Opinion and News Analysis
Opinion: Peeling back the special-ed data mask
By Janie Scull
summer, New Jersey’s Star-Ledger ran a hard-hitting piece about the
condition of education finance in the Garden State. It bemoaned a dismal
school-system budget in which teachers had been laid off, extracurricular
activities scrapped, and free transportation curtailed. But one budgetary
category had been spared: special education.
“This is an area that is completely out of control and in
desperate need of reform,” said Larrie Reynolds, superintendent in the Mount
Olive School District, where special-education spending rose 17 percent this
year. “Everything else has a finite limit. Special education—in this state, at
least—is similar to the universe. It has no end. It is the untold story of what
every school district is dealing with.”
so it is. Special education consumes a caloric slice of the education pie,
comprising an estimated 21 percent of all education spending in 2005. That
slice is growing, too. Forty-one percent of all increases in education spending
between 1996 and 2005 went to fund it.
Superintendent Reynolds indicated, special education is a field in urgent need
of reform. Not only is its funding widely seen as sacrosanct—due to federal
“maintenance of effort” requirements, strong lobbies, nervous superintendents,
entrenched habits, and a collective sense that nothing is quite enough for
these kids—but America’s approach to it is also antiquated. Despite good
intentions and some reform efforts, the field is still beset by a compliance
orientation that values process over outcomes. Thirty-six years after Congress
passed the Education for All Handicapped Children Act (now the Individuals with
Disabilities Education Act or IDEA), the rigidities and shortcomings of
yesterday’s approach have become overwhelming, as have the dollar costs.
hope the next iteration of that law will benefit from fresh thinking amid
changed realities. But before we can seriously re-imagine the field of special
education and its funding, we need a better understanding of this enterprise
today—and how it’s changed in recent years. Many are aware, for instance, that
the number of students who received special-education services rose steadily
between IDEA’s enactment in 1975 and the turn of the century. But is this
population still growing? Are particular types of disabilities responsible for
overall trends? What types of personnel do schools employ to teach these
students? Accurate descriptive data on questions like these are desperately
needed if we’re to wrestle with the more complex questions that vex the field, questions
such as: To what extent do special-ed enrollments and expenditures vary by
state? Are states correctly identifying special-needs youngsters and providing
them with appropriate services? What types of interventions are most effective
with which children?
newest report, Shifting
Trends in Special Education, begins to lay the groundwork. It’s
quantitative. It looks for patterns—and differences—in participation, in
it finds that, after decades of increases, the overall population of
special-education students peaked in the 2004-05 school year and has declined
since. But within this population, individual categories of students differed
markedly in their trajectories:
- The number of students identified as having
“specific learning disabilities,” the most prevalent of all disability types, declined
throughout the decade, falling from 2.86 million to 2.43 million students, or
from 6.1 to 4.9 percent of all students.
- Other shrinking disability categories included
mental retardation (down from 624,000 to 463,000 students) and emotional
disturbances, down from 480,000 to 407,000.
- Meanwhile, autism and “other health impairment”
(OHI) populations increased dramatically. The former quadrupled from 93,000 to
378,000, while OHI numbers more than doubled from 303,000 to 689,000. (Even so,
autistic and OHI populations constituted only 0.8 and 1.4 percent,
respectively, of all students in 2009-10.)
trends varied dramatically too:
- Rhode Island, New York, and Massachusetts
reported the highest rates of disability identification in 2009-10; Rhode
Island was the only state with more than 18 percent of its students receiving
- Texas, Idaho, and Colorado reported the lowest
rates. Percentage-wise, Texas identified half as many students with
disabilities as Rhode Island—9.1 percent of its total student body.
also varied in their special-education personnel practices, so much so that the
accuracy of the data they report to Washington is in question. Nationally,
schools ostensibly employed 129 special-education teachers and
paraprofessionals for every thousand special-education students in 2008-09, up
from 117 per thousand in 2000-01. At the state level, this ranged from a
reported 320 per thousand in New Hampshire, to thirty-eight per thousand in
Mississippi. (We don’t find this credible—but that’s what the reported data
Special education is a field in urgent need of reform.
to make of these data? We see at least three key takeaways.
and most obviously, we need far better data in this realm. Though states must
report data across particular categories of disability as delineated by
Washington, they can and do alter these definitions—and how they are
operationalized—for their own purposes. When states make up their own
definitions and procedures, we have no way to compare disability data across
we need better understanding of what’s driving the recent decrease in students
identified for special-education services. Is it due to more sophisticated
understanding of which students need such services? Federal, state, district,
or fiscal incentives that encourage states to identify fewer students with
disabilities? Programs like Response to Intervention (RTI)?
we need to do a better job of differentiating learning for all students.
