How the Disproportionality Problem in Special Education and Disciplinary Practices is like the “Hotel California”

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From the Associated Press:

With new data in hand, the Education Department said Tuesday that disparities persist in the nation’s public schools, where oftentimes minority students are more likely to be identified as having a disability and face harsher discipline than their white counterparts.
“When we see students in any racial or ethnic group identified with disabilities at vastly higher rates than their peers, we owe it to these students to pause, step back and rethink,” Acting Education Secretary John B. King Jr. said in a phone call with reporters.”
It is “something we can and must fix,” he said. 

For example, the analysis showed 876 school districts gave African American students with disabilities short-term, out-of-school suspensions at least twice as often as all other students with disabilities for three years in a row. But, in 2013, the department said states identified fewer than 500 districts in total with “significant disproportionality” or overrepresentation. 

King said studies have shown that only between 2 percent and 3 percent of all school districts nationwide have been identified as such.

Disproportionality in special education typically means that black students are classified as special education students at rates that dwarf white students. While Acting (most likely Permanent, after yesterday’s congenial Senate Hearing yesterday) Education Secretary King points here to disproportionality of discipline and suspensions among African-American students with disabilities, often the disparity extends to classification rates, particularly among black boys.

In my conversations with social workers and case managers, I hear often that because minority children, disproportionately poor, often begin school with less educational advantages, school staff feel morally obliged to classify them as disabled in order to secure necessary services.

These children are just as smart and academically talented as more privileged classmates but require additional help — reading remediation, social skills programs, various therapies — in order to catch up. (Universal preschool for disadvantaged children, anyone?) This may help explain, for example, why a whopping 37% of Camden High School students are classified as eligible for special education services.

Certainly, more than a third of Camden High School enrollment isn’t disabled.  They are classified by school staff for various reasons (some less noble, like enabling the district to collect more state and federal money) and while some students benefit from this eligibility, others are locked into the special education box that lowers expectations for academic growth.

Special education can be like the Hotel California: you can check out any time you like, but you can never leave.

An article this week in the Trentonian illustrates the scenario where economically-disadvantaged children, who may or may not be truly disabled, are trapped in an academically-poor environment.

According to a complaint filed on Jan. 29 with the New Jersey Department of Education Office of Special Education Programs, 16 classes at Dunn Middle School [for classified students] have been taught without proper teaching support since the start of the school year. In the complaint filed by the Special Parent Advocacy Group, seven social studies classes, seven science classes and two English classes were alleged to be without inclusion teachers, who provide special education support to students with IEPs. 

“The school district cannot make up for the failure to provide inclusion teachers since September,” Nicole Whitfield, executive director of Special Parent Advocacy Group, said in a statement. “The students have already suffered educationally.”

A teacher said, “I myself have 17 special education students and 16 of them are violating their IEPs personally. The school is chaos not only because of not having disciplinarians, we also have a vice principal on medical leave as well as not having proper staffing.”

Trenton Public Schools has a long history of poorly serving children with disabilities. (Here’s some coverage from NJLB.) For example, in 2013 the Trenton Times described  a “life skills” class for high school students who were referred to by a teacher as “the forgotten bunch”:

Students mindlessly copy answers teachers have written in textbooks. No curriculum exists. The students, all high school age, sometimes color sheets of Disney characters in lieu of classwork. There’s no rhyme or reason as to who graduates or who stays on for another year.   

One special ed student from Liberia is robbed by classmates on a near-daily basis. And another student, a 19-year-old with behavioral issues, is instructed to clean and mop the school during classes on Fridays. Teachers don’t know how to handle him, so he’s treated like an unpaid, makeshift janitor.

And now middle school students in Trenton have lost a year of learning because the district, according to the complaint, has failed to properly staff classrooms with special education teachers, despite DOE requirements.

The problem with disproportionality includes the disciplinary disparities described by Dr. King and the problems described by parents of children in Dunn Middle School.  Poor children, more likely to be minority in New Jersey, need extra services. But surely we can find a way to reliably provide those legally-mandated services, as well as be creative enough to provide those services without unnecessary classifications. And we must be more vigilant about declassifying students who may have once needed those services but are now able to exit circumscribed and self-fulfilling expectations that are too often the world of special education.

Charter school, at least the best ones like KIPP, Uncommon, and Mastery, tend to be better at this. That’s one reason (among many) why their rates of special education students are lower than traditional district schools. As such, this is an opportunity for traditional schools like Dunn Middle School to appropriate some innovative practices.

I’m a total loser when it comes to rock music, as my kids often remind me. But that song (the Eagles, right?) seems especially appropriate to the disproportionality problem in special education:

Last thing I remember, I was
Running for the door
I had to find the passage back
To the place I was before
“Relax, ” said the night man,
“We are programmed to receive.
You can check-out any time you like,
But you can never leave! “

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