Raise expectations, raise outcomes: Why we need equity in the special education system


Only forty years ago, millions of children with disabilities in this country were not afforded access to education in our public schools. In 1975, Congress passed what is now known as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) in response to this unacceptable situation. Today, children with disabilities are not only attending school with their nondisabled peers, but are performing at higher levels of academic performance than ever before: test scores and high school graduation rates are at an all-time high; and the percentage of students with disabilities attending college has practically doubled in recent years.

Unfortunately, significant achievement gaps persist between children with disabilities and their nondisabled peers on almost every indicator of academic performance. For children with disabilities, low expectations can lead to them receiving less challenging instruction, preventing them from learning what they need to succeed at the grade in which they are enrolled.

The purpose of IDEA is to ensure children with disabilities have available to them a “free appropriate public education” to meet their unique needs and prepare them for further education, employment, and independent living. Congress found that “improving educational results for children with disabilities is an essential element of our national policy of ensuring equality of opportunity, full participation, independent living, and economic self-sufficiency for individuals with disabilities.”

On Jan. 11, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear arguments in the Endrew F. case to determine the level of educational benefit children with disabilities are entitled to under federal law. Under IDEA, states are required to provide children with disabilities a “free appropriate public education.” In this case, the Court must decide whether a school meets that requirement if it only provides children with a “more than de minimus” educational benefit. Webster’s Dictionary defines “de minimus” as lacking significance or importance:  so minor as to merit disregard. This low standard is wholly incompatible with everything we know from research regarding educational achievement of children with disabilities, about effective teaching and learning, with federal law, and most importantly, what we expect for and from our children, all of our children. There is nothing “appropriate” about an educational benefit that is merely more than de minimus.

As the Court ponders this critical issue, I am reminded of a young, dynamic 8th grader named Jade, who struggled to learn to read when she was in elementary school. Jade described trouble recognizing letters and difficulty linking them together to form sounds. The worst feeling in the world, Jade said, was starting to believe the names her classmates called her.

Fortunately, Jade’s family and teachers stepped in to help her. She received special education services under IDEA. These services provided her with individualized strategies to help her read  and succeed— strategies that she still uses today as she advances through middle school and sets her sights on high school and beyond.

We know that Jade is not alone. Last year, approximately 6.5 million students received special education in schools around the country. And, we know that children with disabilities perform better in school when they are held to high expectations and have meaningful access to the general curriculum. Learners with disabilities can succeed at rigorous, grade-level coursework with appropriate instruction, services, supports, and accommodations. Educators have developed and implemented sophisticated methods of teaching and learning, and use technology to better support children.

Further, fifteen years of federal education law, both under the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, as amended, (ESEA) and IDEA, requires that children with disabilities be held to the same challenging college-and career-ready standards as all children. Under both laws, states, school districts, and schools are held accountable for the academic performance of children with disabilities.

Too often, children with disabilities are defined by their limitations rather than their strengths. Jade’s story shows us what is possible when we have high expectations for our children, and when educators and families work together to build on the strengths of a child to help her succeed. As the Supreme Court said in the landmark case of Brown v. Board of Education, “it is doubtful that any child may reasonably be expected to succeed in life if he is denied the opportunity of an education. Such an opportunity . . . a right which must be made available to all on equal terms.”   

Michael K. Yudin is the former Assistant Secretary for Special Education and Rehabilitative Services at the U.S. Department of Education and is a Principal at The Raben Group.

The views expressed by authors are their own and not the views of The Hill.


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