The Educational System in the United States: Case Study Findings, March 1999

A r c h i v e d  I n f o r m a t i o n

Chapter 3 - Individual Differences
and the United States Education System
(Part 4 of 4)

Education for Students with Disabilities

In 1975, Congress passed the Education for All Handicapped Children Act (P.L. 94-1142), which required public schools to identify and then to provide special education services to all children with educational, emotional, developmental, or physical disabilities (Singer, Palfrey, Butler, & Walker 1989). The act was amended in 1990 and has since been known as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) (Kauffman & Smucker 1995). This act mandates free and appropriate public education for all handicapped children between the ages of 3 and 21 and sets up a system of federal financial support to states that implement the law. Funds are supplied to each school system for each child who is enrolled in a special education program, until the number of students reaches 12 percent of the school population, after which no additional funds are available. The guiding principles of the act ensure that:

To fulfill federal reporting requirements and receive reimbursement, states and school districts are required to classify their students who have special needs. Classifications of students vary somewhat but generally correspond to seven conditions mentioned in P.L. 94-142: speech impairment, learning disability, emotional disturbance, mental retardation, hearing impairment, vision impairment, and orthopedic/medical impairment. The child's classification is a major determinant of the placement and services the child will receive. For example, children classified as learning disabled are usually placed in regular classes, often leaving class for a period of special instruction, while children classified as emotionally disturbed or mentally retarded are usually placed in separate classes or schools (Singer et al. 1989).

The evaluation is conducted by a multidisciplinary team, which must include at least one teacher or other specialist with knowledge of the area of suspected disability. After interpreting the evaluation data and identifying the child as handicapped, the team develops an individualized education plan (IEP). Included in the IEP are the student's current level of educational performance, short- and long-term educational goals for the student, a plan for the evaluation of student progress, and documentation of the kind and duration of the services the student will receive. The IEPs and the child's progress are reviewed at least once a year to determine if revision is necessary (Mehan et al. 1986).

P.L. 94-142 also specifies protective safeguards pertaining to the rights and responsibilities of parents. The development of educational policy for a child requires parent participation, and parents or guardians must receive written notice whenever a change in identification, assessment, or educational placement of their child is proposed. If an agreement cannot be reached about the appropriate placement or the IEP for a handicapped child, then parents or educators can initiate an impartial hearing. To prepare for this hearing, parents must be given access to all educational records and information pertaining to the school's evaluation of their child. (Mehan et al. 1986).

At the elementary level, most special education students receive pull-out services from regular classes, meaning that students leave their regular classroom to receive specialized instruction with a small group of other students and then return to their classroom (Entwistle & Alexander 1993). National statistics, collected by the National Center for Education Statistics for the 1993-94 school year, showed the following percentages of students participating in remedial and special education programs or services: 3.07 percent in bilingual education, 3.97 percent in English as a second language, 10.88 percent in remedial reading, 6.90 percent in remedial mathematics, and 6.88 percent in programs for the handicapped (USDE 1995).

Special and Remedial Education in the Case Study Schools

There is a movement in the United States to include students with severe handicaps in the regular classroom to the greatest extent possible. However, we found a variety of practices, depending on the policies of local school boards. Students receiving special education were usually pulled out from the regular classroom for a limited time period, mainstreamed in the regular classroom, or separated from regular students in self-contained special education classrooms. In one elementary school, children with severe disabilities were fully mainstreamed into the regular classroom, while at another school these children spent most of the day in separate classrooms. The inclusion of students with severe learning or physical disabilities in regular classrooms was a source of controversy in some schools.

The administration at Parks favored inclusion, but the teachers we interviewed at Parks reported believing that inclusion was not working. One Parks teacher described her experience with inclusion as follows:

There's 28 students in this class. What am I going to do? Sacrifice the other 20 to 25 students who are supposedly normal, just for 3 or 4? It's a no-win situation.

Parents at Parks Elementary were also aware of the regular classroom teachers' frustration with inclusion. One father was concerned that his child, who was in the regular classroom, was not receiving an adequate education because of inclusion.

