Special ed quotas for charters?

Some propose requiring charter schools to enroll the same percentage of “special needs” students as district schools, notes an Education Next forum.

Charter schools should serve all kinds of students, argues Gary Miron, an education professor at Western Michigan University.  On average, only 8 to 10 percent of charter students are in special education compared to 13.1 percent in district schools. Severely disabled students also are much less likely to attend charter schools.

Some charter schools “counsel out” disabled students, telling parents the school is not a “good fit” for their child.

Charters that recruit and enroll disabled students would receive more funding, making it possible to hire special ed staff that would help all students, he argues. And charters would be taking their “fair share.”

Special ed quotas are a bad idea, responds Robin Lake, director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington.

It would create “perverse incentives for schools to overidentify students as disabled.” Some charters work hard to avoid labeling students as “learning disabled” or “emotionally disordered.”

. . . as schools of choice, not all charter schools will be equally attractive to, or effective with, kids with disabilities. A “no excuses” school may be a good fit for students who respond well to a highly structured and very strict culture but not be effective at all for others. Although a school’s “mission” should never be an excuse for a charter school to exclude students whose families feel it is the right fit, we also should not expect that all charter schools will attract an equal number of all types of students.

Disabled students should have access to schools that have the staff and resources to meet their needs, writes Pedro Noguera, professor of education at New York University.  Often, they’re concentrated in low-performing schools that are overwhelmed by students’ needs.

Many high-performing district schools “employ strategies to screen out such students as well, either by not providing the services needed for special education students, or by employing admissions policies that make it difficult or unlikely for such students to gain access.”

High spending, low performing

Camden, New Jersey schools spend $27,500 per student to run some of the worst schools in the state, reports the Philadelphia Inquirer.

Twenty-three of the district’s 26 schools appear on the state’s list of the 70 lowest-performing schools, but the city will spend almost as much per pupil in the current school year as the state’s highest-spending districts, Avalon and Stone Harbor, spent in 2012-13. Camden made headlines earlier this year when the superintendent said only three high school students of the 882 who took the SAT in 2011-12 tested “college ready.”

The district graduates only 49 percent of students.

Camden is a high-poverty city. Special education costs are high.  “There’s no secret to how we got here,” said former school board member Sean Brown, who served from 2010 to 2013. “There definitely was leadership failure going on, high management turnover, and a lot of things we had to spend money on.”

 The district, which has lost 1,000 students over the last five years to charter or out-of-district schools, has gained administrators and staff, increasing spending 10 percent and creating a student-employee ratio of 4-1 and a student-teacher ratio of 9-1.

. . . Of 2,700 district jobs, only 46 percent are held by teachers. School-based non-teachers such as aides and maintenance employees account for 40 percent and the central office for 13 percent, according to district figures.

“In a first-grade general education classroom earlier this month, 11 pupils sat cross-legged on the floor around a teacher who read to them while a second teacher, also assigned to the classroom, sat in one of eight empty desks,” reports the Inquirer. Yet, at one of the high schools, “special-education staffing can be so tight, teachers not certified in special education say they have had to fill in.”

 Classrooms in Camden often come equipped with smartboards, iPads, and laptops. But in the same rooms teachers might lack access to a working printer, the tech support they need to use the smartboard, or a basic set of textbooks requested a year ago.

“We don’t have a lack of resources here. We have an improper allocation of those resources,” the district’s state-appointed superintendent, Paymon Rouhanifard, has said.

A school of bullies

special ed student who recorded classmates bullying him in math class was threatened with wiretapping charges, then convicted of disorderly conduct, reports Ben Swann. The student, a sophomore at a Pennsylvania high school, has been diagnosed with a comprehension delay disorder, ADHD and an anxiety disorder.

The student and his mother, Shea Love, testified before the magistrate that the boy has been repeatedly shoved and tripped at school, and that a fellow student had even attempted to burn him with a cigarette lighter. . . . He says the bullying treatment is especially harsh and academically disruptive during his special education math class, in which students with behavioral problems are also placed.

The boy has been moved from the special ed math class. No action was taken against the bullies.

Last Chance High‘s second episode introduces “Spanky” Almond, a pudgy boy with a speech impediment, who’s mocked and bullied by classmates at Chicago’s school for emotionally and behaviorally disordered students. Oh, and dad is a murderer who’s out of prison and might resume his abuse of the family.

Why is a kid this vulnerable in a school packed with abusers?

We see an ineffectual science teacher and a compassionate coach.

New standards are tough on special-need kids

Teachers are supposed to enable all students — including those with “the most significant cognitive disabilities” — to “access” the new, more rigorous Common Core standards, writes Katharine Beals in The Atlantic. How?

Beals teaches special education teachers at Drexel and Penn education schools. Most have been told that all their students must be given grade-level assignments, regardless of their abilities.

