion principle represents a profound recognition that faulty stereotypes and stigma accompany segregation.

The push toward inclusion in education embodies a recognition that access to the same high aspirations and resources should extend to all students. Robust findings in social science indicate the power of teacher expectations on student learning.[4] The chances that schools withhold high expectations from students with disabilities increase if they are educated in separate classrooms, with a separate curriculum, and with separate materials. In addition, inclusion—which means integrating students with special needs in classes with other students—enhances social skills for all students. "Normalization" is the awkward name experts give to what happens when children with disabilities are given the chance to work and play daily with other children. And inclusion also makes it possible for the students with disabilities to make the contributions that they are capable of making to the education of the other students, often by enhancing capacities to care, to teach, to empathize, and to befriend.

Thus, federal and state special education laws extend the country's commitment to equal opportunity for children with disabilities. But the especially rich and challenging promise is this: these laws reject a simple-minded notion of equality of opportunity framed simply as identical treatment. More than a century ago, Anatole France effectively punctured what he called "the majestic equality of the law which forbids rich and poor alike to sleep under the bridges, to beg in the streets and to steal bread."[5] This same majestic equality can work grave injustice when the law grants students with and without disabilities entrance to the identical classroom. We recognize, now, the hypocrisy of an equality of access to a classroom at the top of a flight of stairs for the student who uses a wheelchair, or to a printed book for the student who is blind.

Increasingly, educators recognize similar barriers posed by traditional textbooks and instructional methods for students with learning disabilities and behavioral disorders. The digital revolution now makes it possible for the printed text to be digitally converted—so that a computer voice can read it aloud, or print it in large type, or highlight individual words—and thereby ease access for many different learners. Teachers can alter old classroom rules such as "stay in your seat unless you have permission to move" and thereby assist students who need to move around. Developing individualized paths by directing each student to specific projects and work can reduce boredom and behavioral problems that can arise in school. Team projects and individualized instruction both offer ways to open up learning for students who gain little through conventional teaching methods.

Promises of IDEA

These possibilities are all opened up by the vision of equality advanced by the federal law that promises:

  • A free and appropriate education for each student with identified disabilities, which in turn is to entail a) individualized services, based on unique needs, not disability classifications;[6] and b) meaningful access to the general curriculum;[7]
  • Educational placements to the maximum extent appropriate putting students with disabilities with non-disabled students (known as the least restrictive education requirement, this authorizes removing students from the mainstream classroom only when the severity of the disability means that supplementary aids cannot enable appropriate education in that setting);[8]
  • Teacher training to allow teachers to fulfill the commitment to the least restrictive education;[9]
  • Related services, such as psychological and social work, where necessary for a child to benefit from the educational placement;[10] (Related services may include speech assistance, psychological services, and physical therapy,[11] medical services such as catheterization, and tracheotomy cleaning and reinsertion, when such services are not highly complex or expensive and when they are very helpful to a student's inclusion in a regular educational setting.[12] )
  • High standards and accompanying expectations, which is translated by the law to require including students with disabilities in state and local assessments—otherwise known as testing—with accommodations or alternative assessments as needed;[13]
  • Ensuring that the assessment procedures used to identify students with disabilities are not discriminatory and do not disproportionately identify minority students;[14] (Identification and placement can be positive if appropriate but it can also be negative if inappropriate—and if stigmatizing, segregating, and foreclosing of access to mainstream opportunities. Where racial disproportionality accompanies placements, there seem to be clues to heightened risks of stigma, segregation, and foreclosed access. At the same time, nonidentification or identification without provision of services can also be discriminatory—for example, if white children with similar conditions get served in ways that Black and Hispanic children do not.)
  • Enabling parents to participate in the identification, evaluation, placement, and review of their children who may have disabilities and thereby protecting parental and children's rights while also promoting implementation of all the other promises.[15]

Our studies of state efforts to fulfill these promises are well underway; a team of two lawyers and five law students are consulting state and local educational administrators, advocacy groups, and teachers in addition to published evaluations, rules, and procedures. This is very much a work in progress. Yet we have already identified certain problems and certain promising directions and share them here for comment and reaction.

