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05.1 Program for the Study of Germany and Europe

Special Education and the Risk of Becoming Less Educated in Germany and the United States

2005 – Justin J.W. Powell


Over the twentieth century, a growing group of students has been transferred into considerably expanded special education systems. These programs serve children with diagnosed impairments and disabilities and students with a variety of learning difficulties. Children and youth “with special educational needs” constitute a heterogeneous group with social, ethnic, linguistic, and physical disadvantages. An increasingly large percentage of those students at risk of leaving school without credentials participate in special education, a highly legitimated low status (and stigmatizing) school form. While most countries commit themselves to school integration or inclusive education to replace segregated schools and separate classes, cross-national and regional comparisons of special education’s diverse student bodies show considerable disparities in their (1) rates of classification, (2) provided learning opportunities, and (3) educational attainments. Analyzing special education demographics and organizational structures indicates which children and youth are most likely to grow up less educated and how educational systems distribute educational success and failure. Findings from a German-American comparison show that which students bear the greatest risk of becoming less educated depends largely on definitions of “special educational needs” and the institutionalization of special education systems.