Blaming Special Ed

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.

22 Responses to Blaming Special Ed

  1. Taking your sensible argument in a slightly different direction: Although

    …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).

    Too many students were schooled in special facilities prior to the advent of court cases (PARC, Mills, etc.). As you rightly note, many who would now be identified as having Learning Disabilities or Emotional and Behavioral Disorders might have been in school without adequate services. Many others probably had dropped out or been encouraged to stay away from school.

    An especially distressing problem, in my view, is that too many students with disabilities continue to be “under-served” today. Instead, educators (some special educators among them) resist identifying students as having disabilities, often for some of the specious reasons you identified. Morever, we seem to be substituting simple access to school for effective instructional practices, allowing students with disabilities, who need the very best instruction we can muster, to while away their time in an educational system that primarily benefits the students who would achieve well regardless of the availability of high-quality instruction.

    Special educators have ample evidence about instructional practices that help students with disabilities to succeed. What is more, those same procedures (systematic, explicit, intensive, practice-laden sequences of instruction aimed at mastery of agreed-upon goals and objectives) are very likely to benefit many of the other students in US schools who are disenfranchised by “the perverse incentives of a broken public education system.”

  2. […] Professor Greene’s Blaming special ed. Sphere: Related […]

  3. Jeremy says:

    I always “appreciate” the comments from the parents who deride how poorly their school is doing on state testing (ie their child’s school lost its “Blue Ribbon” status) because “we have an overrepresentation of those slower kids”. I think it’s just that kids with special needs are the easiest target and the simplest excuse.

  4. Parry says:


    When you say “student outcomes have remained unchanged,” what specific outcomes are you referring to? I’m assuming NAEP scores, but please let me know if you mean something else.


  5. Hi Parry,

    Yes, I was thinking of NAEP, but you can also see flat long-term outcomes in high school graduation rates.

  6. Margo/Mom says:

    Thank you, thank you, thank you. As the parent of a child with identified special needs, I get very tired of receiving the blame for the cost and low performance of education in general. Far too often the primary “service” that is available is a “smaller classroom” with a lower student ratio. Never mind that the teacher in that “resource room” (which is not really a “resource” at all–it is a segregated classroom) is hampered by having to cover more grade levels, more content areas, a wider ability range and generally has to do so in total isolation from the rest of the school faculty.

    One of the fortunate outcomes of NCLB requirements to test and account for the scores of students with disabilities (as well as some local abuse lawsuits) has been that the few separate facilities in my district have really cleaned up their acts, with dramatic turnaround in results. This is far less true in the regular schools with resource rooms. There is extreme resisitance to viewing students with disabilites as regular ed students first. The basic choice is to accept a regular classroom with no services available, or a “special classroom” where a teacher with special ed certification purports to be teaching biology or algebra. So–more and more costs keep getting piled on (extra tutoring from the same unqualified teachers trying to teach a subject that they haven’t studied since high school; paraprofessional “aides” to keep the plates spinning in those broadly graded multiple content area “resource rooms”) with very little change in outcomes.

    What most people–including teachers–don’t seem to understand, is that the overwhelming majority of disabilities are not cognitive. Nor do they exhibit in bizarre or disruptive behavior (except, like all children, to the extent that neglect is the order of the day). They are also not communicable. We need to do away with the image of a wheelchair-bound drooling fool with eyes wandering aimlessly around the classroom making intermittent noises and soiling diapers. We are talking about the lives of children–all of whom have brains (as a basic condition of living) and all learn in some form or fashion. A small percentage have severe limitations on what they are able to learn (and receive appropriate consideration under the law). Most have have various barriers that can be overcome with assistance, or exacerbated by ignorance.

  7. jay greene says:

    well said, margo/mom

  8. […] Dr. Jay Greene, put up a great post a couple days ago that is really worthwhile reading, titled “Blaming Special Ed”. In the post, he deconstructs the widely-held myth that special education is to blame for the […]

  9. Parry says:


    Have NAEP scores remained unchanged at the disaggregated level? In other words, have scores remained flat for individual sub-groups, such as whites, african americans, hispanics, F/R lunch receivers, etc.? Given that under-performing sub-groups have come to represent proportionately larger pieces of the overall pie, unchanging NAEP scores at the aggregate level might hide improvements at the disaggregated level.

