Rethinking special ed

Special education is costing more and more, yet results are disappointing, writes Rick Hess. Nate Levenson, a former superintendent who reduced special-ed spending while improving achievement, has written Something Has Got to Change: Rethinking Special Education.

Levenson suggests:

  • a relentless focus on reading, including clear and rigorous grade-level expectations for reading proficiency, frequent measurement, and early identification of struggling readers with immediate and intensive additional instruction, up to 30 extra minutes per day;
  • rethinking what special ed students are taught in general education classes to avoid overplacement of special ed students in special classes and keep them in front of the best teachers;
  • maximizing class time with content expert teachers.

Special education teachers know how to identify disabilities, but aren’t trained in how to teach math, English or reading, even though that’s their primary duty, Levenson writes.

Also in for some tough medicine is the practice of co-teaching, where a special ed teacher is paired with a general ed teacher in a regular classroom for students with and without disabilities. Levenson writes, “Co-teaching is like dieting. Lots of people want to lose weight and look good in a bathing suit, but actually doing so is hard.”

Miriam Freedman talks about what Massachusetts is doing to speed resolutions of disputes (SPED-X) and cut down on paperwork (Process Lite).

Some states, such as Massachusetts and New York, identify almost twice as many students as disabled as other states, such as Texas and California, notes Fordham’s  Shifting Trends in Special Education.  The poverty rate doesn’t explain it, writes Mike Petrilli. But it does correlate with per-student spending, adjusted for the cost of living. High-spending states have higher rates of special-education identification.

Thirteen percent of the difference in identification is correlated to spending, estimates Harvard Education Professor Marty West. “It could be that better-resourced systems identify more kids because they have the capacity to serve them separately, but even if that were the case there is a lot of variation that it can’t explain (look at Rhode Island and Texas, for example).”

Petrilli wonders whether tighter school budgets will result in smaller special-ed caseloads.

San Francisco school officials want to save money by mainstreaming all special education students, reports the New York Times.  That includes mainstreaming 16 students with severe behavior problems who attend a private, nonprofit school at district expense.

(Sylvia) Hewlett’s son attended six San Francisco schools before his ninth birthday. His mother said he sometimes became so frustrated that he physically attacked his teachers and classmates.

Ms. Hewlett enrolled her son, who is autistic and turns 12 in July, at Erikson four years ago. “Now the boy can write,” she said. “The boy can read. The boy can spell.”

Alternative programs exist for a reason, writes  Ms. Cornelius.  Seriously disabled students get a chance at an education and other students and teachers get a shot at a safe, peaceful classroom.

About Joanne


  1. Many parents are not fully informed about their rights to a fair education for their child without any pressure to put their child on medication. There is a lot of information out there that supports alternative treatments and the right to a good education for every child

  2. We also need to rethink the extensive modifying and scaffolding that is so often given to special education students that is designed to make it impossible for them to fail, even if they do not master the basics of a course.

    As I’ve long observed, life is not modified if you are special ed.

  3. Joanne,

    It’s great that you picked up my interview, Nate Levenson’s piece, and the Fordham study. Does this mean the stars are finally aligned to fix special education. What do we need to do? Change the climate. Rebuild trust. Focus on student achievement, not compliance. Get special ed to help all kids learn.

    Since you cite two of our Massachusetts reforms, for more information about SpedEx, please visit

    For more information about Procedures Lite, please email to [email protected]

    Here’s to positive and effective reform. Yes, something’s got to give. No one is happy with the system we have. Here’s to better and more effective.

  4. I think it’s time to end the “free” part of FAPE and start charging a sliding scale fee to families (with waivers for low-income ones) for special education costs over and above what is spent per-pupil for a general ed student.

    I say this as mother of a child with a developmental delay who is in a ridiculously expensive Early Intervention preschool program. Why should it be the taxpayers’ responsibility to pick up 100% of the tab for this? We should bear a portion of the costs the way we have a cost-share for the treatments done through our medical insurance.

    I think there would be far less abuse of the system by pushy parents if they knew they would be responsible for picking up a portion of the costs of special ed.

