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Introduction to the Statewide Task Force on Special Education.




Introduction (current page)

  1. Early Learning
  2. Evidence-Based School and Classroom Practices
  3. Educator Preparation and Professional Learning
  4. Assessment
  5. Accountability
  6. Family and Student Engagement
  7. Special Education Financing





Report of California's Statewide Task Force on Special Education

Public education in this country is its own version of Lady Liberty, beckoning all children to enter schools and to learn. But children enter classrooms not simply as children; they are individuals who come from varying backgrounds and bring with them diversely different experiences. Some are English Language Learners. Some come from poverty. Some have histories of abuse, neglect, or trauma. Some are foster or adopted youth. Many come from language-rich environments, with countless experiences of books, print, and technology, while others come from environments where books are rare and language is infrequent. And then some students are incarcerated. These differences require schools to serve students differently, in ways that align resources, supports, and services to the learning needs of each individual who is so uniquely shaped by those many different kinds of backgrounds and experiences.

When a child who is also a child with a disability comes to school, that child often requires additional supports and services of specially designed instruction, behavioral supports, mental health supports, language supports, etc. The key word here is “additional.” A student who is an English language learner and is identified as a student with a disability needs supports in English language development and special education. The child with a disability who is in foster care needs social-emotional and behavioral supports and special education services. Children who come from impoverished homes with little experience of language and books need opportunities to develop their literacy skills and early intervening services to prevent them from being referred to special education for a learning disability.

The state’s new Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF) was designed to ensure that students actually do receive all necessary and appropriate supports and services. The LCFF accomplishes this by providing more funding for students with the greatest needs, specifically English language learners, low-income students, and foster youth. The LCFF works by aligning local budgets and resource allocations with local goals and state priorities to improve student outcomes. By requiring each school district, county office of education (COE), and charter school to adopt a Local Control and Accountability Plan (LCAP), the LCFF also links transparency and accountability directly to the local budgeting process. As they team the fiscal and instructional planning processes at the local level and require stakeholder engagement, LCFF and LCAP are intended to ensure more cooperative and comprehensive discussions about how to improve outcomes for all students.

But separate instructional services, accountability patterns, and reporting requirements still exist for special education in California. This separation contributes to a special education system that is “siloed” in much of its implementation and less effective than it could be. Far too many children and youth with disabilities in California are not acquiring the skills they will need to secure stable employment when they become adults, succeed in postsecondary education, and live independently.

The Law

The federal Education for All Handicapped Children Act, Public Law 94-142 passed in 1975, became one of the most dynamic pieces of legislation in the history of the country. The initial iteration of this law required states, school districts, and charter schools to provide services to students with disabilities (SWDs). Five years prior, schools in the United States were educating only one in five children with disabilities, and many states had laws that excluded from school those who were deaf, blind, emotionally disturbed, or mentally challenged.1 More than 200,000 people with mental disabilities who had not been taught how to live independently were warehoused under the grimmest of conditions in state institutions, many of which offered only “minimal food, clothing, and shelter.”2 Children with learning disabilities were usually allowed to attend school, but they typically were not assessed to identify or support their specific needs. In order to arrange even minimal services for their children, parents in many states often had to file lawsuits and assert their rights under the Equal Protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.3 Indeed, it was parents and their advocates who created much of the political will for the 1975 law and for the continuing changes and improvements that are reflected in its subsequent reauthorizations.

Later reauthorized and re-titled the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), the law promises that children and their parents are welcomed into the hallways and classrooms of every public school and that their needs will be met by expert teachers and other highly trained personnel. To the greatest extent possible, these services are to be provided to students alongside their nondisabled peers; with additional help in place, SWDs are expected to meet the same academic standards.

A great deal of progress has been made since the law went into effect. Students are no longer turned away from schools or warehoused; their needs are documented in Individualized Education Programs (IEPs); specially trained teachers and other staff members address students’ unique learning needs; students are regularly assessed, and their progress is monitored. Should a school district or a state fail to meet the letter of the law, parents have a right to fair hearings and adjudication.

Despite this progress, mechanisms for delivering special education supports in California are severely hampered by inadequate services prior to kindergarten, financing that often does not meet the needs of students and that is unequally provided throughout the state, short-sighted teacher preparation and licensing practices, chronically lowered expectations for many SWDs, and a failure within schools and classrooms to consistently use the very evidence-based practices that are being used successfully in other parts of the country.

