An Education on Education

Special Education in American Public Schools

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What is Special Education?

Special education “is specially designed instruction and services to meet the unique needs of students with disabilities and can include academic services, speech-language services, psychological services, physical and occupational therapy, and counseling services. The Department provides these services at no cost to families to anyone aged 3 to 22 who demonstrates a need for specially designed instruction, after an eligibility determination.” – Hawaii DEO

Why is Special Education Important?

Special education is a new and constantly evolving area of education. It allows kids who benefit from extra help when learning to be in an environment in which they are not isolated from society. Many schools have cutback special education funding due to budget shortfalls and tough economic conditions, which is unfortunate since these programs are for the students who need the most assistance. It provides the help children need to get through school and lead the most productive lives possible.

Special Education Legislation

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act (IDEA) of 2004

A Federal law, reauthorized in 2004, that details who is eligible for special education programs and what states and local agencies must do to provide special education to those with disabilities. It makes available a free public education to those who have been diagnosed with at least 1 of 13 eligible disabilities such as Autism, Blindness, and Intellectual Disability.

Part B provides special education and other related services for those who qualify between the ages of 3 and 21.

Part C provides early intervention services for those who are two years old and younger.

The Rehabilitation Act of 1973

Section 504 of the act is a federal law enforced in public elementary and secondary schools, which protects the rights of those with disabilities in programs and activities that receive federal funding.

The American with Disabilities Act of 1990

Title II is another federal law which extends protection for those with disabilities to government services, programs, and activities regardless of whether or not they receive federal funding.

Special Education Before the Classroom

Individualized Education Program (IEP)

The Individualized Education Program or IEP “is a written statement about the educational program for a child with a disability. It serves as a management tool used to ensure that the child receives the needed special education and related services. It also serves as an evaluation device when used to determine the extent of the child’s progress toward accomplishing projected goals.” – Hawaii DEO

IEPs are developed in a series of meetings in which the following people are present: a special education representative, the child’s current teacher, the child’s parent(s), the child (if appropriate), and other individuals as seen fit by parents or representative. Once the IEP is developed, additional follow-up meetings are held at least once a year to revise and renew a student’s IEP.

An IEP identities and addresses the area(s) in which a student needs a special education program. A finalized and approved IEP is also required for students to receive special education services.

Specially Designed Instructions (SDI)

“SDI is what makes special education ‘special’” – Marilyn Friend.

Specially Designed Instructions or SDI is defined by the IDEA as “adapting, as appropriate to the needs of an eligible child under this part, the content, methodology or delivery of instruction; (i) to address the unique needs of the child that result from the child’s disability; and (ii) ensure access of the child to the general curriculum, so that the child can meet the educational standards within the jurisdiction of the public agency that apply to all children.” (34 CFR Sec. 300.39(b)(3)

The development of SDIs is done by special education teachers and thus it is a big part of their job. The teacher uses a student’s IEP to develop a curriculum that will address the goals stated in the document.

Similar to the IEP, the SDI is individualized and specific to the student. A student who receives an SDI often needs intensive support to develop certain skills required to progress in a general education curriculum.

Common Types of Special Education Programs

An Inclusive Classroom…

also known as a mainstream placement, keeps a student in regular classes with peers of the same age. In this type of program, the class will ideally have both a regular teacher and a special education teacher who will provide support by adjusting the curriculum to fit the student’s needs.

A Resource Room…

works best for a student who needs intensive help in a particular subject. This placement includes a special education teacher employing special-needs teaching techniques with a small group of students. The student still remains a part of the general school population aside from the area they need assistance in.

A Self-Contained Classroom…

offers more structure, routine, and appropriate expectations for special-needs students. However, with this placement, students are completely removed from the mainstream population. Students from varying academic levels, using different textbooks and curricula, work alongside each other in a class organized and supervised by a special education teacher.