Education should be “special” for every pupil, reserving unique services for
the small percentage of severely disabled children who need them. Surely the
advent of new tools, service providers, and customized technology packages can
help on this front.
Special education, like all of K-12 education, needs a
makeover for the twenty-first century. Its service models, instructional
strategies, funding, identification methods, categories, and protocols no longer
serve the needs of truly disabled youngsters, much less the larger enterprise.
But we can’t get there until we peel back the layers of financial and
operational opacity that currently shroud the field and hinder our efforts to
make it more transparent, efficient, and effective in the future.
Opinion: Toward less Fed in your ed
the last couple of years—ever since the nation’s governors and state
superintendents started working on common academic standards in reading and
math—conservative education analysts have engaged in a spirited but polite
debate about the wisdom of this development. The last month has seen the
discourse turn nastier, with charges and counter-charges, name-calling, and
quasi-apocalyptic warnings about federal bureaucrats wanting to “control your
Particularly at issue in this latest round of recriminations is Uncle Sam’s
role in all of this; are we witnessing a federal take-over of our schools? A
push for a federally-controlled national curriculum for all public schools?
of these concerns are not entirely unfounded; the Obama Administration and
other supporters of the move to “common” national standards (Fordham
among them) have made some unforced errors that have helped to fuel the
paranoia. But for conservatives worried about federal interference in our
schools, this debate is mostly a sideshow. What should really keep them up at
night are the myriad proposals for reauthorizing the No Child Left Behind Act that
would push Washington’s hand ever deeper into the day-to-day operations of
America’s schools—proposals that are coming from both sides of the political
diving into the No Child Left Behind debate, let’s mitigate some key concerns
about a “national curriculum” with a review of the facts.
effort to get states to agree to common standards started well before the 2008
election, with the Council of Chief State School Officers and the National
Governors Associations leading the charge, largely with support from the Bill
and Melinda Gates Foundation. A year later, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan
and his team created a Race to the Top application (thanks to funds earmarked
for the competition by Congress) that would incentivize the adoption of their
preferred reforms, including common standards. Suddenly what started out as a
state-led (and privately-supported) effort had become tinged with federal involvement.
Obama went even further, setting aside $350 million to fund the development of
tests linked to the common standards. Now the feds had gotten into the
“national testing” business, too.
the most fateful decision came in the fall of 2010, when, faced with the
prospect of leftover stimulus funds, Arne Duncan decided to hand out, to the
two groups of states charged with creating the common tests, millions of extra
dollars to develop teacher-friendly materials to be used to help students reach
the new standards. Now it appeared that the U.S. Department of Education might
be trying to control “curriculum” itself—something it is expressly prohibited
of this left many conservatives—in think tanks but also on Capitol Hill—with a
sour taste. And it didn’t help when the Shanker Institute—named after legendary
teacher-union leader—released a manifesto that some read as calling for a
single national curriculum.
is this a federal plot to control Johnny’s thoughts? No, not really. Consider
this: States learned last fall whether they had won the federal Race to the Top
competition; two-thirds of the forty-four Common Core adopters did not. Those
states are free to bail out of the common standards effort at any time, but
they haven’t. Why not? Perhaps it’s because their leaders (including rock-solid
governors like Chris Christie, Mitch Daniels, and Scott Walker) actually
believe the standards are quite good, and see the value in being able to make
comparisons across state lines.
like Cato’s Neal McCluskey, who says that the “nationalizers” are like
“kidnappers” demanding ransom, charge that the Obama Administration and others
want to link federal funding to state adoption of the common standards and
tests. Nobody is proposing that, nor would Congress ever go along. Nor does
anyone seriously think the U.S. Department of Education would succeed in
enforcing a single curriculum on the nation’s 100,000 public schools.
There’s a better way. We at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute call it 'reform realism,' and it's an approach to federal policymaking based on a few commonsense principles.
many groups are proposing, however, external
to this raucous and distracting “national curriculum” debate, is to get the
federal government intimately involved in other crucial aspects of our schools.
