Reconsidering LRE: Students with the Most Significant Cognitive Disabilities and the Persistence of Separate Schools
Reconsidering LRE: Students with the Most Significant Cognitive Disabilities and the Persistence of Separate Schools
The benefits of inclusive education for students with significant cognitive disabilities are well documented (Agran et al., 2020; Fisher & Meyer, 2002; Shogren et al., 2015; Thompson et al., 2018). Studies demonstrate student learning in general education classes in literacy (Hudson & Browder, 2014; Kozleski et al., 2021), mathematics (Bowman et al., 2020; Collins et al., 2007; Polychronis et al., 2004), science (Hudson, Browder, & Jimenez, 2014; Jameson et al., 2008) and social studies content (Ryan et al., 2019). They also demonstrate greater overall progress for students with significant cognitive disabilities on both Individualized Education Program (IEP) objectives and academic engagement than in more separate settings (Gee et al., 2020). Moreover, there is evidence that inclusive placements for students with significant disabilities benefit students without disabilities as well (Carter et al., 2016; Jameson et al., 2008; Kozleski et al., 2021).
Yet, despite the 1975 passage of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) with its least restrictive environment (LRE) mandate, and numerous court cases interpreting the law’s LRE requirement, the educational separation of students with significant cognitive disabilities remains a pervasive and persistent problem in our nation (Kurth et al., 2014; Morningstar et al., 2017). For a sizable number of these students, that educational separation is total – that is, they are educated in separate schools wholly apart from their same-age peers without disabilities. The language of IDEA is clear that the student’s Individualized Education Program (IEP) must include “a statement of the program modifications or supports for school personnel that will be provided for the child… to be educated and participate with other children with disabilities and nondisabled children” [Section 1414(d)(1)(A)(i)(IV)]. However, separate school placement continues to be interpreted by IEP teams, schools, and districts as the least restrictive environment for a significant percentage of these students.
This report serves as a guide for local school districts and state education agencies to consider whether the present level of educational inclusion of their students with the most significant disabilities is fully consistent with what the law requires, and most importantly, is ultimately in the best interest of the students they serve.
What the Data Tell Us
Continued segregation of students with significant cognitive disabilities is perhaps most evident in historical trends in the IDEA disability-specific educational placement data that the U.S. Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP) reports to Congress each year. For example, Brock (2018) found that only 16.9% of students with intellectual disabilities were placed into general education classes at least 80% of the time in 2014 (the last year available for his study). An additional 7.6% of these students were served in separate schools and other placements (residential, hospital, home, parent placed private school). The percentage of students with intellectual disabilities in separate schools or other placements was actually slightly higher in 2014 than it was 20 years earlier in 1994 (7.6% vs. 7.4% in 1994) according to these data. If we consider the Fall 2018 OSEP Report to Congress, we do find a small reduction in separate school or other placements for students with intellectual disabilities, but again only slightly to 6.8% (OSEP, 2020).
For students with multiple disabilities, Kurth et al. (2014) found even higher rates of placement into separate schools/other placements (approximately 20%) between 2007 and 2009, the years that those researchers examined in their study. In the 42nd Annual Report to Congress, again representing Fall 2018 data, that percentage was even higher, at 23.3% (OSEP, 2020).
Yet placement away from the general education classroom is perhaps highest for students with the most significant cognitive disabilities. This term is a non-categorical designation for those students participating in their state alternate assessments based on alternate achievement standards (AA-AAAS). They represent a cross-section of students mainly within the labels of intellectual disability, multiple disabilities, and autism who have the greatest support needs. For the nearly 40,000 students participating in the AA-AAAS across a 15-state sample, Kleinert et al. (2015) found that a total of 93% were served primarily in self-contained classrooms, separate schools, home, hospital, or residential settings. Only 3% were served in general education classrooms at least 80% of the time. Moreover, in this study, a full 12.6% of students taking alternate assessments were served in separate schools. Separate placements, placements outside of general education settings, thus occur at a substantially greater rate for students with the most significant cognitive disabilities than for students in any single IDEA category.
Interpreting the LRE Mandate for Students with the Most Significant Cognitive Disabilities
How, then, should we interpret the IDEA legal requirement for these students that the IEP should address the supports needed to be “educated and participate with other children with and without disabilities” (Section 1414)? Have we appropriately applied the LRE statutory language if a significant percentage of students with the most significant cognitive disabilities are still educated in separate schools without any opportunities for such participation at all?
