Public School Student Population

The consideration of the public school student population will include general information about the current enrollment and projections, with particular attention to students with special needs.

Enrollment and Projections

Enrollment in public elementary and secondary schools was just over 46.7 million in 1998 (U.S. Department of Education, 1999). By the year 2016, the enrollment in America's public schools is anticipated to be 53.3 million (NCES, 2008a). Along with enrollment increases, there are concurrent projections for an increasingly diverse student population (Fuller, 1992). Diversity encompasses a myriad of dimensions and categories. While in the 1950s and 1960s, the two categories of race and class were prominent, a number of other dimensions have entered into the modern day discourse about diversity (Paine, 1989). "This diversity encompasses such educationally relevant dimensions and categories as gender, social class, ethnicity, intelligence, race, religion, disability, and learning style" (Ducette et al., 1996, p. 323). Given the centrality of the diversity dimension referred to as disability within this consideration, specific enrollment information about students who have special needs will be furnished.

Students with Special Needs

Enrollment figures for students with special needs must be taken into account when one considers public school enrollment and projections. Additionally, as a means of furnishing pertinent information related to students who have special needs, the following subsections will be briefly considered (a) Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), (b) Section 504, (c) Individualized Educationized Program (IEP), and (d) inclusion.

With regard to exceptionality, in 1994, approximately five million students with disabilities received special education and related services under the IDEA (Horne, 1996). The number of students being served increased by almost one million during the 1996-1997 academic year (NCES, 2000c) and appears to be increasing according to data from the NCES (2008c). The percentage of children with disabilities being served has increased to about 13 to 14 percent (NCES, 2008c; see also Arends, 1998, 2000; NCES 2000a, 2000c). Moreover, the percentage of students with special needs being served in regular classrooms rose substantially from 1985-1986 to 1995-1996 with an increase of approximately 20 percentage points (U.S. Department of Education, 1999; see also NCES, 2000b). Less than a decade later, in the 2004-2005 school year, over 5.9 million students had IEPs which constitutes almost 14 percent of the public school population (NCES, 2008c). As a result of the increase in enrollment of students with special needs in the regular education classroom setting, there has been a decrease in numbers of students served in resource rooms, self-contained classrooms, and residential facilities (U.S. Department of Education). Many students with special needs were receiving services in resource rooms or self-contained classrooms (i.e., 28.7 and 21.7 percent respectively in 1996) (NCES, 2000b). However presently 47 percent of students who have disabilities spend 80 percent or more of their day in general education classroom settings (Arends, 2008). Moreover, it has been reported by the Study of Personnel Needs in Special Education (SPeNSE) "...that 95% of all general education teachers currently teach students with disabilities or have done so in the past, with an average caseload of 3.5 students with disabilities" (Pugach, 2006, p. 549). The trend toward inclusion in the regular/general education classroom, may be, in part, attributable to the IDEA which has placed renewed emphasis on educating students with disabilities in the least restrictive environment (U.S. Department of Education).


The IDEA is a federal funding statute that provides financial aid to states in their efforts to ensure adequate and appropriate services for children with special needs (Gorn, 1997). In fact, the roots of inclusion can be traced back to the 1975 Public Law 94-142 (the Education for All Handicapped Children Act) which gave rise to the amendment known as IDEA (Agnew, Van Cleaf, Camblin & Shaffer, 1994; Ringer & Kerr, 1988; Willis, 1994). In order to qualify for special education and related services under IDEA, a student who is age three through age twenty-one, "must satisfy both parts of a two-part test" (Gorn, 1997, p. 1:1). First, the student must meet the definition of one or more categories of disability delineated under the IDEA (Gorn). The category list, which is exhaustive, is as follows:

Mental retardation, hearing impairments (including deafness), speech and language impairments, visual impairments (including blindness), serious emotional disturbance, orthopedic impairments, autism, traumatic brain injury, other health impairments, or specific learning disabilities. Second, the student must be shown to be in need of special education and related services as a result of his or her disability or disabilities. (Gorn, 1997, p. 1:1; Knoblauch & Sorenson, 1998)

The disability categories have been used in survey based research efforts (Heppermann, 1994) in an attempt to explore attitudes about the inclusion of IDEA eligible students with different disabilities or special needs. A student who does not meet the IDEA eligibility criteria might qualify for services under Section 504 (Gorn, 1997).