A lot of people don't favor inclusion. Probably a lot of the staff particularly don't. Because it takes away from what they're trying to do with their students, the regular students. I don't think they really know how to handle special education students. So it does take away from what they're trying to do.

Some school districts have adopted a practice called reverse inclusion. In reverse inclusion, nonspecial education students are brought into the self-contained special education classroom on a periodic basis. The advantage of this practice, according to some special education teachers, is that it allows severely disabled children to stay in an environment to which they are accustomed and in which they feel comfortable.

Rockefeller, on the other hand, had the resources to practice regular inclusion without creating an additional burden on the regular teacher. Special education resource teachers were assigned to the handful of students at Rockefeller with severe handicaps. The resource teachers spent the entire day with the severely handicapped students, who were integrated into regular classrooms. One problem with regular inclusion that is seen by special education teachers is that it forces severely disabled children into an unfamiliar environment.

For learning disabilities, the superior financial resources of schools in affluent districts made it possible to provide remedial education services on a scale unimaginable in financially strapped schools. At Vanderbilt Middle School, for example, even students who performed at average levels on state-wide tests were being selected for remedial programs, since these students had a relative performance below that of the typical student at Vanderbilt, who scored at the 90th percentile in state-wide comparisons. As one teacher explained:

We have a really high percentage of our kids in special education. In both fifth and seventh grades, over 25 percent of the kids are in special education.

The advantages of being classified as a candidate for remedial education are both tangible and intangible. Tangible benefits include special tutoring and more frequent interaction with resource teachers. Less tangible advantages may include a reduction in the pressure to perform well in a highly competitive environment.

Becky, a student at Vanderbilt Middle School, was part of a school program called "resource study skills" that allowed her to seek help in her subjects once a day. Math was not one of the subjects with which she was having difficulty, so she did not normally seek help in math, but she did often seek help in social studies and writing. Science was also a subject in which Becky was doing well. In short, Becky was an average student who would probably not have been defined as eligible for remedial help in other districts.

A math teacher in the Rolling Hills district said that the school tends to "over-diagnose" students, creating a situation where average students are defined as remedial or special education students:

I think a lot of the kids get referred for testing because they are at the bottom of the class. Well, then it turns out they're just real average kids--IQ around 110 and they are working right up to their potential. But, in Rolling Hills, that puts them in the bottom of their class.

However, the pattern of over diagnosis may be more widespread. The director of the special education program at Hamilton High School reported that the school probably slightly over diagnosed, since it had the resources to do so. According to the director, the number of students at Hamilton receiving services probably exceeds the number one would expect in the general population.

One Vanderbilt teacher said that parents in the district are often relieved to have their children placed in these classes, since it takes the onus of personal responsibility off the low-performing child in this highly competitive district:

There's this one parent who drives me crazy, because her third kid just got put into special education and she says to me, `Look, I am three for three. All of my kids are special ed. Yes.' I have the oldest one in one of my classes and I would say, `Learning disabled?' No, I don't think so.

In contrast to schools in affluent districts, educators in poor districts indicated that there was a tendency to under diagnose students in need of special or remedial education services because of the lack of resources to serve any but the most needy students. A special education teacher at the school indicated that many students in need of special education services had yet to be diagnosed. A regular fourth-grade teacher estimated that at least 8 of her 30 students needed remedial help in arithmetic. The teacher further estimated that at least three of those students needed to be tested for learning disabilities. In fact, only one had been tested and was now receiving remedial help in arithmetic.

Furthermore, several teachers believed that the number of children needing special education services in many communities might be growing. One teacher indicated that many of the special education students in inner-city schools had been born to mothers who abused drugs during pregnancy. The result of prenatal drug abuse had been more severe cases of disabilities than seen in prior generations. Also, in middle-class neighborhoods, an increase in the number of students with problems was attributed to the increasing number of women delaying childbirth.

The process of diagnosing students for special education services is a complicated one, according to a fourth-grade teacher who had been a special education teacher. She indicated that the criteria changed from year to year with changes in the school administration. According to the teacher, there was a period for 4 or 5 years when not enough students were being assigned to special education classrooms. During this time, a special panel composed of teachers was set up that reviewed all cases. According to the teacher, this panel had a tendency to under diagnose. Consequently, as a teacher of a regular fourth-grade classroom, she was seeing many of the kids she felt should have been diagnosed and placed in special education classrooms. This illustrates how policies can affect who gets classified as "special education" and the range and type of services provided.