IDEA’s LRE language does allow for placements outside the general education classroom and the law itself requires a continuum of placement to address student individual needs. Yet, it is clear from the statute when a more restrictive placement can be considered:
To the maximum extent appropriate, children with disabilities…are educated with children who are nondisabled, and that special classes, separate schooling, or other removal of children with disabilities from the regular education environment occurs only when the nature or severity of the disability is such that education in regular classes with the use of supplementary aids and services cannot be achieved satisfactorily (Individuals with Education Act, 34 C.F.R. Sec. 300.550). [emphasis added]
This language clearly notes that an essential part of the LRE determination is the provision of the necessary supplementary aids and services that would allow a student with a significant disability to be educated successfully in a general education setting. It also indicates that the removal of students from the regular classroom should occur only when the child cannot be served in the general education classroom, even with those supports.
The decision of what constitutes the LRE for a specific student rests clearly with that student’s IEP team. Yet, the long-standing pattern of educational segregation for students with significant disabilities, especially within separate schools, raises concerning questions about IEP teams’ interpretation of the LRE principle. The variation we find in placement rates across states (Kurth et al., 2014; National Council on Disability, 2018; Ryndak et al., 2014; U.S. Department of Education, 2021) is especially concerning. For example, for Fall 2018, placement rates in separate schools, by state, varied from well under 1% of all students with intellectual disabilities to a high of 22% (U.S. Department of Education, 2021). This extraordinary variability in state-by-state placements rates may be more the product of:
- an over-reliance on the original investments in expensive separate facilities
- local and state-level variations in interpretation of the law, and
- persistent, low expectations of what is possible in the education of students with the most significant disabilities in more inclusive settings (see Ryndak et al., 2014).
There are important benefits of inclusive education, as well as legal mandates to first consider general education placement (Vandercook et al., 2018). Given these, we must ask why some states have been able to nearly eliminate all separate school placements for students with significant disabilities, and other states continue to educate a sizable portion of these students in separate educational facilities. Certainly, what is possible in some states should be possible in all.
A Statewide Approach to Systemic Change
There are some outstanding examples of how we can thoughtfully plan for including all students with the most significant disabilities in regular public schools. These examples include the original U.S. Department of Education, Office of Special Education Program’s statewide systems change projects which existed in the late 1980s and 1990s (OSEP, 1996). These projects represented only the ‘first wave’ of inclusion. They focused mostly on the ‘where’ of instruction and not necessarily on the content, or ‘what’, of instruction (see Shogren et al., 2015). However, the lessons learned from these initiatives are still highly relevant today. These lessons must be considered if we are serious about ensuring that all students have opportunities to learn alongside their peers without disabilities and participate in the broad set of instructional and extra-curricular opportunities that exist on regular school campuses. Moreover, the very presence of these funded projects demonstrates that even in the late 1980s, ‘systems-change’ for students with severe disabilities, and especially the opportunity to be educated with peers without disabilities, was a major priority for the U.S. Department of Education. It is untenable that this educational separation persists today, and in some cases is even greater than in decades past, given what we know about the clear benefits, for both students and families, of students fully participating in typical school communities.
In this report, we focus upon one such Statewide Systems Change Project in Kentucky, simply because the authors of this paper were the Project Directors for the Kentucky Systems Change Project. During the span of this project, we saw the permanent closing of nearly all separate, public schools for students with the most significant disabilities in the state. The Kentucky Systems Change Project was successful in this endeavor for a variety of reasons. Perhaps the most important reason was the consistent message from the Kentucky Department of Education (KDE) that IDEA’s LRE language was clear in its intent. Districts could not make placement decisions simply based on the service delivery options they had to offer. There was a strong project advisory board composed of state education department personnel, representatives of local school districts, university personnel, Protection & Advocacy, families, and community and adult service providers. The advisory board gave thoughtful guidance and accountability to the project’s efforts across the state.
For any state or district wanting to focus on the issue of separate schools today, establishing a guiding workgroup or advisory board is an essential step. The membership composition outlined above would be a good start, though a noted omission from the above representation was the presence of self-advocates. The voices of self-advocates are a critical perspective, especially if they have experienced educational separation away from their peers without disabilities.
Upon receiving project funding from OSEP, KDE sent all school districts information about the grant’s intent to promote high-quality, integrated placement options for students with severe disabilities. Districts were invited to apply to participate in the project. As an application incentive, they were offered ongoing training and technical assistance to support systems change activities at no cost. Training and technical assistance activities included:
- on-site visits by project staff, at least monthly;
- guidance in creating and implementing district task forces;
- acceptance into KDE-sponsored, intensive in-service programs focused on effective practices for students with severe disabilities, including systemically increasing opportunities for integrated classes and peer friendships;
- the opportunity to work with mentor teachers from other districts who were implementing high-quality, integrated programs; and
- university consultants in such critical areas as communication programming for students with the most complex communication needs.
