Report: Low-Income Students More Likely To Be Placed In Special Ed

BOSTON — A new state-commissioned report finds that Massachusetts’ low-income students are nearly twice as likely to be placed in special education programs as other students.

The findings refute the widely held notion that higher-income parents, seeking more help for their children, are driving up special education rates. Seventeen percent of Massachusetts students are in special education programs — the second-highest rate in the nation.

The Boston Globe, which first reported the study, says it’s “expected to provoke debate over whether low-income districts are placing students in special education because of legitimate disabilities or because of weak academic programs that cause students to fall behind, or because some teachers want unruly students out of their classrooms.”

Reached by our Newscast unit, Thomas Hehir, one of the report’s authors, said many kids are identified as special needs students because they don’t get the help they need early on.

“It’s not to say that you ignore reading problems in children — you never should,” Hehir said. “What we’re saying is that those kids should be getting reading help before, for instance, they get referred to special education, and that doesn’t always happen.”

Hehir said districts should work to keep special needs students in classrooms with their peers.

Thomas Scott, the executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents, echoed that suggestion in an interview with our Newscast unit.

“The more we can keep youngsters in the mainstream, the better they feel personally and I think that the better their performance can be,” Scott said. “So that’s where we need to put our focus.”

The report, which is going to be presented tonight at a state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education meeting, calls on the state to play an active role.

“The Department of Elementary and Secondary Education should be more actively intervening in districts whose identification rates and use of substantially separate educational settings for low-income students — and students with disabilities as a whole — are substantially higher than average,” it reads.

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  • Spedlaw60

    The ESE has not and will not respond to non compliance with special education laws in the past so why should this be different.  Presented with blatent evidence of non compliance by Springfield regarding failure to provide indiviualized accommodation for students with disabilities for 10th grade MCAS, then Deputy Karla Brooks Baher refused to order compensatory services.  See SpedWatch.org

    Kids with disabilities are routinely denied their rights.  The eligibility process is spelled out in the regulations.  It is not as discretionary as the Globe article makes it seem.  It is also a product of the system. All behavior is a form of communication.  Many of this students may well have special needs and should receive special education services.  However, placing a child in a mainstream class with little or no support and with a teacher who has little or no experience in working with children with learning differences is a recipe for disaster.

  • momof4girls

    Guess what, parents of average ability students and high level acheivers don’t want students who belong in special ed in mainstream classrooms either.  They take away crucial instructional time and the class moves at a much slower pace thanks to a very few.  There is a huge difference between children who actually have special education issues and children with parents who are neglectful or uneducated.  That’s fabulous that they feel better personally but schools aren’t for building self esteem, let them get that at home.  My daughter’s first grade class spent much of the school day pandering to a girl with extreme social issues.  The whole class was involved on a day to day basis with this one student and her moods.  I never received a notice from the teacher saying 9:00 reading,  9:15 make “Nina” talk, 10:00 math, 10:30 everyone ask “Nina” how she’s doing.  The administration doesn’t want the parents to know.  As far as MCAS goes it will continue to help the very bottom students with no help for the average and above average this is quite a system we’ve got here.

  • Shelley Carroll

    First of all, most students who receive special education DO remain in the classroom for most of the day, and only receive specialized instruction in specific academic areas to address areas affected by the identified disability.  Secondly, it is interesting that Mr. Hehir has assumed that lower income students are more disruptive than the middle classes or upper class students.   Thirdly, it is biased thinking to immediately assume the issue is related to poor educational quality alone.  What we know from solid research is that poverty is correlated with many issues that affect educational outcomes.  This includes lack of education in parents, lack of proper routines and nutrition, lack of parental involvement (especially when there are additional barriers such as language). Keep in mind that schools are required to educate any student at the same level as the norm referenced child- regardless of their educational background.  You may be 8 years old and speak only Spanish, without any previous schooling- but you will be placed in the third grade and expected to perform at that level.   In many communities the schools are addressing these issues through general education supports, as it should be.  To call a child disabled when the issue is not THEIR difficulty with learning, but perhaps situational issues that could be addressed in the home, is not only unfair, but a very expensive way to solve the problem.  And instead of directing all ‘blame’ toward the school, what about other social services that are mandated to provide support to families?  Are we now blaming schools again for attempting to solve poverty?  Society turns to the schools to solve those issues, and then blames the schools for the attempts.  I agree with Mr. Hehir’s general concerns, but he has jumped to conclusions, without understanding how special education has ended up with these problems.  High standards are necessary for all students.  And high standards for students who do not have the background or support at home means that either the child must independently RISE ABOVE their circumstances, or someone will have to fill the voids.  If it’s at the school, then resources need to be supported with funding.  If it’s via another service agency, then they need the financial backing.  And if neither group is responsible for parenting these children or doing whatever is required in a home without  financial resources, then we need to be more candid about who needs to make changes. 

