More Special Ed

My earlier post on Response to Intervention and special education has prompted discussions on Joanne Jacobs’ site and at Flypaper.  I’m struck by how frequently discussions of special education contain claims that are completely at odds with the evidence, but that people seem to prefer repeating. 

This is the central theme of the Education Myths book and there is a chapter in the book that specifically addresses special education.  Despite current and past efforts to dispel some common false claims (myths) about special ed, they just keep going.  As NYC Educator wrote in a comment, “Greene can argue all he likes, but…” [I’ll just go ahead and repeat the claim that he just debunked.]   You can have your facts, say the myth-makers, but I know what’s really true.


Just to briefly review the unsubstantiated and false claims that have come up in this current discussion:

1) Parents are the driving force behind over-identification of disabilities.  (Not true. If parents were the driving force, why are special education enrollments so sensitive to financial incentives facing schools?)

2) External developments, such as improving medical care for premies, deinstitutionalization, and socio-economic forces, account for a large part of rising special ed costs.  (Not true.  The number of premies and deinstitutionalized students pales in comparison to the growth in special ed, which has almost entirely occurred in SLD.  And mental retardation has been declining and total severe disabilities have remained flat over time, contrary to what one would expect if premies and deinstitutionalization were at work.  And poverty cannot, by definition, be the cause of a disability.)

3) Special education students are typically found in self-contained classes with tiny class sizes and high costs. (Not true.  Most disabled students, especially those with SLD, spend a majority of their day in regular classrooms.  Services for most disabled students consist of some accommodations in their regular classroom or a little pull-out, small group instruction.  These services are not dramatically different in character or cost than what is provided to lagging students who are not classified as disabled.)

I’ve attempted to respond to each false claim where it was posted and these topics were previously covered in Education Myths, so I won’t repeat the complete refutations here.  Instead, I’d like to speculate about why people are repeatedly drawn to myths about special education.  Even normally smart and sensible people, including some very good ed reformers, are confident about claims that they cannot empirically support and that most evidence contradicts.  Why?

First, many ed policy wonks live in the DC area and their perceptions of special ed are distorted by the highly exceptional practices in the District.  For example, many people think that private placement, the education of disabled students in private schools at public expense, is a common and financially burdensome arrangement.  In fact, there are only 88,156 such students in the entire country out of almost 50 million students in public schools.  But in DC private placement is almost 17 times more likely than in the rest of the country.  DC is just different (for a variety of reasons) but people feel comfortable generalizing from their immediate experience.

Second, many ed policy wonks run in relatively elite circles.  They know or have heard of savvy parents who have extracted unreasonable services from the public schools.  But as I mentioned above, the evidence contradicts the claim that special ed placements are driven primarily by parents.  Most people aren’t like the ones who went to your selective college, live in your comfortable neighborhood, or who blog about education policy.

Third, school leaders and educators have a vested interest in complaining about the financial burdens of special education or the unreasonable demands of parents.  But newspapers treat their claims as if they were those of disinterested experts.  If the local superintendent says that special education costs are threatening what can be provided in general education or that parents are to blame for a rise in special ed enrollments, it must be so.

Fourth, the hard reality is that most people are primarily interested in their own children.  If they are led to believe that special education is going to drain resources from their non-disabled kids, they want to stop that.  Since this is what they hear from school leaders and the news, they learn to resent special education.  No one repeats that extra money for Title I kids drains money from their children (which is as true as for special ed), so they don’t resist programs for poor and minority students to the same degree.

Fifth, there is a false image in some people’s heads that disabled kids are basically basket cases and that money spent on them is money wasted.  We even see this, to some degree, in school spending analyses by people like Richard Rothstein, who argue that special ed costs should be excluded when examining increases in expenditures over time and the relationship to student achievement.  It’s as if they assume that that money is poured into a black hole and couldn’t possibly improve student outcomes.  Crusty, conservative reformers are also drawn to this black hole view.  Don’t waste the money on losers, they think but don’t quite say.  Survival of the fittest!

Of course, these explanations for the extra prevalence of myths about special education are just speculation.  I don’t have evidence to prove them.  But I do have evidence debunking a number of false claims that are regularly made about special education.  It would be a shame if smart people ignore the systematic evidence and repeat myths because they trust their direct experience and prior prejudices more than facts.  This is why we have systematic evidence — to check the errors that regularly occur from following one’s gut.

13 Responses to More Special Ed

  1. NYC Educator says:

    Listen, I apologize for my comment at JJ, and you’re absolutely right that there are many more types of special ed. than I considered when I wrote it. I hadn’t actually read your original post at the time (which I actually agree with at this time), and I’d just meant to make an offhand comment about the expense of special ed. I certainly didn’t mean it as a personal attack, and I’m sorry if it came off that way.

