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Have We Got Special Education All Wrong?

Over the years, when we have visited countries whose schools outperform our own, we ask our colleagues in their ministries of education what proportion of their students are classified as what we call "special education" students.  The answer to that question in the United States is 13 percent.  But in Germany it is a bit below seven percent, in Singapore four percent, and in Ontario nine percent.  Overall, over the years we have been doing this, the proportion of special education students in the United States has been roughly twice that in most of the top-performing countries we have researched.  Finland is the outlier at 38 percent, for reasons I will get to presently. 

When we share this discrepancy with American educators, they are proud.  That's because they interpret this difference as signifying that our country cares more about the most vulnerable students in our schools and is prepared to do more for them than these other countries.  Many go on to opine that at least some of these countries consign their special education students to facilities that would remind one of Victorian times.  They also suggest that one of the reasons that U.S. schools do not do well in international academic achievement is that we include our special education students in the achievement survey, but they do not include theirs.  It is certainly true that not only do we classify many more children as needing special education resources than all but one of these other countries, but we also spend much more on each one of them than we do on the students who are not so classified.

But, if it is true that we are doing something here of which we can be proud, would you not expect that to show up in the student performance data?  Wouldn't you expect our most vulnerable students to be doing much better than the most vulnerable students in the countries that fail to provide these extra resources to all the students who we think need them, resources that we provide and they do not?

Let's look then at the most recent PISA data for the mathematics performance of the students in the lowest quartile.  Of all countries surveyed, the top performer is Singapore, with an average score of 500 for their lowest performers.  The average scores go down from there until, after traversing 27 more countries, we get to the OECD average score of 428 and the score for the United States of 408, 92 points below the score for Singapore.

But we just told you that Singapore classifies only four percent of its students as special education students.  We classify 13 percent as special education students.  The students in our special education programs often get two to three times the resources that other students get.  What is going on here?  How could it be that we give our most vulnerable students so much more in resources and they still underperform their international peers by a wide margin?

Well, you might say, that's because Singapore does not report the scores of their special education students on the PISA surveys and we do.  But that is not true. PISA requires special education students who are able to take the test to be included and provides accommodations for students who need them. Nor is it true that Singapore consigns its students to special facilities where they get very little help. In fact, Singapore allocates 1.5 times its base student funding level for special education students who are mainstreamed and three times its base funding for students who have significant physical or mental disabilities and require placement in more supportive schools.

So, what is going on here?  How can it be that the United States spends a great deal of money on special education and includes many more vulnerable students in that classification than the top performers, but the gap in performance between our most vulnerable students and the rest of our student body is greater in the United States than in many top-performing countries?

Years ago, our organization commissioned a study on this topic from the then-dean of the New York University School of Education, a leading special education expert.  The data in his report showed that, when Ronald Reagan was president, he greatly reduced the amount of federal funds going to low-income and minority students from Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.  The research showed that, shortly thereafter, there was an increase in the number of students assigned to special education.  The number dropped from Title I was very close to the increase in the number assigned to special education.  His research showed that the methods used for deciding which students would be assigned to special education at the time were so imprecise as to make the chance that any given student dropped from Title I would be assigned to special education more or less random.  It turned out that when the performance of the students previously covered by Title I and subsequently assigned to special education were compared to those who were previously in Title I schools but were no longer and the student was not designated as a special education student, the students not assigned any special federal funding performed at higher levels than those who were designated special education students.

Subsequent studies have come to essentially the same conclusion.  The most likely explanation is that the very act of formally designating a student as a special education student lowers the expectations for that student's performance held by everyone whose expectations count: teachers, parents, the student and their peers.

When we discovered years ago that the top performers labelled as special education students only those who had specific identifiable mental or physical disabilities, we then went back and looked at the American data.  It would appear that roughly the same proportion of students have identifiable physical or mental disabilities in the United States as in the other countries we have studied.  The reason we have twice as many students so classified is because half of the students who are classified as special education students have no identifiable physical or mental disability.  Then why are they classified as special education students?