Common Core tells schools to offer “support services, individualized instruction, and assistive technology,” but don’t “state what these services are or how they would work,” writes Beals. Curricular materials may be altered or presented “in multiple ways,” but only “within the framework of the Common Core.”

One eighth-grade English language arts standard:

 Determine a theme or central idea of a text and analyze its development over the course of the text, including its relationship to the characters, setting, and plot; provide an objective summary of the text.

Using a simplified or alternative text at the student’s reading level appears to violate the requirement for “grade-appropriate level of verbal complexity,” writes Beals. A teacher might add glossaries and storyboards, but not provide a readable text. 

A sample task is provided: 

Students summarize the development of the morality of Tom Sawyer in Mark Twain’s novel of the same name and analyze its connection to themes of accountability and authenticity by noting how it is conveyed through characters, setting, and plot.

Beals imagines a 14-year-old who comprehends language at a fourth-grade level. No technology or storyboards could provide “access to how accountability and authenticity play out in the complex paragraphs of Tom Sawyer.” Take the sentence describing Tom taking a beating from the schoolmaster for an infraction committed by Becky Thatcher:

“Inspired by the splendor of his own act, he took without an outcry the most merciless flaying that even Mr. Dobbins had ever administered; and also received with indifference the added cruelty of a command to remain two hours after school should be dismissed—for he knew who would wait for him outside till his captivity was done, and not count the tedious time as loss, either.”

What, short of simplifying the text or spoon-feeding its meaning to her, will it take for our language-impaired 14-year-old to grasp this 67-word sentence, with its complex syntax, words like “flaying,” “indifference,” and an outdated sense of “should,” and the inference needed to grasp the contextual meaning of “captivity”?

And just wait till she gets to Shakespeare.

Another eighth-grade reading goal, R-L 8.3:

Analyze how particular lines of dialogue or incidents in a story or drama propel the action, reveal aspects of a character, or provoke a decision.

Students with autism struggle to understand character and motivation and to draw inferences from dialogue, Beals writes. In a journal article for special-ed teachers, Stephen, an eighth grader with Asperger’s Syndrome (mild autism), doesn’t understand a text in which a bullied and ostracized boy quits going to school.

How, the authors ask, can Stephen’s teacher help him meet R-L 8.3? By creating a comic strip that shows the characters’ thoughts, including a thought bubble for Matt that reads “I am a loser. Everyone hates me. I am never going back to school!”
In other words, the teacher can help Stephen meet the standard by giving away the answer!

Six percent of students have significant cognitive disabilities, writes Beals. “Forcing all students into the same, age-pegged standards deprives atypical students of optimized learning opportunities and attainable goals” and lowers their achievement.

Alternative diploma limits options

Mississippi students must pass regular courses and four exams to earn a high school diploma. Many special education students settle for an “occupational” diploma. But they may be denied access to academic programs and some job training programs at community colleges.

Attrition is lower at NYC charters

Attrition is relatively low at New York City’s charter elementary schools, concludes Staying or Going, a report by the city’s Independent Budget Office. After three years, 70 percent of charter students remained at the same school compared to 61 percent of students at nearby district schools.

The city’s charter students are somewhat poorer than students in nearby district schools the study found. They’re much more likely to be black (61.1 percent vs. 33.3 percent) and less likely to be Latino (26.7 percent vs. 47.8 percent), white or Asian-American.

However, charters lose more special education students than district schools, notes the New York Times. Only 1 percent of charter kindergarteners are in special education compared to 7 percent in nearby schools. Eighty percent of special-ed charter kindergarteners have transferred after three years, compared to 50 percent in nearby schools.

Disability diagnoses are rare in kindergarten. By third grade, 13 percent of charter students — and 19 percent of district students — have received a special needs diagnosis.

Schools of choice may not be designed to serve every kind of student, writes Matt Di Carlo on Shanker Blog. If accountability measures can be adapted to control for high-need students, “you would expect to see the emergence of more and more schools that were tailored to meet the specific needs of students with low test scores and/or behavioral issues.”

Funding high-need, high-cost students

Financing the Education of High-Need Students from Fordham recommends ways for districts and states to fund high-need, high-cost special education students.

For example, multi-district co-operatives allow for economies-of-scale and better service-delivery.

Weighted student funding provides more money to districts with more high-need students. “Basing those weights on services needed by children rather than disability diagnoses significantly improves the accuracy of this system,” notes the report.

Exceptional-needs funds serve as insurance for districts with one or two very high-cost students.

St. Paul mainstreams troubled kids

St. Paul schools are mainstreaming students with emotional and behavioral disabilities, closing most classrooms at special centers for high-needs children. It works for some students, reports the Pioneer Press. But others are struggling. And some teachers aren’t getting special ed support.

Lenairion Cole went to school in a room for “bad kids” last year, and he rarely ventured out.

At St. Paul’s Bruce Vento Elementary this year, he is in a regular fifth-grade classroom. On his locker are his goals: “Do better at math.” “Do better at my behavior.”