That’s where McCluskey and his colleagues ought to be directing their ire.
influential liberal organization The Education Trust, for example, wants to require
that school districts redistribute their most effective teachers in order to
give poor kids an equitable shot at good instructors. That sounds laudable on
its face but would embroil the feds in virtually every school board’s decision around
teacher pay, placement, and transfers.
take a look at what former Secretary
of Education Margaret Spellings is proposing in her role as education advisor
to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. She wants to cement in place all of the No
Child Left Behind act’s onerous one-size-fits-all regulations for another decade,
and then some, with greater intrusion into high schools and federal mandates
around teacher evaluations.
a better way. We at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute call it “reform realism,” and it’s an
approach to federal policymaking based on a few commonsense principles. First, the
federal government should be much “tighter” about what states expect students
to know and be able to do, and much “looser” about how states (and districts
and schools) get there. If states don’t want to participate in the common
standards that’s fine, but they do need to demonstrate that they are aiming
high enough. (Most states to date have aimed way too low.) Second, federal
policy should focus on transparency instead of “accountability.” Empower states
and local communities by releasing mounds of information about how schools are
performing and how much they are spending. And then step away. And third, if
the feds can’t help but promote a particular reform idea, they should do it
through carrots (via competitive grant programs, like Race to the Top) rather
than sticks (via new mandates).
other words, we want a much smaller federal role in education—albeit one that
ensures that the benchmarks we use to measure our schools are rigorous and
We might never see
eye to eye with all conservatives about national standards and tests. But we
should be able to agree about reining in Washington’s involvement in other
aspects of education. How about we drop the infighting and spend some of our
energy working together on that?
News Analysis: A test too far
When it comes to teacher evaluations, states
have been making good progress in creating relevant, deliberate, and rigorous appraisal
systems that combine test data, classroom observations, and other smart metrics
to weigh teacher effectiveness. But have you ever heard of too much of a good
thing? New York City is now developing over a dozen pre- and post-course standardized
tests for students in elementary through high school, the scores of which will constitute
40 percent of teachers’ evaluations. These tests are for subjects and grades not
currently assessed by the statewide Regents system, thereby addressing a serious
data shortfall under the present system. Surely tying student results to
teacher ratings is a swell idea. But testing overload, and the resulting
testing backlash, are serious causes for concern; we worry that this initiative
could be the straw the breaks the camel’s back. Experimentation and variation
in teacher evaluation models is certainly in order, but this particular version
gives us pause.
|Click to listen to commentary on NYC's new tests from the Education Gadfly Show podcast
News Analysis: Those who forget the past
"Social studies standards that fail to name people, places, and ideas would be useless."—Lynne Munson, President and Executive Director of Common Core
In the early 1990s, the National Endowment for
the Humanities and Department of Education moved to create a set of national
history standards, which ended up being controversial for their content and presentation of
material. (NEH chairman Lynne Cheney, who helped launch and pay for this
initiative, later called the resulting standards “grim and gloomy” because they
favored political correctness over accurate historical presentation.) Could
this happen again? A new group of experts (unnamed, as of yet) from eighteen
states recently gathered to discuss common standards for social studies. And
red flags are rightfully being raised. For starters, this initiative is not one
borne of the states themselves—as were the ELA and math common-core standards.
Further, this focus on the amorphous and interdisciplinary “social studies” is
sure to block any disciplinary rigor or intellectual integrity from entering
the would-be standards. As Lynne Munson of Common Core points out, the group’s
“sole product so far is a one-sentence definition of social studies—so
concerned with inclusiveness that it contains eleven commas.” If and when
states come together to create smart and specific U.S. history, or economics,
or world history, or civics standards, count Gadfly on board. But to these
vague umbrella standards, he says, “Buzz off.”
Review: Affirming the Goal: Is College and Career Readiness an Internationally Competitive Standard?