Barriers to Implementation

Thus, an initial review of eight states[16] indicates that the individual needs of students are often unmet and that states often have difficulty fulfilling the procedural, assessment, placement and accommodation requirements of the law. The difficulties fall into seven areas:

  1. Categorical rather than individualized treatment: School districts sometimes base educational plans on the resources and programs available at a given school rather than on assessment of the individual student's needs, and students are very often categorized based on one or a few diagnostic tests which then determine the placements. In addition, many students lack current education plans, others do not get the services specified in those plans, and some plans are too general to be meaningful. Students often cannot get access to the curriculum because they are placed in the mainstream class without necessary supports.
  2. Students identified with disabilities are often placed away from the mainstream classroom not due to need but due to funding incentives, bureaucratic mindsets, misunderstandings, and perhaps prejudice.
  3. Typically, regular education teachers are given limited—or no—training in special education, and most special education teachers are given little training in teaching material from the general curriculum. Teachers lack training in adapting teaching methods and curriculae in order to implement meaningful and effective inclusion. Structural problems, such as teacher shortages, lack of supporting services, and large caseloads for staff responsible for implementing special education compound the difficulties for classroom teaching.
  4. Related services, notably psychological and social work services, are often in short supply and professionals are diverted to crisis work and evaluations rather than preventive and supportive work. In addition, many school systems resist the provision of related services on the theory that they are not educational but medical or psychological, even though these services are required under the act where necessary to enable the student's free appropriate public education. Provision of related services often fails when school districts and other local agencies disagree over who should provide and pay for them.
  5. Low expectations contribute to exclusion of many students with disabilities from curricular programs and assessment devices despite state and federal norms to the contrary. Observers often note that including students with special needs in testing elevates expectations and helps to direct resources to these students. Yet applying "high-stakes testing" to students with special needs can be brutal and unfair, especially in those systems where "high stakes" involves denying high school diplomas to students who fail to pass requisite tests. Some schools seem to encourage students with disabilities to drop out or obtain exemptions from tests in order to produce higher average scores and to focus on instructing the other students in preparation for the tests. The better practice, adopted in states such as Minnesota, includes students with special needs in tests but ensures their access to a diploma if they fulfill the expectations in their individualized education plan. Massachusetts and Texas are moving in this direction by requiring students to take either the test or an alternate assessment, as determined by the IEP team, in order to eliminate exemptions. Further problems can emerge, though, if students are tracked into a separate diploma category without alerting students and parents to potentially negative consequences.
  6. Identifying students with disabilities in nondiscriminatory ways seems to elude states, as blacks are disproportionately identified in some categories such as mental retardation, but may be under-represented in other categories. Black students across nearly all disability categories are significantly more likely to be placed in restrictive settings than are their white counterparts.
  7. Parents are often not notified of their rights and roles, or not made adequately aware of them. They are often unaware of their right to an independent evaluation or are treated as ignorant or irritating; districts may wrongly refuse evaluations if parents rather than school personnel raise the issue. Yet specific parental requests are often necessary for students to receive appropriate services - which harms students whose parents do not know to ask. Difficulties are compounded for members of minority groups whose cultures emphasize deference to authority or who face a language barrier. Alternative dispute resolution and settlements reduce costs for parents and school districts, but parents often lack sufficient training and understanding to ensure fair results.

Reform Efforts

The law requires reasonable accommodation for special education and the law requires related services to meet the unique needs of each child with identified disabilities. However, it is not clear whether the law requires teachers to shift to team projects, or individualized instruction; whether such changes are advisable; or whether most regular classroom teachers are equipped to make such changes. It is striking that Art Levine, President of Teachers' College at Columbia University, predicts that in a few decades, teachers for all students will use special education as a model for all instruction, in the sense of developing individualized instruction tailored to each student's learning style and informed by emerging scientific research.[17] This ambitious vision is far from contemporary practices in most schools and it is not currently the position taken by the law.