Last year, the school’s learning center served about 45 students identified with problems ranging from severe depression and anxiety to bipolar disorder. The center had a teacher and two aides for every eight to 10 students. Math and reading proficiency scores were very low, well below scores for mentally retarded students.

The majority hardly ever left the center’s confines, said Catherine Butcher, the school’s special education coordinator.

“We felt that the students had to be perfect before we would let them go,” she said.

This fall, all former learning center students started in mainstream classrooms. Some, like Lenairion, are doing well. “I can learn better with a lot of kids instead of a bunch of bad kids that distracted me in class,” Lenairion said. “I work harder now.”

Others have acted out in class. Twenty percent of former learning center students are spend nearly the whole day in mainstream classes, said Elizabeth Keenan, who directs special education for the district. Another 20 percent are primarily in resource rooms. The rest are in between.

With special ed teachers in mainstream classrooms, “students have the same supports they had in the learning center,” Superintendent Valeria Silva told the school board. Some classes have two aides.

That’s not always true, reports the Pioneer Press.

At Bruce Vento, four classrooms that serve former learning center students don’t do any such co-teaching because they are not enough special education teachers. And entire grades share one aide among three or four classrooms.

On a recent walkthrough, Masini stepped in to calm an upset fourth-grader tossing books in the back of a classroom. The teacher is one of the school’s most talented educators, Masini said. But without a special education colleague to help, she’s had a stressful start of the year.

Last year at Frost Lake Elementary, “about 35 students with emotional and behavioral disabilities were referred out of the classroom for behavioral issues 739 times in the first two months of the year; this year, the same number of students had 438 referrals.” (Those numbers seem very high to me.)

“It’s messy. We’re not there yet,” said Principal Stacey Kadrmas. “We have varying degrees of teacher angst and students angst probably as well.”

More than 80 percent of EBD learning center students were black, although African-American children make up less than a third of the district’s enrollment, reports the Pioneer Press.

Reversing a trend of segregating students with special needs is a “moral imperative,” said Keenan. There’s also federal pressure.

Why the special ed gap?

Some 13.1 percent of New York City charter school students receive special education services compared to 16.5 percent in traditional public schools. That’s because special-ed students are less likely to apply to charters, concludes Why the Gap?, a study by the Center on Reinventing Public Education. In addition, charters are less likely to place students in special education and more likely to “declassify” them.

There’s no evidence charter schools refuse to admit or “push out” disabled students, writes Marcus Winters, the lead researcher, in the New York Daily News.

Parents of students with special needs are less likely to choose to apply to charter schools, especially autistic students and students with a speech or language disability.

The reason isn’t clear. Disabled students enrolled in special preschools that feed into district schools may be inclined to stay within the system.

The gap grows by another 20% as students progress through the third grade. Nearly all of this growth occurs in the mildest and most subjectively diagnosed category of student disabilities: specific learning disability. That’s important because specific learning disability is a category widely recognized to be over-identified among low-performing students.

On average, students attending New York City’s charter schools “learn more than they would have in a traditional public school,” Winters writes. “Thus, it is possible that some students avoid the disability label because they perform well academically.”

More special-needs students enter charter elementary schools than exit, Winters writes.

The difference is that when charter school students with disabilities move, they usually end up in a traditional public school — perhaps because there are more of them, or perhaps because charters accept relatively few students in non-gateway grades — thus reducing the percentage of students with disabilities within the charter sector.

Mobility is high for special-needs students. They are somewhat more likely to leave a traditional public school than a charter.

New York now requires charter schools to set enrollment and attendance targets for students with disabilities, Winters writes. Bill de Blasio, who’s likely to be New York City’s next mayor, advocates requiring charter schools to serve students with special needs at the same rate as traditional public schools.

It would be easy to do: Just hand out more learning disability diagnoses and keep students from leaving special ed. But it wouldn’t be good for students.

A study of Milwaukee charters found similar results, writes Jay Greene. Charters there also were less likely to classify students as learning disabled. He thinks funding incentives are driving special ed placement.

Accountability helps — at low-rated schools

Accountability pressures improved outcomes for students who attended low-performing Texas high schools in the ’90s, concludes a new study, School Accountability, Postsecondary Attainment and Earnings.

Schools at risk of receiving a low rating increased the math scores for all students, notes Education Gadfly.

Students at these schools were later likelier to accumulate more math credits and graduate from high school. On top of that, they were more liable to attend college and earn more at age 25. In particular, students who had previously failed an eighth-grade exam ended up around 14 percent more likely to attend college and 12 percent more likely to get a degree.

Accountability policies had no impact at schools that weren’t in danger of a low rating.

At schools with a shot at a relatively high rating, “recognized,” more low-scoring students were placed in special education, “perhaps in order to take them out of the accountability pool,” reports Gadfly. Low-scoring students in these schools had “large declines in attainment and earnings,” the study found.