    I could imagine this also being the case with other achievement data, such as SAT scores or graduation rates, but I don’t have the numbers — just a hunch.


    • Greg Forster says:

      It’s not true that the aggregate student population is harder to serve than it used to be. In fact, the aggregate student popluation has gotten easier to serve. Jay and I collected the empirical evidence for this here.

  10. Parry says:


    Thanks for your comment. I do have to say, it felt a little like I asked the question “What shape is an apple?” and you gave me the answer “All bananas are yellow”.

    Looking through the study you cited, the weights assigned to the various factors you believe affect teachability struck me as pretty arbitrary. If I am reading the study correctly, “religious observance” is assumed to carry half the weight of “poverty” or “single parenthood” in your teachability index. Within indeces, increased preschool rates are assumed to completely cancel out the impact of dramatically higher numbers of English language learners. I think that your study is an interesting step into the important discussion around what “teachability” means (and the larger question of whether or not today’s student population is harder to teach), but I think that the arbitrary decisions behind your weightings undermine your claim that “the aggregate student population has gotten easier to serve”.

    Back to my original question around NAEP numbers, after looking up longitudinal data it appears that many sub-groups have shown steady improvement over the last 30+ years. For example, looking at math scores for 9-year-olds, white students’ scores went from 224 in 1978 to 247 in 2004, black students’ scores went from 192 to 224 during the same time period, and Hispanic students’ scores went from 203 to 230 during the same time period. 13-year-old student sub-groups appear to show similar gains, while the results for 17-year-olds are relatively flat (very modest gains) across sub-groups.

    Now, whether or not these gains are commensurate with increased spending levels is an entirely different question, but I don’t think these NAEP numbers could accurately be labeled “unchanged” (with the exception of 17-year-olds, which is admittedly a big exception).

    To the larger question of where increased spending has gone, I would be interested if you are aware of any reports that detail this. Let’s say that, in constant dollars, $5K was spent on each public school student in 1970 and it’s now $10K. What has accounted for the increase? Have regular ed class sizes dropped dramatically because there are now many more regular ed teachers per student? How much of that $10K is going to special ed teachers? Are we spending dramatically more per student on instructional supplies, such as textbooks? Has some portion of the increase gone to pay for new technology? Have central offices added layers of personnel that account for part of the increase?

    From your evidence it appears that increases in special education budgets only account for a portion of spending increases. What accounts for the rest of it?


  11. Margo/Mom says:


    I think that the bulk of increased cost goes for increased staffing–which may or may not relate to reduced class size. Some of the increased personnel cost is for adminstration, security, possibly counseling and other ancillary services. However, one factor that is always hidden in the cost of any American product or service is the cost of health care. Several years ago the cost of a car made in Canada was about $800 cheaper than that made in the US due to the health care cost of American workers–born by employers. The US nearly leads the world (except for Luxumbourg–where they appear to have lots of resources) in the per pupil cost of education. But as we well know, US is the only industrialized country without some form of national health care plan.

  12. Greg Forster says:


    My response was perfectly relevant to your question. Jay quoted my statement that spending is up but results are flat. You asserted (among other things) that “underperforming sub-groups have come to represent proportionately larger pieces of the overall pie”. I responded that this is not true, and linked to Jay and I’s study. While some underperforming sub-groups (the ones you choose to focus on) are larger, others (the ones you don’t mention) are smaller.

    With regard to the weighting of the factors in the teachability index: since we lack adequate data to say with any confidence how important each of the factors is for student outcomes, any weights we attach would be effectively arbitrary. The question is, do we want to have some measurement, however imperfect, or none at all?

    I might just as easily ask why you arbitrarily choose to focus on underperforming subgroups that are getting bigger, rather than underperforming subgroups that are getting smaller. Which brings me to my next point.

