As a teenager, Michael McLaughlin wanted to go to college. He had several disabilities, including dyslexia and bipolar disorder, which threatened to make the road ahead more difficult. He sometimes had trouble paying attention in class and understanding directions.
He also had an IQ of 115 — on the upper ranges of what is considered average. With help, he should have been able to graduate alongside his classmates, ready to pursue higher education.
But instead of graduating from Bartlett High School in Anchorage, Alaska, in four years, he took six. After high school, he did odd jobs for several years.
“Our son’s education was a waste,” his mother, Michelle McLaughlin, said. “We could get no one to listen or do what was needed.”
There are 6.6 million public school children enrolled in special education in the United States, 13 percent of all public school students. Kids like Michael make up the vast majority of them. Their disabilities shouldn’t keep them from achieving the same standards as their peers — and experts estimate that up to 90 percent of students with disabilities are capable of graduating high school fully prepared to tackle college or a career if they receive proper support along the way.
Yet, just 65 percent of special education students graduate on time, well below the 83 percent four-year rate for American students overall. Many of those that do earn their diplomas find themselves unprepared for the real world. After high school, students with disabilities have lower college graduation rates than their peers and earn less once they join the workforce.
“For many children with disabilities, they’re capable of far more than their schools give them credit for,” said Kitty Cone, a special education lawyer who works in Arkansas. Their education “falls far short of what federal law requires or even what common sense dictates.”
In interviews with 45 parents and students and more than 50 other experts, advocates and lawyers across 34 states and the District of Columbia, families and advocates described systemic problems with special education in high school. They spoke of teachers inadequately trained to support special education students. Of districts lacking the funding to provide needed supports. Of expectations lowered to the point where they do students more harm than good. Of very capable students being pushed into “alternate” diploma programs, limiting their future options. Of students not being taught the soft skills, like communication and organization, that they’ll need in college and the workforce. And of parents who either don’t know what their children’s rights are or feel forced to fight long battles to make schools comply with the law.
Special education is a broad umbrella. It includes students with specific learning disabilities (such as dyslexia and dysgraphia), hearing and vision impairments, emotional disabilities, autism and more severe cognitive delays. Students’ needs vary greatly by disability, and even two students with the same disability may need different supports to keep up with their peers. In some cases that means being given more time on tests or being offered the option of using technology for written assignments; in other cases it means having an aide in the classroom working with them individually.
Experts and parents widely agree that most students with disabilities do best academically and socially when they are in the same classrooms as their nondisabled peers, and when they are given the same opportunities to plan out their postsecondary lives. Even students with cognitive delays may be able to attend modified post-secondary programs if given adequate preparation and encouragement in school.
But too often, schools aren’t providing students with the appropriate help.
Janae Cantu has dyslexia and thus struggles with reading. Her disability doesn’t mean she can’t analyze and discuss a text; she can be taught strategies to help her decode words more easily. But, instead of getting that kind of instruction or preparing for college-level work with her peers, she left her general education classes in Oklahoma for one period every day in ninth grade to go to a special education class where students did activities like making cars out of cereal boxes and racing them.
Mark Nelson also has dyslexia, along with dysgraphia, which means he has trouble writing. Rather than being challenged, he was allowed to use a teacher-made study guide while taking exams at his California high school. He said he never had to study or actually learn anything to get an A. One time, a teacher gave his special education world history class all of the answers to their final exam.
Tyrone Colson is on the autism spectrum. His high school placed him on a track to get an alternative diploma, which would have made it impossible for him to enroll in most colleges or apply for most jobs. His mother fought the decision, and he graduated from his Washington, D.C., high school with a traditional diploma, proving that his disability didn’t prevent him from meeting the same standards as his peers.
Sean Sieleni, who has Down syndrome, was exclusively enrolled in general education classes for 11th grade, where he successfully studied with his peers, completed homework and took modified exams. Yet a teacher suggested that Sean should stop taking academic classes and have a “fun” senior year. Instead, his mom worked with the school district administrators to expand their expectations for Sean, and he reenrolled in general education classes for 12th grade.
Kenyatta Burns, who has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and bipolar disorder, was able to grasp grade-level material — she just needed a bit more help staying focused and completing long assignments. Instead, she was passed from class to class at her high school in North Carolina. When she dropped out at the end of ninth grade, she didn’t know how to use punctuation or do multiplication.
Such negative experiences can have lasting consequences.
Parent and special education advocate Sri Hatharasinghe-Gerschler recalls teachers telling her she’d never go to college when she was in middle school in the mid-1990s. Hatharasinghe-Gerschler had been diagnosed with a reading comprehension disability in elementary school. She said she never got the help she needed or was taught strategies to work on comprehension. Instead, her high school placed her in remedial courses for math and English, where she just fell further behind. Her parents hired a tutor to help her.
After she graduated from high school, she enrolled in a junior college to study child development while working full time. Two years later, she transferred to the University of California, San Diego.
Who is in Special Education?
Students who are diagnosed with one or more of the 13 disabilities covered by the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act qualify for special education. Those disabilities include learning disabilities, autism, emotional disturbance, and hearing impairment. Within each disability, there is variance in severity and how the disability reveals itself in a classroom.