Important reform efforts to promote implementation include—

  1. Efforts to make sure that state funding formulas do not skew the decisions made by teachers and administrators to identify or place students with or without disabilities;
  2. Increasing the money and expertise available to give teachers and administrators training and support so they can provide the placements, link to the services, and make changes in the day-to-day practices that will facilitate appropriate placements and services;
  3. Arranging incentives and resources to make it possible for classroom teachers to teach all their students effectively—and to gain appropriate assistance to help them improve their instruction to help students with special needs; this includes sufficient staffing, training, and scheduling, including common planning and meeting time; it also includes increasing program flexibility and assisting teachers to make appropriate use of team learning, individualized instruction, behavioral management help, and accommodating technologies, including software that offers scaffolds of support for texts and other materials to assist those who need additional aid; and
  4. Equipping parents and students with the information, skills, and questions to become advocates and partners in the educational and placement processes. No system, professional, or individual dealing with large numbers of people can meet all their needs without the avid involvement of those whose needs are to be met.



1. 20 U.S.C. sections 1400–1491 (formerly known as the Education for All Handicapped Children Act of 1975, Public Law 94-142).

2. U.S. Dept. of Educ., 17th Ann. Rep. To Congress on the Implementation of the Individuals with Disabilities Act (1995) (cited in Theresa M. Willard, Note: Economics and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, 31 Ind. L. Rev. 1167 (1998)).

3. Amendments, and 34 C.F.R. section 300-535.57(e)(2).

4. Robert Rosenthal and Lenore Jackobson, Pygmalion in the Classroom: Teacher Expectations and Pupils' Intellectual Development (New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston 1968); Ramela C. Rubovitz and Martin L. Maehr, Pygmalion Analyzed: Toward an Explanation of the Rosenthal-Jacobson Findings, 19 J. Personality and Social Psychology 197-203 (1971); Ray C. Rist, Student Social Class and Teacher Expectations: The Self-Fulfilling Prophecy in Ghetto Education, 40 Harv. Educ. Rev. 411 (1970).

5. Anatole France, The Red Lilly 80 (1894).

6. 20 U.S.C. sections 1400(d)(1)(a), 1401(8)(D)).

7. 20 U.S.C. section 1400(c)(5(A).

8. 20 U.S.C. section 1412(a)(5).

9. This is articulated in the regulation promulgated by the Department of Education under the act. See 34 C.F.R. section 300.555.

10. 20 U.S.C. sections 1401(22), 1414(d)(1)(A)(iii).

11. H. Rutherford Turnbull III, Free Appropriate Public Education: The Law and Children with Disabilities 137 (Love Pub. Co. 3rd ed. 1990).)

12. Id., at 138 (summarizing cases interpreting the federal act).

13. 20 U.S.C. sections 1401(8)(B), 1412(a)17(A).

14. 20 U.S.C. sections 1414(b)(2) & (3).

15. 20 U.S.C. section 1415(b) (parents must be given notice of school's proposed initiation or change or refusal of identification, evaluation, placement, or provision of free appropriate public education), 34 C.F.R. sections 300.500 (parent entitled to obtain for the child an independent evaluation by nonschool actor), and 300.504(b) (parental consent for preplacement evaluation and initial special education placement). See also section 104.32, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (local educational agency must try to identify and locate every disabled person in the school district who is not receiving a public education and notify parent or guardian of the school's duty to provide them with a free education). (cited in Turnbull, supra note 11 at 216.)

16. They are: California, Connecticut, Florida, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New York, and Texas.

17. N.Y. Times, Dec. 22, 2000 (op-ed).

This content was developed pursuant to cooperative agreement #H324H990004 under CFDA 84.324H between CAST and the Office of Special Education Programs, U.S. Department of Education. However, the opinions expressed herein do not necessarily reflect the position or policy of the U.S. Department of Education or the Office of Special Education Programs and no endorsement by that office should be inferred.


Cite this paper as follows:

Minow, M. L. (2001). Update on implementation of IDEA: early returns from state studies. Wakefield, MA: National Center on Accessing the General Curriculum. Retrieved [insert date] from http://aim.cast.org/learn/historyarchive/backgroundpapers/ncac_update_idea_implementation


Last Updated: 10/22/2013

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