The facts reveal the results:

  • Approximately 60 percent of California’s SWDs graduate from high school, compared to a 78 percent graduation rate for students without IEPs.
  • The 2013 test results for English and language arts on the Standardized Testing and Reporting (STAR) showed that, among third graders with disabilities, only 26 percent were proficient or advanced. The California Modified Assessment registered similar results: only 27 percent of students scored at proficient or advanced levels on this test. Among all California students in the same grade, 45 percent were proficient or advanced.4
  • In 2011–12, only about 40 percent of SWDs passed the California High School Exit Examination (CAHSEE) as tenth graders, compared to 87 percent of students without disabilities. For the class of 2012, only 56 percent of SWDs had passed the CAHSEE by the end of twelfth grade, compared to 95 percent of students without disabilities.
  • Data from the CDE (2012) lists the dropout rate for SWDs as 15.5 percent, while the dropout rate for all students is 11.4 percent.5 However, this number may underestimate the number of SWDs who fail to graduate because they often transfer to alternative schools or GED programs (and thus are not counted as dropping out), but then fail to graduate. We also know that there is a severe overrepresentation of SWDs among California’s high school dropouts and among incarcerated youth.
  • Of students who were tracked in the CDE’s Annual Performance Report for 2012–13, 32.8 percent of the SWDs were enrolled in higher education programs; the goal was for 50 percent to enroll. The report also noted that 41.3 percent of SWDs were enrolled in higher education or competitive employment, while the goal was for 65 percent to meet either criterion. However, even these numbers may reflect more optimism than reality. Most states lack an educational data system that tracks students once they leave high school, so it is nearly impossible to know what higher education choices most students make.
  • However, we do know that the achievement levels of SWDs in California are among the lowest in all of the 50 states.6 (See appendix A.)

Especially alarming is the fact that SWDs experience fewer employment opportunities and decreased lifetime earnings compared to their peers without disabilities. Yet the majority of SWDs do not have intellectual disabilities and thus should be achieving the same high standards as their general education peers—as long as they’re receiving appropriate services and supports. And we’re finding that those who do have intellectual disabilities can achieve at much higher rates than we had previously realized—as long as they’re given appropriate services and supports.

The statistics above point to a clear need for improvement in both the schools and the organizations that guide them. However, one need look no further than the prison system to be convinced of the real human cost of the system’s failures. Some researchers have found that upwards of 70 percent of juveniles who are arrested had been identified as needing special education services.7 This would mean the vast majority of adults in the burgeoning prison system were at one time SWDs.

Instead of opening a door to a brighter future, special education for many students is a dead end. Once identified as needing special services, particularly for learning disabilities, students rarely catch up to their peers. Those who do not require separate settings in order to succeed end up spending most of their instructional time apart from general education settings, where the instruction is often academically richer and the social interactions more reflective of the world that students will inhabit as adults.

Special education too often becomes a place students go, rather than a set of supports to help students succeed.

Table 1: Current Year - Graduation Rate Results

Groups 2012
Cohort Graduation Rate (class of 2010–11)
Cohort Graduation Rate (class of 2011–12)
Target Graduation Rate
Graduation Rate Criteria Met
Target Graduation Rate (Class of 2012–13)
Exclusion / Alternative Method
Black or African American
American Indian or Alaska Native
Hispanic or Latino
Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander
Two or More Races
Socioeconomically Disadvantaged
English Learners
Students with Disabilities


Graduation Rate Criteria: (1) met or exceeded the goal of 90%, or (2) met the fixed target graduation rate, or (3) met the variable target graduation rate. Fixed and variable target graduation rates are calculated for local educational agencies and schools that have not reached the 90% goal.

Source: CDE DataQuest

The Challenge

For decades, parents, educators, and policymakers have worked to identify the barriers to success for SWDs and to find ways to improve the system. In 1990, California developed a Strategic Plan for special education. The Special Education Division of the CDE has highlighted the issues articulated in that plan and has since suggested additional solutions. So far, however, school results for SWDs continue to fall well below the national average.

These disappointing outcomes are not the result of any lack of desire or commitment. Professionals at every level work hard to help SWDs learn and prepare for adulthood. But California’s system of education is its own country: huge and complicated. The challenge is not that we don’t know what to do to fix it. Effective, research-based practices have been identified and promulgated for years. The most difficult challenge is always knowing where and how to begin, particularly when the complex system that needs changing contains multiple parts and players, disparate divisions that operate under no single governing force, ostensible sanctions that have no teeth, and often competing requirements and agendas.