Nearly all school districts that were operating separate educational schools for students with severe disabilities applied to, and were accepted into, the project. These districts each agreed to establish a task force and create concrete plans for how students with severe disabilities served in separate schools could be educated in age-appropriate, regular public schools. In the first year of the project, most of the participating districts considered how students could be served within a partial-integration model. A partial-integration model is a self-contained classroom within the regular school, with opportunities to attend specific classes and school-wide activities with peers without disabilities. This occurred simply because, at that time, we did not have the experience with fully inclusive programs. Few districts were willing to take that step. All participating districts committed to ensuring that students moving from separate school settings to new school settings would have frequent opportunities for interactions with peers without disabilities.
District task forces included district-wide general and special education administrators, principals, and general and special education teachers. They also included families, related service staff, and school-based or district-level psychologists from those schools that would be affected through these efforts. While KY’s project did not require participating districts to include school board members as a part of their respective task forces, their participation can also provide an important perspective and increase the visibility of this initiative within the district as a whole. Focusing the task force on the district’s mission statement for all students, and how students with the most significant disabilities are very much a part of that educational mission, can often be an important first step!
For a case study example showing what one district task force was able to achieve, see Figure 1. We focus on one specific school in one of our initially participating districts to demonstrate how the process worked. The district task force in this case study focused on a regional separate school that the district operated for students across 14 individual districts. The work of the task force resulted in a range of education placements within participating districts, from fully inclusive to partially integrated. One district entering the project near the end of the five years focused totally on inclusive placements for all students at the elementary level.
For a thorough description of the process of identifying strong candidates for establishing inclusive education programs, see the TIES Inclusive Education Roadmap (tiescenter.org) (In production).
Certainly, significant planning and implementation issues can occur in considering the closure of separate schools, and implementation plans must be carefully spelled out, with input from all key stakeholders. Most importantly, movement to a regular public school building does not, in itself, constitute inclusive education. We know all too well that simply being in the same building does not guarantee access to the general curriculum, to the daily ordinary routines of the general education classroom, and to sustained interactions and true friendships with peers without disabilities. The KDE Systems Change Project model focused on closing separate schools and placing students with significant disabilities in regular public schools. However, the extent to which districts provided fully inclusive placements, or simply created opportunities for some integration during the school day, varied widely across participating districts. Yet, we know that much of the power of the closing of separate schools in the lives of students with significant disabilities will be lost if we simply advocate for a change of location in services. Physical presence is a necessary first condition for full participation and belonging, but it is hardly sufficient.
Moving to More Inclusive Settings in Stages, and Why it is not Necessary!: https://www.youtube.com/embed/so-33CQk2i4
This video clip contains the perspectives of two teachers who made the move from separate elementary and middle schools in Kentucky to fully inclusive placements for their students with the most significant disabilities. As the state project was implemented over five years, the evolution of moving from integration to fully included also occurred. In retrospect, they share insights as to why it is not necessary to make this move in progressive steps that only approximate greater levels of inclusion. The educators explain that the change can be made as a single transition for students.
For families whose children have been educated in separate schools, it is important to address fear of the unknown, fear of losing perhaps the only educational placement that they have known for their child, and what they perceive as the potential loss of related services. Workable, concrete solutions to alleviate those fears must be demonstrated. All of this will result in an implementation or action plan. As a part of this planning, the task force should also develop a communication plan to ensure that all relevant stakeholders involved in the process receive accurate, relevant, and up-to-date information about the team’s efforts throughout the planning and implementation process.
Attention to detail must be an essential part of the task force’s implementation or action plan. The plan must contain opportunities for parents to see more inclusive placements in operation, and to understand that the intensity of supports needs does not equate to separate service delivery. Educators may have similar concerns. It can be helpful for them to see more inclusive examples of programs for students who have comparable support needs to their own students. Most importantly, the implementation plan must include a detailed management section that addresses educators’ specific concerns about how the necessary supports and instruction will be delivered in more inclusive settings.
This plan should also include specific strategies for explicitly engaging peers without disabilities throughout the school day (Carter & Biggs, 2021; Carter, 2018/19). The plan should also address the importance of the general education curriculum for all students.
For examples of resources that address the foundational awareness and preparedness, all stakeholders need to have for successful inclusive education efforts, see the Inclusive Education Roadmap (IER; tiescenter.org).
