Ed Week on Distorted Special Ed Counts

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

Ed Week dives into details on the difficult issue of how special education counts get distorted by a variety of factors. The article gets into a lot of interesting issues that make it difficult to get a clear picture of how many disabled students are served by the program. See also here for the researchers’ take on the issue.

One factor not canvassed in the Ed Week story – unsurprisingly – is the role of financial incentives in public school special education programs. Public schools are incentivized to label studnets as disabled in order to access additional funding. Study after study after study after study has confirmed the empirical relationship between the presence and strength of these incentives and rising rates of special education diagnosis in public schools. Private schools have no such distorting incentive and will thus report lower numbers of disabled students. (All this is true regardless of whether you think the true rate of disabilities is higher, as in the public system, or somewhat lower, as in the private system.)

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2 Responses to Ed Week on Distorted Special Ed Counts

  1. Joe in LA - slowly leaving the Republican Party says:

    DIve Ed Week dive! EXPOSE THE MESS!
    I was unpleasantly surprised 8 years ago when I took a course on Mainstreamig to secure my CA certification, that a main qualification of receiving Special Ed classification was that a child had to be performing 2 years or more under grade level.

    I was always under the impression that a child was tested for specific learning disabilities i.e. spacial, visual, or auditory processing, or dyslexia. Instead all a child has to be is poorly raised and he/she can qualify.

    It always struck me that it was positively stupid for NCLB to require Special Ed students – as a unique catagory – were required to operate at grade level when by definition they had to be 2 years below grade level to get the classification – a series of definitions and requirements only Kurt Vonegut could have imagined.

    But I’ll be surprised if school classifiy kids for the financial help. My district has always left the impression that the cost of special ed kids, in terms of cost of administration, and extra teachers and aides was not worth the State and Fed financila incentives. But I’d love for Ed Week to get to the truth.

  2. Greg Forster says:

    The definition you were given is not the one used by federal law. In fact, if memory serves, federal law specifically says you’re not supposed to put a student in special ed solely due to low academic performance. Functionally, many districts do this, but that’s not the law’s fault.

    As for costs, providing special ed services costs money, but the diagnosis generates money. The incentives therefore encourage putting labels on a lot of kids and then providing them with as few services as possible while whining as loudly as possible about how expensive the services are (to excuse the low levels of service and generate pressure for more money). Which is exactly what we typically see.

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