In summary, inclusion was broad-based and not limited to the poorest school districts; however diagnosis and support services for remedial and special education students were more limited at inner-city schools. In addition, the criteria for diagnosing students in need of remedial or special education services varied considerably from school to school. In general, in poor districts there was a tendency to under diagnose students in need of remedial and special education services while in affluent districts the tendency was to over diagnose. This was in part related to the disparity in financial resources available to support these services. Another factor was the greater resistance of administrators and school boards in poor communities to place any restrictions on students' opportunities to learn.

Education for the Gifted Student

Twenty years ago, few programs existed for gifted and talented students; yet by 1990, 38 states served more than 2 million gifted students in kindergarten through 12th grade. Twenty-six state and trust territories required that schools provide specialized services and programs for gifted and talented students, and 27 had passed legislation encouraging districts to provide such programs; only 6 states and territories lacked such legislation. However, the percentage of students identified as gifted in each state varies due to differences in state laws and practices. For example, 4 states identify more than 10 percent of their students as gifted and talented, while 21 states identify fewer than 5 percent. According to NELS data, in 1988, 65 percent of the public schools had some kind of opportunity for gifted and talented students, and approximately 9 percent of all 8th-grade public high school students participated in gifted and talented programs (USDE 1993).

Two of the most common approaches to educating gifted students are enrichment activities and acceleration practices. Enrichment typically means that students are offered more varied educational experiences. Enrichment programs might include after-school or Saturday classes, resource rooms, additions to regular classroom curriculum, or special interest clubs (Colangelo & Davis 1991).

Acceleration usually includes early entrance to kindergarten or college, grade skipping, self-paced studies, or part-time grade acceleration in which a student receives advanced instruction in one or more content areas for part of each day (Colangelo & Davis 1991).

Programs for Gifted Students

Not all schools that we visited had programs for gifted and talented students, but the programs that did exist depended on the priorities of the local school districts. Programs for gifted students were left up to the principal of the school or the local school board. Most teachers and parents thought that gifted children should be encouraged to develop their talents in school through special programs that provide challenging instruction for these students.

Among the few programs for gifted students were those at Rockefeller Elementary School and the other suburban schools. The program for gifted students at Rockefeller Elementary began in the fourth grade. Gifted students were "pulled-out" of their regular classrooms to receive special instruction in academic subjects, such as arithmetic or reading. Likewise, the pullout math program for gifted students began in the fourth grade in elementary schools in the district of Vanderbilt Middle School. Students were selected on the basis of scores on a test given to third-graders at the school. According to the math teacher at Vanderbilt, 90 percent of the criteria for admission were based on objective measures, including this test given in the third grade.

The emphasis on objective criteria was necessary, according to the math teacher at Rolling Hills, because many parents in the Rolling Hills district tried to persuade the school to place their children in the pull out program. The teacher explained, "The concern is that if their kids do not take calculus by the 12th grade, they won't be able to get into Harvard."

A mother at Vanderbilt explained why there must be an emphasis on test scores in determining eligibility for gifted programs:

There are always parents who feel that their kids need to be in the extended math program (the gifted program), even though they are not even close to qualifying. I know that these parents have met with the principal and they have poured over the test scores. But ultimately it is the test scores. They will retest a kid if they think that the scores don't make sense. Every one of us wants enrichment for our kids. We want our kids to be challenged to the limit. We don't want them to be so challenged that they get frustrated. If there is the slightest doubt, that child will be re-evaluated. Most of the time there isn't a lot to stand on. As we say in Rolling Hills, all of the kids in Rolling Hills are gifted.