An Out-of-District Placement…

puts a student in a school, outside of their neighborhood, that is designed to accommodate and address special learning or behavioral needs. With this option, a student is unable to interact with the mainstream school population, and it can be costly for the school district. However, these schools provide the most structure, routine, and consistency on a day-to-day level for special-needs students.

Programs Unique to Hawaii’s Public Schools

Co-Teaching Program at Kailua Intermediate

This program first ran during the 2015-2016 school year at Kailua Intermediate. The program pairs regular education and special education teachers together to teach inclusive classrooms. Modeled after the program at Ewa Makai Middle School, the teachers saw improved learning outcomes for both the regular and special education students in the program.

Operation Search and Reports

This is the Hawaii DOE’s campaign to find students who need special education services but are not currently receiving them. Hawaii also publicly published its special education performances and data reports on its website.

State Systemic Performance Plan

This was created by the US Department of Education’s Office of Special Education Programs (USDOE-OSEP). This three phase process (Analysis, Plan, Implementation and Evaluation) is used to make sure that the states work on improving the outcomes of their programs and staying in compliance with IDEA.

My Thoughts

In Hawaii, special education programs vary from school to school. Almost all schools provide an inclusive classroom program, while some provide additional resource room and self-contained classroom programs. However, the learning outcomes in Hawaii public schools are not sufficient. In the 2016-2017 school year, out of the 18,360 students ages 14-21 who qualified for special education programs under IDEA, 989 graduated with a regular high school diploma, 119 received a certificate, but 202 dropped out of school. I think that although these special needs efforts are fairly comprehensive, the observed outcomes are mainly because of the job market and availability of funds and special education teachers in the state of Hawaii.

My Experience With Special Education

I have ADHD. Well, more specifically, I have moderate Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder with dyslexia and dysgraphia tendencies. I was first diagnosed with ADHD at age five and it has played a large role in my educational experience. My parents took note of this and sent me to Assets School, a school for kids with learning differences, because the school I attended at the time, Hanahauʻoli, was not able to provide the specialized education I needed.

“The mission of Assets School is to serve gifted and capable students, specializing in those with dyslexia and other language-based learning differences. We provide a strength-based program, complemented by outreach and training, that empowers students to become effective learners and confident self-advocates.”

“Mission & Vision.” Assets School, Finalsite,

I attended Assets from first through third grade and immensely improved my ability to perform scholastically. Since Assets is a private school, it does not directly fit any of the programs listed above; however, I would describe it as an out-of-district placement with only self-contained classrooms.

Beyond the classroom, something that I believe a lot of people do not think about is the magnitude of how a single disability can affect your entire family. Over the years, my family and I have overcome many obstacles that have arisen from my learning difference. The most significant obstacle came during my sophomore year of high school when my family’s insurance company refused to pay for the brand of medication I had been taking for the past six years. I was forced to test a different, inadequate drug every three weeks until my family had enough evidence to appeal my case and eventually win.

My learning difference has definitely made my high school experience unique as I have had to constantly juggle the various challenges of my education, from meeting with my psychiatrist, scheduling tutoring, and moving around my schedule to have an adequate time to take my tests. However, I would not have been able to do all of this without my support system.

Compliance is Not Enough | Melissa Corto | TEDxWilmingtonED

When the words ‘special education’ are uttered in K12 schools today, they are usually followed by another word, ‘compliance’.

How much do you know now?

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See how much people have improved through a quick presentation:


  • Understand that special education programs are not one size fits all.
  • Be a friendly face because some students in these programs are not able to interact with the mainstream student body regularly.
  • Empathize with and try to help those who need extra assistance in school by offering to tutor them or explain something they do not understand.
  • Participate in or lead a disabilities awareness initiative at your school. April is Autism Awareness Month and May is Mental Health Awareness Month!

Work Cited

Additional Resources

For Change Makers

For Parents

For Educators


Share this project
  1. April 26, 2019 by Lizzie Nash

    Wilder! WOW! You can really tell that you put in a lot of work to this project and its something that you are passionate about. One thing I love about this project is how easy and accessible your call to action is! The way you split up the links at the end is extremely thoughtful! It also ensures that this information will be useful to everyone who views it!

