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The Problems with Special Ed
Perverse incentives cause schools to misuse special ed for remedial education.


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Officially reported disability rates in public schools are entirely unreliable and are almost certainly inflated indicators of how many students are actually disabled. Eventually, school and government officials are going to have to acknowledge that our current procedures for identifying students as disabled are fundamentally flawed and commit themselves to improving these procedures.

One of the reasons we know that reported disability rates lack credibility is that they vary dramatically from state to state. In New Jersey, for example, 18 percent of all students are classified as disabled, but in California the rate is only 10.5 percent. There is no medical reason why students in New Jersey should be 71 percent more likely to be placed into special education than students in California.

Consider also how rapidly special education has grown over the last three decades. Today almost one in seven students is classified as having a disability. That’s 63 percent more than when federal programs for special education began in 1976. Do we really believe that our children’s medical well-being has deteriorated so severely over the last three decades?

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What is especially odd is that almost all the growth in special education over the last three decades has occurred in just two of the 13 federal categories for disabilities: specific learning disability (SLD, which includes dyslexia) and “other health” (which includes attention-deficit disorders — ADD). The size of the remaining eleven federal categories combined has remained relatively flat, while SLD has tripled and “other health” has quadrupled. Those two categories account for 86 percent of the increase in special-education enrollments. If there really were a medical plague afflicting the nation’s children, we would expect to see an increase in more objectively diagnosed categories, like mental retardation, blindness, and deafness, and not just in the relatively mild and ambiguous categories of SLD and “other health.”

If special-education rates can’t be explained by medical factors, what causes them to vary so dramatically from state to state and across time? Part of the explanation could be benign. Perhaps over time, and particularly in some states, awareness and acceptance of disabilities has improved. To the extent that has been the case, some students are currently being counted as disabled who were wrongly excluded from special ed in the past. We know that there are in fact some students who continue to be wrongly excluded from special education.

But much of the increase in special-education rates has been caused by less benign forces. Public schools have been using special education as a remedial-education program. Students who are struggling academically — but have no true disability — are being wrongly placed in special education. The students may be struggling because they have been taught poorly or because they have a difficult home life, but these are not disabilities. There are probably hundreds of thousands of these students wrongly identified as disabled who really need only remedial education.

Schools have discovered that they can get extra funding from state and federal governments for small-group instruction to help lagging students catch up if they say that the students are struggling because of a processing problem in their brains. School officials who admit that the students are lagging because of poor previous instruction or a difficult home life, by contrast, are left to pay the costs of small-group instruction entirely out of their own budget.

What’s so bad about using special education as a remedial program if that is the only way to get resources to help kids who are behind? First, it is an incredibly inefficient way to provide remediation. Classifying students as disabled imposes all sorts of administrative costs on schools to keep up with the paperwork and procedures required by the laws mandating special ed. These costs are not so great that they deter schools from incorrectly identifying students as disabled, but in aggregate they impose a considerable, unnecessary burden on taxpayers.

Second, wrongly labeling lagging students as disabled imposes on those students an academic stigma and, often, lowered academic expectations.

Third, miscategorizing those students prevents schools and the public from identifying their own problems and trying to correct them. If we blame processing problems in children’s brains for academic struggles rather than poor prior instruction or issues outside of school, we’ll fail to take the necessary corrective steps.

And fourth, let’s not forget that reducing over-identification would allow special-education resources to be focused on students who are truly disabled and in need of extra assistance, including students truly suffering from SLD and ADD.

Schools are not reliable at distinguishing between true, medical disabilities and academic difficulties caused by poor instruction or difficult home lives. We need to develop procedures for identifying and auditing disability classifications independent of the school systems, which suffer from obvious conflicts of interest. If reforms are not instituted, it won’t be long until we live in a Lake Woebegone where all children are above average, and the ones who aren’t are labeled disabled.

– Jay P. Greene is endowed professor of education reform at the University of Arkansas and a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute. His new report with Marcus Winters, “How Special-Ed Vouchers Keep Kids From Being Mislabeled as Disabled,” can be read online here.



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