For students who are blind or who are deaf, California’s special schools provide exemplary learning environments.8 And pockets of excellence also exist in other schools and in districts throughout the state; in fact, SWDs in some of these schools are realizing unprecedented success.9 But excellence and the possibility of success should be available to all. The desire to see that excellence in every school is what fomented a creative discontent that led to this report.

The Task Force

The California Statewide Special Education Task Force was formed in 2013 to study the causes of the state’s poor outcomes for SWDs—infants, toddlers, preschoolers, and students in the kindergarten-through- high-school system, from birth to age 22, all served in California under the IDEA. Made up of a group of representative stakeholders, the group was charged with studying exactly why special education is not more successful and what must be changed in both policy and practice to improve services for all children.

Much of what is presented here will seem familiar to most educators. Many of the issues discussed were described 25 years ago in that 1990 Strategic Plan and continue to be promoted by the Special Education Division. However, the Task Force hopes that this report will provide a thoughtful, motivational beacon and not be just one more document that people acknowledge as generally accurate but that sits on shelves and effects no lasting change.

The group has reason for optimism. This report has grown out of the work of dedicated parents and seasoned professionals who, through the generosity of the sponsors, have had the advantage and luxury of stepping temporarily out of the difficult and demanding day-to-day hard work of teaching and administering to imagine how to reform the state’s approach to serving children with disabilities. The underlying charge of this task force was to shape “a comprehensive and lasting picture.” Providing even more solid ground for this optimism are the new and transformational initiatives that the state is now in various stages of implementing. For all students and all schools, California has adopted the Common Core State Standards, new assessments aligned with those standards, new approaches to school discipline, a new system of financing public education, and a mechanism that allows parents and taxpayers to see how public dollars are being spent to serve the needs of all children. All of these changes are designed to improve the achievement of all students, increase high school graduation rates, and ensure that more of the state’s high school graduates are prepared for the demands of college, career, and adult community life.

A Better Approach

This Task Force envisions general education and special education working together seamlessly as one system that is designed to address the needs of all students—as soon as those needs are apparent. Within that system, SWDs receive effective services, learn in classrooms that are guided by rigorous standards alongside their general education peers when appropriate, and are equipped to make their own way as adults. Within this coherent system, services for children with disabilities are provided from the time they are born through preschool and until they graduate with a high school diploma or reach the age of 22; they are devised and implemented by well-prepared general education and special education teachers who work in collaboration.

High-quality, integrated services may be provided in either mainstream or specialized settings, depending on what most effectively meets students' needs. For example, some very effective programs, particularly for students with low-incidence disabilities, operate in separate settings, which must also be of the highest quality in a unified system. California’s Statewide Task Force on Special Education embraces the value and importance of highly specialized programs for students with low-incidence disabilities; these programs are often in separate settings and are shown to have efficacy.10

The purpose of this report is to examine the larger system.11 Since the 1990 Strategic Plan, we have known that our schools are not as efficacious as they could be for the majority of students: SWDs whose least restrictive environment is the general education classroom and who could achieve rigorous standards if provided appropriate services and supports and all students who find themselves struggling but who never receive the help that “catches them before they fall.”12

The intent of this report is to identify specifically what is getting in the way of the vision described above and to outline how to realize it, with recommendations for both policy and practice.

What Does This Mean?

In a coherent system of education, all children and SWDs are considered general education students first; and all educators, regardless of which students they are assigned to serve, have a collective responsibility to see that all children receive the education and the supports they need to maximize their development and potential, allowing them to participate meaningfully in the nation’s economy and democracy.

The vision:

  • From birth to age 22, all children are regularly assessed for developmental and school progress and provided early intervention supports and services at the first sign of a problem or struggle.
  • All teachers and administrators, both general and special education, know how to work together in a seamless and coordinated instructional system to ensure that only evidence-based practices are used with all children, and that all children receive an appropriate, rigorous, standards-based curriculum.
  • Families are valued and are treated as an integral part of both general and special education efforts and are considered their children’s first and most important teachers.
  • Special education funding from local, state, and federal sources supports integrated services and appropriate opportunities for SWDs to learn alongside their general education peers, when appropriate; this funding is adequate for serving students’ needs, regardless of how severely affected they are by their disabilities.
  • Class size and caseloads are carefully regulated and monitored so that teachers and other educators can effectively implement this coherent system with fidelity.

Were these elements in place, students who struggle to compute or read, such as those with dyscalculia or dyslexia, would receive specialized help as soon as they need it. These children’s difficulties would be identified in preschool or even before. Research has shown for years that, with appropriate supports, they may well catch up with their peers by the time they enter kindergarten.13,14

Kindergarten and elementary school teachers would have at their fingertips numerous, research-supported approaches to targeting specific needs. The child who continues to struggle would receive more intensive levels of support. If that didn’t work, then teachers would use other, more concentrated and targeted approaches, closely monitoring the results and using data to decide what else might be done.

