Special ed is a mess

Special education is “a litigious mess,” writes lawyer Chris Borreca in The Atlantic. When IDEA, the disability rights law, is reauthorized, Congress should adopt a dispute resolution system using specialist courts, he suggests.

A threshold requirement of mandatory mediation before a lawsuit may be filed could be added. A reasonable cap on attorney fees should be explored. Clarity of the very legal rights described should be added to the statute itself.

In other words, a degree of common sense added to the entire system — with an emphasis on services received rather than an unending amount of due process provided for every alleged wrongdoing — would go a long way toward serving the original intent of the law.

Miriam K. Freedman, also a lawyer, tackles reforming special ed in the University of Chicago Law Review.

The current system favors wealthy parents, writes Dr. Manhattan, who likes Romney’s plan to make federal disability dollars follow the student.

Mediocrity guaranteed: Do it all in every class

Telling “every school to meet every need for every kid” is a recipe for mediocrity, writes Rick Hess in Ed Week.

New York City Chancellor Dennis Walcott has committed to educating special-needs children in neighborhood schools, especially in elementary school. However, parents are finding their local schools aren’t prepared to serve all special-needs students.

That should be no surprise, Hess writes.

If we told the owners of the terrific local burger joint that they also need to start serving sushi, pizza, enchiladas, and French cuisine, because people have different preferences, and everyone has a right to eat, I suspect it’d have an adverse impact on quality. If I told a first-rate high school math tutor that he had an obligation to also tutor in science, Mandarin, and history, because he’s the only tutor in the neighborhood, the quality of his work might decline. Yet, this “duh”-caliber observation is largely absent when advocates are asking schools to shoulder yet another burden, especially when discussing how to best serve kids with special needs.

. . . the issue is not whether we ought to serve all kids. That was resolved decades ago. We all agree that we should. The question is whether we think every school, or every classroom, ought to be expected to meet every need of every student. And that strikes me as a recipe for mediocrity.

Or worse. In my 11 years of blogging, I think the complaint I’ve seen most often from teachers is that they’re expected to teach children of vastly different achievement levels, abilities and disabilities in the same classroom with little useful support.

 

New autism definition excludes many

new definition of autism – renamed autism spectrum disorder — proposed by the American Psychiatric Association could exclude 45 percent of those now diagnosed as high-functioning, reports the New York Times. People with Asperger’s Syndrome, Pervasive Developmental Disorder and mild autism could find it harder to qualify for health, educational and social services.

Autism spectrum diagnoses have skyrocketed in recent years. The new definition could end the surge, said Dr. Fred R. Volkmar, director of the Child Study Center at the Yale School of Medicine.

 

Autism linked to educated parents

Autism “is more a surge in diagnosis than disease,” concludes the Los Angeles Times. Statewide, 1.1% of California elementary students have been identified as autistic, but rate is much higher in affluent communities than in rural districts.

. . .  the number of students receiving autism services, including speech, behaviorial and other therapies, has grown fivefold since 2000, driving up special education costs even as school budgets are being slashed.

“Warrior parents” who fight for services get much more help, adds the Times.

For autistic children 3 to 6 — a critical period for treating the disorder — the state Department of Developmental Services last year spent an average of $11,723 per child on whites, compared with $11,063 on Asians, $7,634 on Latinos and $6,593 on blacks.

. . . The divide is even starker when it comes to the most coveted service — a behavioral aide from a private company to accompany a child throughout each school day, at a cost that often reaches $60,000 a year.

In the state’s largest school district, Los Angeles Unified, white elementary school students on the city’s affluent Westside have such aides at more than 10 times the rate of Latinos on the Eastside.

My niece provides after-school therapy for children on the autism spectrum. She plans to earn a doctorate in psychology and specialize in the field.

The Education Commission of the States reviews state efforts (pdf) to help students with autism, notes On Special Education.

Adjunct tells stuttering student not to speak

Philip Garber Jr. isn’t afraid to speak up, despite his stutter. When the 16-year-old was told not to ask or answer questions in his history class at County College of Morris — the adjunct said he was wasting other students’ time — Garber complained to the dean, who switched him to another instructor. The New York Times ran a front-page story, the college is investigating and the adjunct isn’t likely to be rehired.

After the first couple of class sessions, in which he participated actively, the professor, an adjunct named Elizabeth Snyder, sent him an e-mail asking that he pose questions before or after class, “so we do not infringe on other students’ time.”

As for questions she asks in class, Ms. Snyder suggested, “I believe it would be better for everyone if you kept a sheet of paper on your desk and wrote down the answers.”

Later, he said, she told him, “Your speaking is disruptive.”

After 30 years as a middle-school social studies teacher, Snyder began teaching history at the community college 10 years ago.

