US federal and state laws do not explicitly refer to inclusive education. However, the National Centre for Educational Restructuring and Inclusion developed a definition of inclusion in education in 1995: ‘Providing to all students, including those with significant disabilities, equitable opportunities to receive effective educational services, with the needed supplementary aids and support services, in age appropriate classrooms in their neighbourhood schools, in order to prepare students for productive lives as full members of society.’ Although the 2001 No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) does not specifically mention inclusion, it mandates that US schools must be held accountable for education outcomes for all students, including those within any category of disability. In this respect all students must have access to the general education classroom setting with a common curriculum if they are to successfully meet education standards. Further, each and every student must be actively involved in curricular and co-curricular activities and included in district- and state-wide assessment.
Special education needs
With the passage of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), children from 13 categories of disabilities were entitled to a special education process. The categories covered by IDEA include autism, deaf-blindness, deafness, emotional disturbance, hearing impairment, intellectual disability, multiple disabilities, orthopoedic impairment, other health impairment (including attention deficit hyperactivity disorder), specific learning disability (including dyslexia, dyscalculia, dysgraphia and other learning differences), speech or language impairment, traumatic brain injury, and visual impairment including blindness. However, having one of these disabilities does not automatically qualify a child under IDEA. To be eligible, a student must have a disability and, as a result of that disability, need special education to make progress in school.
According to the California Education Code (Sec. 3030), individuals with exceptional needs are those who have been diagnosed with an impairment based on the results of an assessment and therefore require special education. The Education Code of Florida defines an exceptional student as ‘any student who has been determined eligible for a special program in accordance with rules of the State Board of Education’, including gifted students and students with disabilities (Sec. 1003.01). According to the Texas Education Code, students with special needs are those ‘who are at risk of dropping out of school, becoming substance abusers, participating in gang activity, or committing suicide’; ‘who are in need of modified instructional strategies’; or ‘who are gifted and talented’.
The 1975 IDEA, as amended in 2004, ensures that all children with disabilities have access to free appropriate public education through:
- Special education, which refers to specially designed instruction, including instruction conducted in regular classrooms, whenever possible, or at home, in hospitals and other institutions and settings, adapted as appropriate for the needs of the child in terms of content, methodology, or delivery of instruction (Sec. 300.39).
- Related services designed to meet their unique needs, such as transportation and developmental, corrective and other supportive services (Sec. 300.34).
With regards to special schools, there are two state schools for the deaf in California, known and designated as the California School for the Deaf, Northern California, and the California School for the Deaf, Southern California, and one for the blind, the California School for the Blind (Part 32, Education Code). In Florida, hearing-impaired and visually impaired students who meet enrolment criteria attend the Florida School for the Deaf and the Blind in St. Johns County, a public residential school from preschool through 12th grade (Sec. 1002.36 of the Education Code). Students with special needs who do not meet the criteria for regular school curricula are entitled to alternative measures for students with special needs or special programmes (Chapter 6A-6). Likewise, the Texas education system includes the Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired and the Texas School for the Deaf.
Ethnic and language groups and indigenous groups
As regulated in Title VI of the 2015 Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), Native American tribes and communities are entitled to receive tailored education in specific education centres that reflect their culture and community needs.
At state level, the California Education Code, Article 6, Sections 33380–33385, for instance, authorizes the establishment of American Indian education centres to operate in the state as educational resources. Collaboration with the centres occurs in needs identification, professional development activities, counselling and parent education activities. At present, there are around 20 centres, which also provide supplemental instructional programmes.
Early identification, screening and assessment
IDEA regulates learners’ needs identification and assessment. Infants and toddlers with disabilities, from birth through age 2, receive early intervention services under IDEA Part C. Children and youth aged 3 through 21 receive special education and related services under IDEA Part B. Once needs are identified, children are monitored every three years through a so-called triennial evaluation.