The answer at one level seems to be that for many teachers in schools serving low-income and minority students, when facing students who are openly defiant, patently uninterested in learning anything and often full of anger at everyone in authority, it becomes very difficult to teach those students who they see as more interested in learning.  Understandably, they put pressure on the principal to get the disruptive students out of their classrooms so they can teach the others.  In districts and schools serving a large proportion of students in concentrated poverty, it does not take long to identify a large and inevitably growing number of students who get assigned to special education in this way.

I have read the stories about wealthy parents who hire expensive attorneys to force the public schools to pay for very expensive private school education for their children, children who are not, by any reasonable standards, disabled in any way.  But the statistics seem to show that, while outrageous, these incidents represent a very small fraction of all students served by the special education program.  So, from a policy standpoint, the issue here is whether students who do not have a specific mental or physical disability are well served by this program.  I am arguing that they are not, that the effect of labelling students in this way overcomes the additional services they are offered in most cases.

I want at this point in the argument to be as clear as possible about my analysis with respect to the teachers who have decided to make a career of serving these students.  They are my heroes and heroines.  To volunteer to devote oneself to helping the students that most other teachers want out of their classrooms is, at least to me, the ultimate commitment, an act of love and devotion.  Nothing in this blog is intended as a criticism of these extraordinary people.  It is intended as a critique of the system in which they work.

So what should we conclude from the data so far?  The obvious first conclusion is that we should label as special education students (by whatever name), as a rule of thumb, only those students who have specific physical or mental condition that needs to be treated, supported or otherwise responded to with an educationally appropriate response. 

But we cannot stop there.  The question is what to do about all the students who have been assigned to special education at the insistence of teachers who found it hard or impossible to teach with these students in their classroom.  That is not a special education problem.  It is in fact the core challenge of providing real equity in our schools.  That is, the issue is how to greatly improve the prospects of students who grow up in circumstances that make them angry, abusive, violent, disrespectful or just withdrawn and isolated.  Put another way, the challenge is to find a way to enable those students whose background and circumstances make them most vulnerable to reach the high standards they now need to meet. 

I put it that way partly because I believe that this is exactly what the challenge is, but also because the data show that this is just what the top performers are doing.  Far from suggesting that the top performers should learn a thing or two from us about helping special education students, we should be learning from the top performers how to keep students who do not truly need it out of special education by doing what they are doing to enable them to reach high standards in the first place. 

That list is no secret.  The top performers provide far more support than the U.S. does to families with young children—everything from cash awards to nutritional assistance to pregnant women to very long and well-supported family leave for fathers and mothers to universal, high-quality child care and early childhood education.  But it does not stop there.  It also includes a higher ratio of teachers to students in schools serving low-income, minority students; extra funds for schools serving large numbers of vulnerable students; coordinated social services; strong incentives for their best teachers and principals to serve in schools with large proportions of vulnerable students; more time for students who need extra time to reach high standards; close monitoring of student progress to make sure that students who start to fall behind get the help they need to catch up quickly and more time for teachers to work one-on-one and in small groups with students who need extra help.  This list does not come close to exhausting the measures the top-performing countries take to help their most vulnerable students, but it goes a long way to explain how those countries are able to do so well by the lowest-performing quarter of their students.

We are talking about very large sums of money here.  If we devoted half of the special education funds that we now spend on special education students who do not have specific mental or physical disabilities to the expanded availability of the kinds of measures I just listed, we could probably save the other half and be way ahead of the game in terms of overall student achievement.  We could then take that money and invest it in even better services for the students who really need it to address the specific physical or mental disabilities they face.  All students would be better off, without any more money being spent than is being spent now. 

Oh, yes, I promised to get back to Finland and the high rate of assignment in that country to special education.  In Finland, they solved the problem by simply saying that many kinds of students need special help.  Some may be gifted and some might have a hearing or vision problem.  Some might need one-time-only help and others might need continuous help. In Finland, most students get "special education" help at least once in their school career.  Because that is true, there is no stigma.  Every school has a "special education" teacher trained to provide a wide range of special help to the students in that school who need it.  This is an idea worth conjuring with.

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