Garber is taking history and composition at the local community college, while finishing his home-schooling curriculum.  He travels into Manhattan once a week to “work on acting and playwriting with Our Time Theater Company, a group for people who stutter,” reports the Times. He hopes to be a photojournalist.

Don’t FEAR Your Stutter, be PROUD, You’re Still Standing! says Garber on his YouTube channel, TheStutteringMan.

Update: Snyder says she told Garber she’d call on him once per class.

Narcoleptic pupil sues British university

Next Media Animation looks at a narcoleptic college student who claims her British university didn’t give her enough assistance.

Kids on welfare: The disability dilemma

Disability checks for children have become The Other Welfare, reports the Boston Globe. Low-income parents can boost their income by getting children on Supplemental Security Income (SSI), often for learning and behavioral problems such as hyperactivity. That encourages parents to get their children on drugs such as Ritalin.

Qualifying is not always easy — many applicants believe it is essential that a child needs to be on psychotropic drugs to qualify. But once enrolled, there is little incentive to get off. And officials rarely check to see if the children are getting better.

Preschoolers with delayed speech make up the fastest growing category of new SSI claims, reports the Globe. Once on SSI, they’re unlikely to leave, even if they outgrow their speech problems. Their disability status may lower expectations for their school performance.

Teens on SSI avoid taking jobs for fear of losing the payments. (Under federal law, someone who earns above a minimum amount is considered no longer disabled — even if the worker really is disabled.)

SSI for children was designed for parents raising kids with serious physical disabilities that create extra costs. But it was expanded in the ’80s. Now the majority of children on SSI are not physically disabled, reports the Globe.

The series won the 2011 Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism.

With two Mercury News colleagues, I won the Casey Medal back in the day for our welfare series. Our teen mother supplemented welfare with an SSI check for her older son, who’d been born very early and was expected to be disabled. When he was four, the pediatrician praised the mother for her excellent care, told her the boy was developing normally and reported his healthy status to SSI. Without the extra money, the mother decided to get a full-time job instead of trying to complete a community college degree. The economy was booming and she’d done well in a work-study job, so she probably succeeded. I hope. All her phone numbers went bad and I wasn’t able to reach her again. She was 19.

Educating all the children

Utah has its first high school designed for autistic students, reports the Deseret News (via Education News). Spectrum Academy is extending its K-8 program.

Such specialization runs counter to a federal and state push over the last decade to give children with learning disabilities equal access to a mainstream public education.

To comply with federal law, schools “offer special education courses but place autistic children in traditional classrooms as frequently as possible.” But some parents think mainstreaming doesn’t benefit their children.

Education News interviews Miriam Freedman, author of Fixing Special Education. Among her 12 steps for improving the system is ending the reliance on a medical model for labeling students with learning problems.

A child may be labeled with a specific learning disability (SLD) in one school district, emotionally disturbed in another, or simply as an ‘at risk’ student in the third. In the first town he gets a panoply of individualized special services, in the second, a panoply of totally different services, and in the third–none. This, in spite of the fact that we know that diagnoses are not exact, and far too often, are based on attributes unrelated to the child, such as socio-economic realities, savvy parents, or zip codes.

Freedman also talks about reducing paperwork and litigation so teachers can focus on teaching.

Disabled students post higher scores

Test scores improved for students with disabilities from 2005-06 to 207-08, according to a new study by the Center on Education Policy.

The study found that students with disabilities showed progress at all levels of proficiency in 4th grade, where the median percentage scoring at the basic level or above was 71 percent. Most states showed more gains than declines among students with disabilities over the three-year period.

No Child Left Behind was a “strong factor” in the gains, said Jack Jennings, CEP president.

It’s difficult to evaluate disabled students’ progress, CEP said, because of “the often-rapid changes in the number of test-takers that some states reported in that subgroup from year to year” and changes in how many students take alternate assessments rather than the regular state exam.

Despite the progress, the gap between disabled and mainstream students remains wide.

Special ed vouchers cut disability diagnoses

Public schools identify fewer students as disabled if disability qualifies kids for a  voucher to attend another school, concludes a Jay Greene-Marcus Winters’ study released by the Manhattan Institute.

. . . the vouchers check public schools’ financial incentives to identify more students as disabled. Public schools may get additional subsidies when they shift more students into special education, but if they then make students eligible for special education vouchers, they risk having those students walk out the door with all of their funding.

“Nearly 1 in 7 students nationwide is now classified as having a disability,” Greene writes on his blog.  The 63 percent increase isn’t caused by a plague of disabling illnesses. It’s about the money.

A previous study found states that pay more for each student classified as disabled showed much higher rates of growth in special education enrollment than states that changed funding formulas to end financial incentives for identifying children as disabled.