Special Education Programs — Moooooo!

K-12 public education is Virginia’s sacred cow. The Standards of Quality put massive spending increases on auto-pilot. Legislators act as if their job is simply to find the funds to pay for it all. No one dares question how the schools operate: There is very little talk about reforming the delivery of K-12 education in Virginia. And what little there is gets no mention in the Mainstream Media.

From time to time, though, issues do surface. The Virginia Department of Education recently issued a study that says about 90 of Virginia’s 132 school districts have shifted a disproportionately large percentage of minority students into special-education classes. Special ed, it appears, is often regarded as a dumping ground for disorderly students.

The Richmond Times-Dispatch article touches upon the issues raised in the report — are children being unfairly labeled as emotionally disturbed? – but fails to ask any larger questions. fortunately, I do have a few questions.

  • Between 1997 and 2004 (the latest year for which figures are available on the Department of Education website), school enrollment increased 8.5 percent to 1,204,808. Over the same period, special education enrollment increased 18 percent to 175,577 — more than twice as rapidly. Why?
  • Could the increase in the number of special ed students have anything to do with larger state reimbursements for special ed students?
  • Could the increase in the number of special ed students have anything to do with SOL scores? I don’t know the answer, I’m just asking: Are special ed students excluded, or treated differently, in the calculations of school and district performance?
  • What percentage of “special ed” students are successfully integrated back into the mainstream school body? In other words, is there any evidence that special ed students are actually being helped?

These are the kinds of questions that our legislators should be asking instead of signing carte blanche checks for Virginia school systems.

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8 responses to “Special Education Programs — Moooooo!”

  1. Anonymous Avatar

    I have a family member that works in a Special Ed. program at a public high school here in The Commonwealth.

    The % of students that integrate back into the “mainstream” after being placed in a Special Ed. program is minimal. It simply doesn’t happen. Why? Many students have been in the Special Ed program since they were very young because they are mentally retarded or borderline mentally retarded. Others are severely handicapped. They have Down Syndrome, MS, etc.

    Having lived with a family member who deals with Special Ed students in a public school I have come to several conclusions.

    -There is a difference between Special Ed. students and students with “special needs”. Special needs students are those that are severely handicapped or those that will never have an IQ above a third grader. You can spend all the money you want on this type of student and that will never change.

    -Special Ed. should be reserved for students that have the capability to learn and hopefully become integrated back into the mainstream.

    -Public school is not the best place for severely handicapped students. The care and attention these students require is above and beyond the capability of what a public school can provide.

    The amount of time, money and resources that go into caring for a student who has Down Syndrome or MS is astronomical. It raises a larger question, is public school the best place for this type of student?

    The conclusion I come to is no, many of these special needs students require more care and attention than a public school can provide.

  2. Anonymous Avatar

    Jim has stumbled inexorably into the truth. Even before NCLB, it was common practice in the wealthy Chicago North Shore suburbs to divert non-performers into Special Ed in order that a.) their test scores not be counted for purposes of a school’s ranking, or b.) that they not be required to take the tests at all.

    I am not sure the law reads the same way in Virginia, but it would be fair guess that it does.

  3. E M Risse Avatar
    E M Risse

    There are a lot of ways to imporve the education system.

    Real imporvement will require a lot more money than is now allocated. It will require Fundamental Change in the entire structure of education over the entire human lifespan. Finally, it will require chage in the size and location of school facilities.

    See “Education and Human Settlement Patterns” 31 January 2005 at db4.dev.baconsrebellion.com


  4. I believe your post reflects some substantial misunderstandings about public education in Virginia. I’m glad you asked the questions, though, so they can be addressed.

    First of all, the Standards of Quality are NOT fully funded. They are also quite specific and not at all “carte blanche”. Have you read them in detail?

    As to your bullet points:

    1. The increase in special education identification has been attributed to several factors, but further study is certainly warranted. These factors include:

    * A substantial and rapid increase in the number of children who have been diagnosed with autisim spectrum disorders, a national increase which hit school age in the late 90’s. The reasons for the spike in autism diagnoses are widely debated.

    * The increasing popularity of obtaining “accomodations” for schoolwork and on national standardized tests, most importantly in VA, the SAT. When I taught in a wealthy district in VA, I encountered MANY parents who employed high priced educational diagnosticians and consultants who brought reams of paper work to the district to try to have their student diagnosed with a learning disability and thus qualify for special education services and an IEP (Individualized Education Program) which would include unlimited time for test taking. In the face of private consultants, educational diagnosticians, and educational lawyers, some districts have decided to cave to parental pressure becuase it is cheaper than a protracted court battle.