Post-graduation, Hatharasinghe-Gerschler provided in-home behavioral services for students with disabilities and now helps parents and students navigate the special education system. At age 34, despite her ultimate success, she said her understanding of grammar and writing remains so poor that she still feels angry about her experiences in the classroom. The system, she said, “failed me.”
For years, many parents and students said, the system has denied their legal rights. Under the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), which passed in 1975, all special education students are entitled to a “free and appropriate education” that will allow them to reach their fullest potential. Technically, the U.S. Department of Education is responsible for monitoring state compliance with IDEA.
Education Secretary Betsy DeVos raised eyebrows in January during her confirmation hearing when she said that requiring taxpayer-funded schools to follow IDEA was “a matter best left to the states.” When pressed later on in the hearing if she was aware that IDEA is federal law, she said she “may have confused it.”
Not long after, the Department of Education overhauled the IDEA website. In a July speech, DeVos reaffirmed that she believed special education was important. “Ensuring that all children with disabilities have appropriately ambitious goals and the chance to meet challenging objectives is a priority for the department,” DeVos said in a July speech.
Since then, the department has eliminated 72 guidance documents that dealt with the rights of special education students. At least two dealt directly with the transition from high school to college or career. The department said the documents were “outdated, unnecessary, or ineffective.”
The department did not respond to a request for comment on the rescinded transition guidelines or the administration’s plans for IDEA oversight.
At a local level, courts and state education departments often play an important role in making sure special education law is followed. They have found districts guilty of many violations of the federal law, including isolating special needs children from their peers and, in the case of one South Carolina district, shortening the school day for special education students.
Earlier this year, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of a student with autism whose parents accused a Colorado school district of not doing enough to help their son meet his educational goals. The court ruled that students with disabilities must be provided an “appropriately ambitious” education. “A student offered an education program providing ‘merely more than de minimis’ progress from year to year can hardly be said to have been offered an education at all,” wrote Chief Justice John G. Roberts in a unanimous ruling.
That ruling “reinforced that you can’t educate children based on stereotypes,” said Senator Maggie Hassan (D-N.H.), who sits on the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions committee. She has a son with cerebral palsy and has focused on special education throughout her political career. “We all want our kids, no matter how they learn or what their physical condition is, we want them to be challenged to reach their full potential.”
The quality of special education services can differ vastly from district to district. “We tend to see the same districts over and over again,” Cone, the Arkansas special education lawyer, said. “I still think that they’re lazy in general and they will continue to try to play the odds that they won’t get sued.”
For every reported case in which a school or district is taken to court, experts and lawyers said there are many more in which families never realize they have the right to fight for better conditions for their children.
“Once they’re given this diagnosis, [schools] can use it and say, ‘Oh your kid has autism so they can’t be in a mainstream class,’ ” advocate Hatharasinghe-Gerschler said. “Parents that don’t know any better fall into this trap and say, ‘Fine.’ ”
Parents who do know better often don’t want to deal with the hassle of months or years of court battles, or may not have the time or resources to do so. Many parents said that advocating for their children’s rights can feel like a full-time job.
Even when students get the services to which they’re entitled, some parents said, schools and teachers don’t grasp how individual disabilities affect different children differently or have reasonable expectations for what their children should be able to do.
Oftentimes, parents find themselves not only advocating, but problem-solving as well. Back in Anchorage in the early 2000s, Michelle McLaughlin started doing research on her own to determine why her son, Michael, was falling further behind in elementary school.
Every special education student is assigned an Individualized Education Program (IEP), which describes the student’s current ability level, sets goals and details any accommodations they will need for classes and exams. Schools are supposed to revise the IEP document annually in partnership with the student’s parents and conduct a barrage of assessments to reevaluate the child’s disability classification every three years.
Over the course of Michael’s education career, he received some help, such as a class with other students with mood disorders in which he worked on communicating and controlling his behavior. Michael’s IEP allowed him to work in small groups, have extended time on assessments and use a computer for written assignments. But he still struggled. McLaughlin said that at one point school officials delayed updating his IEP for several months.
Her research turned up strategies, like using sheet protectors to outline the page, which helped him focus, and trying to decode words from the beginning instead of from the middle — strategies she said his teachers were unaware of. With these strategies in place, McLaughlin said, Michael was able to focus and comprehend more when reading.
Margie Gillis, president of Literacy How, a Connecticut-based group that trains teachers and administrators in literacy instruction, said that what Michael and students like him really need is “explicit and systematic instruction in the structure of language.” Unfortunately, she added, teachers often don’t know how to address this — a problem that stems from teaching preparation programs.
Special education is a matter of neuroscience: the brains of students with disabilities work differently than those of students in general education. Many students and adults with disabilities interviewed explained how they process information in a particular way. Experts say that teachers need to learn the physiological differences in order to effectively teach their students. A lack of understanding often results in an assumption that students can’t handle academic material.
Yet general education teachers rarely have much training in special education. Few teacher education programs require more than one class on students with disabilities. Meanwhile, special education teachers have to balance completing extensive federal paperwork with planning lessons and teaching classes. And they aren’t always taught everything they need to know to handle the full range of disabilities they face in the classroom, or even, Gillis said, how to teach reading to children with different neurological obstacles.