  2. April 26, 2019 by Caroline.Cummins

    You did a really great job, Wilder. I never knew about the importance of special education and I think that people should be aware of how it can affect peoples lives in such positive ways. Great job for putting your hard work and time into this and focusing on something that not many people talk about or even know about. I loved learning about this and am very glad I learned something completely new.

  3. April 28, 2019 by Veronica Kruschel

    It’s obvious from a first glance that you put a lot into this, and after reading through it all it’s increasingly evident that it’s a subject you’re passionate about and that you put a lot of time, effort, energy, and dedication into this project. Your presentation is wonderful; it’s both educational and engaging, and though it could easily have been boring with all of the facts and information packed in, you made it interesting and thought-provoking. You did an amazing job, Wilder. In particular, I think that your in-depth research of special education in schools across America and in Hawaii specifically (and your own experiences, that personal touch really made this presentation stand out) was a good way to show how this issue is different everywhere and that while in general, it’s true that special education needs to be worked on and better funded and improved, it varies depending on where exactly you are in the world (depending on the country, state, school, and family even). The fact that you talk about your own experiences with special education adds a lot to this presentation; talking about yourself and making your presentation personal generally isn’t an easy thing to do, and you did it very well. It made your presentation more engaging and interesting while also following the flow, going from zoomed out (the entirety of the United States) to zoomed in (your state, and then your own life and your experiences). Your presentation has a lot of content, but it wasn’t an overwhelming amount, and I think that what you included was well-chosen pieces, it’s not as though you just copy-pasted an entire page of research without thinking about why you were including each element. The short surveys you included at the beginning and toward the end were a nice touch; they made me want to learn more and gain a better understanding of the issues, and their length makes them easier to complete as they don’t get boring or go on for too long. I like the way you included visuals such as photos of different classroom settings and the way you formatted your presentation, especially at the very beginning. I like your “takeaways” section, I think that after having shared so much in your presentation, it’s a good way to tie everything together and to remind people of what they can do to help improve special education and support those students in these programs. (Your “for changemakers”, “for parents”, and “for educators” sections are similarly helpful, particularly so because you sorted them into different categories so it’s easier for people to find something specific to them. Sorry, I’m saying a lot, but I also wanted to say that the amount of research you did is pretty impressive, and so is the way you managed to fit so much of it into your presentation while keeping it interesting and easy to read and understand. This is one of the best presentations I’ve read through, and it’s convinced me to go and research what the laws and policies are in California, where I live. Thank you for creating and sharing this presentation!

  4. April 29, 2019 by Kealia Victorino

    This presentation effectively portrayed the severity of this overlooked problem in public schools. Being a student who similarity has a learning difference, I found the section about your personal story to be very interesting. Additionally, through separating your resources into three sections (for changemakers, parents, and educators), the reader is able to easily find personal ways that they can make a difference. Are there similar resources like special education programs available for students in college?

  5. May 01, 2019 by Deane Salter


    You have done a great job with this. Thank you for sharing. Any chance you may be an educator in the future?

  6. May 02, 2019 by Taichi Kakitani

    Organization of your page (presentation) is very clear and formative. Your evidence is all backed up with reliable sources. Your explanation of special education and importance is direct and strong. It was interesting how you included your own thought about the issue. Good job.

  7. May 03, 2019 by Mia Crum

    Wilder! This is awesome, it’s clear you put a lot of work into this presentation. I really like the layout of the page and your use of pictures, surveys, and videos to get your point across. I didn’t really know what special education was and how many different types programs there are before reading your presentation. I also didn’t know about all of the training that happens before the classroom. As someone with dyslexia I totally understand where you’re coming from and how a learning disability can be difficult on ones family as well. Thanks so much for researching this, I really feel like it’s not talked about enough 🙂

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