Special education teachers hold a critical place in this system, selecting, designing, and delivering appropriate early intervening services and, when it becomes apparent that extra, scaffolded and targeted supports are not producing the desired effect, providing the additional special education services that only a teacher trained specifically for this role can provide. Even then, most children would spend as much time as possible with their classmates in their general education classrooms.

Central to a coherent system is the development of a culture of collaboration and coordination across the numerous educational and service agencies that influence how children are educated.

Special Education and General Education: The Nexus

Many of the changes recommended and implied in this vision require general education initiatives. And this report comes from a Special Education Task Force. But from its inception, federal disabilities law envisioned special education as a set of special supports and services integral to and seamlessly coordinated with general education. The Task Force believes that this vision has been sidetracked and that the resulting division—with general education and special education viewed as separate entities—represents one of the two primary reasons special education in this state has not been more effective. The Task Force is convinced that significant barriers to school success for SWDs have grown out of this unfortunate evolution of two separate “educations.” Expectations and services for students, teacher preparation and credentialing, and funding are compromised as a result.

The second but perhaps the primary reason for the existing failure of our school system to adequately educate all students is the dearth and inadequate implementation of early intervening services. Research shows that well- timed and well-executed early intervention reduces the number of students with learning disabilities—by far the largest cohort in the special education ranks—and improves school outcomes for everyone.15 Those students who benefit from separate and specialized settings, in particular students who are deaf, especially benefit from early intervening services.16

However, regardless of the challenge or disability, without a robust and coordinated system of early intervention, many students are deprived of the chance to realize their full potential. Without this system, schools are saddled with burdensome costs for services, which, once children become adults, are then handed on to society at large, contributing to state and national spending on public assistance, social service, and incarceration. Early intervention—in learning, in behavior, in physical challenges—has been proven time and again to provide exponential return on that first investment.

This Report

This Task Force sees the challenge of effectively educating SWDs as existing within seven distinct—though deeply interconnected—parts of the educational system in California:

  • Early Learning
  • Evidence-based School and Classroom Practices
  • Educator Preparation and Professional Learning
  • Assessment
  • Accountability
  • Family and Student Engagement
  • Special Education Financing

If early intervening and coordinated services were provided in preschool and early education; if schools were designed around evidence-based practices that reflected a commitment to early intervention and that were coordinated and coherent at every level; if teacher preparation and ongoing professional learning opportunities were structured in direct alignment with that coordinated system; if accountability for all students were expected and required; if a rigorous and adaptive system of assessment were in place; if parents were included and supported in every aspect of that system and students given full and appropriate voice; and if financing were seamlessly coordinated and designed with the knowledge that strategically provided services cost a fraction of what ends up being needed when those services are not provided, then California would have more than a school system to be proud of. This golden state would possess the key that “unlock[s] the golden door of freedom.”17

One Coherent, Integrated System for All

Imagine enhancing throughout California the potential of more than one million citizens, whose educational accomplishments, contribution to the common welfare, and capacity as productive, thriving adults had never before been fully supported or realized. Imagine the boost to the economy and to civic engagement, not to mention the increased happiness in the lives of these many people.

Students with disabilities represent this cohort. Currently our schools are not successfully educating them. But we can change this.

Now imagine a girl named Amelia who enters kindergarten without any preschool experience. Both of her parents work multiple jobs to provide for her and her brothers, but they have few extra resources and little extra time. So at six years old Amelia knows very little of books or the alphabet. She feels lost on her first day of school, where pictures of letters abound and books are everywhere.

The first thing Amelia’s kindergarten teacher does is assess all of his students to determine their academic and social-emotional strengths and needs. Through this process he discovers why Amelia feels lost and spends the first few months of school helping her develop pre- and early-literacy skills. Because he quickly identifies the source of Amelia’s struggle and immediately gives her the help she needs—and because before children turn ten they readily recover ground in most learning deficits when they’re given appropriate supports—by midyear Amelia has caught up to her peers. She learns to love reading and school. She ends up graduating from high school with her class and is the first person in her family to earn a college degree.