Perkins and Amber
In this report, ACT researchers show that
“college and career readiness,” at least as defined by the ACT itself, is
indeed an internationally competitive standard. (They speak of the level of
preparation a student needs in order to succeed in a first-year,
credit-bearing course at a two- or four-year institution.) To prove this point,
researchers conducted a linking analysis of PISA scores for fifteen-year olds
in reading and math and college and career readiness benchmark scores for
fifteen-year-old tenth-graders taking ACT’s PLAN test. The purpose was to
determine whether the standard of college readiness for U.S. students is
competitive with those of other high performing nations. (In other words, if we
succeed at getting our average student to college and career readiness, will we
then be holding our own with the world’s academic leaders?) They find that the
benchmarked scores in both reading and math fell within the average scores of
most of the highest performing nations, and thus college and career readiness is in fact an
internationally competitive standard. The researchers then unfortunately
insinuate that, since the Common Core’s definition of college and career
readiness was informed by that of the ACT, and the ACT and Common Core
standards have been mapped onto one another, the Common Core standards are also
internationally competitive. This conclusion might be true but it’s
problematic on several levels: The ACT is attempting to compare assessment
frameworks (ACT/PISA) with standards (Common Core); we don’t have tests, much
less cut scores, for the Common Core yet; lots of folks (including Fordham)
think that PISA leaves a lot to be desired, hence isn’t worthy of benchmarking;
and ACT—though well respected in education—clearly has skin in the Common-Core
game. Bottom line: this paper appears to be more about advocacy and self-promotion
|Click to listen to commentary on the ACT report from the Education Gadfly Show podcast
Review: Reforming Districts Through Choice, Autonomy, Equity, and Accountability: An Overview of the Voluntary Public School Choice Directors Meeting
A few months back, the Center on Reinventing
Public Education (as part of an ED grant) assembled district, charter, and
nonprofit leaders from public school “portfolio districts” for its Voluntary
Public School Choice Directors Meeting. This paper offers an overview of the most
pressing issues discussed at the two-day meeting—as well as some lessons pulled
from it. Public school portfolio districts are those that offer students an
array of diverse schools—from neighborhood to magnet to charter to contract
schools—that are all held to account for performance. (Today, twenty urban
districts qualify, including Denver, New York, Chicago, and New Orleans.) The
paper focuses on five key issues discussed at the conference: how to manage the supply of schools, allocate resources, build fair and transparent
enrollment systems, communicate effectively with parents, and invoke creative
solutions for different learners. In order to frame each issue—and offer
how-tos for dealing with each—panelist insights and best-practice case studies
are presented. Panelists Tom DeWire from BCPS and Neil Dorosin of the Institute
for Innovation in Public Schools explain, for example, how to build better assignment
systems by first determining district priorities (magnet schools, socio-economic
integration, geographic proximity, etc.) and then coordinating four streams of
work: logistics, placement algorithm, parent communication, and system
evaluation. One example of a best-practice case study comes out of Hartford,
CT. The report explains Hartford’s tactics for parental communication—including
community meetings and visits to libraries. Though much of this process seems
straightforward, the interconnectivity of these elements makes fluid adoption
of the portfolio approach difficult—and makes the
lessons described in this paper all the more helpful.
Review: Baseline Analysis of SIG Applications and SIG-Eligible and SIG-Awarded Schools
Just weeks after Ed Sector’s “Portrait
of School Improvement Grantees” comes this IES-funded report on the federal
School Improvement Grants (SIGs). (For more information on SIG, look here
While much of the information presented here mimics that delivered by Ed
Sector, some valuable new insights emerge, especially regarding state
differences. For example, Kentucky awarded funding to 105 of its 108 qualifying
schools, while Illinois funded only ten of 738. Further, planned approaches to SIG
evaluations vary dramatically between states. Eight plan to monitor their
grants monthly, whereas thirty-three will do so on an annual basis. How states
choose to evaluate their grantees range from conducting site visits,
designating staff for monitoring, holding “check-in” meetings, and using
electronic/online tools. As is common with many large-scale IES-funded reports,
this report offers much data and little analysis, making policy implications
difficult to determine. But the groundwork it lays—especially regarding state
differences in funding distribution and implementation tactics—will surely
provide helpful background and insight in future years as SIG begins to be
From The Web
The Education Gadfly Show Podcast: Testing, testing, 1-2-3
Mike’s back in the saddle; he and Janie fire off
points on international comparisons and testing-for-evaluation in L.A. and NYC.
Amber shoots holes in a new ACT study and Chris exercises his first amendment
Click to listen to the podcast on our website. You can also download the podcast here or subscribe on iTunes here.