A team consisting of teachers, the parents, school administrators, support staff and any related services is responsible for developing and periodically reviewing an individualized education programme (IEP) with the parents’ consent. An IEP contains information pertaining to the student’s current performance and annual goals, identifying specific needs, available services and student progress.
The United States signed the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women in 1980 and the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities in 2009, but it has not ratified them.
Enforced by the Office of Civil Rights, Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act prohibits discrimination based on race, colour or national origin in programmes or activities receiving federal financial assistance. Likewise, Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 prohibits discrimination based on sex in education programmes and activities that receive federal financial assistance.
The 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) once represented the country’s main education law and commitment to equal education opportunities by financially supporting districts serving low-income students, backing special education centres, and granting textbooks and libraries. Reauthorizing that act, the 2001 NCLB aims to ensure that all children have a fair, equal and significant opportunity to obtain a high-quality education. Among other goals, it intends to meet the education needs of ‘low-achieving children in our Nation’s highest-poverty schools, limited English proficient children, migratory children, children with disabilities, Indian children, neglected or delinquent children, and young children in need of reading assistance’ (Sec. 1001). The NCLB focuses in particular on disadvantaged students, fostering the education system’s accountability mechanisms.
In 2010, the Obama administration released the Blueprint for Reform of the ESEA, calling for more equity and opportunities for all students through rigorous and fair accountability to meet the needs of diverse learners. Based on the blueprint, ESSA was signed in 2015, reauthorizing the ESEA and replacing the NCLB. ESSA took effect in the 2017/18 school year and takes into account achievements of disadvantaged students, including students in poverty, minorities, learners in special education and those with limited command of English.
The 1975 IDEA, reauthorized in 2004, is the main legal instrument regulating the provision of free and appropriate public education in public state schools, under federal law, to students with disabilities and establishing how states and public agencies provide early intervention and special education services. Eligible special education students are entitled to obtain education services in the least restrictive environment and in accordance with each student’s IEP. With the mandate to eliminate discrimination against individuals with disabilities, the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act provides consistent and enforceable standards but unlike IDEA does not regulate education provision.
In the education sector, the 2015 ESSA intends to ensure that learners with disabilities are provided with adequate services and support, minimizing special education provision. The act allocates new autonomy to states, for instance, in developing alternate academic achievement standards for learners with cognitive disabilities but ensuring they are able to pursue post-secondary education. For students with the most significant cognitive disabilities, states can use Alternate Assessment Aligned with Alternate Achievement Standards (AA-AAS). A novelty in the law concerns the possibility for states to issue alternative diplomas for learners who cannot meet the requirements for a regular one.
Federal regulations spell out how states must meet minimum criteria according to IDEA, but states can provide more protection. California, for instance, the most populous state in the United States, aligns the California Education Code with the IDEA regulations through the State Assembly Bill 1662 of 2005, which amended the special education statutes, and Assembly Bill 1841 of 2009, giving parents the authority to revoke consent for the provision of special education and related services. The California Code of Regulations, Title 5, Division 1, Chapter 3, on ‘Individuals with Exceptional Needs’, regulates special education from early identification to implementation. In Florida, in line with IDEA provisions, a child with disability is eligible for specialized instructional services (Sec. 1002.66). By a circumstance or condition, a student with a disability may be excluded from the administration of the assessment, as acknowledged by the IEP team (Sec. 1008.212). In Texas, the commissioner and the State Board of Education establish special education rules not required by IDEA or federal regulations, with a specific directive about the application of funds.
At federal level, discrimination in education programmes and activities based on sex is prohibited by Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, whose provisions were further expanded to include nondiscrimination because of pregnancy by the 1978 Pregnancy Discrimination Act. The 1979 Code of Federal Regulations aims to enforce Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 to eliminate discriminatory dispositions based on sex in any education programme or activity receiving federal financial assistance, including discrimination in STEM and athletics and based on pregnancy.
