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Study: Special Educators Accept Wide Swings in Special Education Enrollment

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Despite wide variation in the percentage of students enrolled in special education, a majority of teachers, principals and special administrators in a given state feel that the classification rates are largely on target, says a new report from Frontline Learning and Research Institute.

More than 17 percent of the students who live in Maine, Massachusetts, New York, and Pennsylvania are enrolled in special education, far outstripping the classification rates in other states, according to federal data. In contrast, Colorado, Hawaii, Idaho, and Texas—the four states with the lowest percentage of students in special education—have classification rates around 10 percent or less. 

Most educators and principals feel these numbers are correct, even though they deviate from the national average of special education enrollment, 12 percent.

The insititute is a division of Frontline Education, which provides administrative and human resources software products to educational organizations nationwide. The institute draws on data from more than 12,000 school districts and millions of users of its products to create data-driven research on educational topics. This report, "Crossing the Line: Exploring Equity in Special Education Classification Across the United States," is one of four reports planned on special education topics. 

The variation in special education classification was captured from data collected by the U.S. Department of Education. How teachers, principals and special education administrators feel about those variations, however, is something that Frontline was able to gather from surveying its users.

For example, though the majority of educators felt that their state's classification rates were on target, those in states with a high percentage of students in special education were more likely to say those numbers were a little too high. About 36 percent of teachers in high-classifying states agreed that "somewhat fewer" students should be identified as needing special education. That compares to 10 percent of teachers in states where special education enrollment is already lower than average. 

That trend was reversed in states that have a lower percentage of students in special education. In that situation, teachers were more likely to think their numbers should go up a bit. Twenty-nine percent of teachers in the states with the lowest special education enrollment said that "somewhat more" students should be classified. That compares with about 18 percent of teachers in states where special education enrollment is already higher than the norm. 

The report also captures differences in perspective among teachers, principals, and special education administrators. Overall, special education administrators were more likely than teachers or principals to say that somewhat fewer students should be receiving special education services—more than a quarter of them agreed with that statement, compared to just 17 percent of teachers and of principals. 

So who is correct? A state that classifies more students than average or fewer? 

"That question rang through in my mind," said Jo Ann Hanrahan, Frontline's director of research and data analysis. She wrote the report with Thomas Reap, the executive director of special education and interventions for Frontline. "I don't necessarily think it's a question of who's right or who's wrong, but it's very clear that there needs to be conversation. I think we do very little in terms of having these conversations within our local systems, districts, states. That's really the call to action to take from here."


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