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Report Probes the Future of Special Education

A new report from the Thomas B. Fordham Institute that looks at how special education students and the people who work with them have changed during the last decade concludes that the field needs to change dramatically.

Among what's needed, the Washington think tank says, is better, more consistent data about students with disabilities and uniform definitions of different types of disabilities; a better handle on spending; an exploration of why some types of disabilities seem to be declining; and a fresh approach to teaching all students, all of whom have unique needs.

The authors find the way special education works—or doesn't—is in part because it hasn't changed enough since the creation of laws that require students with disabilities be taught. And that's a disservice to those students as well as their peers.

"Special education, like general education, needs a makeover for the 21st century. Its service models, instructional strategies, funding, identification methods, disability definitions, [Individualized Education Program] protocols, and so on, no longer serve the needs of truly disabled youngsters. But we can't get there until we peel back the layers of financial and operational opacity that currently shroud the field and hinder our efforts to make it more transparent, efficient, and effective in the future," the report concludes.

The authors were also flummoxed by the way personnel are assigned, or supposedly assigned, to work with students with special needs. Nationally, they found that schools employ 129 special education teachers and aides for every 1,000 special education students, an increase from 117 a decade ago. But drilling down, they found the variations ranged from a reported 320 per 1,000 in New Hampshire to 38 per 1,000 in Mississippi.

And while strategies such as response to intervention are being credited for reducing the number of students identified as having specific learning disabilities, which has led to an overall decline in all students with disabilities after decades of steady growth, they say the drop deserves more study. (For more analysis on the decline in the numbers of special education students, see my colleague Christina Samuels' story from September.)

But perhaps the crux of the 25-page report was money. While the authors were able to tally, to an extent, that special education spending consumed about 21 percent of all spending in 2005, compared to 18 percent in 1996, they said there isn't enough information about where the money is going. (One website and advocate tries to follow some of the money. But it isn't easy.) "Accurate accounting of state, district, and school-level spending on special education simply does not exist," they write in summary of their frustration. "That such large swaths of state and district budgets can go essentially unmeasured and unreported is scandalous. Policymakers, parents, and taxpayers deserve to know how much money is spent on special education and for what purposes—in a user-friendly fashion."

As you'll read in a story by me next week, special education spending has long been viewed as sacred, sometimes to the detriment of other students, in the opinion of some.

The authors say that can't remain the case, noting that several states applied for waivers to reduce special education spending in recent years: "We can no longer view these as untouchable expenditures."

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