    If the question is what kind of return we’re getting for our money, the aggregate number is the only one that counts. Think about it: if the aggregate level is unchanged while some subgroups are performing better than they used to, what must have happened to the performance of the students who aren’t in those subgroups? If we invest more dollars, we have a right to expect a net improvement, not an improvement just in some arbitrarily favored group coming at the expense of a worse education for everybody else.

    And the 17-year-old figures are also the only ones that count for this question. What does it matter if kids are a little bit smarter in third grade than they used to be, if those gains are lost by the time they leave the school system?

  13. Kim, Teacher says:

    Jay, thanks for your *excellent post* about the prevalent
    and all-too-easy rationale that special ed. is to blame
    for any and all of education’s problems. Well thought; well said!
    And John Wills Lloyd’s points about how we have extensive knowledge about
    effective instructional interventions for students with learning
    exceptionalities is equally appreciated.

    One of the big issues in
    learning is application: In the learning heirarchy, the range between knowing what works and doing what works is large. An overly simplistic example is weigh loss.
    I am willing to bet that most people who are overweight are encyclopedias of knowledge on current research as to how to lose weight. But whether their actual behavior changes is another story. The same is true in education. The dynamics of the real world classroom imbedded in multiple complex organizational systems makes
    consistent application of empirically based instructional interventions challenging (note I did not say impossible). Teachers need support and resources, not blame.

    And Margo, I am interested in how you are defining cognitive disabilities. Thank you.

  14. Margo/Mom says:


    I generally associate cognitive disabilities with that 1-2% of the population who is entitled to alternate testing according to NCLB. I believe that there are various screening definitions used at the state and district level–IQ being among the most prevalent. Essentially those students who would fall under the heading of MR or MRDD. It is my understanding that the IQ cut-off varies by state. In any case–the majority of students served under IDEIA have disabilities that are NOT defined in this way.

  15. Parry says:


    Thanks for your response. I had a question and a point.

    First of all, which underperforming sub-groups are getting smaller? I wasn’t sure which sub-groups you were referring to. Also, if every major (i.e., reasonably sized) sub-group within a larger population has improved over time (e.g., white students, black students, hispanic students), but, because the under-performing sub-groups have grown as as a percentage of the overall population, the aggregate numbers have remained flat, how can you make an argument that improvement hasn’t occurred? Simply resorting to the aggregate strikes me as simplistic math tricks that hide the larger picture. Your point about 17-year-olds, however, is an important one.

    My point relates to your study. You seem to suggest that you ended up not attaching weights because they would have been arbitrary. But the fact is, you did attach weights (at least, as far as I can tell). You created an overall composite score which reflects a combination of each of the six indeces, and your conclusions are based on the way in which this composite score changed over time. In order to create the composite score, you had to create a mathematical formula that combined the indeces. Thus, each index represents 17% of the overall score, which is an assigned weight. Each of the sixteen factors also has a mathematical weight within your overall score. Religious observance ends up representing approximately 4% of your overall index, while single parenthood (i.e., living with a single parent) represents approximately 8% of your overall index. Therefore, according to your formula, religious observance is half as powerful a factor as single parenthood in determining the teachability of a student population.

    As an additional example, preschool attendance rates, percentages of English language learners, and parents’ education levels are all assumed to be mathematically equivalent (i.e., having an equal weight) in determining your overall composite score. Had you decided, for example, that percentages of English language learners has a higher impact on teachability than preschool attendance rates, this could have dramatically affected your overall composite, and thus your conclusions.

    Again, I really like the idea of a teachability index. But the composite score you’ve developed does have weights (it has to, it’s based on a mathematic formula). Before accepting your conclusions as potentially valid (i.e., the student population has become easier to teach), I would expect to see a justification from the research literature as to the weights you have assigned to all of the various factors.

    If I am completely misreading the mathematical approach you used to create your composite score, please correct me.


  16. Kim, Teacher says:

    Thanks. And I was unaware that the IQ cut-off might vary by state.
    I (apparently mistakenly) thought the dividing line was 70, as in
    clinical settings (with the additional criterion of functional life skill
    impairment or not). Thanks for making me more aware of these issues.