  5. Thinly Veiled Anonymity says:

    “Get special ed to help all kids learn.”

    What does that mean?

  6. I suspect that the proper description for what is being proposed in San Francisco, as the terms are presently used is “inclusion”, with “mainstreaming” being about putting kids in regular classrooms (perhaps with additional support) while expecting them to perform at grade level, and “inclusion” being about educating a child to the maximum extent possible within the grade he would attend by virtue of his age. As I see it, the advantage of inclusion to the student is that he stays with his peer group through graduation; the advantage to the school district is significant cost savings, and no longer being particularly concerned about failing grades and how they might impact a child’s IEP; the disadvantages to the student include the possibility that he would fair better educationally with appropriate mainstreaming or separate education (or a mix), and as you note inclusion (and mainstreaming, particularly when not properly supported) can be very disruptive to teachers and their classrooms. There may be legitimate self-esteem gains for kids who are placed in regular classrooms via inclusion, and I know that some parents much prefer inclusion and high school diplomas for kids with extreme educational impairments – even if their kids would arguably be much better served by life skills training, but it seems to me to be principally meant to make educating the kids cheaper for the district and less of an administrative hassle for school administrators.

  7. I agree with Crimson Wife. I’d go further: If your kid can’t be educated with the general population, then the expense is on you, period. The federal government should take up the subsidization.

    The sped game is either an atrocity or a racket. It’s an atrocity when kids who have an IQ lower then 85 or are a danger to themselves or others are put into the mainstream. It’s a racket when extra money is spent on kids for dyslexia, auditory processing, executive function, and other problems. All hail the friggin ADA.

  8. tim-10-ber says:

    I would like to see mainstreaming reduced…need to be more selective on what kids can manage being mainstreamed and not slow down the the rest of the class. I haven’t seen a teacher that can handle this wide a range of students by having sped kids in class…i know there must be some that can do it…I just didn’t seen them when my kids were in government schools…

    I agree with others…if the kids can not be educated with the normal allocation to the general ed population the parents need to pay…otherwise spend the same amount of money on my kids…dang…government schools could then pay for the seven years of private tuition they cost me…that would work…:-)

  9. Good. Freaking. God. What a bunch of sniggering elitists many of are!

    I work with just that population of sped kids that you all would like to cut services to. The low-income, LD, ADHD group that some of you claim is bogus. Cool. You want to make their parents with similar disabilities pay for services? Fine. Here’s your results: You want to pay more for the criminal justice system and welfare system? Why the heck don’t you just disclose your true agenda and reinstate the poor farms and poorhouses? That would be the fate of many of these kids without some sort of help. Come clean.

    Deep breath. Must. Not. Rant. Further. Calm down the mama grizzly Caseload Kid Protection Monster. Yes, I do get mama grizzly about the students on my caseload. It’s my job. In some cases, I’m the only advocate for these kids. Having walked my talk, such comments as many (not all) here rile me, because with the exception of Miriam and a very few others, many of you haven’t a clue.

    You want to save money on sped? Fine. Cut back on the damn paperwork and allow sped teachers to teach, not manage paper. Make the Feds fully fund any additional mandates they impose which end up adding more financial nitpicking responsibilities on local education agencies.

    Severely slam districts that try to avoid serving ANY sped kids–that’s what jacks up the cost of sped to everyone, it’s those bad actors that can’t be bothered to do the common sense thing that is right for a kid. Look at the sped litigation out there. It’s about stupid stuff and stupid choices. Unfortunately, in response, every case brings on a tsunami of regulation that unfairly slams districts and case managers genuinely trying to do the right thing by kids. Every incidence of the wrong thing helps build a negative impression amongst struggling sped parents that the district and teachers are out to get them, even when they’re not. Go onto the sped advocacy groups and note the tone there. That’s driven by all the mistakes and the stupid choices. As a result, parents end up coming into every sped encounter aggressively hyped up and ready to do war–which leads to a cycle of aggression and higher costs as districts become more litigation-adverse.

    Meanwhile, everyone loses sight of the kids in their political agendas.

