The number of students in special education in the United States has doubled over the past four decades, with schools responsible for providing special services to a growing segment of their student bodies.
Almost 7.3 million students, or 14.7 percent of all public school students nationwide, needed special education services in the 2021-22 school year. That meant the share of students in special education was at an all-time high since federal law began to guarantee all students with disabilities the right to free, appropriate public education, according to the latest National Center for Education Statistics data.
In 2011-12, that share was about 13 percent of all students. In 1976-77, the first year when the U.S. Department of Education collected this data following the 1975 passage of the Education for All Handicapped Children Act, students in special education made up 8 percent of the overall student population.
Under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), which the nation’s special education law has been called since 1990, every student in special education has to be served by an individualized education program, also known as an IEP.
Schools and parents collaborate to develop an IEP to meet each student’s unique educational needs. There can be dozens of reasons a student needs an IEP, including physical or mental health conditions, learning disabilities, and developmental delays.
The increase in the percentage of students on IEPs isn’t necessarily a bad thing, according to experts. While it could signal that traditional classrooms are less suited to meet the instructional needs of a growing segment of America’s student population, it could also mean that educators have become better at identifying when students need special services and parents have become less resistant to seeking them out for their children
The increasing share of students who need special education can mean that a larger share of students aren’t getting their needs met through regular education.
“General education has become less, not more, capable of accommodating the needs of a lot of kids,” said Doug Fuchs, a research professor in the special education and psychology departments at Vanderbilt University.
“And I think that more and more parents and advocates are realizing that the general classroom … just cannot stretch itself to legitimately meet the needs of kids.”
The increase in students with IEPs can also be attributed to better recognition and diagnosis of common conditions such as autism spectrum disorder and ADHD, as well as less stigma among parents about seeking special services for their children, according to Tessie Bailey, principal consultant for the American Institutes for Research and director of the federally funded PROGRESS Center, which conducts research and advocates for students with disabilities.
Another positive reason IEPs are increasing is educators are recognizing students who need additional support, she said.
“Greater accountability is making schools aware that kids are struggling,” Bailey said. “So they’re intervening earlier, where before kids would have just dropped out of school.”
Here are some reasons experts say have contributed to the increase in the number of students with IEPs over the past few decades.
Inflexible curriculums, overemphasis on academics leave students’ needs unmet
Over the years, regular education classrooms have been meeting the academic, social, and emotional needs of students in regular education, the experts who spoke to Edudcation Week said.
According to Bailey, that may be because curriculums or classrooms are inflexible, or less accepting of differences between how students learn and behave, which leads to the identification of some students as needing special services, as opposed to adapting the system to make it more accessible to a broader range of students.
There is also an “over focus” on academics in regular education, and a lack of focus on social, emotional, and behavioral skills necessary to function in school, she said. Not meeting students’ social emotional needs is likely to lead to an increase in mental health issues or executive functioning problems that could be identified as disabilities, she said.
Additionally, the ever increasing rigor of grade level standards is another contributing cause, according to Fuchs.
It’s harder to achieve grade level performance in 2023 than it was two or three decades ago, but the resources and classroom supports have not increased proportionally, leading more students to seek out specialized instruction, he said.
“Kids in the school age population are being affected by things like the general classroom no longer being able to provide intensive instruction, and increasing standards,” he said.
“So there’s a greater number of kids who are struggling and some of these kids, eventually get identified or get assessed for a possible disability.”
Autism and ADHD diagnoses drive increase in students receiving IEPs
Autism is one of the 13 categories of disabilities for which students can get IEPs. In 2021-22, it accounted for more than 12 percent of all students on IEPs.
But autism was not even added as a disability category under IDEA until 1990, according to NCES data. Since it was added, the number of students on IEPs with autism has steadily increased. In 2021-22, there were about 882,000 students who had IEPs because of autism spectrum disorder, up from about 93,000 in 2001-02.
Prior to 1990, students who might have been neurodivergent wouldn’t have qualified for IEPs, but now they do, Bailey said.
Although ADHD does not have its own category, students diagnosed with ADHD can get IEPs under the “other health impairment” category. Medical diagnosis and parental awareness of the condition have also increased over the years, leading to more students with this type of disability being served under IDEA, Bailey said.
Decreased stigma leads to increased IEP support for students
Over the past few decades, the social stigma surrounding disabilities has been reduced, according to Bailey and Fuchs. Parents are now more likely to admit that their child may be struggling in school and seek an IEP, the experts said.
“For a long time, parents were very reluctant to identify that their kid was struggling and there’s been a lot of work to help parents feel more positive about getting an IEP, particularly for kids who are neurodivergent,” Bailey said.
“We used to associate special education with negativity, right? But now, there is a much greater positive association to getting supports.”
Specifically, Fuchs said, increased awareness and reduced stigma may have their greatest effect in motivating parents to seek help for learning disabilities, behavior disorders, and speech and language impairments, three of the 13 categories for which students can get an IEP. Learning disabilities represent the largest category.
Learning disabilities account for almost a third of all students with IEPs, or 2.3 million students in 2021-22.