A new study highlights disparities in how Massachusetts school districts identify students with disabilities and how they are taught, often cutting along class, racial and ethnic lines.
A new study highlights significant disparities in how Massachusetts school districts identify students with disabilities and how they are taught, often cutting along class, racial and ethnic lines.
Low-income students are more often identified in need of special education than their peers, a co-author of the study told the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education recently.
“Poor kids are being served in special education at relatively high numbers, almost at about twice the rate you would expect in the population in general,” said Thomas Hehir, a Harvard School of Education professor and former director of special education programs for the U.S. Education Department.
Among students with disabilities, African American, Hispanic and low-income children are more likely than whites or Asians to be taught in separate settings instead of with appropriate support in a regular classroom, the study said.
This is especially true in middle and high schools, said Hehir, who presented his study to the state board at a special meeting in Malden.
But students with special needs tend to fare better academically in regular classrooms when they are able, Hehir said.
Education Commissioner Mitchell Chester said he requested the study to look into the high number of children enrolled in special education in the state and whether those students are well served
This school year, 163,679 children are enrolled in special education in Massachusetts, or 17 percent of all students, according to state figures. That’s the second-highest rate in the nation, behind only Rhode Island.
The study focused on students with disabilities that Hehir said can be more subjective to identify than others – categories such as “specific learning disability,” “communication” and “other health impairment,” but not autism or blindness, for example.
“These are not kids with significant disabilities that are obvious and intense,” Hehir said. “But these are the great majority of kids (identified with special needs). These are about 80 percent of the kids.”
The results undercut what Hehir said is a “deeply held” notion in Massachusetts that well-off parents in wealthier districts are lobbying schools to gain advantages for their children.
Higher-income districts actually are more likely than low-income systems to place poorer students in special education, according to Hehir.
Some of the income disparity might be explained by factors such as a lack of access to good neonatal care in poor communities, Hehir said. But the fact that the numbers vary widely from one district to the next suggest schools are dealing differently with students who have similar issues.
“It’s not that these children do not have needs,” Hehir said. “The question is whether special education is what they need.”
The study urged the state to intervene in districts with such disparities and focus on finding ways to better provide services to students identified with disabilities in the regular classroom, when possible.
For example, technology can help some students with disabilities to function well in a regular classroom, Hehir said.
Districts should not necessarily expect needs to diminish over time, he said. “As the child gets older, often they need more accommodations in general education,” Hehir said.
Board member Ruth Kaplan noted the study did not generally address costs and stressed that it focused more on how to most appropriately serve students. Hehir agreed, saying the key is how to best use resources to serve certain children.
“I don’t think there’s any silver bullet here in cost savings, at all. ... In some cases I think it’s about using resources better," he said.
While racial and ethnic minorities are not diagnosed with special needs more often than other students, they end up in separate classrooms at higher rates, the study found. African American students are twice as likely, Hehir said.
“We were surprised, frankly, at the degree to which kids with these disability categories were still segregated in Massachusetts,” he said.
Yet the study also found areas to praise. Massachusetts students with disabilities on average outperform others on national assessments and are taught in regular classrooms about as often as the U.S. as a whole, it said.
Board member David Roach asked if teachers under pressure to help students improve on standardized exams sometimes turn to special education as the only option to get students the services they need.
Hehir said he would not be surprised if that is the case, but called this an inefficient way for districts to operate.
Chester, the education commissioner, said his department is working with districts to set up a broader range of support services to try with students before enrolling a child in special education.
Hehir said school leaders have an important role to play.
“The principal makes a huge difference in a building, as does the superintendent of a district and the special ed director,” he said. “Teachers can’t do it by themselves.”
(David Riley can be reached at 508-626-4424 or firstname.lastname@example.org.)