    * The increase in diagnoses for ADD and ADD/HD, a formerly rare diagnosis now much more common due to popularization and advertisements from the high-profit pharmaceutical industry. An ADD/HD diagnosis often (but not always) is followed by a finding of eligibility for special education services.

    2. If you’re suggesting that some districts WANT more special education diagnoses so they can get more money, the definitive answer would be NO. A special education diagnosis immediately results in substantially higher costs for educating a particular child, costs that are only partially offset with increased funding. Unfortunately, it’s not like a district can say Anne Smith costs the district $68,599 to educate and then that gets a big fat check from somewhere. Midyear findings of special ed eligibility do not result in immediate higher staffing or anything — schools have to make do with current staffing but a much, much higher workload.

    3. Special education students are NOT excluded from calculations of district performance. NCLB requirements differ in some ways from state to state, but in most cases, the more special education students you have, the more difficult it is to be found as making adequate progress. With NCLB, not only is whole-group performance assessed, but the performance of sub-groups including special education students is also assessed. Your school may exceed all goals as a whole and in every ethnic and socio-economic subgroup, but if your special education students do not make adequate progress, then your whole school “fails”. Some states do allow for special education students to receive appropriate accomodations during testing — for instance, to have the test read aloud to a blind student — but in most cases special education students still have to take the same on-grade-level test even if their IEP’s have vastly different goals and objectives. It is a major problem.

    4. This depends on what you mean by “mainstream”. Do you mean having special education students in the mainstream classroom with other students? If so, then the vast majority of students who receive special education services are already mainstreamed. Federal law mandates that students be placed in the “least restrictive environment”. The days of “special ed” kids having their own windowless classroom in the basement, away from other students, are gone.

    The degree to which special education students are fully mainstreamed depends largely on the quality of the district, but it also depends on the individual needs of the child. The vast majority of special education students have learning disabilities, not physical disabilities, serious emotional disturbance, or major cognitive impairment. Most special education students are fully mainstreamed throughout the school day and receive special education services in the form of a resource teacher who co-teaches with a mainstream teacher, an educational assistant who helps special education students in the mainstream classroom, or simply by getting accomodations from the mainstream teacher like extra time for tests.

    Some districts also have “self-contained” special education programs for students with serious physical or cognitive impairments, or a combination of both self-contained and mainstreamed programs where students are self-contained (with very small class sizes) for some subjects but mainstreamed for others. It totally depends on the child’s IEP, which is the legal document that specifies the least restrictive environment, what resources the child will receive, and what the child’s individual instructional goals and objectives are.

    As for evidence, with special education students you have more evidence than with any other student. EVERY year, the child’s progress toward individual goals and objectives must be thoroughly documented by school staff. It is an incredibly time consuming process, but a useful one. Each student’s progress is monitored and then reviewed at the end of the year with a team that usually includes the child’s parents (and any lawyers, educational diagosticians, and consultants they may employ), a special education teacher, a mainstream teacher, a counselor or psychologist, and a school administrator.

    That said, I think what you meant by your last statement is something like, “How many kids “graduate” from special ed?” The answer is, if they were properly diagnosed from the beginning, not many.

    Special education is NOT a program designed for students who simply are “behind” in a particular subject and need remediation, or for kids who don’t do their homework or something. It is designed for students who have serious learning disabilities, cognitive impairments, or physical disabilities. Usually, no matter how successful a special education program is, the child is not going to “outgrow” most of these conditions.

    The child might make substantial educational progress but still need academic interventions in order to succeed. A child with a serious mental impairment might achieve substantial success by age 18 if she is able to read simple road signs, understand basic arithmetic in order to read her bank statement, and write well enough to get a minimum-wage job and support herself in a group home. She may still need to have an aide in every class with her, even at age 18.

    Another child with auditory processing deficiencies might have started school with absolutely no phonemic awareness (ability to connect sounds to letters) but be able to get a 1500 on her SAT’s and straight A’s by graduation as long as teachers give her written as well as oral directions — that might be the only accomodation she ends up needing by senior year in high school. In first grade in an early-intervention reading program, she might have cost double the per-pupil average for the district to educate. By graduation, though, having received successful early intervention, she might not “cost” the district anything in terms of additional staffing. Does that make sense? Her condition may not have changed, but early intervention may have taught her successful strategies to overcome her disability so that she now requires only minimal (and essentially cost-free) accomodations.