In the sixth grade, students in the Rolling Hills district were given an examination designed to predict academic success in algebra courses. Students who scored above a certain level on this examination were asked to take the SAT during the sixth grade. "Many of the 6th-graders score better than I did in the 11th grade," joked a math teacher at Vanderbilt. The sixth-grade students with the top four or five scores on the SAT qualified for a special program in math beginning in the seventh grade. These students, along with qualifying students from other junior high schools, were bused to the district's high school three times a week to receive accelerated instruction in math. In addition to this program, two high-level math courses were also offered to students at Vanderbilt Middle School.

Although there were classes for high-achieving students, the gifted programs in math and science at the average and low-achieving elementary and middle schools were limited or nonexistent. Some schools had no program for gifted students. Educators indicated that these programs would divert financial resources away from remedial and other programs needed at these schools.

The lack of gifted programs at many schools may contribute to the perception that gifted students are being ignored by the schools. A teacher at West Middle School said, "I think the very highly gifted get cheated somewhat in our American school system." This belief was shared by other teachers, parents, and administrators with whom we spoke.


In the United States, there is no national policy regarding the treatment of ability differences. Instead, local school districts and school principals implement practices based on their beliefs about individual differences, their perceptions of the needs of students, and their financial resources. Local autonomy over schools creates great variety in the educational programs.

Many public schools in the United States serve a diverse student body in terms of both social background and individual differences in ability. In an effort to deal with such a diverse array of students, teachers reported relying on a number of strategies. A central strategy is tracking and ability grouping. These practices begin as early as elementary school and are nearly universal. All schools in the sample practiced some form of ability grouping or tracking, although the types of practice varied considerably.

Differing approaches to individual differences was also seen in practices associated with cooperative learning, homework, grading, and computerized instruction. Some practices, particularly detracking and lenient grading, appeared to be a source of friction between administrators and parents who felt that a grouping by ability would serve the needs of their children better

Cooperative learning, the pairing of faster learning students with those who learn more slowly, was a practice that we observed again and again. Teachers in all three locations reported relying on cooperative groups to manage individual differences. There was a belief among most of the teachers that such an arrangement has benefits over whole-class instruction. Those who learn more rapidly are assumed to reinforce their own learning by helping others; slower students are assumed to benefit from the extra help they obtain from their peers.

Parents, teachers, administrators, and students were highly cognizant of the role that family stability and support has in creating individual differences. Many linked the problems in the schools to the lack of family support they believed to be widespread within their communities.

Equity issues were considered to be of great importance, and many of the persons we interviewed talked freely about inequities they perceived or did not perceive. Gender equality in access to math and sciences was not a central concern of most of the respondents. Many indicated that they believed that the barriers to math and science achievement for girls had largely been eliminated. In contrast, racial inequities were widely acknowledged and were a frequent source of concern.

Remedial and special education played large but varied role in the schools in the three locations. Every school that we visited offered some program for students with special needs. However, the programs differed greatly from school to school. Some were large and included students in need of remedial help. Others were limited to students with severe learning disabilities.

A few schools had programs for highly gifted students in math and science, but most of the schools did not. Many respondents conveyed their belief in the importance of gifted programs, but at the same time, they felt that gifted education was not being given the necessary resources in their schools.

There is no consistent system in the United States for dealing with individual differences in students' abilities. Rather, there is a variegated landscape of systems; each school district and school has, for the most part, developed its own programs and approaches. Nonetheless, some strategies were consistently observed across schools and locations. In addition to age-graded classrooms, tracking and ability grouping in math and science were nearly universal practices. Most teachers used some form of cooperative learning and believed in its effectiveness. As strategies for dealing with individual differences, many teachers conducted question-and-answer sessions, assigned homework according to students' ability, or relied on other instructional resources. Experiments with eliminating or changing almost every one of the practices were reported by nearly every district, school or teacher we visited.

Finally, parents, teachers, administrators, and parents from a wide range of backgrounds indicated their belief that differences in family support contributes greatly to creating individual differences in academic achievement. The perception is that individual differences in performance begins in the home. At the same time, the lively discussions about individual differences that we had with parents, teachers, and students emphasized the importance which they placed on equity and access in school for all students.


[Individual Differences and the United States Education System (Part 3 of 4)] [Table of Contents] [The Role of School in United States Adolescents' Lives (Part 1 of 4)]