The Power of Inclusion: Access to the General Curriculum and Friendships: https://www.youtube.com/embed/4LQ2euD9Qcs
This portion of the video interview with two Kentucky educators who went through the closure of separate schools describes the differences between separate school and inclusive school settings. The educators share why they believe students with the most significant cognitive disabilities should have opportunities in general education settings.
Finally, the implementation plan must include a comprehensive evaluation section. How will all stakeholders know that the planned changes have been successful, and how can they measure the benefits of these changes for the students affected? See Table 1 for examples of the parameters that should be addressed in an evaluation plan for measuring the impact of these efforts. Parameters include the extent of participation for each student in general education activities, peer relationships and friendships, increases in student learning, and stakeholder perceptions.
Participation in General Education
Extent of participation for each student in:
Peer Relationships and Friendships
Increased Student Learning
Evidence of Progress in:
Student communicative competence across school, home, and community settings (such as through the Learner Characteristics Inventory, Kearns et al., 2006)
Key Stakeholder Perceptions
Individual Feedback and Surveys From:
A Few Key Steps to Consider: Practical Lessons Learned
Throughout the country, we are working to increase the opportunities for students with the most significant cognitive disabilities to engage in high-quality learning in general education classrooms with their peers without disabilities. Yet, at the same time, a substantial portion of these students are still educated away from the mainstream of general education entirely, within separate schools designed solely for students with the most significant disabilities. Despite our knowledge of how to develop better placement options, and the growing research base favoring more inclusive environments, this separation persists. It has not changed substantially in decades. Models for creating systemic change do exist. We have highlighted just one of many examples the field has produced.
Here are a few tips for ensuring the students in your state or district are truly being served in the most appropriate and least restrictive educational settings to meet their needs:
Monitor your state-level and/or local data for the percentage of students with the most significant disabilities who are still educated in separate schools.
If you have the capacity to look at LRE data for those students taking your state’s AA-AAAS, especially review their placement data, at least once a year. These are the students who are most at risk for educational separation. If you do not collect LRE data for students in your state’s AA-AAAS, look at ‘proxy’ data for students with the most significant cognitive disabilities, especially in the categories of Multiple Disabilities, Intellectual Disabilities, Autism, and Deaf-Blindness. A significant percentage of students in these categories participate in AA-AAAS. In fact, the great majority of students identified for participation within most states’ AA-AAAS come from these categories (Kearns et al., 2011; Towles-Reeves et al., 2012).
Look at local districts that are outliers with proportionally more students with significant disabilities in more restrictive and separate settings.
All states currently review district-level data yearly for the percentage of students who are identified for the AA-AAAS. They do so as a part of their Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) requirements related to the 1% cap for students participating in their state’s AA-AAAS. In addition to determining which districts are potentially over-identifying students for the state’s AA-AAAS, states may also wish to consider whether districts may be placing these students in more restrictive settings at higher rates. Consider asking local districts with high rates of separate placement to provide rigorous rationales for those placement rates, and to clearly identify what student factors might be contributing to those rates.
Consider the establishment of a state and/or district-wide task force to systemically examine and address potential reasons for high rates of separate placements for students with the most significant disabilities.
The task force should list the actions to consider. A careful review and action plan to establish more inclusive placements can generate compelling changes in the lives of the students and parents you serve.
Identify a “critical friend” (see Carrington & Robinson, 2004) to advise your state or district as you work toward greater inclusion.
A critical friend is an expert who has either successfully navigated this process themselves or has worked with other schools, districts, or states in enabling students who attend separate schools to move towards more inclusive placements. Seeking the ongoing input of such a colleague can help schools and districts identify workable solutions to the potential challenges they identify.
Establish clear markers of progress in implementing an action plan.
These markers should address:
- the extent to which all relevant stakeholders have been educated on the benefits of less restrictive settings
- the establishment of clear timelines for each step in the plan
- the development of a pilot program, if your district is serving a significant number of students with significant disabilities in separate settings, with clarity on the next steps for scaling up.
In addition, develop clear measures of student outcomes in these new settings, as well as satisfaction measures from special and general educators, related service personnel, administrators, and especially parents. Table 1 contains a set of possible evaluation measures designed especially for students moving from separate to more inclusive school placements.
Establish School-Level Inclusive Education Leadership Teams to provide overall guidance, professional development, coaching, and involvement of all key stakeholders at the school level as the task force begins to implement the action plan.
These school-level teams, in turn, should create their own action plans.
Ensure that all students with significant cognitive disabilities attend their neighborhood school (the school they would attend if they did not have a disability) or school of choice, similar to their peers without disabilities.
