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Special Education by the Numbers

In 1954 Darrel Huff “How to Lie with Statistics”. You may have heard of it. What you may not know is that from the 1950s onward, Darrel Huff spent the rest of his career working for the tobacco lobby ridiculing the link between smoking and health problems.

Kind of makes you look at the book in a different light, hmm?

You can lie with statistics… or you can use numbers to find the truth.

I’m your host, Steven Davis and welcome to episode 10 of Disability Democracy. This weekly podcast is about practical actions that YOU can take – to make a difference in your community. The goal of Disability Democracy is to accelerate the disability community revolution. Find out more at disabilitydemocracy.org.

See Program Notes.

TRIGGER WARNING: Just so you know, we are going to be talking special education metrics in this episode. I know they can be hard to visualize. This stuff is really important.. it has taken me longer than usual to put this episode together…we’ll be back to our weekly schedule next week (I hope!).

As always, I’ll include links and other information in the program notes… and email me at gro.sutuohtiwtonobfsctd@evets if you have any questions.

General education students have tons of books and online resources to help them find out if their school is good and there are data and reports on how different states are doing.

Not so for kids with disabilities.

Figuring out where to go and where you stand in special education is a different beast.

But, knowledge is power. There is data out there. I’m going to help you find it and use it.

I’m just one guy who lives in San Mateo, California, so I’m going to talk through the process where I live. I hope it will give you the tools you need to work things out for where you live…Again, this is harder than it needs to be, so if you have problems, let me know and we’ll work it out together

Let’s start big and look at the US as a whole.

Now, you would think with all of the comments and complaining about special education, that there would be comprehensive data and reports on how much special education costs and how well it works.

You would be wrong.

BUT….there is an annual report on prepared by the US Department of Education on IDEA.

The latest is the “Annual Report to Congress on the Implementation of Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, 2019”… for this years report.

It opens with the mission of the IDEA law – to ensure the free appropriate public education

of all children with disabilities.

There is a lot of information in the report. I can’t possibly cover all of it. Definitely check it out. It is available online at the Department of Education and I’ll also provide a link in the program notes at disabilitydemocracy.org. It gets updated every year, though this year it was later than it had been.

The report covers the three main sections of IDEA – Part C, which covers infants and toddlers, Part B for young kids ages 3 to 5 and then also in Part B which is for kids 6 to 21.

Let’s get some of the bad news out right away – there are systemic racial problems within special education. There is over-identification for some racial groups and under-identification for others. There are problems with mis-diagnosis and some major disabilities aren’t even covered. African American boys seem to be over identified with Emotional Disturbance. Girls are under-identified with autism.

While IDEA claims to address all children with disabilities, it doesn’t. There are some disabilities which don’t qualify for benefits under the IDEA law… and that is one of the big limitations of the report. It is ACTUALLY a report on federally funded special education as a program… so, many children with ADHD, dyslexia, or even some physical disabilities aren’t reported on here… or anywhere else.

Dealing with disabilities is like playing Hot Potato… everyone is in a big hurry to hand you off to someone else.

So, again, what we really have in the IDEA report is a review of the special education PROGRAM, not the outcome for kids with disabilities. So, for example, there is no data on how many students with disabilities are performing “at or above grade level” (shockingly low as we’ll discuss in our upcoming episode that takes a look at California’s data in more detail), or their job prospects, or life expectancy… the metrics are pretty limited…and they don’t seem to be designed to help make the program better. It is really frustrating.

… BUT the numbers are still useful.

I’m going to focus on the parts of the report for kids from 6 to 21.

Just a reminder that you can find full episode transcripts and additional resources are available at disabilitydemocracy.org. If you have any questions, comments, or feedback, contact me there. We’re reworking our newsletter to provide you with even more valuable content and it is an easy way to get all the information about our episdoes. Let me know how we can make Disability Democracy more accessible and actionable for you.

