Special education (Also known as special ed, SPED or defectology) refers euphemistically to the teaching of students with a learning disability, a developmental disability or a behavioral problem, or to that of gifted children. This article will focus mainly on the teaching of students with disabilities; see Gifted education for more information on that subject. Services (such as speech and language therapy, occupational therapy, physical therapy, etc) are provided within the mainstream class (i.e. inclusion) or in a separate classroom if this is decided to be the least restrictive environment. Students receive individualized services to meet their goals, and these services are outlined in each child's Individualized Education Plan (IEP). Federally, students who reach the age of 16 will also need an Individual Transition Plan (ITP). The ITP focuses on the learner's goals for the future, addressing living and employment.

Several journalists and commentators have argued that special education programs drain resources from mainstream classes, and that the teachers of those classes will have to do more with less resources. They feel that these teachers are unable to provide as much assistance as they would like to the "less-capable" members of the class. They argue that, in turn, such students' academic performance may suffer and they may be tracked into special ed programs as well.

The standard counterargument is that the resources for special education do not take away from the resources for the mainstream classroom, but rather will add resources (such as additional staff and material support) for the class in which a child with a disability is included. In addition, the educational experience and lifetime lesson of including a student with disabilities is invaluable to all of the children in the class.

Naturally, many students' challenges have historically driven their placement in classes which are specific to a particular disability. However, the goal is for all students to be placed in a learning environment that is the least restrictive for each individual learner. In the past 10 years, that has come to mean inclusive environments: all students learning together with each individual's specific learning needs being met within a typically occurring classroom environment. The fact that this has been less than successful may have more to do with the resources allotted such programs, and the inability of an entrenched model of education to change to accommodate such an educational process, than with the legitimacy of such a model itself.

While terms such as "normal" and "typical" can be debated endlessly, there is research that shows that students with the most significant disabilities benefit academically and socially in a classroom and a curriculum that is adapted and modified to help them be successful in school. Some learning activities may be best presented away from the chaos of a general education classroom, but any student can benefit from this type of intervention.