Carole Banks, a special education teacher at a charter school in California, said that the only reason she felt prepared during her first year of teaching was because she’d worked as an assistant special education teacher for five years prior to going to school for her teaching degree.
“My program, they tried, but if I hadn’t had experience, I would have just been feeling like I was thrown in the middle of an ocean with no life raft,” she said.
Banks works in a resource lab for special education students who are mainstreamed in general education classes; they come to see her for one period each day. She said she holds her students to the same standards as their general education peers. But she’s had to do research on her own to find strategies for how to help them cope with their disabilities. And the schools she’s worked for have not had the funding to send her to an expensive training session for a reading program she believes would be extremely helpful.
“In every setting I’ve worked in, special ed has been the red-headed stepchild,” Banks said. “I wish that special education services were more respected and people knew how much special education teachers do.”
Many parents interviewed expressed frustration that special education teachers aren’t better supported and said that the root of the problem is not individual teachers in the classroom but administrators’ lack of understanding and districts’ lack of incentive: special education services are usually expensive to provide.
Under IDEA, the federal government is supposed to fund 40 percent of the “excess cost” of educating children with disabilities — meaning the money above and beyond what’s needed for a general education student. The government has never reached that target, forcing school districts to make up the difference — when they can afford it.
In fiscal year 2015, the federal government gave states about $12 billion, or 16 percent of the excess costs, according to a report by the New America Foundation, a nonprofit public policy institute. To reach the 40 percent target would require roughly $18 billion more, the report said.
Senator Hassan said she plans to push for full funding during the next budget process.
“Nobody likes to be the family or the child whose special education needs create budget cuts in other parts of the school budget,” she said. “We know how important it is to make sure that investments in education don’t fall just on local and state taxpayers.”
When Michael McLaughlin was in sixth grade, his mother gave up on the public schools and began to homeschool him. But by tenth grade, she worried that he was missing out on the opportunity to communicate and work with his peers, an important skill his autism diagnosis made even more critical. Michael returned for half days. His special education teachers worked with him on the goals that they’d laid out in his IEP.
“A lot of it was socialization,” McLaughlin said about her decision to send him back to school. “Another part of it was … I didn’t feel like he was getting enough with homeschooling with me. We were just concerned with what his education was going to be.”
McLaughlin worried that he wouldn’t be prepared for college. He enrolled full time in 11th grade. At first, the district wanted to put Michael on a track to earn a certificate of attendance. Unlike a GED, a certificate is not equivalent to a high school diploma and is not accepted by most colleges and employers. Certificates of attendance are designed for students with severe cognitive limitations who cannot meet high school academic standards.
Experts say there is little accountability to make sure districts aren’t limiting students like Michael — who, with special education supports, can handle a rigorous high school curriculum — to those alternate certificates.
McLaughlin said that the school also wanted him to transition into a life skills program. Life skills programs are designed for students with ability levels and IQs far below Michael’s. He would have learned independent living skills, like doing laundry and grocery shopping.
“That just made absolutely no sense to us,” McLaughlin said.
Michael’s family insisted that he earn a regular diploma, even if it took him a little longer than other students. He ended up repeating a year of high school to earn more credits. (Under IDEA, special education students are allowed to stay in public schools up to the age of 21.) He graduated in 2013.
Bartlett High School principal Sean Prince said he can’t speak to the details of Michael’s experience because he did not become the school’s principal until 2014, a year after Michael graduated. But he said he feels “helpless” that he couldn’t do something to help Michael.
“I wish we could have helped more,” Prince said. “I hate that [Michael’s] mom still has bad feelings about this. … It really makes me feel bad if she felt we weren’t doing a good job because we try to meet the needs of students every day.”
Now 24, Michael is enrolled in a three-year painting apprenticeship. His dad works as a foreman at a painting company and has hired Michael. He’ll continue to work for his dad when he completes the program.
McLaughlin said Michael likes the program. But she said his experiences at school hurt him in more ways than limiting his future career and education options. “It’s impacted him in every possible way that it can,” McLaughlin said. “The biggest thing my son still struggles with, to this day, is his feeling of self-worth.”
Special Education Glossary
IEP: Every student covered under the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act receives an IEP, or an Individual Education Program. This lengthy plan details a student’s current performance levels, goals for the next year, the classes a student will take, and any accommodations or modifications the student will receive in classes.
Transition plan: The transition plan is part of an Individual Education Program and must be developed before a student with a disability turns 16, according to federal law. This plan uses student interests and other information about a student to outline post-high school goals.
Accommodations: Accommodations include strategies like allowing a student to take extra time on a test, type an assignment instead of hand writing it, or sit in an area that helps a student focus. These are described in a student’s IEP.
Modifications: Modifications are changes in assignments and curriculum meant to assist students with disabilities in mastering content, such as providing fewer answer choices on assignments or tests, or providing text at an appropriate reading level for a student.
This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. . Read the whole series, “Willing, able and forgotten: How high schools fail special ed students,” here. Sign up for our newsletter.