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John Thompson: "Choice" Leaves Detroit's Special Ed Students Behind

Guest post by John Thompson.

The Detroit Free Press's Chastity Pratt Dawson reports that the decline in Detroit's overall school population has increased the percentages of its special education students, making it harder to meet high-stakes accountability goals. The percentage of students on IEPs has increased from 14% to over 18% since 2005. In Michigan, 12% of all students and 10% of charter school students are on IEPs.

The big issue, in my experience, is not the number of IEP students. The problem is the concentration of too many students with the most serious disabilities in classes and schools. Dawson explains the effect of school closings on a couple of autistic students. In contrast to the normal special education class size of six, one autistic student was placed in a class with 20 cognitively impaired students.

Such an outrage brings to mind the work of Paul Tough and Nadine Burke. They explain the culture of hitting and fighting which occurs when 8 to 10 students, who have been traumatized to the point where their cognitive processes have been altered, are placed in an inner city class of thirty. During the first 2/3rds of my career, I could not have imagined either the Tough/Burke scenario or the overburdening of Detroit's classes described by Dawson.

When my school was 2/3rds low income, the counselors knew that I welcomed IEP students so, after offering the professional courtesy of asking whether I could handle additional special education students, I received a good-sized allotment. The students with learning disabilities tended to sit on the front row, and they worked hard and smart, every day. We always had some students with autism, serious conduct disorders, or full-blown mental illness, but we had nothing but great classes.

With the proliferation of choice, however, our school moved inexorably toward 100% low income. At first, it was electives where twenty or more IEP students were assigned to each class. I often had to run across the hall and break up fistfights, usually involving kids who got in trouble in virtually every class. Often, those students had not been a problem before the school approached the point where a third of our students were on IEPs, usually for the most serious disabilities.

The biggest problems are policies that ignore the vast differences in the types of disabilities. The full inclusion of students with reading and math disabilities is a "win win" policy. The inclusion of a reasonable number of students with severe problems is equally beneficial.

When my school approached the point where 40% of its students being on IEPs, however, we were collapsing into "The Wire." Even then, only 1/6th of the district's students were on IEPs. In Detroit, where nearly one in five students are so classified, many schools must be facing an impossible burden.

The last third of my career, I saw the ultimate effects of the extreme proliferation of choice. Ten years ago, I thought of myself as an inner city teacher. I sometimes caught myself thinking that I deserved the credit for my low-income students' outcomes and wondering why other urban schools were facing such complete failure. I hope that Michigan low-income charter school teachers with 10% of their students on IEPs don't believe that they face challenges comparable to their counterparts in Detroit schools.

What do you think? Do policy wonks even know the difference between different types of IEP students? Do they understand what happens when choice leaves a critical mass of more challenging students?


John Thompson was an award winning historian, with a doctorate from Rutgers, and a legislative lobbyist when crack and gangs hit his neighborhood, and he became an inner city teacher. He blogs for This Week in Education, the Huffington Post and other sites. After 18 years in the classroom, he is writing his book, Getting Schooled: Battles Inside and Outside the Urban Classroom.

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