How Much Special Education is a Good Thing?

Last week’s GAO report on special education in charter schools prompted the predictable dust-up between charter advocates and opponents. Opponents hailed the report as evidence that charter schools cheat the public system by failing to serve as many special needs students as regular public schools do. Advocates responded that the GAO unfairly compared charter schools with public school systems: no individual public school is supposed to serve every kind of special need.

The statistical back and forth obscures a much more fundamental issue with the GAO’s analysis. The GAO assumes that there is some fixed percentage of special needs students in the general population. If your school serves that percentage, it is doing a good thing. If it serves a lower percentage, the school is not doing its fair share—the report’s criticism of charter schools. Presumably, if a school’s percentage of special education is above average, it should receive some sort of blue ribbon.

This is a fundamentally erroneous way of judging how schools are serving students with special needs. Some special needs reflect relatively immutable student attributes—Down’s Syndrome, hearing or sight impairments, and physical fragility. Other needs are subject to professional diagnosis and varying standards of judgment—witness current revisions to the Autism spectrum. And many learning disabilities—the largest percentage of special needs—are subject to correction, prevention, and, again, professional judgment.

It is well established that public education systems over time have identified higher and higher percentages of students as requiring special education. The percentage has doubled over the last forty years. It is also well established that education systems in different states and districts identify widely different percentages of students as requiring special education. Over the years these differences have yielded criticisms of systems for both under-serving special needs students and over-identifying special needs students.

All such criticism presumes there is some fixed and objective percentage of special education students in the nation. There is not!

Good schools work hard to help all students adjust to the social requirements of schooling, explicitly teaching and practicing social norms—a struggle for some special needs students. Good schools work hard to instill in students the habits necessary for learning, for example, organization and patience—challenges, again, for some special needs students. Most important, good schools teach students the fundamentals of reading and math, breaking the skills down as finely as needed. Good schools provide extra tutoring in phonics, even employing highly specialized programs to reach students who struggle with standard curricula. If good schools are successful in all of these regards, especially in the early years of schooling, fewer of their students will display the learning deficits later in life that qualify students for special education.

To be clear, there are learning disabilities and students in possession of them that will require the intense and individual attention of a special education plan. But, some learning difficulties can be overcome through strong schooling. All things being equal, great schools will have fewer special education students than schools on average—not the same or more. Charter schools that have established themselves as strong performers do, in fact, take aggressive measures to prevent student failure early. High performing regular public schools do too.

I speak here with reference not only to the research. For fifteen years, as chief education officer of Edison Schools, I worked directly in scores of schools serving high risk students. The most successful of those schools ultimately sent fewer students to special education—because they intervened successfully early. Twenty years ago, one of my own children was diagnosed in elementary school as ADHD, and in second grade could not read. After attending one school that failed to provide intensive early intervention, he switched schools to one that did. It worked. His medical diagnosis never changed in the years thereafter, but his need for special education did—he completed middle and high school successfully without being classified and served.

Again, many students have needs that can only be served through interventions that are guaranteed through this nation’s formal special education programs. They deserve vigilant and expert attention. But serving them is not the same as serving all students who struggle to learn. The GAO does all good schools a disservice when it equates more special education students with “doing a good job.”

-John Chubb

This blog entry originally appeared on The Quick and The Ed.

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