How special education is falling behind

Students partake in middle school science class.
Students partake in middle school science class.

By Cori Ritchey 

Every year, millions of students with special needs go through vocational training with the public school system, many with hopes of achieving employment after finishing their education. This training, however, has failed to keep up with trends in education.

In the United States in the 2020-2021 school year, over 7.2 million students qualified for special education services through the public school system. This equates to over 15% of the public school population.

See data for Graph 1 and 2 here. See Data for Graph 3 here.

Of this population, there are a ton of different disabilities that need to be addressed with these students. While many of them have co-morbidities, meaning multiple disabilities at the same time, specific learning disabilities were the most treated. Roughly 33% of special education students had specific learning delays. Rounding up the top of the list includes speech impairments, autism, and developmental delays. 

Austin Anderson, a 19-year-old from Milford, Connecticut, was diagnosed with a severe learning disability when he was very young. 

“By the time he was three, we knew something was up,” his mother, Lisa Anderson says. His disability, like everyone’s, is very personalized. His symptoms ranged from defects in social cues to learning delays. “Because you cannot diagnose a child until they are seven or eight, we had to wait a bit for a formal diagnosis.”

Austin was diagnosed with intellectual disability at the age of 8. His needs were incredibly specialized, Lisa said. Throughout his life, he has always attended public school and was educated through the special education departments. 

No disability is the same, so the public school system has to get very individualized when it comes to the way they approach their curriculum. 

“The barriers to learning vary significantly between each person. Some have a hard time attending while others hyper focus, social skill deficits are very common,” says Molly Milanes, Board Certified Behavior Analysis for Home Autism Services in Boston, Massachusetts. Because of these differentials, the school system has been forced to become extremely specialized. 

The Individualized Education Program, or the I.E.P., is the backbone of the special education system. This process, which requires the input from the students’ teachers, parents or guardians, and school administrators, helps determine the progress of the student through several subject disciplines. 

“I would have authority to say, you know, if he needs extra help somewhere, we discuss it,” Lisa says. It is a well rounded approach that involves the expertise of the teachers and administrators with the feedback of the family.

When the students get into their later teens, they begin classes more focused on what’s called “vocational training”. This part of their school curriculum focuses on more occupational related tasks. They work on everything from stocking shelves, working a calculator, to latching nuts and bolts on an assembly line. 

Learning these skills and ultimately landing a community job benefits these students greatly, says Andrea Fuller, Board Certified Behavior Analysis in Danvers, Massachusetts. 

“These jobs allow them to work on other skills such as social interactions, being out in the community, attending to a task for a certain duration of time,” says Fuller. “So not only are they working but they get to practice many other skills.” 

Typically, the school pairs a student with a job in the community, and during their school day they will work roughly two to four hours depending on their attention abilities. In Austin’s case, he’s worked in everything from a sunglasses store, a frozen yogurt shop, and a pharmacy. 

“I would take my other two kids to see Austin at the frozen yogurt shop, it was so nice to see,” Anderson says. “Seeing him in action really shows his progress.” 

This vocational training sets these students up for beginning a career once they are aged out of the school system. In most states, at the age of 22, students are either placed into a private learning program or set up with a job like these ones they experienced during school. 

“Eventually, you’ll see the bagger at the grocery store bagging on his own, but he didn’t just walk in and do that, you know, like he had all these steps to get him there,” says Anderson. The more they practice these skills during the time they’re in school, the more successful they will be when they have to leave. 

“In my experience a job has been a fun experience for my clients,” Milanes says. She says it allows them to practice their new skills in settings that are a little less comfortable, which amplifies their ability to control their reactive behaviors. 

Anderson, however, is a little worried about the school system’s vocational training aging itself. With the technology shifts of the past few decades, many of the skills that the school systems are teaching these special needs students are aging out. 

With the introduction of self checkout at grocery stores, automated machinery on assembly lines, and cleaning products such as Roombas, the need for trade jobs such as these is fading out. Technology is limiting the amount of work  people with disabilities can get, when it is cheaper to have an automated system or robot do the work. 

“Bagging your groceries, let’s just take that for example. It’s going away, instead you go to the self checkout,” says Anderson. “Now you order online.”

The school systems have yet to update their curriculum to solve this new-found problem. While there are still many jobs like these available and needed, the demand is much less than it was before. Parents, like Anderson, feel as though their children’s skill sets will be outdated in a few years. 

“My concern is that if vocational jobs are keeping up with technology, then [the schools] have to at least be able to offer these students some kind of [technological] training or how will these young adults get a job?” 

Just like the individualized learning programs, the students’ abilities to handle these new technological advances differ greatly. For some, Milanes says, the basics take so long to master that the introduction of technology training may be too late. 

“Ultimately, we’re talking about implementing a whole new curriculum which is difficult to do when we have to adapt to so many different kinds of learners as we have in the special needs community,” Fuller says.