Why is Special Education a Failure?

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Volume 9, Issue 1
February 2020

By Emerson Dickman, J.D.

An internationally recognized expert in the field of education, who will remain anonymous, recently (2019) said, “I gave up on special education a long time ago, praying that no child/grandchild of mine would ever need an IEP.” After 45 years of advocacy and four children, two of whom had an IEP, I concur. In discussions at conferences and workshops, I have found that the most knowledgeable among us are the most discouraged. It is like knowing the cure and not being able to use it to save the sick.

  • “The amount of course work in the structure of spoken and written language required by teacher preparation programs and state certification standards is woefully inadequate for the demands of classroom life, particularly classrooms with low-readiness children and a diverse range of learners” (Beck and Juel, 1995, p. 5). 
  • “Most teachers are not being given the content and depth of training needed to enable them to provide appropriate instruction” (Brady and Moats, 1997, p.1).
  • “Teachers need ongoing professional development that has topical continuity, practical application, and opportunities for collaboration with peers” (Moats, 1999).
  • “‘Properly certified’ teachers are often ‘improperly prepared’ to deliver effective instruction” (Georgette Dickman, 2003).

These quotes go back more than twenty years; with the exception of rare pockets of excellence, the situation has not improved.

Teacher Knowledge

How children are taught depends on how teachers are taught.

The greatest resource that a teacher can have is knowledge: knowledge of what to teach and knowledge of how to teach. The failure of our “system of education” is not in our children’s classrooms, but in the colleges and universities responsible for equipping teachers with the knowledge to teach literacy skills. How children are taught depends on how teachers are taught. Giants in the field of teacher preparation have determined what teachers need to know to be effective. Why are teachers not being provided with this knowledge?

Dr. Susan Brady, Professor of School Psychology at the University of Rhode Island and a scientist affiliated with Haskins Laboratories at Yale University, reported that only 37% of colleges and universities with teacher preparation programs provide students with minimal exposure to the science of reading and that only eleven states mandate assessment of that knowledge (NCTQ, 2018). Dr. Brady, in a paper soon to be published, states, “Future elementary teachers responsible for teaching children how to read and special educators serving students with reading disabilities should be able to demonstrate that they have the knowledge and skills derived from the science of reading.”

If college and university professors do not teach current research, they do not imbue future teachers with the ability to provide their students with the superpower contained within the ability to read. One fix might be for all states to adopt teacher certification requirements that reflect current research and evidence-based practices. That would require colleges and universities to regularly update their curricula.

Leaders in the field of staff development know how to impact classroom practices. Why do school districts fail to implement meaningful staff development practices? When a mandate is issued from a superior authority (e.g., state board of education [SEA]), the apparent kneejerk reaction is to question how one can avoid the whip without doing the work. Stand and deliver forms of professional development may satisfy a mandated requirement, but do not meaningfully influence classroom practice.

Effective professional development requires strategic forethought based on evidence-based principles.

Dr. Michael Fullan and other experts in professional development have cracked the code. Are school districts just too lazy or uninformed to seek meaningful progress? Effective professional development requires strategic forethought based on evidence-based principles. Working harder may be impossible, but working smarter is always possible. Inertia is a force to be reckoned with in the field of education. Learning is a lifetime endeavor. A teacher who is not learning is not prepared to teach. The more we learn the more we realize how little we know. We should embrace the realization that knowledge is simply an ever-expanding awareness of our inadequacy that fosters openness to learning from others.

Cultural Imperative

Special education is a failure partly because it does not reflect an understanding that the skills required by the culture in which we live determine the content of what our children are expected to know. Knowledge and skills that schools teach to our children reflect ever changing cultural imperatives. Early communities taught children to hunt, fish, and gather; later, they learned to herd, grow crops, and barter; today, they need to learn to read, write, figure, socialize, and program computers. A so-called “learning disability” is simply a dissonant convergence of talent and cultural imperative.

The construct of learning disability that resonates most with me is a “learning disability” that reflects a natural variation in brain function predicting unexpected difficulty learning a skill and/or concept valued by the culture in which the individual is expected to perform. Education is ever on the move to catch up with cultural development. In 1820, the ability to read and write was not as important as eye-hand coordination and sense of direction. The inability to read was so common that the exception was when someone could read and write. However, those who could not shoot straight or find the way home had difficulty providing for their families and garnered the derision of their peers.

Development of social, emotional, metacognitive, and academic skills lags behind changes among cultural imperatives; the faster the cultural progress the more significant the gap becomes. The computer age has fueled a tsunami of cultural change that is leaving education ever further behind in its wake. Are terms like “executive function” and “theory-of-mind” indicative of newly recognized disabilities or recognition of a realignment of cultural imperatives that require skills previously not considered critical? The most powerful barrier to change is inertia. Mark Twain once said, “Everyone wants progress, but nobody likes change.”

