IDEA45: Supporting a Free Appropriate Public Education

Doug and Lynn Fuchs
IDEA 45th Anniversary logo

Forty-Five Years of IDEA-Funded Research Supporting a
“Free Appropriate Public Education”

By Douglas Fuchs and Lynn Fuchs, Vanderbilt University


On this 45th anniversary of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), we reflect on the research that IDEA legislation (and its successive reauthorizations) has facilitated. More specifically, we discuss its focus, quality, and meaningfulness for children and youth with and without disabilities.

IDEA research monies were initially part of the Education for All Handicapped Children Act (EHA)—the nation-wide law passed by Congress in 1975. The Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP) in the U.S. Department of Education was responsible for investing these monies to strengthen the educational experiences of special needs children and youth, to give meaning to the part of EHA that guarantees a free appropriate public education. With IDEA’s 2004 reauthorization, OSEP research dollars were moved to the National Center for Special Education Research (NCSER) in the Institute of Education Sciences (IES). Regardless of where the monies reside, special education research is an enduring and vitally important component of IDEA legislation.

An Engine for Innovation

IDEA-funded research has been an engine for innovation, substantially strengthening education programs for and the outcomes of millions of struggling students with and without disabilities. The scope of this work has included infants and toddlers to young adults and has addressed the challenges of children and youth across all traditional categories of exceptionality. Because a comprehensive description of this research goes well beyond the limits of this blog, we provide three examples of the ways in which IDEA-sponsored research has transformed general education and special education.

  • Assessment/identification of children at risk for school failure.
    IDEA monies have supported programmatic research on classroom-based assessments, including, but not limited to, the development of progress-monitoring systems. This ground-breaking research and development has provided educators in preschools and K-12 settings alike with scientifically validated procedures and materials with which to screen students for academic and behavioral difficulties. Some of these assessments have become trusted means of measuring change in learning and behavior in response to specific interventions. As a result, teachers and support staff can use data-based approaches to individualize academic and behavioral programs when students with serious academic or behavior problems do not initially respond adequately to them.
  • Class-wide and school-wide interventions for making general education accommodating of a greater diversity of students.
    IDEA-funded research has made possible the development of a wide array of out-of-the-box important class-wide and school-wide academic interventions and curricula in reading, math, and writing (e.g., Class-Wide Peer Tutoring, Cooperative Learning, Direct Instruction, Kansas Learning Strategies) and in social studies, science, and other content areas (e.g., Mnemonics Instruction). It has spurred development of programs that effectively address students’ challenging behavior (e.g., Good Behavior Game, Positive Behavior Supports) and school engagement (e.g., Check & Connect). Teachers using these and other empirically validated academic and behavior programs are more likely to differentiate instruction and interact more positively and constructively with students, thereby making their classrooms more responsive to a greater diversity of students, including those with special needs. Whereas a primary intent of most of these class- and school-wide programs was to facilitate the inclusion of students with disabilities, many have been shown to benefit numerous students with and without disabilities.
  • More intensive interventions.
    Because many struggling students do not respond adequately to evidence-based class-wide practices, they require small-group instruction that can address multiple determinants of poor academic performance and behavior, and can be delivered in a structured and intensive, encouraging and supportive manner. IDEA-funded research has produced small-group programs for preschoolers preparing for K-12 all the way to high-schoolers preparing for the workplace.Classroom assessments and interventions, and more intensive programs, developed by IDEA-funded research has made possible the currently popular response to intervention/multi-tiered system of support (RTI/MTSS) services that can help schools be more responsive to the full spectrum of students they serve, including many students with identified disabilities.

We believe this IDEA-backed research has been truly exceptional, whether considered on its own or by the standards of education research in general. And we refer not only to the work’s innovative quality. Rather, we also refer to the methodological strength of IDEA-supported research. As one example, special education researchers were among the first education researchers to conduct randomized controlled trials (RCTs) in schools with special and general teachers conducting the interventions. Moreover, special education research accounts for a disproportionately large proportion of the RCTs conducted as part of programmatic, field-based education research. Indirect evidence of this methodological sophistication is the frequency with which IDEA-funded researchers are published in the most respected peer-reviewed research journals.

A Model for Bridging Research and Practice

OSEP-funded special education research has been distinctive in a different way. Much of it showcases a uniquely collegial and productive researcher-practitioner relationship. Such relationships have not occurred by chance. From the start, OSEP staff understood that researchers, especially interventionists, are as dependent on practitioners as practitioners require researchers. OSEP used IDEA Part D monies:

  • to encourage researchers to choose issues/problems of critical interest to practitioners;
  • to develop/implement model demonstration projects through an iterative process with strong practitioner participation; and
  • to provide technical assistance in schools, preschool classrooms, and transition settings.

The connections forged between researchers and practitioners have been further strengthened by capable staff at NCSER and OSEP who collaborate with each other to ensure that the model demonstrations and technical assistance initiatives under IDEA Part D reflect knowledge produced from the research.

A Collaborative Community of Scholars

IDEA dollars have also helped establish and sustain a collaborative community of high-performing scholars. This has been accomplished in part by annual, IDEA-supported, scientific gatherings of principal investigators (PIs) of IDEA-funded grants. These meetings, begun in the 1980s and on-going under the stewardship of NCSER (and IES), have been designed to represent a “continuing education” experience for PIs:

  • To permit them opportunity to learn cutting-edge methods and statistical analyses;
  • to discuss emerging critical issues; and
  • to share recent findings from their own work.

In total, these meetings have fostered a culture of collegiality and a cross-fertilization of ideas.

The development of an enduring community of high-performing IDEA-funded researchers has been further strengthened through personnel preparation grants to deserving special education programs and departments. These grants enable university faculty to attract and train young researchers to become capable of conducting their own high-quality research and of preparing a next generation of teachers of children and youth with disabilities. In a similar vein, IDEA monies have supported student-initiated dissertation research and early career mentoring and training to help young special education researchers launch successful research programs and maintain special education’s research tradition of evidence-based innovation and impact.

In Sum

On this important anniversary, we celebrate IDEA’s pivotal role in ensuring a free appropriate public education to children and youth with disabilities. We take some measure of satisfaction in describing how IDEA-funded researchers have indisputably and importantly contributed to this achievement. We also know, as all knowledgeable stakeholders know, that we all have a long way to go to ensure that all special needs children and youth are prepared to assume their place in society as happy, healthy, productive, and responsible citizens.


Doug Fuchs is the Professor of Special Education and Nicholas Hobbs Chair of Special Education and Human Development and Professor Pediatrics in the Vanderbilt University Medical School, Department of Special Education.

Lynn Fuchs is the Dunn Family Professor of Psycho-educational Assessment, Special Education, and Human Development at Vanderbilt University.  


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