  17. Greg Forster says:


    “Which underperforming subgroups are getting smaller?” is the whole subject of the Teachability Index study. Some examples of shrinking underperforming subgroups taken from that study include:

    -Poor children (as measured in two different ways)
    -Children whose parents didn’t go to college
    -Migrant children
    -Children with health problems
    -Teenage mothers

    The hypothetical phenomenon you describe, where all subgroups make gains but the aggregate score conceals the fact that gains have been made, cannot occur. If all subgroups make gains, the aggregate score will rise. It’s true that if gains are made and the subgroup composition also changes, the magnitude of the gains may be reduced in the aggregation. But if the aggregate score is flat, not all subgroups made gains.

    That question is now moot, however. If you concede my point that only the 17-year-old scores count, then we agree that outcomes are flat. We’ve more than doubled our investment and have nothing to show for it.

    I did not say or imply that we attached no weights. I said any weights we attached would have been effectively arbitrary. My point is that there’s no avoiding that problem if we have any measurement of teachability, so the question is whether we want to have an imperfect measurement or none.

    As Milton Friedman once said, if you can measure it, measure it, and if you can’t measure it, measure it anyway.

  18. Parry says:

    Thanks, Greg. I think I am a little more cautious than you in the conclusions I draw from the data. To say “Outcomes are flat… we’ve more than doubled our investment and have nothing to show for it” is more definitive than I believe the data warrant.

    I would resign myself to concluding that 9- and 13-year-olds in the three major racial sub-groups of the general population (white students, black students, and Hispanic students) have shown steady improvement in terms of NAEP scores over the last 30+ years. In addition, the two lowest-achieving of those sub-groups (black and Hispanic students) have come to represent a larger portion of the total student population, while the highest-achieving of those three sub-groups (white students) has come to represent a smaller portion of the total student population. To me, that suggests (but does not prove) that public elementary and middle schools have done an increasingly effective job with a student population that has, over time, come to school less-prepared to be academically successful. Those improvements, however, are incremental and modest.

    I would further resign myself to concluding that 17-year-olds across all three major racial sub-groups have shown little to no improvement in terms of NAEP scores over the last 30+ years, which suggests that public high schools are not doing a more effective job with a student population that has, over time, come to school less-prepared to be academically successful. To gain a better understanding of high school effectiveness, I would also want to look at other indicators peculiar to that level, such as graduation rates, SAT scores, higher education attendance and completion rates, and others.

    The question of whether or not the additional money spent on K-12 could be considered money well or poorly spent, in my mind, is not answered by these data. I would additionally want to know how the extra money has been spent (as I asked in an earlier comment), and would want to look at additional outcomes data.

    I think my beef with your teachability index was primarily with the conclusion that you drew from it earlier in this conversation: “In fact, the aggregate student popluation has gotten easier to serve.”

    Again, I would be more cautious. I would suggest that, according to your teachability index — which assumes that 16 specific features comprise student teachability, that those features can be accurately grouped into six categories, and that those categories each equally contribute to overall teachability — the aggregate student population may have become easier to serve. Given the multiple counter-arguments that might be presented to your index — for example, that you have not identified accurate features of teachability, that your features are not given accurate weightings, etc. — I would not be as bold as you in the conclusions I draw from it.

    Thanks again for taking the time to talk through this!


  19. […] Blaming Special Ed at Jay P. Greene’s Blog “It’s all too common but also completely mistaken to blame special education for the shortcomings of the public k-12 system,” Jay Greene writes.  ”Most attempts to blame special ed don’t even bother presenting data or make the most crude use of data to support their claims.” […]

  20. Wes says:

    Your facts seem decent up until you being to assume that Special Needs Students to educators are also a 20.8:1 ratio and begin to make calculations as such.

    I know as a recent student in my school, we had a total of 25 teachers for a student body of 900 students or about a (36:1) ratio and 8 teachers/education assistance for a classroom of 11 special needs students(1.3:1)

    So yes, there were a lot more teacher-hours or educational dollars spent on each special education child. Ironically, in University, I see the special needs children also have a basic-life skills course where they are maintaining that 1.3:1 ratio even after high school. I wonder how long they’ll spend in that program and if you take into account them having 8 years of education versus my 5 in secondary schooling if the costs are at all similar.

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