Section 504

Section 504 is a broad civil rights law, which protects the rights of individuals with disabilities in programs and activities that receive federal financial assistance from the United States Department of Education (Gorn, 1997). Section 504 defines a person with a disability as anyone who: (1) has a mental or physical impairment which substantially limits one or more major life activity (major life activities include activities such as caring for one's self, performing manual tasks, walking, seeing, hearing, speaking, breathing, learning and working); (2) has a record of such impairment; or (3) is regarded as having such an impairment (Gorn, 1997). It bears mention that a student who is eligible under IDEA will always meet the definition of eligibility for Section 504 (but the inverse is not the case) (Gorn, 1997). If a student is eligible for services under IDEA, the student will have what is known as an IEP (McGahee-Kovac, 1995).

Special Education Laws, Policies, and Procedures

Inividualized Education Program (IEP)

The acronym of IEP is, perhaps, among the most important in special education. An IEP "is the cornerstone of special education" (Tomey, 1995, p. 1; PACER Center, 1995) and "serves as the blueprint for each child's specialized instruction within the parameters of services agreed upon by team members" (Conderman & Campton, 1992, p. 4). An IEP, which must be in effect at the onset of the school year (Gorn, 1997), describes the special education and related services specifically designed to meet the unique educational needs of a student with special needs (Tomey; Horne, 1996; PACER Center, 1995). "As long as the IEP adequately describes the student's educational program, there is no federally mandated format" (Gorn, 1997, p. 4:1). Essentially, an IEP is a written statement developed by a team that translates student evaluation information into a plan for instruction and delivery of services (AZ DOE, 1995a). In short, "there are two main parts of the IEP requirement, as described in Part B of the IDEA and regulations: the IEP meeting(s)...[and] the IEP document itself..." (AZ DOE, 1995b, p. 4).

The IEP document is developed at one or more IEP meetings and its provisions are detailed in writing during the course of the meeting(s) (Tomey, 1995). During the IEP meeting(s), the IEP team, which consists of at least four people "...who have an intense interest in the child" (Gorn, 1997, p. 4:27), develops the IEP document. The IEP document " not a lesson plan nor a legal contract" (AZ DOE, 1995a, p. 21). The contents of the IEP document include:

  1. present level of performance;
  2. goals/benchmarks/objectives;
  3. special education and related services,
  4. supplementary aids and services;
  5. program modifications;
  6. support for school personnel to assist in meeting goals, progress in the general curriculum, and education with nondisabled children;
  7. explanation of the extent, if any, to which the child will not participate in class and activities with nondisabled children;
  8. modifications, if any, in District and State assessments;
  9. transition;
  10. how parents will be informed of their child's progress, at least as often as parents of children who are not disabled (Cernosia, 1997, pp. 6/48-7/49; AZ DOE 1995a, 1995b).

As a result of the increase in enrollment of students with special needs in the regular education classroom setting (U.S. Department of Education, 1999), there has also been an increase in the numbers of IDEA eligible students, who have IEPs, being served in the general/regular education setting. Consequently, one can make the assertion that inclusion is becoming more prevalent in our nation's schools.


The topic of inclusion is multifaceted and controversial (Stainback et al., 1992; Rogers, 1993). Indeed inclusion "provokes strong and differing opinions among educators, families, community members and policymakers" (Thousand et al., 1997, p. 270; Brinker, 1995). Inclusion does tend, among other things, to refer to service delivery; where all students (regardless of their abilities and needs) are served in the regular education setting with appropriate and necessary supports (Roach, 1995). The term extends beyond service delivery and location, to a notion that is embedded in the philosophy "that all children belong and can learn in the mainstream of school and community life" (Stainback et al., 1992, p. 8; Roach; Rogers, 1993).

