The simple answer is that general education is the typical classroom that we think of when we think of school. Special education is more complicated because it has changed over time. Years ago before the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (“IDEA”), special education meant a separate classroom filled with only children with special needs. Today, special education is not a class placement, but a way to teach children with learning differences. It can occur in a general education classroom, a separate classroom or anyplace in between. We call that a “continuum of placements.” The important thing is that Special education is specialized, meaning that it’s tailored to meet the unique needs of students with disabilities.
As described above, simply put general education is the type of instruction a child gets in a typical classroom. General education is designed to teach children in a standardized way. The idea is that most children learn by using standard form instruction, i.e., the same text books, the same projects, the same experiments, etc. This image shows you what I mean. Most children in a typical classroom learn the “ow” word family by memorizing it, and then are tested on it in a weekly spelling quiz. That’s one example of standardized instruction.
The goals of special education are similar to the educational goals for general education, but the techniques for attaining the goals are different. Children who have learning differences often require more intensive and individualized instruction and more repetition. And children who are in special education have an Individual Education Program (“IEP”) that gives them rights under the IDEA, a federal law. One example is that children with a reading disability may not be able to learn and retain the “ow” word family simply by memorizing the worksheet image above. They may need more hands-on instruction using a materials that they can touch. This image to the right shows how a child who struggles with reading might learn words by writing them in sand.