Flypaper's Finest: Bill Bennett, James Madison, and national curricular materials
E. Finn, Jr.
The big fuss about “national curriculum” has lately slid
into an argument about whether the federal government may—and should—have
anything to do with “curriculum.” …
I guess people were born too late—or have short
memories. Arne Duncan has plenty of precedents in both parties—and none of them
were jailed, impeached, or even criticized, save perhaps for their curricular
judgment. Because there have been umpteen earlier efforts by the federal
Education Department to develop, foster, encourage, and evaluate specific
academic standards and curricular materials for U.S. schools. Consider, just
for starters, the old National
Diffusion Network and the dollars that Secretaries Lamar Alexander and Dick
Riley committed to the early-1990’s development of national academic standards
in history, English, etc.…
Click to read the rest on Flypaper.
Flypaper's Finest: Truthiness, adequacy, and the New Jersey way
New Jersey’s Supreme Court ordered
Chris Christie to cough up another $500 million in funding for the state’s
schools in a 3-2 ruling [on Tuesday]. Very few other people (aside from the
three justices in the majority and Mark Zuckerberg) would argue that the Garden
State’s ample stock of low-performing schools can be fixed with more money,
agree with Bruce Baker that the court’s rather narrow decision was the
correct one. (This may be one for the record books.).…
Click to read the rest on Flypaper.
Briefly Noted: How would you like to pay for ninth grade?
- It’s not
just “pay to play” nowadays. Districts are now
charging students enrollment fees, locker fees, registration fees, etc. In
Littleton, CO, chemistry costs $10, honors chem costs $20 and AP chem twice as
much. Whatever happened to “free and appropriate public education”? Way to pass
the buck to your customers.
implications of last week’s Georgia Supreme Court decision to ban
the state’s charter-school commission go beyond charter policy. As Douglas
Blackmon powerfully explains in the Atlanta
Journal-Constitution, the Court’s ruling solidifies power with the
local school board—long used as a segregating tool, and long a cause of
continuing racism. The full article will disturb you, but is well worth the
over Rick Hess, Wendy Kopp, and Michelle Rhee. Sarah Mead identifies
and interviews fifteen young up-and-coming leaders—those who will take the
reins of the education-policy wagon in the decade to come. Congrats to Fordham
Muldoon, now at New York’s School of One, who made the list!
- In what
Sam Dillon calls a “strange-bedfellows
twist,” Michelle Rhee announces that former D.C. teachers’ union president
George Parker will serve as a senior fellow for Students First.
turning around a failing school is akin to working through a labyrinth while
someone is chasing you in the dead of night, then think of Public Impact’s two recent
reports as a flashlight
and a map
of the maze. Helpful stuff, indeed.
- LAUSD is
a program whereby students may see their course grades jump significantly
higher if they show gains on the relevant subject’s standardized test. Good on
the surface—but it carries risks for teacher autonomy and accountability.
to the Top 2.0, with monies for early education and for states that narrowly
missed the cut-off last time around, has launched.
to the through-course assessment crowd, ETS released
a summary report from its February research symposium detailing their
positives. Let’s be frank: Testing multiple times a year might be good for
instruction, but it’s a terrible
idea for educational diversity and choice.
Joel Klein is already
influencing the private sector, if not the global economy. At the e-G8 summit
(held just before today’s G8), his boss, NewsCorp Chairman and CEO Rupert
all parties to reinvent schooling for the digital era.
Announcement: Time to turn the page on federal accountability in education?
reauthorization looming, is it time to say goodbye to federal accountability in
education? Join Fordham on June 15 from 4:00PM to 5:30PM for a lively debate on
the question across a range of perspectives, including Fordham’s Mike Petrilli,
the Center for American Progress’s Cindy Brown, the Heritage Foundation’s Jennifer
Marshall, and Prince George’s County (MD) superintendent William Hite. For more
information or to RSVP, click here.
Announcement: Make your mark with TFA
Teach For America is
on the hunt for a vice president of community, learning, and engagement to lead
its new national teacher preparation, support, and development team. Interested
individuals who possess strong communication, research, editing, and leadership
skills will find more information, including how to apply, here.
Featured Fordham Publication: Rethinking Special Education for a New Century
Recommending sweeping changes in federal special-ed
policy, this 2001 volume of fourteen papers scrutinizes the education being
received by 6 million U.S. children with disabilities. Jointly published with
the Progressive Policy Institute, the report helped shape discussion of the last
reauthorization of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). It
identifies the problems that beset this important program, analyzes their
causes, and suggests solutions. All who care about the education of children
with special needs will want to read it for themselves.