Research News

Return to special education’s roots needed for children with severe learning needs

There are two major schools of thought when it comes to educating children and youth with severe learning needs and both are off target, researchers from Vanderbilt and Clemson universities report. The researchers argue a return to the original principles of special education that is informed by modern data and techniques is needed to reform both general and special education.

The report by Vanderbilt University researchers Douglas Fuchs and Lynn Fuchs and Clemson University ’s Pamela Stecker was published in the spring issue of the journal Exceptional Children .

“There are two major schools of thought when it comes to special education, and they have different views on what would constitute reform. Our predominant point is that neither group has proposed viable solutions for the bottom 10, 15 or 20 percent of the student population,” Douglas Fuchs said. “These students are being forsaken, and have been forsaken for a long time. What we should be doing is preparing teachers better and differently for this group of kids.”

The two schools of thought, as defined by the authors, fall generally under the headers of those educators, policymakers and researchers whose touchstone is the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act or IDEA, which supports sorting children based on initial screenings and subsequent responses to intervention, and those who are aligned with the standards-driven general education reform outlined by the No Child Left Behind Act, or NCLB. The two have different interpretations of the major federal, state and local policy driver behind special education, which is known as response-to-intervention or RTI.

A problem with both schools of thought, Fuchs says, is both have moved away from treating special education as a distinct specialty, one that needs to be brought back.

“Over the years there’s been a very dramatic shift in the role of special education in this country. In the past, special educators were trained to become expert instructors. They knew how to teach reading and math several different ways, they had their own place, their own room and their own materials and techniques,” he said. “Over time they have lost all of that and have been blurred into general education. As a result, no one is an expert any longer; everyone has interchangeable roles. The loss of technical expertise is the dark side of inclusion.”

Fuchs and his co-authors propose a return to specialty expertise and training using the latest data and methodology to teach the most severely disabled students.

“We’re proposing a back-to-the-future approach, in a sense. We need to rediscover the initial mission of special education by working with the most difficult-to-teach kids, using an approach sometimes referred to as experimental teaching, in which teachers are trained to be both a clinician and an experimenter,” he said. “We now know much more about instructional programs and techniques. We need to bring back the concept of experimental teachers, informed by cutting edge assessment and techniques, to truly serve these students and continue special education’s necessary and noble tradition.”

Douglas Fuchs is professor and Nicholas Hobbs Chair in Special Education and Human Development at Vanderbilt University’s Peabody College. Lynn Fuchs is also professor and Nicholas Hobbs Chair in Special Education and Human Development. Pamela Stecker is professor of special education at Clemson University’s Eugene T. Moore School of Education .

For more information about Peabody College, visit .

Media contact: Melanie Moran, (615) 322-NEWS