An Advocate’s Guide to Transforming Special Education

Creating schools where all students can thrive
May 2018

For far too long, students with disabilities have been left behind. Experts believe that the vast majority of students with disabilities — more than 80% — can meet the same academic standards as other students, when they have the right support.

But right now, too many of the 6.6 million students with disabilities in U.S. public schools are falling through the cracks.

By 8th grade, only 8% are prepared by their schools to read and do math on grade-level.

Just 66% graduate
high school on time.

Less than half of those graduates are fully employed two years after finishing school.

We know that far better is possible.

The 1975 federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) says that students with disabilities have the right to a “free and appropriate public education.” But in practice, the federal government has never adequately funded this law, and state governments have failed to fill the funding gap to provide the resources necessary to ensure that all students can succeed.

The special education system is complex. Transforming it will ultimately mean changes at every level – from the federal and state governments down to local school districts, schools, and classrooms. It will require a much greater overall investment by the federal government. Most states, as well, need to increase significantly their level of funding so that districts can meet the needs of students with disabilities. While these changes take time and political will, those closest to the students are already leading the way. This guide focuses on what districts and schools are doing right now to deliver better results for students.

What is the purpose of this guide?

The goal of this guide is help parents and advocates understand what educational opportunity truly looks like for students with disabilities. It highlights what research and the highest-performing schools have found are the best practices to help students with disabilities achieve at high levels. Concrete examples, interviews, and school profiles show what this looks like in action. Disabilities vary widely and so do individual students’ strengths, needs, and challenges. No single guide could break down the full complexity of our current special education system. We believe that the people closest to the problem can usually find the best solution. Our goal is to share what works so that local advocates can map their own path forward to realize systemic change.

Who is this guide for?

This guide is for people who want to transform our current special education system. Right now, there are many excellent resources to help parents navigate the current system for their own individual child. This is a different type of guide. This guide is meant to assist those advocating for systemic change for children with disabilities — at a school, district, or broader policy level. This guide helps those advocates gain an understanding of the key practices in a successful special education system. There are bright spots across the nation – schools and communities that show what’s possible. This guide points the way there.

Know your rights

The first step for any advocate is to get familiar with the legal rights outlined in the Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA).

Recommended resources:
• Center for Parent Information and Resources
• IDEA Parent Guide
• Learn the Law

How to use this guide

An Advocate’s Guide to Transforming Special Education has eight sections, each focusing on a key area. Here you can find concrete actions that district, charter management organizations and schools must take to ensure that students with disabilities succeed. Parents can use this tool to advocate not only for their own child, but also to push for reforms that are necessary at a broader level. These observable actions help parent advocates know very clearly what to “look for” in a school, organization or district that is truly doing what it takes to help students with disabilities succeed. It helps parent advocates pinpoint exactly how their school system is falling short.

What advocates can do together

This guide puts the student perspective at the center, highlighting the research behind
the practices that make a difference to help advocates organize for system change.

In order for me to thrive, my school must…

Click on the buttons below to visit chapters of the guide. Chapters do not have to be read in order.

Download and print the full report or individual chapters

Click on the “English” or “Spanish” link to download a PDF.

Full report English | Spanish
Believe in me English | Spanish
Include me English | Spanish
Find me English | Spanish
Catch me when (or before) I fall English | Spanish
Meet me where I am and challenge me English | Spanish
Know me English | Spanish
Involve me and my family English | Spanish
Stick with me English | Spanish

See what it looks like in action.

KIPP Raíces

A low-income school in Los Angeles where students with disabilities excel.
Read more


This San Francisco Unified school shows what great special education can look like.
Read more

How is the Bay Area doing?

Across the San Francisco Bay Area, just two out of 10 students with disabilities are currently on grade-level in English and math.

See how your school is doing.

Learn about how San Jose Unified is doing.

*Note: We use students with special needs and students with disabilities interchangeably in this report. Both align to California’s definition of a student in special education services, which is any student who has an individualized education plan (IEP).