    Beef up early intervention if you want to bring down sped costs. Aggressive early intervention makes sense from a developmental neuroscientific point of view. Younger brains are more neuroplastic and more easily remediated. Waiting until kindergarten is too damned late. It’s cheaper and more effective to intervene earlier. We’re learning more and more about the manifestations of certain learning disabilities and if we can ensure the right sort of intervention BEFORE the kid has learned how to fail academically, then we’ve got a fighting chance for a disabled student to function effectively in a general education setting with less cost. It costs more to remediate a learning problem the older the person gets. Period.

    EI does not have to be academic; in fact, a lot of it would be what a savvy and resonant stay-at-home parent would do with a child. Exposure to new experiences, tactile exposures, auditory exposures, visual exposures. Grouping. Colors. Naming. Social behaviors. What books are and how you read/hold them. Teach that numbers and print have meaning. Teach gross and fine motor control. Identify beginning problems and guide into appropriate expressions. Prepare the child for academic learning–which means a lot of training that we take for granted.

    Also provide for and accommodate different developmental progressions.

    Unfortunately, in our current Back-to-the-Gilded-Age political era, it ain’t gonna happen. Instead of aggressively intervening and remediating learning problems at an early age, when we could possibly turn things around and turn out contributing and productive members of society, we’ll warehouse and boot out kids to create a permanent underclass. That’s the truth of so-called education reform in a nutshell. It ain’t about No Child Left Behind; it’s about I Got Mine, Yours Can Get Dumped In The Wastebin.

  10. What a mean, mean country we are to our children.

    I work with a lot of kids with IQ’s in the 75-85 range. Yeah, they’re slow. Yeah, it takes them a full 12 years to get to where I probably was in 3rd grade. But, they are capable of literacy and numeracy and having a fulfilling life. If you cut that off, they become part of the street economy.

    The VAST majority of them are in no way disruptive to class.

  11. I never said that low IQ kids were de facto disruptive, but…

    You say it takes them four times as long to learn, but they aren’t disruptive to class? Seriously?

    At the very least, if it takes them four times as long to learn a quarter as much, then putting them in mainstream classes is fraud, since any grade other than an F is a lie.

    But for a teacher to try and even pretend to teach them takes away time from the other kids. How is that not disruptive?

    Joycem, stop with the melodrama. It’s not All About You.

    Everything you describe is certainly doable. But it should not be part of the public school system. Give it to the feds, so we can centralize, do it more effectively, and stop giving public schools more mandates that aren’t involved with its primary mission.

  12. Cal, knock it off. The public school system is not just for the elites, it’s for everyone, high, low and average. What I describe absolutely should be part of the public system. The primary mandate of the public school system is to educate everyone in the unwashed masses, and that means the cognitively low and those with learning disabilities as well as the alleged neurotypically average group. Separating out special education students into their own segregated ghettos only perpetuates the elitism.

    Like I said, you’ve got the choice. Educate the kids (but be realistic, not everyone is or should be four year college material; let’s get some vo-tech stuff back into the K-12 system), or be prepared to warehouse a large chunk of them. That’s the choice. Spend early on preventative, spend later on warehousing.

  13. “The public school system is not just for the elites”

    You do know what “elites” means, right?

    Because I said: ” If your kid can’t be educated with the general population”

    If you think “elites” are the “general population”, then you’ve been spending way too much time with the profoundly disabled.

    In other words, burn your little straw man, toots.

  14. Michael E. Lopez says:


    Isn’t it enough that (a) you’re right, (b) you’re arguing her into the ground, and (c) she doesn’t really seem to understand what your point is anyway?

    Do you have to twist the knife like that?

  15. Sigh. It’s the last one that makes me crazy. It’s not that friggin hard!

  16. “… At the very least, if it takes them four times as long to learn a quarter as much, then putting them in mainstream classes is fraud, since any grade other than an F is a lie….”

    At risk of repeating myself, this is why it’s important to use the proper terminology. As the terms are presently used, grades do matter in mainstreaming – a special needs child can fail. Grades do not matter in inclusion, as the child will proceed through the grades with his same-aged peers without regard to capacity or performance.

    It’s not “elitist” to suggest that, for example, fifth grade students should be capable of performing at the fifth grade level, even if with additional support or tutoring.