    As a starting teacher, I was actually instructed to teach special ed. for about six months. I was terrible at it, and I’ve got nothing but respect for those who do it well. There may be many areas about which we disagree–I really don’t know. But I don’t think this is one of them. I’m absolutely not against funding special education for kids who need it.

  2. NYC Educator — I appreciate your apology and I apologize for being overly harsh. I’m relatively new at blogging and I now see how easy it is to go into over-drive too fast. Please accept my apology.

    I’m sure that we will agree at times and disagree at other times. I’m glad that this is an area where we are more in agreement than I had thought. Even when we disagree, I’ll strive to stick to the substantive issue.

  3. […] C.A.R.D wrote an interesting post today onHere’s a quick excerpt And mental retardation has been declining and total severe disabilities have remained flat over time, contrary to what one would expect if premies and deinstitutionalization w ere at work…. […]

  4. […] Update: Greene has more on special education here. […]

  5. AwayWeGo! says:

    It’s good to see special education myths get exposed! I have to get that book!! It’s a shame a lot of parents and teachers don’t get it because it can be confusing and a lot of people think of special education as just self contained classes rather than a full continuum of services. Some kids are classified and get nothing but modifications while at the other end you have out of district placements.

  6. […] didn’t really have a disability. Since then, we’ve been struggling to get past the many myths and misconceptions surrounding special education, trying to get people to see the […]

  7. Curtis Hier says:

    A couple things wrong with the “bounty” theory:

    1) The percentage of students identified has leveled off in the 2000s.

    2) I have a better theory. The increase in the 1980s and 90s came mostly in the category of learning disabled. These learning disabilities were “diagnosed” based on test scores. A low score on a reading test meant there was a “reading disability.”

    There was never any proof that these “disabilities” were organically based. I submit that they were the result of early grade teachers doing a poor job of teaching reading. The increase in identified students lagged just behind the whole-language fad that swept across the country. As phonics have regained favor, the number of learning disabled students has stabilized. The special education industry, however, is not likely to dismantle the empire it has built any time soon.

  8. Greg Forster says:

    1) That the growth of special ed placements has slowed down isn’t evidence against the existence of a bounty effect. The data in our study pretty convincingly establish that in the 1990s there was a very strong bounty effect. The slowdown is evidence that other factors are now counteracting the bounty effect more effectively than they did before. If nothing else, you would expect schools to reach a point of diminishing marginal returns. When you pick fruit, you pick the low-hanging fruit first, and while you’re doing that the work is easy and it goes fast; your productivity will be high. But you will gradually have to reach higher and higher to get the fruit, after the low-hanging fruit is gone. The work will go more slowly and you will have to expend more effort per fruit, so your productivity will decrease. Similarly, it’s reasonable to expect that increasing the percentage of special education enrollment from 8% to 14% will be much easier than increasing it from 14% to 20%. And that’s on top of any other factors that might be at work – for example, as special education enrollments get larger, they become more noticeable, and there may be pushback against these rising enrollments from people who oppose them. The enactment of RTI, which we’ve been discussing here over the past week or so, establishes that reformers seeking to reduce special education enrollments have gained more influence than they used to have.

    2) The theory of learning disabilities you propose is not inconsistent with the existence of a bounty incentive. Again, the data pretty clearly show that there was a strong bounty incentive at least in the 1990s, the period we covered in our study. If what you are describing occurred, it occurred alongside the influence of bounty incentives, not instead of them. (On the question of whether what you’re describing actually did occur I offer no comment, since I’m not sufficiently familiar with the available evidence on the question.)

  9. Curtis Hier says:

    Well, Greg, I think you need to comment on my theory, or at least look into it. A big part of your study and your position has been to discount the “higher incidence” theory. I would say that you haven’t completely discounted that it’s higher incidence.

  10. […] about “costs” associated with special education, which we have recently tried to clear up here. At least some of what people identify as the “costs” of special education, especially for […]

  11. […] about “costs” associated with special education, which we have recently tried to clear up here. At least some of what people identify as the “costs” of special education, especially for […]

  12. […] the increases in various special-needs diagnoses (at least through the 1990s; the effect may have slowed or ceased in the last decade) may be attributable to financial incentives for schools. In a response to Laura, they also noted […]

  13. […] the increases in various special-needs diagnoses (at least through the 1990s; the effect may have slowed or ceased in the last decade) may be attributable to financial incentives for schools. In a response to Laura, they also noted […]

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