It’s all too common but also completely mistaken to blame special education for the shortcomings of the public k-12 system. If you point out that per pupil spending has more than doubled in the last three decades (adjusting for inflation) while student outcomes have remained unchanged, people blame the rising costs of special education. (See for example Richard Rothstein on this). If you point out that the teaching workforce has increased by about 40% in the last three decades (adjusted for changes in student population), people blame special education (see below). If budgets are tight and programs get cut, people blame special education for draining money from general education.
Blaming special ed is easy. Most attempts to blame special ed don’t even bother presenting data or make the most crude use of data to support their claims. Reporters simply accept assertions from school and state officials without question. Folks accept the blame-special-ed-story so easily because — well, to put it bluntly – it is a a widely held but unstated prejudice. People quietly resent special education because they fear that it is short-changing their regular education students. They assume that money spent on disabled kids is necessarily money taken away from general education. They can’t imagine that resources for general education have also increased at a very rapid clip even as special ed costs have risen.
School officials — people who should know better — play upon this popular prejudice to rationalize their failures. They would never dare blame the programs that have been created or expanded in the last three decades for the education of poor and minority students. Those programs also cost quite a lot of money. No, school officials choose to blame special ed because it seems like blaming fate. Fate has overwhelmed us with a rise in disabilities, the story goes, which have drained general education of money, teachers, and flexibility under tight budgets. Never mind the considerable evidence that the rise in special education over the last few decades is almost certainly due to an increased classification of students as disabled rather than a true increase in the rate of disabilities in the world. Fate had nothing to do with it.
I’ve rebutted the claims that special ed is largely responsible for rising per pupil spending in chapters 1 and 2 of the book Education Myths as well as in this Education Next article and in this paper that was published in the Peabody Journal of Education.
My purpose in this post is to address the comment written by “Kevin” that attributed the increase in the teaching workforce to special education. Kevin was responding to a post by Greg in which he wrote: “But teachers’ unions have pushed up costs - dramatically. In the past 40 years, the cost of the government school system per student has much more than doubled (even after inflation) while outcomes are flat across the board. And this has mainly been caused by a dramatic increase in the number of teachers hired per student – a policy that benefits only the unions.” And Kevin replied: “Any comparison of staffing in schools 40 years ago and today typically ignores one group of staff that didn’t exist in 1968 – special education teachers and aides. Special education programs weren’t in most schools 40 years ago, hence there were no staff hired to work with those specific populations, particularly students with cognitive delay and autism who need a much higher staff ratio than is provided in the general education classroom.”
I’m bothering to rebut Kevin’s claims because 1) he appears to be a state employee (perhaps a school official, judging from his email address), and 2) his comments are typical of the blame special ed rhetoric. Notice that Kevin doesn’t bother to present any evidence. He just tells a plausible story, which because he and many others have “pre-judged” it to be true, they consider persuasive without need of any proof. But let’s consider the evidence here.
In 1974, the year before federal legislation governing the education of disabled students was adopted, there were 2.165 million public school teachers and an average student to teacher ratio of 20.8. In 2006 there were 3.177 million public school teachers, an increase of 1.012 million teachers. And in 2006 there were a total of 404,577 teacher FTEs providing special education services.
But we have to adjust for the fact that that some of those 404,577 teachers assigned to special education have been shifted (or had their lines shifted) to special education as more students have been reclassified as disabled. We also have to adjust for the fact that there are more students in 2006 than in 1974. To make everything comparable, let’s assume that the student-teacher ratio had remained at 20.8 for all students. Given that there were 49.370 million public school students in 2006, there would have been 2.374 million teachers if ratios had stayed the same for everybody instead of the 3.177 million teachers we have. So there was really an increase of 803,442 teachers, adjusted for the change in student population.
But if the 6,081,890 students classified as disabled also had 20.8 students for each teacher, they would have 292,398 teachers. Given that there are 404,575 teachers assigned to special education, the lower student-teacher ratios required for disabled students only results in a net increase of 112,179 teachers (404,575 minus 292,398). So, of the 803,442 teachers added since 1974 only about 112,179 can be explained by the need to offer smaller student-teacher ratios to disabled students. That is, special ed may only account for about 14% of the increase in the teaching workforce.
What people like Kevin forget is that while virtually “no staff” were hired specifically for special education several decades ago, there were also virtually no students classified as disabled (although most were in schools and under-served). If we shift 6 million students into special education and maintained the same 1974 ratio of 20.8 students per teacher, we would have shifted 292,398 teachers with them. It’s true that with an increase in federal and state subsidies along with a mandate to provide services, we’ve reduced student teacher ratios for disabled students. But we’ve only added an additional 112,179 teachers to produce smaller ratios for disabled students.
Of course, Greg also makes an excellent point when he says in the comments to his post that resources devoted to special ed should also be expected to produce improvements in results. Regardless of how resources have been allocated between regular and special education, the money should be yielding benefits for students. The fact that we have observed virtually no change in student outcomes over the last four decades despite a huge increase in real expenditures (regardless of how it was allocated) is a source of chronic frustration with public education.
The unstated assumption of these blame-special-ed stories is that money spent on special education is basically money flushed down the toilet. They assume that nothing can help disabled kids, which fuels the quiet resentment of resources devoted to special education. Rather than looking for scapegoats — special education, rising poverty, cosmic rays, etc… — folks should focus on the perverse incentives of a broken public education system. The fault, dear reader, lies not in our stars but in ourselves.