What Every Principal Needs to Know About Special Education: Part I Reflection

Below is a reflection on part I of Margaret J. McLaughlin’s book called, What Every Principal Needs to Know about Special Education as a pre-class assignment for my EDL 277 course, Current Issues in Special Education Administration, at Drake University.

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As I read section I of McLaughlin’s (2009) book, several themes and ideas emerged that I really connected with. First and foremost on this list is the nature of the students’ learning needs being served by special education services. McLaughlin (2009) makes a key point that, stating that, “Students who receive special education are a diverse group” (p. 5).

As teachers, we must take caution to avoid over-generalization of any of our students. Each and every student in our classroom has a unique set of abilities, interests, learning needs, and life experiences. Therefore, we have a moral imperative to get to know every one of our students on an individual level, cultivating relationships in order to create differentiated learning opportunities for our students aligned with their interests and learning needs.

McLaughlin also reminds us of the many legal requirements regarding special education services. Driving many of these requirements is the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act (IDEA), a federal law governing special education services. Perhaps the most important component of this law is ensuring that all students are provided “a free, appropriate public education (FAPE).” The focus on the word ‘appropriate’ has driven many court cases over the years; therefore, administrators and teachers must maintain the utmost diligence in adherence to ensure the educational services provided to the special education student are continually monitored and adjusted when needed. McLaughlin (2009) also cautions the reader “what is ‘appropriate’ for one student with a disability may not be appropriate for another. The core principle of FAPE is individualization” (p. 6).

IDEA also established the expectation that all special education students learn in the “least restrictive environment (LRE) possible.” Therefore, if a special education student is able to effectively learn in a general education classroom with other general education students, it is a legal expectation that they have access to this learning environment. Schools; therefore, must make every effort to ensure inclusion of special education students in classes with general education students to the “greatest extent possible.” A key consideration and rationale for inclusion among general education students is the goal of building the independence of the special education student so they are more prepared for success after high school.

Changing gears a little, as a high school science teacher entering my 11th year of classroom teaching, I have a fair level of experience in working with students with IEP’s and 504 plans. However, I have always felt my level of learning about special education was more of a surface level understanding of IEP’s and 504’s. I attend the meetings, read the plans, and am sure to follow them for my students. Occasionally, I have worked with a co-teacher, as I am this year in my environmental ecology course. Still, I can’t help feeling there is so much more to I need to learn.

In terms of my education preparation, I have only taken one course in special education, and that was all the way back in 2003. This course helped to familiarize me with many of the basics regarding what IEP and 504 plans were, as well as the roles and responsibilities of the classroom teacher as it related to adherence and compliance with the language in the plans as a general education teacher.

As an aspiring administrator, I need to grow in my learning in the area of understanding the process of how students with IEPs and 504’s are identified, monitored, and built towards independence over time. Clearly, I also have a limited understanding of the role of the school administrator in ensuring compliance and working with the special education teachers to develop strategies for effective implementation of IEP and 504 plans.

One thing that McLaughlin (2009) made very clear was that the IEP document “represents a contract between the school district and the parent or guardian, so failure to follow procedures means that a student has been denied FAPE” (p. 6). It is important for all educators to abide by all the components of this contract with fidelity and it is important for administrators to work with the all of the student’s teachers to ensure this compliance with the student’s IEP components.

In relation to the IEP responsibilities of the administrator, the administrator must embrace their role as a vital and crucial member of the IEP team, taking steps to provide adequate time and resources to the IEP team to ensure compliance with the IEP contract. McLaughlin (2009) also reminds the reader about the inequity and disproportionate placement of ethnic minority students in special classes, noting that “In 2005, nearly one fourth of Black students with disabilities and one fifth of Hispanic students were educated outside the regular classroom more than 60% of the time compared to 13% of White students” (p. 11).

Ensuring equity and proportionality of placement requires the administrator to proactively work with teachers to ensure the inclusion of all special education students in the least restrictive learning environments possible. The practice of creating special classes containing only special education students should be avoided or minimized at all costs in order to ensure LRE compliance to the greatest extent possible.

Instead, administrators must work with special and general education teachers to create more opportunities for co-taught courses where the general and special education teacher can team together in a classroom to effectively implement differentiation strategies that can benefit all students, not just special education students. Furthermore, McLaughlin (2009) advocates that such courses ensure that all students “receive meaningful opportunities to learn in the classroom” (p. 13).

Administrators must also think and work systemically. A student’s inability to learn may not be due to any specific learning disability, but rather a systemic flaw that inhibits the student’s ability to learn. Administrators must lead an ongoing examination of the system that students are learning in. To what extent do students view the system as a learning system? To what extent is the system designed to ensure learning retention? To what extent is the system aligned to ensure clarity of learning goals and expectations for students? To what extent is the system designed to provide students that learn differently with opportunities to demonstrate learning differently? To what extent is the system designed to enable students to receive remediation and re-teaching when needed? To what extent is the system aligned with educational best practices and managed successfully when challenges emerge?

These are not easy questions to answer or address, or ones that can be adequately answered by the efforts of any one individual, and at the same time, they are the important ones. Administrators must work with teachers to create, lead, and manage a system of learning that enables all students to achieve their maximum learning growth.



  1. McLaughlin, M.J. (2009). What every principal needs to know about special education. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.




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