Imagine what might have happened if Amelia’s teacher had not assessed her skills—and identified the true source of her deficits. Imagine how Amelia’s frustrations would have grown if her teacher assumed she knew what she didn’t, or if her teacher didn’t know how to help her catch up. In that situation, most of us would either withdraw or act out. So since Amelia is like the rest of us, she ends up with both a behavioral problem and a reading problem. By third grade she’s labeled a failed reader, is doing poorly in school, and ends up assessed for a disability, eventually being given a“specific learning disability” label. She never likes school, never catches up, and drops out as soon as she can.

Apply that second lens to James, a boy with cerebral palsy, whose significant, multiple disabilities have left him unable to use his limbs or speak, but whose mind is sharp and ability to learn high. Under our current system, James—who is difficult to assess and often unable to express what he knows and wants—is taught by a special education teacher who is separately credentialed to teach only students with significant disabilities. James is placed in a “special day class,” where instruction is provided to him and other students from many different grade levels and with many different kinds of disabilities, most affecting cognitive function. James ends up not having access to grade-level content standards and instruction. Further, because James does not have much (if any) interaction with his peers in general education classrooms, he can’t benefit from the interesting questions, discussions, and challenging discourse that most students experience and that are an important part of schooling.

Our classrooms are replete with similar narratives that reflect systemic dysfunction. And while the scenarios above are somewhat simplistic, in broad strokes they suggest two things: our schools and classrooms need to be designed to support all students; and too often they do an inadequate job of educating the students who don’t fit a common mold.

  1. “History: 25 Years of Progress in Educating Children with Disabilities Through IDEA.” External link opens in new window or tab. (PDF) U.S. Office of Special Education Programs. U.S. Department of Education. 2000.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Ibid.
  4. STAR results External link opens in new window or tab.
  5. California Department of Education (2014). Cohort outcome data for the class of 2012–2013: Statewide results.
  6. Blume, H. (June 24, 2014). California ranks poorly in services to disabled students. External link opens in new window or tab. Los Angeles Times.
  7. The National Center on Education, Disability, and Juvenile Justice. External link opens in new window or tab. Special Education in correctional facilities.
  8. Decisions about the most appropriate settings must take into account where students can be best served. “The demand for a continuation of special schools is based on the facts that appropriate services for low-incidence populations such as blind and deaf students are unavailable in many regular classrooms, that many SWDs fail in regular classrooms, and that, for deaf children, adequate language and psychological development and cultural and socialization opportunities can only be found in special schools.” National Council on Disability. Report to the President and Congress of the United States. External link opens in new window or tab.
  9. Huberman, M. & Parrish, T. (2011). Lessons from California district showing unusually strong academic performance for students in special education. California Comprehensive Center.
  10. However, a full continuum of services and placement options must be maintained for every student. “The process for determining the educational placement for children with low-incidence disabilities (including children who are deaf, hard of hearing, or deaf-blind) is the same process used for determining the educational placement for all children with disabilities. That is, each child's educational placement must be determined on an individual case-by-case basis depending on each child's unique educational needs and circumstances, rather than by the child's category of disability." Comments and discussion to 2006 IDEA Part B Regulations, 71 Fed. Reg. 46586 (2006).
  11. “Pupils with low-incidence disabilities, as a group, make up less than 1 percent of the total statewide enrollment for kindergarten through grade 12.”
  12. Torgeson, J. K. (Spring/Summer 1998). Catch them before they fall: Identification and assessment to prevent reading failure in young children. External link opens in new window or tab. (PDF) American Educator.
  13. The Washington Post. (February 3, 2015). Study: High-quality early childhood education could reduce costs. External link opens in new window or tab.
  14. Shaywitz, S. E., & Shaywitz, B. (March 2004). Reading disability and the brain. Educational Leadership, 61(6), pp. 6–11. External link opens in new window or tab. (PDF)
  15. U.S. Department of Education. (1999). Start early, finish strong: How to help every child become a reader. External link opens in new window or tab.
  16. Hearing “is critical for the development of speech, language, communication skills, and learning. The earlier hearing loss occurs in a child's life, the more serious the effect on the child’s development. Similarly, the earlier the hearing loss is identified and intervention begun, the more likely it is that any delays in speech and language development will be diminished. Recent research indicates that children identified with hearing loss who begin services before 6 months old develop language (spoken or signed) on a par with their hearing peers.” American Speech/Language/Hearing Association. External link opens in new window or tab.
  17. George Washington Carver.
Questions:   Special Education Division | | 916-445-4613
Last Reviewed: Monday, May 8, 2023
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    The content appearing on the following web pages was originally published in March 2015 as One System: Reforming Education to Serve ALL Students, Report of California's Statewide Task Force on Special Education.
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