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What Happens to Special Education Students as Adults?

A new study explores the IDEA program and adulthood outomes.

Each year, more than 6 million schoolchildren—roughly 13 percent of all public school students—receive special education services in the U.S. under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Since the inception of the program in 1975, researchers have debated how to assess its effectiveness, and the program itself has evolved over time, making it even more challenging to evaluate. Much of the research on special education has looked at short-term outcomes for some groups of special education students. However, little to no research has examined special education as a whole and its links to long-term adulthood outcomes.

Much of education research is short-term. This is understandable, given the extraordinary cost of a highly intensive intervention or program and the long-term follow up of such a program. Recently, however, Tyler Watts, Drew Bailey, and Chen Li have suggested, in a new paper in the Journal of Research on Educational Effectiveness, that education research should aim further than short-term evaluations of interventions, and the authors lay out how such longitudinal follow-ups of carefully implemented interventions might be incentivized broadly in education research.

Though ideally one would first conduct a randomized controlled trial and follow up with groups of both treated and untreated individuals well into adulthood, this ideal is not possible with special education due to the specific parameters outlined in IDEA. In "Exploring the links between receiving special education services and adulthood outcomes,” a new paper in the journal Frontiers in Education: Special Educational Needs, Tomoe Kanaya, Brenda Miranda, and I linked up publicly available large-scale datasets which allowed us to use a one-to-one propensity score matching technique alongside a unique research design. This helped us figure out how students who qualified for IDEA at any point—compared to students who did not—fared on long-term outcomes well into adulthood ranging across areas spanning educational attainment, economic self-sufficiency, social engagement, and health.

Overall, we discovered that across the years studied, those who were identified under IDEA in some capacity did not significantly differ from those who were not identified under IDEA. In other words, special education services did not appear to be strongly related to a wide range of outcomes in adulthood. One exception is that we found that IDEA did matter for Hispanic students on some outcomes.

However, the demographic variables that are highly correlated with receiving services (e.g., income, maternal education) did predict several adulthood outcomes. Among other things, our results “point to the potential importance of the contextual factors that surround special education services and suggest the need to provide context-specific services at the local level.” These results also illustrate how researchers can use large-scale databases that already exist, in novel ways, to help examine whether programs as important as IDEA are making the long-term difference we would hope they would make.

These findings and suggestions also coincide with the issues and concerns raised by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization regarding the barriers faced by people with disabilities. Longitudinal, large-scale research on students served under IDEA—perhaps those served under the program in recent years, given that it is an evolving program—holds the potential to lead to improved, perhaps more tailored services, that may reveal long-term links to adulthood, and potentially reduce disparities for people with disabilities. However, that requires future longitudinal research to be empirically determined.


Kanaya, T., Wai, J., & Miranda, B. (2019). Exploring the links between receiving special education services and adulthood outcomes. Frontiers in Education: Special Educational Needs, 4, 56.

Watts, T. W., Bailey, D. H., & Li, C. (2019). Aiming further: Addressing the need for high quality longitudinal research in education. Journal of Research on Educational Effectiveness.

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