  17. Modified curriculum is indicated on the report card (at least in my district). Eventually, they end up in classes like Financial Math, Fundamentals of English, etc. while their peers go on to on-level or advanced classes. Yes, the diploma is pretty much the same whether they took 17 AP classes or just learned to read and compute at a basic level. Who cares? The first kid goes to Yale; the second works at Kroger.

    Our district has a couple of private schools for special ed children that end up serving as “feeders” into the middle and high school, where they’re mainstreamed for the first time. Maybe we’re good at it because we’ve had to quit whining and just figure it out.

    Obviously you’re a lot smarter than I am, Cal. I’ll bet you can figure it out, too.

  18. Joycem- why shouldn’t parents have to share in *SOME* of the costs of special ed? The higher the family income, the larger that share ought to be. Otherwise you end up with cases like millionaire Viacom CEO Tom Freston having the taxpayers pick up 100% of the tab for his kid’s private school tuition.

    Neither districts nor parents ought to be responsible for paying 100% of the added costs of educating a special ed child. The costs should be shared the way similar to the way that health insurance has cost-shares.

  19. Cardinal Fang says:

    What percentage of the student population are you throwing out, Cal? Downs kids are clearly out, sorry Mom & Dad, should have aborted that baby. Severely autistic kids, we can’t take them, hey, yeah, why don’t you just lock them in a room at home? How about dyslexic kids? They can’t be educated in the general population because they can’t read– so, Ms. Hotel Maid, that’ll be $500 a month for Jared, oh, you don’t have that, sorry.

    When you charge for remediation, are you also planning to charge for GATE students? Will you also charge for football, band, theater– because those activities only benefit a minority of students?

  20. GATE shouldn’t cost that much more than regular ed. There will be some identification costs, but after that, it doesn’t cost any more to concentrate all the gifted kids in a single school than to have them spread around over 50 in a district. Similarly, it doesn’t cost any more to purchase above-level textbooks than it does to purchase grade-level ones.

    Sports absolutely should charge a participation fee. The school budget ought to go towards academics, not athletics.

  21. I could care less one way or the other about sports, but the wide range of “normal” kids and their parents want sports and arts–two things that have been cut back in large part because of the increased expense of “educating” (or pretending to educate) kids outside of normal range. I suspect they’ll always stay–just like debate teams, foreign language clubs, and all the rest of the activities that are part of “normal” school life–or what was normal, before all the mandates began.

    As for your melodramatic hypotheticals, Card, read closely:

    The federal government should take up the subsidization.


    Everything you describe is certainly doable. But it should not be part of the public school system. Give it to the feds, so we can centralize, do it more effectively, and stop giving public schools more mandates that aren’t involved with its primary mission.

    But of course, you’d rather hyperventilate and delude yourself–and hopefully, others–that I didn’t address what happened to the kids who don’t fit into the general population.

  22. Richard Aubrey says:

    “We want,” say the advocates, with righteous tears brimming, “all kids to learn because we believe all kids can learn.”
    There is no response possible. Who wants to stand up and explain the freakin’ obvious and be labeled a miserable–see some of the comments above–for pointing out the freakin’ obvious?
    This does not mean–advocates with righteous tears brimming notwithstanding, see above–abandoning the SPED kids.
    It does mean making appropriate decisions about what’s best for a SPED kid–as if being in a class where he knows he is lastlastlast is a good thing–and keeping in mind what we’re now being told by even, imagine that, some democrats. That is, you don’t get funding by putting thousand dollar bills on the color copier. And it means decidingwhat’s best for the non-SPED kids.
    I have a special needs nephew. When in public school in Palm Springs,he needed a full-time aide to keep him from being assaulted by his schoolmates. Have you ever, I mean actually ever, felt unshed tears you couldn’t shed?
    He’s now in a more congenial setting.
    And if you have a general population kid and want him to get a good enough education that he can get into and succeed in college and the teacher is forever having to pause instruction for a SPED kid????

  23. And the entitled ablists continue to whine, bringing forth their token examples to prove that they actually possess a shard of humanity while self-congratulatorily patting themselves on the back about how wonderful their snarky little selfish jabs are.