Failure Model

Regardless of the quality of teacher knowledge, the core approach to determining eligibility for special education requires failure. Waiting for a student with predictable vulnerabilities to emotionally decompensate or become socially marginalized before providing services is a practical and moral failure. Children with learning issues are offered help only after the seeds of emotional decompensation are planted and the child has reaped a bitter harvest of failure. Waiting for the child to fail prevents intervention intended to avoid the disability. If the medical profession spent all of its resources on curing the sick rather than preventing the illness, we would still be struggling with mumps, measles, and smallpox.

Unfortunately, for children with learning challenges, the delays, systemic to the field of education in the U.S. result in a predictable progression of behavioral and psychological consequences.

Unfortunately, for children with learning challenges, the delays, systemic to the field of education in the U.S. result in a predictable progression of behavioral and psychological consequences.

Stage  1—A learning disability.

Stage  2—A learning disability plus failure.

Stage  3—A learning disability plus failure minus effort and motivation.              

In a personal conversation many years ago, my friend Barry Lorinstein, a neuropsychologist, aptly explained that “such a child would prefer to be seen as unwilling rather than unable.

Stage 4—A learning disability plus failure minus effort and motivation plus anxiety and depression.

The child is disempowered and believes that whatever happens is due to factors over which he has no influence.

These consequences not only impact the child, but they also burden middle and high school educators who must respond to avoidable consequences. Communities must meet the needs of post-secondary adults whose participatory potential has been compromised. The neurobiological seed results in a series of behavioral sequela with psychological impact that progresses in the following manner:

Each stage is exponentially more difficult to treat than the previous stage. Only the learning disability is intrinsic to the child.

  • Failure is the behavioral consequence of a lack of intervention.
  • Dissonance is the psychological impact of failure.
  • Effort is the behavioral casualty of dissonance—which triggers a psychological influence on locus of control causing hypervigilance and ultimately anxiety and depression.

The child is being punished for the failures of the system. Is the fruit to blame if the farmer is too lazy to harvest in a timely manner?

All too often, children are not provided help until at least Stage 3 when the child has adjusted to failure, finds little value in effort, and is disempowered. By Stage 4, the child is either withdrawn and invisible, a danger to self, or seen as a behavior problem. Behavior modification (i.e., operant conditioning) is used to control inappropriate behaviors. It seems similar to blaming the ground for the injuries suffered when someone is pushed off a roof. The system is unnecessarily reacting to the needs of a child with a learning disability every time it responds to avoidable emotional sequela without having provided timely intervention for the underlying learning disability. The child is being punished for the failures of the system. Is the fruit to blame if the farmer is too lazy to harvest in a timely manner?


The areas addressed include inadequate preservice teacher education, insufficient in-service staff development, rampant inertia within our system of education that undermines progress, and entrenched wait-to-fail eligibility models that preclude preventive intervention. In order to improve the success of special education, all of these elements must be addressed. All are necessary and not one of them is sufficient on its own. The greatest good is found by preventing need—not by postponing help.


Beck, I. L. and Juel, C. (Summer 1995). “The role of decoding in learning to read.”

American Educator 19 (2): 5.

Brady, S. and Moats, L. C. (1997). Informed Instruction for Reading Success: Foundations for Teacher Preparation. International Dyslexia Association: Baltimore, MD.

Dickman, G. (2003). “What constitutes an ‘informed teacher’ of structured language education?” Summer Newsletter. New Jersey Branch-International Dyslexia Association (NJBIDA).

Moats, L. (June 1999). Teaching Reading IS Rocket Science: What Expert Teachers of Reading Should Know and Be Able to Do. American Federation of Teachers: Washington, DC.

National Council on Teacher Quality. (2018). Teacher Prep Review. NCTQ: Washington, DC.


Emerson Dickman is an attorney and has been an advocate for individuals with disabilities and their families for more than forty years. Among the cases he has handled are leading precedents (New Jersey Supreme Court) protecting the due process rights of pupils in special education (Lascari) and the constitutional rights of adults with developmental disabilities (J.E.). Emerson is a past president of the International Dyslexia Association and a former IDA representative to the National Joint Committee on Learning Disabilities.  He is currently a member of the Professional Advisory Boards of the Center for Development and Learning and The Children’s Dyslexia Centers. In the past, he has served as secretary of the Arc of New Jersey, a member of the Professional Advisory Board for the National Center for Learning Disabilities (six years), a member of the Learning Disabilities Roundtable sponsored by the Division of Research to Practice of the U.S. Department of Education, chairman of the Protection and Advocacy Agency for the State of New Jersey (five years), and a founding board member and secretary of the Alliance for Accreditation and Certification (for Structured Language Education). Emerson has received numerous honors including the 2012 Margaret Byrd Rawson Lifetime Achievement Award from the International Dyslexia Association.

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