Special Education is Supposed to Be Temporary, Not Permanent

I was a special education teacher for several years, and it always broke my heart to see students relegated to the program for the duration of their K-12 careers. The purpose of special education is to educate students who are not succeeding in the regular education classroom and help them to perform on grade level again. We accomplish this by developing and carrying out an IEP (Individualized Education Program).

A well thought out Individualized Education Plan (IEP) represents some of the best-personalized planning in education. The IEP lays out a year’s worth of instruction and strategies and identifies appropriate goals and the educational milestones that will form the path to meeting them for special education students. IEPs are often complex documents that are twenty and thirty pages long, and developing IEPs can be an arduous process.

After students start to perform independently and begin performing on grade level again, and they are supposed to be phased out of special education and sent back to the general education classroom full-time. To further illustrate this, let’s go through the entire process from the point when a child begins experiencing academic difficulty to the time when they are phased out of the special education program. We will begin with the RTI process.

The RTI and Special Education Process

A Tier I intervention is a simple change, as it involves teachers using differentiated instruction to assist the student in learning the material. The teacher documents the adjustment and any other action taken, and monitors the student’s progress from that point forward, to see if the adjustment is effective.

If the Tier I intervention strategies are ineffective, it may be time for Tier II intervention, which involves the formation of a student support team (SST). The SST includes classroom teachers, a counselor, special education teachers, and administrators who meet with the student and his or her parents to develop a list of targeted interventions. The SST coordinates an individualized learning plan to accommodate the student’s weaknesses.

If Tier II strategies are not working, then it may be time for Tier III. Tier III differs from Tier I and Tier II in that it involves increased intensity – more instructional time, smaller group size and increased explicitness – more focus on teaching specific skills.

If Tier III intervention strategies have no impact, then it may be time for Tier III, which is generally rapidly evident, provided teachers are conducting adequate monitoring—students may require special services beyond the Tier III intervention level. Sometimes this involves removal from the general education classroom for more intense individual instruction, such as small-group classes or alternative assessment, and the development of an IEP (Individualized Education Program).

Often the IEP for a student with learning disabilities requires placement in the general education classroom, with modifications such as extended time for tests and quizzes, a set of teacher notes, preferential seating, permission to voice-record the lecture or the presence of a paraprofessional or team teacher (special education teacher) co-teaching in the regular classroom.

Phasing Them Out of Special Education

Once the child progresses to the point where they are performing on grade level for all of their courses, with no assistance from their special education teacher, the IEP committee needs to decide if the child is ready to be phased out of the special education program. This can be difficult for parents who may be concerned that without the availability of additional resources, their child may start to struggle again. I always tell them that being phased out of special education is a good thing, and it signals that all of our efforts were successful. It also signals that their child is resilient, and put in tremendous effort in or to get back on track academically.

The sad part about it is that schools and school districts are usually the main critics of phasing children out of special education. Not because they are concerned with the child’s well being and academic success, but for financial reasons. You see, schools are funded on a per-student basis, and schools receive over 50% more for special education students than they do for regular education students. For many, this may be a sad and sobering fact, but for me, it was a reality.


As an education community, we have to remember the real purpose of special education, and phase out students who are operating independently and on grade level. It is our ethical duty to place the best interest of individual students over the best interests of the school district’s financial bottom line.

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