    Finally, I will say that schools make many, many mistakes on many levels. It’s the nature of such a complicated business. But fewer mistakes would be made if the schools were not pressured to spread their resources thinly because it is now the place where all problems are solved.

    • Cmmurph3

      I couldn’t agree more with all of the points you listed. Thank you for taking the words right out of my mouth!

    • Amyteach5

      Thank you for stating this points so eloquently.

  • Jshore

    The Federal
    Government does not pay for Oppositional Defiant Disorder (ODD). It
    does pay for Emotionally Disturbed (ED) and Attention Deficit Disorder
    (ADD) and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). The Federal
    Government expects the State and City to pick up the cost for
    Oppositional Defiant Disorder, many states do, Massachusetts does not,
    and Boston does not! Many cities and states have separate schools for
    ODD students. To my knowledge Boston Public Schools does not.

    In the
    suburbs ODD is not considered a disability, and the student is given an
    “immediate logical consequence” and is sent home to parental care. We try
    not to do that in Boston Public Schools, many parents are working and
    kids unattended might get into trouble.

    In the BPS, the ODD students are placed into the Learning Adaptive
    Behavior (LAB) programs with the ED students even though the ODD student
    requires an intervention requiring “immediate logical consequences” and
    the ED student requires “talk therapy.” Many states do not even have
    these two populations in the same school because of the different
    interventions required! 

    Boston Public Schools evaluates principals, and the school, on limiting
    their referrals of students to special education. A high number of sped
    referrals, the lower the principal’s evaluation. Many principals have
    elaborate gate-keeping practices to prevent a student being referred to
    special education. It has been my experience that a student almost has
    to seriously assault someone before they are referred for an IEP. 

    Teachers really don’t have a say and it is unfair to demonize and
    suggest that teachers are responsible for “weak academic programs that
    cause students to fall behind, or because some teachers to want unruly
    students out of their classrooms.”  A teacher can provide all the
    “rigorous” and “differentiated” instruction possible, but how much class
    time can you use to “redirect” an ODD student who is running around the
    room, tossing books, poking other students, throwing chairs, and
    calling the teacher profane names that would make a sailor blush! 

    you have a couple of ODD students in a class, or several, for safety issues, you
    become their teacher and the other students end up fending for
    themselves.   Would you want your child
    in that classroom?

    • Ellen Chambers

      You write:Boston Public Schools evaluates principals, and the school, on limiting their referrals of students to special education. A high number of spedreferrals, the lower the principal’s evaluation. Many principals have elaborate gate-keeping practices to prevent a student being referred to special education. 

      Would you please forward to me documentation supporting the above statement? What you say is highly illegal, and immoral. I would like to follow up on this.

      Thank you.
      Ellen M. Chambers, MBA
      Special Education Rights & Process

  • Ellen Chambers

    I urge WBUR to investigate and report on the REAL issue:  why are so many students in special education programs FAILING, even though they have no cognitive impairments and are as intellectually capable as their non-disabled peers? 
    According to the MA Dept. of Elementary and Secondary Education:
    1. 90-95% of students in special education programs DO NOT HAVE COGNITIVE IMPAIRMENTS. They have disabilities that affect the WAY they learn, not their capacity to learn.
    2. Given the above, the MCAS performance of students with and without disabilities ought to be substantially similar. It is not. Statewide, on the 2011 ELA MCAS exam, 78 pct of students without disabilities scored proficient or better. Only 30 pct of students with disabilities did so. The figures for Math were 67 and 21 pct, respectively. The achievement gap between students with and without disabilities is staggering, and has grown WIDER every year since MCAS testing began.
    3. MA spends approx. $2.1 billion on special education every year.
    The REAL issue is: where is that $2.1 billion going? Clearly it is not going into effective teaching for students with disabilities.
    The media outlet that decides to investigate this issue will have quite a story, indeed! 
    Ellen M. Chambers, MBAConsultantSpecial Education Rights & Process(978) 433-5983emchambers@charter.net

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