What do the Experiences of Japan and Sweden Have to Tell Us About Special Education Policy and Practice in the United States?

Pritzker, Charlene, Education - Curry School of Education, University of Virginia
Hoffman, Diane, Social Foundations of Education, University of Virginia

By a variety of measures, Sweden and Japan have both created educational systems that serve the great majority of their students, including many with disabilities, and consistently prepare them for full membership in their social, economic, and political communities. This dissertation examines the culture, policy, political, and legal factors relating to educational practice that appear to have affected their ability to achieve these results, and suggests ways that the United States might learn from their experience.

The research is a comparative case study of special education in Sweden and Japan, using elements of historical analysis to examine development and changes in special education since the 1970’s. The study is based on an exhaustive literature search, including historical and government documents, research articles, commentaries and opinion pieces regarding special education in the two countries, focusing on both current educational policy and the forces over the past 40 years that led to these policies.

The study identified several key themes of difference between special education programs in Sweden and/or Japan and the United States, which can potentially inform practices in the United States. These include: (1) Providing all students (other than a very small number with low incidence-high impact disabilities) with access to the full, rigorous curriculum and standards offered to all students, thereby equalizing the basic inputs of education, and making it possible for all students to reach their maximum potential. When and where needed, this could be supplemented with appropriate remediation and basic skills instruction. (2) Basing the decision to provide services on demonstrated needs rather than a requirement for formal diagnosis or an assessment of discrepancy between “ability” and performance, so that students can get help with fewer procedural formalities, more quickly and for short or longer periods of time. (3) Focusing on creating an educational environment where a range of student needs can be accommodated and where the environment itself ameliorates the effects of disability so that fewer students will need to be identified and offered special services. (4) Extending the concept of inclusion to “normalization” in all aspects of life, as well as in the schools, providing more ways for individuals with disabilities to participate fully in the economy and civic and social life, both during school years and as adults. (5) Limiting the impact of administrative and legal burdens and costs on the practice and delivery of special education, freeing funds for direct educational needs.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
special education, education policy, Japan, Sweden
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