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Helping All Learners: Policy

What does the phrase "special populations" actually mean? 

Created By

EL Education

Topic

  • Differentiation
  • Professional Development

Type

Online Learning

"Special populations" is a term with many meanings in education. It has impact on policy, pedagogy, and philosophy. But when it comes to students who have needs and strengths that lie outside a "typical" range for their developmental level, what does teaching special populations actually mean? 

When we refer to special populations, we mean those students who share a common background, a cultural orientation, physical capabilities, and/or a developmental or psychological status; a commonality that teachers can take into account fruitfully when planning instruction. 

Created By

EL Education

Topic

  • Differentiation
  • Professional Development

Type

Online Learning

"Special populations" is a term with many meanings in education. It has impact on policy, pedagogy, and philosophy. But when it comes to students who have needs and strengths that lie outside a "typical" range for their developmental level, what does teaching special populations actually mean? 

When we refer to special populations, we mean those students who share a common background, a cultural orientation, physical capabilities, and/or a developmental or psychological status; a commonality that teachers can take into account fruitfully when planning instruction. 

We are a nation of communities ... a brilliant diversity spread like stars, like a thousand points of light in a broad and peaceful sky. George H.W. Bush, president

We begin with the premise that every student has his or her own set of “special” needs and strengths. In this sense, there are no special “populations”—there is only the unique, individual child in front of you, wanting to learn and grow. 

However, it is undeniable that groups of students share certain learning characteristics and challenges. These groups often (but not always) have protection under United States educational law.

This page will give you an overview of our major talking points on this critical educational topic: Who are some of our major special populations? What are the laws that govern their educational experience? 

Learning Targets

  1. I can define the phrase “special populations.” 
  2. I can describe the purposes of the federal laws that govern the educational access of certain special populations. 

Watch: The History of Special Education

While some special populations do not have legal definitions or educational laws that apply to them specifically (for example, academically gifted students), many of them do. When a student has a legally protected right, differentiated instruction must first follow the requirements of federal law. 

We begin our exploration of special populations by using the video below to review the main federal laws that protect education access for students with unique needs: the Individuals with Disabilities Educational Act (IDEA) and Section 504 of the Americans with Disabilities Act. 

As you watch the video, consider the following questions:

  1. According to the National Center for Education Information, in 2011, 48 percent of public K–12 schoolteachers were younger than 40. What possible implications does this have for teachers to have a working knowledge of the vast differences in comparing special education pre-1975 and post-1975?
  2. The quote that begins and ends this video states, “We lost sight of the fact that it’s one system intended to be for all kids.” What philosophical stance does this statement take in regards to the purpose of American public education? How does it relate to the spreading idea of differentiation?

newleadersorg (2009, November 14). *(2 of 5) Virtual Learning- Special Education: “The History of Special Education.”* Retrieved October 23, 2015 from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jSQyjWjmVLE&feature=youtu.be&list=PLB92CB276E6E0C754

Dig Deeper: IDEA, Section 504, and English Language Learner Laws

IDEA and Section 504 are not the only laws that protect special populations in schools, requiring educators and schools to develop education plans for special population students who fall underneath their protections. English Language Learners are also protected by education law.  Below, you will find some explanatory resources that review key, deeper information about these laws and their requirements. Choose ones to watch that best suit your teaching, coaching, or administrative needs.

Readings

What Legal Obligations Do Schools Have to English Language Learners? This article from the National Clearinghouse for English Language Acquisition summarizes the evolution of the current laws that protect English Language Learners in schools. 

Categories of Disability under IDEA: This document further explains which specific students are protected under the IDEA Act. 

Videos

What Is an IEP? This video discusses the origin and components of an IEP plan. 

What Is a 504 Plan? This video discusses the origin and components of a 504 plan. A critical fact to remember is that if a student with disabilities does not qualify for an IEP, he or she may qualify for a 504 plan. 

Discuss

For Teachers:

  1. What does educational access for federally protected special populations look like and sound like in your classroom? Use the lens of the information you have gathered on this page. 
  2. Are there special populations that you feel are currently underserved or unprotected in your context? Why do you feel this way?  
  3. Are you familiar with any other legal protections for special populations (for example, specific to your state)? What are they? How do they intersect or overlap with the information on this page? 

For School Leaders:

  1. What does educational access for federally protected special populations look like and sound like in your school or district? Use the lens of the information you have gathered on this page. 
  2. Are there special populations that you feel are currently underserved or unprotected in your context? Why do you feel this way?  
  3. Are you familiar with any other legal protections for special populations (for example, specific to your state)? What are they? How do they intersect or overlap with the information on this page?