Inclusion is defined in a variety of ways (Roach, 1995; Rogers, 1993; Ryan, 1994; Willis, 1994) as are the other terms often referred to in discussions about special education. The following terms are generally referred to and clarified in the literature (Rogers; Schattman & Benay, 1992): mainstreaming, inclusion, full inclusion, and regular education initiative. Mainstreaming, unlike inclusion, does not allow special education services to be fully provided in the arena of the general/regular education classroom (Roach, 1995; Ryan, 1994). Additionally, in mainstreaming which is generally associated with the 1970's, students with special needs interacted with their non-handicapped peers but typically in non-academic activities. Then, in the 1980's, as a result of reform movements, mainstreaming evolved into inclusionary practices (Schattman & Benay, 1992). From these practices, stemmed such terms as inclusion, full inclusion and the regular education initiative. The term, regular education initiative, generally refers to "either the merger of the governance of special and ‘regular' education or the merger of the funding streams of each. It is not generally used to discuss forms of service delivery" (Rogers, 1993, p. 2). However, as noted previously, the term inclusion does tend, among other things, to refer to service delivery (Roach, 1995).

There tends to be a subtle distinction made between inclusion and full inclusion whereby inclusion denotes that a student does not have to spend every moment of his/her school day in the regular education classroom (York, Doyle & Kronberg, 1992). However, to the maximal extent possible, there is a commitment to educating the student in the classroom he/she would otherwise attend if not disabled (Rogers, 1993). While full inclusion, on the other hand, connotes that every child can and should be educated in the same educational settings and classes (Schattman & Benay, 1992). The premise of full inclusion is that there exists the necessary supports and practices to enable the student with special needs to attend the classroom in his/her neighborhood school (Roach, 1995; Rogers). Regardless of which orientation one adheres to, be it full inclusion or inclusion, there is a deeper meaning which is inherently embedded in these terms and in inclusive efforts; namely, ‘belonging' as an overarching principle. Inclusive efforts are not merely issues about placements but also of philosophy (Forest, 1988; Roach; Stainback et al., 1992). Inclusion is grounded in the premise that students with special needs attend the school that "...they would otherwise attend if not disabled" (Rogers, 1993, p. 2).

In sum, there has been a substantial increase in the numbers of students with special needs who received special education and related services under IDEA (Horne, 1996). The percentage of children with disabilities being served has increased to about 13 to 14 percent (NCES, 2000a, 2008c). These projections, coupled with existing statistics, speak to the increasing diversity of the public school student population. Yet, as noted previously, prospective teachers are regarded as being culturally insular (Feiman-Nemser & Remillard, 1996). There is, as Grant and Secada (1990) note, considerable discontinuity relative to diversity between teachers and their students. This discontinuity has likely contributed to an increasing awareness amongst teacher educators for the need to prepare teachers for increasingly diverse classrooms and schools (McCall, 1995) which includes students who have special needs given that the percentage of students with special needs being served in regular classrooms has increased significantly (U.S. Department of Education, 1999). As a result of the increase in enrollment of students with special needs in the regular education classroom setting, inclusion is becoming more prevalent in our nation's public schools. Inclusion and other special education related topics merit attention on the part of prospective teachers and teacher educators.

Part of this consideration ought to include efforts to learn more about special education understandings of prospective teachers who will educate increased numbers of students with special needs in the context of their elementary and secondary classrooms. A unique opportunity faces teacher educators who have the privilege and responsibility of educating the nation's future teachers who, in turn, will educate diverse groups of students. There has been a call for teacher education programs, which classically have encompassed a field experience component, to move beyond no training or cursory training regarding issues of race, culture, class and exceptionality (Irvine, 1993). Having broached the topic of field experience, it is appropriate to segue into a consideration of this mainstay of teacher education programs.


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