More recently, the 2001 NCLB, Subpart 21, the Women's Educational Equity Act, has promoted gender equity in education, enhancing education and career opportunities for women and girls who suffer multiple forms of discrimination based on sex as well as on race, ethnic origin, limited English proficiency, disability, socio-economic status or age. It further provides support for pregnant students and students rearing children to remain in or to return to education and ensures gender equality in the classroom regarding textbooks, curricula and other materials.
Following the achievements gained with Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 and the 2001 Women’s Educational Equity Act, the Student Non-Discrimination Act was proposed through federal legislation in 2018 to prohibit discrimination in public schools based on actual or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity. The bill intends to provide a comprehensive federal legislative framework, enforce effective remedies and promote the right to education in a safe environment. However, the term ‘sex’ in the text remains unclear.
At state level, California relies on the Sex Equity in Education Act (Sec. 221.5–231.5 of the Education Code) to pursue and regulate gender equality in education. In a notification from 2019, the Department of Education calls on schools receiving federal funding to strengthen their accountability mechanism to fully meet Title IX. Florida also prohibits gender discrimination in the Florida Educational Equity Act (Sec. 1000.05, 3[a]).
Ethnic and language groups and indigenous groups
In the wake of the US Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka regarding racial segregation in education and the civil rights movement in the 1960s, Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was adopted. It represents a landmark legislation, prohibiting discrimination based on race, colour or national origin in programmes and activities receiving federal financial assistance. In the education sector, the 2010 Blueprint for Reform of the ESEA draws specific attention to the education rights of American Indian students, Native Hawaiian students and Alaska Native students, which found legal foundations in Title VI of ESSA. The latter commits to supporting local education agencies and community-based organizations to meet the education and cultural needs of students belonging to those groups and to ensuring that curricula reflect their language and cultural characteristics.
ESSA intends to provide opportunities for communities to establish or expand activities in learning centres administrated by Indian tribes and communities, consistent with previous legislation that authorized the granting of funds to Indian tribes to administrate social services (Sec. 4201). With the 1972 Title VII of the Indian Education Act and in the 1975 Indian Self-Determination and Education Regulations, American Indian people and tribes were legitimated to take control over education provision.
In line with the 1965 Native Hawaiian Education Act, as amended in 2015, which recognizes Native Hawaiians as a distinct and unique indigenous people with a historical continuity, ESSA also reauthorized the Native Hawaiian Education Council to be responsible for the coordination and administration of funding for education services (Sec. 6204). Concerning Alaska Native students, ESSA acknowledges the geographic difficulties, historical inequities and other barriers the latter are facing and therefore intends to preserve and integrate their cultures and languages (Sec. 6004).
As envisioned in the 1990 Native American Languages Act, ESSA establishes a grant with the purpose to maintain, protect and promote the use and practice of Native American or Alaska Native language as a medium of instruction in elementary schools, secondary schools or both (Sec. 6133). A Native language immersion programme has been implemented as a model for enhancing cultural values through education. In these regards, the 2014 Native Language Immersion Student Achievement Bill aims to establish a special language grant programme for ethnic and linguistic groups.
People living in remote or rural areas
The 2010 Blueprint for Reform of the ESEA commits to allocating grants to rural districts through the Small, Rural School Achievement and the Rural and Low-Income School programmes. Section 5003 of ESSA is dedicated to a rural education initiative to address the specific needs of students in rural areas in terms of both formula grants and personnel and resource allocation.
Title IX of ESSA focuses on education for the homeless, amending Section 721 of the McKinney–Vento Homeless Assistance Act to improve the identification of homeless people and the capacity to respond to their needs.
Concerning poverty, specific attention is paid to so-called high-poverty schools, which are entitled to receive more per-pupil funding, and to high-need schools, which are public elementary schools or secondary schools located in areas with a high percentage of students from families with incomes below the poverty line.