    I have to wonder what your anonymous commenter thinks should be done with those special education students with Down Syndrome or serious mental impairment. If they don’t belong in the public schools, where should they go? The island of broken toys or something?

    That said, I do believe that there is some danger that the pendulum has swung too far in terms of inclusivity in the mainstream environment. In a class of 25 adolescents, the presence of one very disruptive student with autism – even if that student is accompanied by a personal aide or a resource teacher – can have a considerable negative impact on everyone else’s learning. It may be the “least restrictive environment” for that one student, but it may be considerably restrictive for everyone else who can get held back by that student.

    Most recently, I have worked in another district where special education is NOT handled well at all and many mainstreamed special education students are getting very few substantive types of assistance aside from getting “graded easier”. It’s really a mockery of what a true individualized special education program should be.

    And that’s where the SOQ’s come in. The SOQ’s are supposed to specify the MININMUM standards of quality for EVERY district in Virginia so that there won’t be such a huge discrepancy between the kind of education a kid gets in Fairfax or Arlington versus the rest of the state.

  5. BTW – moooo! I realize that I responded to your points without addressing the article that you linked to.

    First of all, kudos for Brandi Green for advocating for her own educational needs. It sounds from the article — though I don’t know the district’s take on this — like she is not in the “least restrictive environment” for her. I hope she has parents or teachers who will be advocates for her as she asks for more academic rigor.

    There have been many reports in the national media lately that have raised the issue of the disproportionate number of black students who are labeled “emotionally disturbed” and placed in special education programs.

    This actually is a “double moo” of sacred cows that we rarely confront, race being the other.

    The suggestion in the media always seems to be something like, “Teachers can’t handle disruptive black kids, so they kick them out of the classroom.”

    Before I’d jump to this conclusion, I’d ask this question — what is the correlation between socio-economic status and a diagnosis of emotional disturbance (ED)?

    What is the correlation between single parenthood AND poverty and an ED diagnosis?

    It may very well be that many black students are inappropriately labeled – hopefully, in a good district, this would actually never HURT the student, though. The student would get MORE assistance, not be sent off to some little classroom where she was not academically challenged. In one excellent district where I taught, students with serious emotional disturbance were in a self-contained program where their curriculum was individually designed by their mainstream teachers. Each student kept up with the mainstream classroom while in a self-contained environment, and students were progressively mainstreamed with substantial support such as a tightly-controlled behavior modification program and after-school counseling. A student who was successful in the mainstream environment would simply get additional resource support and oversight on behavior. A student who became a danger to herself or others who who created a substantial disruption could go back to the self-contained environment with the same curriculum, but with only two or three students to one teacher. Once the student was ready, she could be progressively returned to mainstream classes again.

    That’s the right way to do it. Unfortunately, it seems from Brandi’s story like some schools are still in the dark ages.

    However, I do think it’s time to challenge the assumption that a disproportionate rate of diagnosis necessarily reflects nothing but institutional racism. If black students are disproportionately in severe poverty and disproportionately live in single-parent households, many factors could lead to a discrepancy between academic achievement and acadmic potential as measured by IQ tests. (This discrepancy is critical to being found eligible for special education services.)

    What if a child was put in front of a TV in infancy, never exposed to books or reading, and was not fed nutritious food through early childhood? What if that child never was exposed to other children in pre-school and never developed basic social interaction skills?

    That child in first grade might exhibit impulse control problems, agitation, aggression, and serious academic difficulty. By second grade, if the student had not made academic progress and was still exhibiting problems with anger, impulsivity, aggression, etc., a district might consider whether to refer that child for testing for eligibility for services. Are those “emotional disturbance” symptoms caused by environmental factors or by an organic brain chemistry issue? The school district wouldn’t know — all they know is that the child is not progressing academically and is exhibiting serious social and emotional problems in the classroom.

    Sometimes a sensitivity to race can blind us to other factors which may be contributing to a program’s success or failure. In the school where I taught this past year, for instance, administrators were VERY opposed to suspending any black students because a study the prior year showed that black students were disproportionately more likely to get suspended. Unfortunately, this resulted in many students being “enabled” to exhibit worse and worse behavior. At the same time, the school may have missed a far more important statistic; namely, whether students on free and reduced lunch were far more likely to be suspended. What I found is that in general our very poor students were the most disruptive. They were more likely to get suspended, both because more wealthy parents came in and bitched and got lesser punishments for their studnets, and because poorer students were more likely to have less supervision at home. Black students were likely overrepresented because black students were more likely to live in poverty.