    Pathetic. Reeking of privilege. But oh my, don’t contaminate me with them sped kids is clearly the message from a bunch of folks here who clearly lack both a heart and a clue.

  24. Cranberry says:

    When you charge for remediation, are you also planning to charge for GATE students? Will you also charge for football, band, theater– because those activities only benefit a minority of students?

    Our district already does this. GATE students? That would be the parents’ choice of “going private.” Sports, extracurriculars, chorus, clubs, all have stiff fees.

  25. And the entitled ablists continue to whine

    Indeed.  Heaven forbid that the non-handicapped kids actually get an education that’s appropriate for THEM!  Today’s public schools will give your children any education you want, as long as it’s SPED-level.

  26. Entitled ablists! Good lord, are you satirizing yourself?

  27. I’ve actually looked at the enrollment numbers for my district and my state. According to Levenson, California at 4.6% is below the national average for identifying specific learning disabilities (5.0%).

    Pay attention here — there are 13 IDEA categories — Specific Learning Disabilities (SLD) is just one of the 13.

    In my district, 12% (1,100 of 9,037 of students) are counted as receiving special education services.

    Of those 1100 students, SLD accounts for 34% (377 of 1,100); Speech or Language Impairment (SLI) services account for another 34% (356 of 1,100) and the remaining roughly third are made up of the remaining eleven categories.

    In California, “Speech or Language Impairment (SLI): means a communication disorder such as stuttering, impaired articulation, language impairment, or a voice impairment, which adversely affects a child’s educational performance. (34 CFR Part 300.5).”

    Looking at the data, enrollment in SpEd for SLI peaks at age 6 and falls off steeply thereafter — implying that the child is no longer receiving services.

    Conversely, SLD doesn’t even register much before age 8. The most common form of SLD is dyslexia, which can be screened for with a high degree of accuracy as early as 5 years, 6 months. If children were screened at the beginning of the kindergarten year and again in January or February, we could identify children who need intensive instruction much earlier — preventing reading failure and the behavior problems that arise from it. Of course the schools would have to agree to provide effective remediation which very few have yet agreed to do.

    Now that would be one step towards rethinking special ed –as Levenson has noted

  28. This discussion is probably a dead bird by now, but it does occur to me that Cal’s model is used. Our area has a separate school district for special ed, with a separate tax that we vote on. It is throughout the county and administers the staff in the regular district schools and in the self-contained buildings (there’s a cluster of about 6 of them in my neighborhood).

    I’m not sure it works any better — but at least there is one centralized place for sped teachers to apply. The better teachers still get assigned to the better districts because we’re organized enough to pitch a fit when we get a mouth-breather. Federalization seems like a Very Bad Idea to me, but this is one form of centralization.

  29. Deirdre Mundy says:

    Adding to the dead discussion, but perhaps some of the disagreement over inclusion/vs. specialized classes has to do with a rift over what school is for.

    If school is about teaching academic skills (reading, writing, math, etc.), then inclusion is a bad idea. Kids should be grouped with their ability-mates, not their age-mates. The focus should be on making sure that schools help each student reach their full potential– which means that the Calculus in 8th grade kids should be permitted to take calc in 8th grade, and the “may read at a third grade level by senior year” kids should be allowed to progress at their own rate and have instruction suited to their academic level.

    If school is about teaching students to socialize with their age-mates, then we need full inclusion, no skipping grades or holding back kids, etc.

    If school is about teaching good habits and organization skills, kids should be grouped by politeness and neatness, with special classes for the sloppy and misbehaving.

    Most young teachers I’ve met claim that school is a mix of all three, but their actual policy choices seem to tilt towards “socialize with agemates.”

    I’d like to see schools where the mission was just pure and simple academics. I don’t think it’s going to happen.

  30. Excellent point, Deidre. What is our mission in public schools? Alas, we have no agreement on that. No wonder our schools, students, teachers, and parents are confused.

    Such confusion is not the way forward. We need to stop the mission confusion. I agree that the mission should focus on academics–the knowledge and skills students need.