Title III of ESSA, covering language instruction for English learners and immigrant students, provides funding to services designed to assist 3-to-21-year-old English learners, including immigrant children and youth, with English language learning and academic achievements. It further promotes parental and family participation in language instruction educational programmes.
Regarding migrant education, Title I, Section 1301 acknowledges the unique needs of migrant children and youth. To ensure they can benefit from full and appropriate opportunities, the federal provision assists states in supporting quality and comprehensive targeted education programmes and services.
Gifted and talented children
As established in ESSA, the Jacob K. Javits Gifted and Talented Students Education Programme is promoted to support elementary and secondary schools in the process of identifying gifted and talented students and meeting and addressing their special education needs (Sec. 4644).
In 2019, Texas adopted a state plan for the education of gifted and talented students. School districts are required to provide specific learning opportunities for such students, including instructional and organizational patterns to identify them and learning experiences that enable them to advance in their areas of strength.
The state and national governments share power over public education. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act, the 2004 amended version of IDEA, requires that local, state and federal authorities have policies and procedures in place to provide the ‘least restrictive environment possible’ for students with disabilities. The law also calls for greater accountability in terms of academic progress and students’ access to the general education curriculum with highly qualified teachers.
At the federal level, the government’s control is exerted through the Department of Education, which requires states to ensure that all government-run schools provide services to meet the individual needs of students with special needs. Under the authority of the Department of Education, the deputy secretary of education is in charge of the Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services, which is committed to improving results and outcomes for people with disabilities of all ages. That office administers the Office of Special Education Programmes, which is dedicated to improving results for infants, toddlers, children and youth with disabilities from birth to age 21 by providing leadership and financial support to states and local districts. The office supports research, demonstrations, technology and personnel development and parent training and information centres. In parallel, the Advisory Commission on Accessible Instructional Materials in Postsecondary Education for Students with Disabilities (2008–11) was established by the Higher Education Opportunity Act of 2008. The commission brought together government leaders, representatives from the publishing industry, individuals with print disabilities, representatives from institutions of higher education and leaders in accessible technology. Finally, the Office for Civil Rights, also under the direction of the US Department of Education, provides guidance on the civil rights of students with disabilities, for instance through a resource guide published in 2016.
The state or the school district evaluates the needs of students. The state and the community, as well as public and private organizations of all kinds, develop curricula, determine requirements for enrolment and graduation and provide early intervention services to students. States also develop clearly defined goals and proficiency standards and then assess whether individual students and schools meet those goals.
At the local level, schools meet with the parents or guardians to develop an IEP that determines the best placement for the child. If public schools do not provide appropriate placement for students with special needs, then parents can formally file complaints and demand appropriate services for the child.
The amended 2004 IDEA refers to the Americans with Disabilities Act’s Accessibility Guidelines for Buildings and Facilities, which include scoping and technical requirements for accessibility to buildings and facilities, including schools and education institutions, for individuals with disabilities.
Through different programmes (e.g. State Charter Schools Facilities Incentive Grants; Credit Enhancement for Charter School Facilities; ESSA; Alaska Native Educational Equity, Support, and Assistance Act), the US Department of Education has been providing support for charter schools, schools in rural districts and local education agencies, and schools with historically under-represented populations.
Consistent with IDEA, ESSA provides access to the general education curriculum to learners with disabilities (Sec. 1111.E.II). It further prohibits states from penalizing migrant children in curriculum and graduation requirements (Sec. 1301.2). In order to integrate, develop and support Alaska Native identity, the curriculum is locally adapted and reflects cultural diversity, languages and history (Sec. 6304.3).
In Texas, the State Board of Education is responsible for adopting and periodically reviewing the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS) for each subject of the required curriculum. TEKS is also available in Spanish from kindergarten to grade 6.
ICT and learning materials
As stated in IDEA, school districts are required to make instructional materials accessible to blind students and to those with visual impairments.