As I said, there really isn’t any academic performance data to be found in the IDEA report. So, they are reporting on “education” without actually talking about the “education” piece.

Buckle up, it is going to be a bumpy ride…. And, if you are a Californian, you likely aren’t going to like what you hear.

I stumbled onto this report for the first time in January 2018. For me, it was eye-opening. Special education is kept so quite and individual that you don’t have any context for how OTHERS are doing to give you some sort of idea of how YOU are doing. That is the power of this report. It is the best “report card” that we have today for students with disabilities.

I’m going to cover 3 of the metrics for disabled kids between 6 and 21 – graduation rate, number of trained special education teachers, and inclusion of students with disabilities in general education.

Let’s start at the end – with Graduation from High School. The national average graduation rate for students with disabilities is 63.7 percent and 17.1 percent dropping out. It varies widely from state to state. New Jersey has the top graduation rate of 94 percent (Go New Jersey!) followed by Minnesota, Connecticut, and Arkansas at just over 86 percent. Then there is a depressing cluster of states down in the lower 60 percent level or states not reporting data. Again, I have a list of the appropriate pages and tables in the report in the program notes – if you can’t find anything, let me know. If you have some other federal or state data to share – drop me a note at gro.sutuohtiwtonobfsctd@evets so we can help each other.

What is missing in these graduation numbers is context. What is the overall graduation rate or graduation rate for students who don’t have disabilities?

At first blush, California was doing pretty well in 2017, the last year with data provided in the report. 75.6 percent of students with disabilities graduated. Not bad. Unfortunately, by 2018-19, the last year for which I have data on California the graduation rate had slipped to 70.7 percent and that is vs. 85.9 percent for all students.


What is more disturbing is the metric for “College/Career” readiness here in California. I don’t think this is a national standard and I haven’t quite decoded what it means…

BUT… Only 10.8 percent of students with disabilities were considered “prepared” for college or work here in California. This compares with a still depressing 44.1 percent of Californian students overall..

10.8 percent of disabled students leaving high school being ready for college or careers is a damning statement about the education program and sets these kids up for a grim future.

Clearly, “social promotion” is a problem here in California… it is particularly damaging for disabled students. One number I have seen was that only around 15 percent of disabled adults are employed… it isn’t a surprise. Poor education can only hurt your future job prospects. According to a brand new report, the overall employment rate for disabled adults is 28.3 percent, compared to 70 percent for the US population as a whole for September 2020.

I haven’t seen any study between graduation rates for students overall and students with disabilities nationally or a study of “preparedness”… both keys to figuring out just “how well” our education system actually serves disabled people. We need these numbers to understand where we are so we can work to do better.

Another thing I haven’t found a good way to compare budgets for either students in general or to understand special education budgets… there is one approximate measure available in the IDEA report… special education staffing.

Across all states, the average number of full-time special education teachers is 5.9 per 100 special education students with 5.7 teachers per 100 students considered highly qualified. Once again, the numbers vary widely. Indiana reports only 0.7 teachers per 100 students while several states have close to 10 special education teachers per 100 students.

A range of 0.7 to 10 special education trained teachers per 100 students is a system out of control.

Here in California, the numbers are nothing to write home about. We have only 3.3 special education teachers per 100 students…. Just over half the national average.

Raw staff “bodies” isn’t everything. But resources matter.

One of the big themes for special education advocates is “inclusion” – having students with disabilities in classrooms learning with their peers. While there isn’t a good number for inclusion, there actually IS a good number for EXCLUSION – how many kids do we officially segregate from their peers. The kids on the short bus that you may never see. In some schools, they don’t even get included in the yearbook.The Department of Education tracks how many students spend less than 40 percent of their time with “typical” kids in a regular classroom or in a separate school or facility. The national average is 13.3 percent in separate classrooms and just over 3 percent in separate schools or other facilities.

I do need to back things up a bit.