    So by focusing totally on race, the school both enabled bad behavior to continue and may potentially have missed an opportunity to find a solution. For instance, if statistics suggested that students with NO supervision after school were more likely to get suspended, the school could have investigated options for running after-school programs until 6 PM or later rather than sending kids home at 3, only to get into trouble which spilled over into the classroom the next day.

  6. Anonymous Avatar

    Well, I have no scientific data but I have a helluva lot of anecdotal data which blows the “inflation” theory out of the water.

    I am a heavily educated, white collar professional male who’s had and tried to make the most of every opportunity in life, and I pay my share of taxes and those of a lot of others. I don’t run in circles that would ordinarily cause one to think that I am a free rider.

    All that said, I have seven very close friends, all in the same socio-economic bracket, who have children with special needs or special ed requirements. My son does as well. We became friends independent of our children’s needs, just in case you were wondering.

    Seven of eight of these kids have autism, Aspbergers’ or some autism-spectrum disability. My son is lucky — he merely has a speech defect that wouldn’t allow him to communicate until after he started receiving speech therapy through the public schools.

    I can tell you that each of us had to fight like Hell to get the schools to provide appropriate treatment — and by appropriate I mean the course of treatment specified by the independent professionals we hired to evaluate our kids.

    There very well may be a mis-allocation of dollars for such programs. But I don’t think the state is simply spending too much money. In fact, the local school officials put us all through the paces. An acquaintance of mine (not included in this data group) has had to file several appeals just to get the county to recognize an appropriate course of treatment.

    My son is very lucky — he scores very high on intelligence scores and will likely begin performing in the “normal” speech range very soon, but the sons and daughters of so many of my friends will be in long-term programs.

    We all had the financial wherewithal to pay lawyers, and the education and social standing not to be intimidated by the system. For every one of us, there’s likely another (or many more) sets of parents who did not have those advantages.

    Jim, I’d encourage you to read some of the recent literature suggesting that we have a growing percentage of kids who need special education — not due to better diagnoses, but due to environmental issues.

  7. Anonymous Avatar


    NCLB is a program that is in dire need of reform. The examples you cited are just a few reasons why.

    Your comment, “The days of “special ed” kids having their own windowless classroom in the basement, away from other students, are gone.” is flat out wrong.

    Special Ed kids may very well have to spend a certain amount of time in a “regular” classroom to satisfy the law/lawyer/parent but a vast majority of their time, at least in the district in which I live, is spent in a separate classroom with other students that have similar needs. Sure, they go to one or two classes throughout the day with “mainstream” students but that’s it. It’s simply an end-around to satisfy the law.

    Also, the major point I was trying to make is that there is a difference between students who have learning disabilities and those with physical disabilities, serious emotional disturbance, or major cognitive impairment.

    A public school may not be the best place for students who have physical disabilities, serious emotional disturbance, or major cognitive impairment. If it is, I’d like to know the why/how. How do you define success/failure for a student that in all likelyhood will never be able to hold even a part-time job because of their disability?

    I certainly don’t think they should be cast away to the island of broken toys. But, I do think that realistic expectations of what a child with serious physical disabilities, serious emotional disturbance, or major cognitive impairment is capable of in the long-term should be part of the equation/study/curriculium for the student, the school, and the taxpayer.

    Also, I don’t think we should kick these kids to the curb. I think something more along the lines of a regional education center that specializes in helping kids with serious physical disabilities, serious emotional disturbance, or major cognitive impairment is more appropriate.

    For the most part, I’d say we agree on one thing. Kids with serious physical disabilities, serious emotional disturbance, or major cognitive impairment are underserved in a traditional public school.

    -Anon 1:44 pm

  8. As a student in the Masters program at Mason, I want to say that all of Maura’s points are spot on.

    Special education is not about throwing money at a problem or sprinkling magic fairy dust and then poof “They’re cured”. These educational issues last throughout their lives.

    Sure there can be moments when a high school student will say go from a 5th grade reading level to an 8th grade level. That’s progress…even though they’re not on grade level. You might not ever get them there. But you have to prepare them to be aware of their situation and give them ways to deal with it.

    To further Maura’s point on test scores, I would add that the reason why NCLB adds these separate categories is so that the school system cannot mask students with needs with the general education population. It would defeat the whole purpose of NCLB. I would argue that administrators not only want to keep students out because of financial reasons but also because they do not want their AYP to go down the drain. Principals would much rather put a kid on a 504 plan, which allows for accomodations but with no IEP, than put them in special education.

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