Pulling back the special-ed data mask

summer, New Jersey’s Star-Ledger ran a hard-hitting piece about the
condition of education finance in the Garden State. It bemoaned a dismal
school-system budget in which teachers had been laid off, extracurricular
activities scrapped, and free transportation curtailed. But one budgetary
category had been spared: special education.

“This is an area that is completely out of control and in
desperate need of reform,” said Larrie Reynolds, superintendent in the Mount
Olive School District, where special-education spending rose 17 percent this
year. “Everything else has a finite limit. Special education—in this state, at
least—is similar to the universe. It has no end. It is the untold story of what
every school district is dealing with.”

so it is. Special education consumes a caloric slice of the education pie,
comprising an estimated 21 percent of all education spending in 2005. That
slice is growing, too. Forty-one percent of all increases in education spending
between 1996 and 2005 went to fund it.

Superintendent Reynolds indicated, special education is a field in urgent need
of reform. Not only is its funding widely seen as sacrosanct—due to federal
“maintenance of effort” requirements, strong lobbies, nervous superintendents,
entrenched habits, and a collective sense that nothing is quite enough for
these kids—but America’s approach to it is also antiquated. Despite good
intentions and some reform efforts, the field is still beset by a compliance
orientation that values process over outcomes. Thirty-six years after Congress
passed the Education for All Handicapped Children Act (now the Individuals with
Disabilities Education Act or IDEA), the rigidities and shortcomings of
yesterday’s approach have become overwhelming, as have the dollar costs.

Click to read Shifting Trends in Special EducationWe
hope the next iteration of that law will benefit from fresh thinking amid
changed realities. But before we can seriously re-imagine the field of special
education and its funding, we need a better understanding of this enterprise
today—and how it’s changed in recent years. Many are aware, for instance, that
the number of students who received special-education services rose steadily
between IDEA’s enactment in 1975 and the turn of the century. But is this
population still growing? Are particular types of disabilities responsible for
overall trends? What types of personnel do schools employ to teach these
students? Accurate descriptive data on questions like these are desperately
needed if we’re to wrestle with the more complex questions that vex the field, questions
such as: To what extent do special-ed enrollments and expenditures vary by
state? Are states correctly identifying special-needs youngsters and providing
them with appropriate services? What types of interventions are most effective
with which children?

newest report, Shifting
Trends in Special Education
, begins to lay the groundwork. It’s
quantitative. It looks for patterns—and differences—in participation, in
spending, etc.

it finds that, after decades of increases, the overall population of
special-education students peaked in the 2004-05 school year and has declined
since. But within this population, individual categories of students differed
markedly in their trajectories:

  • The number of students identified as having
    “specific learning disabilities,” the most prevalent of all disability types, declined
    throughout the decade, falling from 2.86 million to 2.43 million students, or
    from 6.1 to 4.9 percent of all students.
  • Other shrinking disability categories included
    mental retardation (down from 624,000 to 463,000 students) and emotional
    disturbances, down from 480,000 to 407,000.
  • Meanwhile, autism and “other health impairment”
    (OHI) populations increased dramatically. The former quadrupled from 93,000 to
    378,000, while OHI numbers more than doubled from 303,000 to 689,000. (Even so,
    autistic and OHI populations constituted only 0.8 and 1.4 percent,
    respectively, of all students in 2009-10.)

trends varied dramatically too:

  • Rhode Island, New York, and Massachusetts
    reported the highest rates of disability identification in 2009-10; Rhode
    Island was the only state with more than 18 percent of its students receiving
    special-education services.
  • Texas, Idaho, and Colorado reported the lowest
    rates. Percentage-wise, Texas identified half as many students with
    disabilities as Rhode Island—9.1 percent of its total student body.

also varied in their special-education personnel practices, so much so that the
accuracy of the data they report to Washington is in question. Nationally,
schools ostensibly employed 129 special-education teachers and
paraprofessionals for every thousand special-education students in 2008-09, up
from 117 per thousand in 2000-01. At the state level, this ranged from a
reported 320 per thousand in New Hampshire, to thirty-eight per thousand in
Mississippi. (We don’t find this credible—but that’s what the reported data

Special education is a field in urgent need of reform.


to make of these data? We see at least three key takeaways.

and most obviously, we need far better data in this realm. Though states must
report data across particular categories of disability as delineated by
Washington, they can and do alter these definitions—and how they are
operationalized—for their own purposes. When states make up their own
definitions and procedures, we have no way to compare disability data across
state borders.

we need better understanding of what’s driving the recent decrease in students
identified for special-education services. Is it due to more sophisticated
understanding of which students need such services? Federal, state, district,
or fiscal incentives that encourage states to identify fewer students with
disabilities? Programs like Response to Intervention (RTI)?

we need to do a better job of differentiating learning for all students.
Education should be “special” for every pupil, reserving unique services for
the small percentage of severely disabled children who need them. Surely the
advent of new tools, service providers, and customized technology packages can
help on this front.

Special education, like all of K-12 education, needs a
makeover for the twenty-first century. Its service models, instructional
strategies, funding, identification methods, categories, and protocols no longer
serve the needs of truly disabled youngsters, much less the larger enterprise.
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.