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The Pros and Cons of Specialized Academic Instruction for Special Education

Dean Traylor is a freelance writer and teacher who writes about various subjects, including education and creative writing.

This is how popular specialized academic instructions have become in California.

This is how popular specialized academic instructions have become in California.

Specialized Academic Instruction (SAI) has expanded throughout California's public schools over the last few years. However, this expansion hasn't translated into overall acceptance from educators. The hybrid program promised to adhere to key goals of the Individual with Disability Education Act (IDEA), while alleviating the finances of the state's struggling school districts. It was supposed to be the ultimate tool to prepare students with special needs to be mainstreamed with their non-disabled peers.

One thing is certain: there are plenty of opinions about it. And those opinions may shape this special education program in the years to come.

But, the promises may be a moot point. The program hasn't been fully endorsed by most special education teachers or by the California Teacher Association (which wrote a scathing report in its monthly magazine). It also appears that its track record for its success has been sketchy or non-existent, at best.

Still, there are others that praise it as a viable program that can prepare students for the transition toward general education. The arguments can be contentious between those who either support the pros and/or abhor the cons of this service.

One thing is certain: there are plenty of opinions about it. And those opinions may shape this special education program in the years to come.

Some facts about SAI and Programs it Replaced

SAI was designed to replace two well established and traditional special education programs -- Resource Special Program (RSP) and Special Day Classroom (SDC). These programs served students that fell within the mild/moderate disability range.

RSP was a designation given to students whose learning disabilities were deemed minor. While many districts vary in their definition, the common thread was that RSP students were generally mainstreamed in general education courses for the majority of the day.

Also, many districts had teachers that primarily dealt with RSP students. Simply called RSP teachers, they either ran a learning center, co-taught a course with a general education teacher, or taught core subjects on their own.

RSP courses in some districts was for students who were deficient in certain areas such as English or Math. Often, students in these courses were given the same material as their non-disabled peers; however, they met in smaller classes and were given numerous accommodations to help them master the subject.

SDC served a population of students that were far behind their general education and RSP counter parts. Unlike RSP students, the SDC students spent a majority of their school day in special education courses (often designated as SDC English, math, or science).


The positive effect of SAI

By combining RSP and SDC, SAI courses have lowered the teacher/student ratio. Now, most students that were once designated as RSP are being fully mainstreamed. The remainder -- often the ones who need additional help -- will be in classrooms where they can get more attention from the teacher.

While it's an indirect effect, mainstreaming has helped to lower the cost of hiring additional instructional assistants, ordering specialized educational materials, and constructing new building or classrooms.

Saving money will always look good for a district's financial officer. Although special education will receive financial support from state and national funding, they still rely heavily on local expenditures by the district.

Also, SAI offers opportunity to a group of students not often mainstreamed in the general education population: students labeled as "basic skills." This particular population may have moderate/severe disabilities; however, they may have specific academic abilities that are comparable to those with mild/moderate disorders or with non-disabled students.

The SAI course has served as the next step for many of these students. It's unlikely that they will enter the general education population; however, SAI courses tend to be closely aligned with regular ones. Only modifications and some accommodation are used in these courses.

The negative effects

SAI is still a very flawed program. Its effects can be felt directly and indirectly throughout the special education universe.

Part of the problem is how many districts have used it. Some school districts decided to combine it with Basic Skills or Emotional Disorder (ED) courses along with the RSP and SDC programs. The results have been disastrous academically and management-wise.

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At the high school level, it's not unusual to have an SAI class in which one or two students are reading at 1st grade level and others at 3rd, 4th, and 10th grade level. Also, it's not surprising to have students designated with mild/moderate disabilities (auditory or visual disorders, Asperger's, ADD/ADHD) and students with severe disorders (intellectual or developmental disorders, low-functioning autism, and emotional disorders) placed in the same classroom. This has created a volatile mixture that has made classroom discipline and effectiveness nearly impossible.

In an ironic twist, however, the program has seen a prevalence of one-on-one para-educators. This is due to the rise of ED students being placed in SAI and mainstreamed classes. This should be an asset, considering that these instructional aides are working primarily with one student. However, the aides are usually pulled from an already depleted group of educators (many were laid off during the last fiscal crisis). In many cases, these aides are hastily trained and paired with students immediately.

Another problem with SAI is that accommodation/modification tools are rarely available. In many cases, teachers are expected to teach the students the same curriculum and standards as used in the general education population. Again, the students reading level hinders this process.


To top off the situation, special education teachers are often working alone. During the recent financial crisis in California, many districts cut the instructional aid workforce by more than a half. This meant that many district didn't have the personnel to aid special education teachers and students unless there were for specified reason (one-on-one or for CBI courses).

The negative effects didn't stop at the classroom door, either. Many special education students who didn't fit the criteria for SAI were mainstreamed into the general education classrooms, whether they were ready or not.

Lately, many general education teachers complained about increasing behavioral problems, and student frustration. Also, many stated that they were not being adequately prepared to serve this particular population.

A lot of times, if a mainstreamed special education student is failing a course, the counselors will automatically move him/her to an SAI course.

The teaching core within special education has been impacted, too. It has reduced the number of RSP teachers needed to monitor these students in a general education setting. Those that remained were often reassigned to SAI courses. This resulted in the removal of an hour of collaboration or monitoring per day for RSP students.

Another issue - one that has been around since the inception of special education - is that SAI has become a dumping ground for students who couldn't make it in the general education population. There are times when an SAI classroom may start off the year with 5-10 students. By the end of the school year, the number will rise above 20.

A lot of times, if a mainstreamed special education student is failing a course, the counselors will automatically move him/her to an SAI course. This may happen despite the possibility the student was not doing his/her homework, or had simply needed tutorial help.

What does the future hold?

SAI is far from perfect. And, in many respect, it hasn't done anything different from its counterpart programs of SDC and RSP. It's more of a financial and streamlining fix than a viable academic program. It doesn't help students to move on to the general education classroom. In fact, it may trap a student there for the remainder of his/her school career.

As with many educational programs, it will get replaced with something else. It's not a question of 'if', but 'when'. One can only wonder how it will be replaced. While SAI set the stage for more students with disability to be included in the general education setting, it has also created a multitude of dissatisfaction among the educators who have to teach it.

Extra: Special Education acronyms

Special education has a jargon all its own. Even among educators, the terminologies are unique. Often, many of the terms are actually acronyms. This includes the subject of this hub, Specialize Academic Instruction (SAI).

Here are few other acronyms commonly used within special education. They are:

  • LRE = Least Restrictive Environment
  • IEP = Individual Education Plan
  • RSP = Resource Special Program
  • SDC = Special Day Course
  • CBI = Community Based Instruction
  • ADA = Americans with Disabilities
  • IDEA = Individual with Disabilities Education Act

These are not the only ones. In addition, more gets added as time goes on.


Update: Confusion about SAI

A word of warning:

The term specialized academic instruction can be confusing. There is the special education "teaching" program (which this article refers to). However, some districts may use the term as a catch-all term for all their special education programs.

© 2014 Dean Traylor


Tim Truzy from U.S.A. on August 23, 2018:

Interesting article about what is going on across the country. But it is prevalent in every state - a profound confusion about special education and the purpose it serves.

Thanks for an informative article about the topic.

Having work with the guidelines of IDEA04, the Rehabilitation Act, and the Americans with Disabilities Act, IDEA04 and its consequences have been the most challenging over all.

Great read.



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