When students attend their neighborhood school, they have the opportunity to continue and expand peer relationships outside of school. Parents can more easily engage with the school in home/school partnerships when distance and transportation are not such a barrier for families. Also, be sure to focus on explicit strategies to create and sustain friendships with students without disabilities in the new school site, including evidence-based practices such as peer support arrangements (Brock & Huber, 2017; Carter et al., 2016), peer networks, and peer buddy programs (see Biggs & Carter, 2022). Students with the most significant disabilities have often experienced widespread isolation and a lack of peer relationships in their lives. Yet, with intentional planning, school communities in which all students are valued for their gifts and truly belong are possible (see Carter & Biggs, 2021)
The Power of Friendships!: https://www.youtube.com/embed/MkKoLWXmN-A
In this video clip, two former Kentucky special educators whose students moved from segregated to more inclusive settings talk about the powerful stories of friendship that resulted for their students.
Use university or other expert consultants to address staff and parent concerns around the specific needs of their students.
For example, for students who exhibit high rates of challenging behaviors, strongly encourage the assistance of a positive behavioral support specialist. This specialist will be knowledgeable about Positive Behavior Intervention Supports and integrating students with significant cognitive disabilities in the classroom and school-wide positive behavior approaches. For students with the most complex communication needs who are still without a formal means of communication, consider a university consultant in establishing Augmentative/Alternative Communication (AAC). Unmet student behavioral and communication needs may well be part of the reason that parents and school personnel fear their students will respond negatively to more inclusive settings. Those fears must be addressed head-on with workable, student-specific strategies that ensure that students will thrive in their new school settings.
Help schools and local districts understand the connection between access to peers without disabilities and student use of AAC.
We know that approximately 10% of all students who take their state’s AA-AAAS do not have a formal communication system. That is, they function at a pre-symbolic level of communication. Another 20% of these students are only at an emerging symbolic level (i.e., using pictures, objects, or regularized or idiosyncratic gestures to communicate; Kearns et al., 2011; Towles-Reeves et al., 2012). We also know that less than half of the students who need AAC actually have access to it. Yet there is growing evidence that the best means for having students with the most significant disabilities actually use their AAC across the day is through the presence of competent communicators, and especially typical peers who have been trained in aided language modeling (Biggs et al., 2017; Biggs et al., 2018; see also Kleinert, J. et al., 2019). The presence of these peers can only occur in integrated settings. The presence of nondisabled peers is important for the establishment of friendships. In addition, these relationships can have a critical impact upon this most fundamental of educational outcomes as well – the development of communicative competence. The importance of peers in modeling and supporting students with the most significant cognitive disabilities to develop communicative competence cannot be overstated.
This report has highlighted a very important, and persistent challenge for the field. A substantial number of students with the most significant cognitive disabilities in our country continue to attend separate schools. However, we should not view this statistic as something unchangeable, as if separate placement were somehow an inherent characteristic of these students. The tremendous variance in placement rates of students with significant disabilities across states is clear evidence that it is not the severity of disability or intensity of support needs that is the driving factor in these discussions – whether it be at the state, district, school, or individual student level. For example, the placement rate for students with intellectual disabilities in the state with the highest rate of separate school placement for students with intellectual disabilities is approximately 100 times the placement rate of the state with the lowest rate (see OSEP, 2020). For those states, districts, and schools that want to systematically examine their own placement rates for students with the most significant cognitive disabilities, this report has presented both a case study and a set of recommendations that may be helpful in taking appropriate action to address this essential need within their own educational jurisdictions.
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Kleinert, H., & Kearns, J. (2022). Reconsidering LRE: Students with the Most Significant Cognitive Disabilities and the Persistence of Separate Schools. TIES Center.
TIES Center is supported through a Cooperative Agreement (#H326Y170004) with the Research to Practice Division, Office of Special Education Programs, U.S. Department of Education. The Center is affiliated with the National Center on Educational Outcomes (NCEO) at the Institute on Community Integration (ICI), College of Education and Human Development, University of Minnesota. The contents of this report were developed under the Cooperative Agreement from the U.S. Department of Education, but do not necessarily represent the policy or opinions of the U.S. Department of Education or Offices within it. Readers should not assume endorsement by the federal government. Project Officer: Susan Weigert
The National Center on Educational Outcomes leads the TIES Center partnership. There are six additional collaborating partners: Arizona Department of Education, CAST, University of Cincinnati, University of Kentucky, University of North Carolina – Charlotte, and University of North Carolina – Greensboro.
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