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Special Education/Inclusive: Ratio of SPED to Non-SPED


QUESTION: I am certified in Secondary Education (Business Education) and have been given a class that has nine students.

Six are Special Education with IEP's, two are ESL (one just moved here from Guatemala and speaks NO English) and one is not a Special Education student.

This is 'supposed' to be an inclusive class.  I am not certified in special education and neither is the Aide.  She also isn't highly qualified in my subject area.

I want to know what the Department of Education Guidelines are for the ratio of SPED to non-SPED student for it to be considered an inclusive class.

I am in Virginia and am being told that I must teach this class which I consider to be a Special Education class.  

Can you help me?

ANSWER: It sounds as if you have a difficult mix of students to say the least.  Unfortunately, in most states there is no defined ratio for placement of special education or ESL students in general education classes.  There are a handful that define how many can be in a special education class, but I don't believe that Virginia is one of them.

The real question here is what is the intent of this class?  Is it intended to provide remedial education to these students, and if so, why this content.  For the six special education students the IEP should show you what their needs are and what accommodations you should be making that will help them be successful.  You have every right to see the IEPs of these students.  See if that helps you define the course.

I assume you are under contract to teach, and therefore from that perspective you are hired to teach what your administration thinks you are qualified to teach.  That said, you should be able to get assistance from both your special education teacher and your ESL teacher.  

This isn't an inclusive class, at least not one that is consistent with current research finding.  The research indicates that the class make up should not exceed 1/3 of the class size, thus 3 special education or special needs students total.  Since more than 1/2 your class are special education, I am more inclined to think this is a special education self-contained class with some students who haven't been identified put in putting the district out of compliance.  I don't see how they can expect you to succeed given your level of training and apparent lack of support.

You may have already done this, but I would list each child's academic needs as it relates to your content, using the IEPs for special Ed students and whatever data you have for the others.  Then with your data, have a meeting with your Principal and ask what exactly you are to do.  Ask him/her if this is a general education class or a special education class, and what makes it possible to succeed given the make up.  Check the research on co-teaching, which would be what might make that work (have a special education teacher co-teach with you#.

You have the right to file a complaint with the State Department of Education, Exceptional Children Division, which might determine #probably would) that the district is out of compliance and order changes, but that also may mean that your contract does not get renewed.  Legally that can't happen, but I have seen it done.  

I would open a dialogue with your Principal and your special education teacher, seeking help from all angles.  I would also seek help from the ESL teacher or specialist.  In those conversations, share what you learn about co-teaching.  In my recent dissertation study, a district created co-teaching models to replace pull out models and appear to have gained roughly 40% on state reading and math test scores.  These results verses the predicted results from your class might be pretty different.

If you have trouble finding co-teaching information, send me another question and I will link you to some resources.

Good luck

---------- FOLLOW-UP ----------

QUESTION: What about the ONE student who ISN'T special education?  How can I afford him the challenges in subject matter he is capable of accepting?  I teach 4 other classes, so I truly don't have the time to make 8 individual lessons for one class.

That student is as important as those with disabilities and/or ESL.  If you can arrange co-teaching, then you could meet the needs that are in your room.  Otherwise you either have to decide to stay with your  normal content, and pass those who make it, or lower the content standards and hope for the same thing, but I don't think either is a good solution.  

Professionally I think you are put in a position that is unfair to the students and to you.  If your school was going through a compliance monitoring right now (by the state or feds), I can guarantee you that this would be a required correction.  You have been given a special education class, an ELL class, and a general ed class all at once.  You have been provided inadequate training in Special Education and ELL.  Have you shared this situation with your Principal, if not, I would start with that discussion.  I would approach it from the needs of the students, not the teacher, you might meet their needs, but it will be at the expense of something else, like your other four classes.

If changes can't be made to the structure or makeup of your class, I think you should teach your content like you have before...have the aide work with the ELL students, and help the special education kids as much as is reasonable...if you modify anything have different grading standards (noting that on the report card).

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Dr. Norm Bishop


I have spent nealy 40 years in the area of Special Education. I have had the pleasure of teaching pre-school, elementary, middle, high school and college levels, as well as, served in school district administration buildings in classroom/legal support positions. I have also spent some time working in a State Department of Education Exceptional Student Services Office and am now currently Division Head and Director of Institutional Research at Alice Lloyd College in Pippa Passes, Kentucky. I also teach special education classes on campus. I have also taught full time teacher preparation at Northern Arizona University on the Tucson Campus, Seattle Pacific University, and at the University of Wyoming in Laramie, Wyoming. In addition to that I have taught adjunct at Seattle Pacific University, City University in Seattle, Ashford University, and Grand Canyon University.


I have experienced directly special education legal issues, process and procedure, and have taught at all levels in every special education category except gifted. My major expertise is diagnostic prescriptive teaching, literacy as it relates to disabilities, technology in special education, and Educational Leadership. My greatest passion in the field is building new programs, implementing and doing the research to see how they work. My Dissertation and principle research interest is in the area of inclusive education, primarily co-teaching of students with disabilities in the general education classroom.

Council for Exceptional Children, Association for the Supervision of Curriculum, National Reading Council.

Teaching Exceptional Children, Published computer assisted instruction, titled PAL, Special Education Basics, college Textbook, Teaching with Precision, college Textbook, Various devotionals at the website,

I have a B.A. in Secondary Education, a Masters in Special Education (cross categorical), administrative certification, and a second B.A. in Elementary Education. I completed my doctorate in Educational Leadership at Northern Arizona University.

Awards and Honors
Best Summer Program in the Nation (Honorable Mention, when I was Teaching) Multiple local awards

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