Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Special ed on the decline?

My colleague David Hunn, a terrific data-driven reporter at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, and I have been putting together some materials for new education reporters for the upcoming EWA conference, and David came upon something interesting in federal numbers he crunched from the Data Accountability Center. After many years of increases, the share of Americans ages 3 through 21 with identified disabilities declined, from 8.5 percent in 2006 to 8.3 percent in 2008. This parallels a small decline in disabled children as a percentage of total enrollment in federal programs, according to this NCES table.

I am not sure what the difference is in the two sets of stats, because I have not seen David’s original data set. But in both cases there has been this slight dip. Has anyone written about this? If not, why? A leveling off or even decline in disability identification is a big national story, given how much special education has increased over the years. Schools might be responding to pressure not to disproportionately identify minority students as disabled, or they may be having success, through strategies such as Response to Intervention, heading off academic problems that once might have landed children in special ed as a first/last resort. Or [insert findings of your great reporting here]?


  1. I don't know how you could ever tease out the difference between an (1) actual decline in the numbers of students with disabilities and (2) school systems' efforts to refuse to provide services to students who qualify for special education services. But in school systems, the percentage of students receiving special ed services is usually around 12%.

  2. This does touch on the huge gap we see in cultures, addressed in Lyda's comment and Linda's original post, so I'm just making the connection: Lots of people decry the "overrepresentation" of African-American students in special-ed numbers, and in the AA community, special-ed identification is often viewed as a racist brand, a stigma, an insult. The notion that special-ed identification confers additional services and accommodations is not on the radar.

    At the very same time, middle-class white families in the very same school systems are desperately trying to get the very same special ed departments to identify their kids as disabled so they can receive services and accommodations. And those latter families feel the system is fighting them tooth and nail, attempting to DENY their families services. It's really head-spinning. That seems like a story to me.

    (My own school district is plurality Asian and my kids have really gone to school in a Chinese world -- yet I truly can't get a read on a cultural attitude toward special ed in the Asian community; ditto the Latino community.)

  3. First, I loved the article by Steve Hendrix, thank you!
    Secondly, it immediately brought to mind two books I used to share with my students around testing time. If you haven't already, check out Testing Miss Malarkey by Judy Finchler and Hooray for Diffendoofer Day started by Dr. Seuss and completed by Jack Prelutsky.
    Finally, you wouldn't believe the ridiculous politics behind which students get "services" and those who don't. The same goes for testing, funding, and all sorts of school issues.
    I think many parents and members of the general public picture MOST teachers, administrators, school board members, and DPI (Department of Public Instruction) leaders as morally and ethically sound.
    A great majority of teachers I know meet this criteria. About half of administrators, very few school board members, and not one DPI leader I have encountered personally and/or professionally would fall into that category. I am a parent of a fourth grader. I have been teaching for 13 years, and am proud to say that I really care about the students! I come from a long line of teachers, and I thought I had seen it all. I was so naive!

    I spoke up when I saw discrimination, misappropriation of funds, real curriculum going by the wayside, physical and emotional abuse of students, and achievement levels steadily dropping in my district. No I didn't go to the media and complain. I shared information with appropriate agencies. I wrote grants and action research proposals to secure programs for students. I professionally approached administration with concerns and ideas.
    My administrator doesn't like to be questioned, the school board doesn't care about anything except the status and power of "being on the board," my union rep is spineless, and I am done teaching.
    My superintendent was cited for disorderly conduct for his actions toward me in my classroom. After the police left, I was sent home on administrative leave. No reason was given, no procedures followed, etc. When my meeting rep met with me, he asked, "Is standing up for principles really worth your job?" He then proceeded to tell me that I would be fired if I didn't drop the restraining order recommended by police, and I best not pursue the assault charge either. "Just go to school and be a good little girl!" he said. (NO, I'm not kidding!!!)

    After that, my super launched a campaign of harassment and intimidation. Now after spending thousands on my own lawyer and sporting a pharmacy of antidepressants and antianxiety medications in my purse, I am trying to decide what career I should choose next.

    I was naive about these practices until it happened to me. Unfortunately, this is widespread. The unions know about it, the DPI is aware, the EEOC is certainly well versed, but they don't care! Visit to see for yourself. Yes, I have contacted my lawmakers...same response...
    I would love the chance to expose these things, and then maybe we could have real reform in education. Sadly, the media contains very few outlets for this. I've tried.
    If anyone reading this is interested in publishing what's really going on, I would be one of many teachers ready to overwhelm you with information, evidence, etc.
    You can reach me at

  4. Anonymous, please tell us that you did not drop the restraining order recommended by the police. If you are truly "done teaching," please pursue the assault charges to the bitter end. Other teachers will thank you.

  5. White parents in my school district, San Francisco Unified -- a high-poverty urban district -- are fighting for identification and services too.

    You make a valid point, Christina, about the difference between classification categories -- but I have seen African-American families outraged and fighting against identification in the SAME categories (such as "learning disabled") that white families are fighting for.

    I have wondered if community and family pathologies lead some students to act out in different ways that lead to different classifications. Linda's book "Tested" describes a school in which many children (low-income children of color) can't start a game of four-square or Uno without winding up in an angry conflict, presumably due to living in an environment where violence is common and cooperation is not -- or due to post-traumatic stress, for that matter. Perhaps a child from a gentler environment would be classified as learning-disabled, while a child from a harsh, deprived background would be more likely to act out in ways that lead to a classification as emotionally disturbed.

  6. Caroline:

    Your second point may be true. There is a great deal of subjectivity in many disability classifications.

    Perhaps I have a certain perspective on this because I am black. I can see why parents can think that race alone a pretty difficult burden in itself to carry, at times. So, therefore, I can understand why parents would fight adding another label, like "learning disabled." Especially when black kids in a given disability category are treated differently from white kids in the same disability category. (More likely to be removed from the general curriculum, more likely to face harsh discipline, less likely to receive early intervention services.)

    But I'm in agreement with you that there's a story there. Because there are black kids who really do need services, and perhaps they are being kept away from something useful beause of the fears of their parents' and because of the very real problems in the spec ed system.

    Maybe I need to come out to SF and write this! :-)

  7. And one other point is that if middle-class (mostly white) parents are advocating for services for their kids, they may be likely to get higher-quality, more beneficial services than parents who are fighting AGAINST their kids' getting the services at all.

  8. That's the interesting chicken-and-egg question, isn't it? Are black families getting bad services because they're fighting the placements? Or are they fighting the placements because they're generally getting bad services? I don't know. The evidence that the spec ed services are generally poorer for black students is pretty stark, though. And there are absolutely black parents fighting placement but there is still a disproportionate percentage of black students in certain categories of special education (mental retardation and emotional disturbance.) So someone is making those decisions, despite what may be going on in pockets here and there.

    Lots of food for thought here!