The Texas Education Code (Sec. 31.028) regulates special instructional materials for the blind and learners with visual impairments to convey information to a student or teacher. The code also requires school districts to provide bilingual instructional materials for classes in English and Spanish. The Florida K-20 Education Code mandates school districts to provide digital and instructional materials to students with disabilities up to grade 12 and states that the IEP shall reflect the use of these media.
Following up on the NCLB, the US Department of Education together with the LEP (limited English proficient) Partnership launched a joint initiative to improve assessment of the command of the English language. The federal department supported the development of technical assistance projects to help states in their assessment policies.
The 2010 Blueprint for Reform of the ESEA draws special attention to teachers and principals’ professional development and recruitment. With regards to inclusive recruitment, the 2015 ESSA intends to increase the opportunities for students belonging to minority groups and/or from low-income households to access teacher, principal and other school leadership professions (Sec. 2001.4). It further plans to develop assistive mechanisms to effectively recruit and retain teachers from under-represented minority groups and teachers with disabilities (Sec. 21001.4.B.v).
With the purpose of improving teacher preparation, the 2016 Teacher Preparation Regulations aim to increase accountability and transparency in teacher preparation programmes and requirements, which remain a state prerogative. Acknowledging the key role of teachers, the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development and the US Department of Education launched an initiative at federal level, Teach to Lead, aiming to support teacher leadership in improving education opportunities to all students.
The National Center for Culturally Responsive Educational Systems receives funds from the US Department of Education’s Office of Special Education Programmes to provide technical assistance and professional development on culturally responsive pedagogy for practitioners.
The 2009 California Standards for the Teaching Profession, for example, acknowledged the need for teachers to be responsive towards learners’ diversity in terms of sociocultural, racial, religious, ethnic, linguistic and economic backgrounds, learning differences and abilities, gender and gender identity, family structure and sexual orientation. Based on a study report which stressed the need to strengthen the focus on students with disabilities, on those from minority groups and on learners from low-income households, the 2015 Quality Professional Learning Standards aim to assist educators with the development of equitable and inclusive practices.
Florida’s K-20 Education Code establishes that teacher preparation programmes must include tailored strategies based on student needs and appropriate indications for the instruction of English-language learners and students with disabilities (Sec. 1004.04.2).
The requirements and qualifications for teachers working with children and youth with disabilities are regulated at the state level. The federal IDEA sets general objectives, including to ensure that regular teachers have the necessary skills and knowledge to provide instruction to students with disabilities in the regular education classroom. It further establishes that the use of new technologies and early intervention, education and transition services must be included in pre- and in-service training and promotes collaboration between special and general education teachers (Sec. 662.a). Specific funds are allocated to trainings for both regular and special education teachers to address the needs of students with ‘different learning styles’ (Sec. 663.b.3).
In Texas, for instance, all teacher candidates in an educator preparation programme must be trained in detection and education of students with dyslexia.
The Women's Educational Equity Act (Subpart 21, Sec. 5613[b][A][ii]) provides training for teachers and all school personnel, including counsellors and administrators, in gender equality practices.
Ethnic and linguistic groups and indigenous groups
In order to improve education opportunities for American Indian children and youth, ESSA encourages the recruitment and retention of qualified Indian teachers and administrators serving Indian students and the provision of pre- and in-service training and support to qualified Indian individuals who are willing to become teachers or schools professionals (Sec. 6121.1).
The National Center for Education Statistics provides annual education reports.
The California Department of Education collects national data and statistics from schools and learning support resources, while the Texas Education Agency maintains one of the largest education databases monitoring multiple indicators on special education and student demographics.
In Florida, data is collected and presented on the PK-12 Education Information Service (EIS) publications and reports website. The EIS website includes current publications as well as historical data archives. Regarding special education data, Florida’s Bureau of Exceptional Education and Student Services focuses on monitoring special education services and programmes throughout the state.
The 2015 ESSA does not demand that states submit data on the number and percentage of students in each student subgroup who are not included in the state accountability system nor on the use of the AA-AAS.