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Researcher Critiques Study on Spec. Ed. Students in Charters

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In a review of a study about the lack of students with special needs in New York City charter schools, Julie Mead, a researcher at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, casts doubt on the study's conclusion that students with special needs are not counseled out of charters.

Her critique was released by the National Education Policy at the University of Colorado, a think tank that often provides critical reviews of new research focusing on choice, charter schools, teacher-incentive policies, and other much-debated changes being proposed for the nation's schools.

In her review, Mead criticizes the New York City report for using a small, nonrepresentative sample to draw its conclusions and failing to address the question of whether or not charters have the capacity to serve children with disabilities.

The original study, released by the Center for Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington, only used data for students in grades K-3 from elementary schools that volunteered to participate. In her review, Mead argues that the decision not to include grades 4-5 (or any other grades) is significant because other research points to a jump in the number of students with disabilities from grades 1-5 partially because of a shift in to more complex curricula in the higher grades. However Marcus Winters, the study's author, contends that the decision to use data from grades K-3 was simply a result of the limits of the lottery data that was available for the time period he studied. 

Mead also points out that using data from schools that volunteered to be a part of the study may have weeded out charters who do 'counsel out' students with special needs from participating.

The original report found that charter schools were less likely to classify students as having special needs and more likely to declassify students previously identified as having special needs. Mead continues, "the report seems to cast the finding as wholly positive, but an equally plausible explanation is that charter schools are not properly evaluating students when they should."

Winters responds: "It's possible, although I do find that unlikely, and it's kind of inconsistent with what we see with the lottery analysis." Analyzing whether or not that finding had a negative or positive impact on students was not the focus of the report, said Winters. "What I'm trying to do in this paper is document where this gap is coming from," he said. 

The report itself is transparent about the need for more research into the reasons behind the declassification of students with special needs in charter schools. 

Mead does agree with some of the report's conclusions, such as the call for more research to determine why parents of special needs children are less likely to enroll them in charter schools. Although the report does not provide a wealth of information for policymakers, says Mead, it does give a glimpse into the complexity of the issue and illustrates the need to dig deeper into how charter schools can best serve students with special needs.

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