Nationally, the number of students who are covered under IDEA is 9.3 percent (the way this is counted and reported is bizarre and numbers vary widely the corresponding number for California was 8.4 percent). That means in an average class of 25 kids, you should expect there to be between 2 and 3 kids with disabilities. You may not notice it. Many disabilities are not visible or obvious. BUT, what this SHOULD mean is that EVERY teacher is a special education teacher… they ALL have special education students… and likely have more that don’t meet the government thresholds but do have a disability.

As far as I know. No state requires every teacher to be trained in special education… I would love to be wrong… correct me… please.

Back to inclusion and exclusion.

So, of all of the kids with disabilities, a total of16.3 percent on average spend most or all of their time segregated from their “typical” classmates either in a separate classroom or a separate school.

I am not a fanatic about inclusion.

We just don’t have the tools, systems, or supports to include all of our disabled students. That is our failure, not theirs… and something we need to work on.

Sadly, What seems to be clear from the scattered data that I have seen over the past several years is that disabled students don’t perform better in either environment. Given the important human rights and social benefits of NOT being segregated, this is yet another reason why as many kids as possible should not be kept segregated. Kids learn what we teach them. Both kids with disabilities and kids without disabilities. If we segregate some kids and give them an inferior education – their peers see that it is OK to segregate some people and give them an inferior education.

It is true for race and gender… and it is true for disability.

Again, the 16.3 percent of students who are in substantially segregated environments is an average across all states and it also varies widely between states. Wyoming, North Dakota, and Vermont all have less than 7 percent of their students with disabilities in segregated classes and schools (Vermont’s numbers had previously been quite impressive around 5 percent I think, but they are missing from this year’s report). Less than 7 percent of disabled students kept in segregated classes and schools… compared with a national average of 16 percent – a huge difference between the best and the average.

And then there is California, New York, and the District of Columbia.

These numbers were a huge surprise to me back when I first found this report back in January 2019.

California, DC, and New York are dead last. They have the most segregated schools in the country for students with disabilities.

I’ve lived in DC and California basically my whole life. I had no idea.

California has 19.8 percent of students in segregated classrooms, the worst in the country, and 3 percent in segregated schools.

The District of Columbia has 15.3 percent of students in segregated classrooms, but 8.6 percent in segregated schools – the most disabled students in separate schools in the country.

And New York is right up there with 19 percent of students in segregated classes and 4.9 percent in separate schools.

These three states are have the most segregated schools for kids with disabilities by a substantial margin compared to other states. They are 50 percent more segregated than the average for the country.

Until I saw this number, I thought my school district and California were typical.

It changed how I look at everything. It changes how I THINK about everything.

Much better is possible.

Finally, we’ll wrap up with the dismal oversight of the special education program by Congress and the Department of Education.

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act was first passed in 1975 as the Education for All Handicapped Children Act. While the Americans with Disabilities Act just turned 30 years old, IDEA will be turning 45 this year on November 29th.

The Department of Education builds this report on IDEA every year… and only 21 states are actually meet the requirements of the law for students between 6 and 21.

21 states out of 50 (22 if you include the Marshall Islands territory).

And no one seems to know or notice.

Equality and equity don’t happen in the dark.

We need to start really looking at the data we have.

We need to start acting on what we know.

And then we can start doing better. Better data. Real change. Beyond compliance. Excellence. High Expectations and Equality for all.

This episode of Disability Democracy Radio was sponsored by Not Without Us. Not Without Us is a 501c4 mutual benefit corporation. Our goal is equality for all disabled adults and kids with disabilities. You can learn more about our work at notwithoutus.org. Our strategy is built on democratic action – through this podcast and our community at disabilitydemocracy.org, providing organizing support at diydarkmoney.com, training candidates for local office at GetElected.US, endorsing candidates, or directly working on issues.

We’d like to thank Eric Knapp andGloria Kim, for their contributions to Not Without Us. You can support Not Without Us with an annual, monthly or one-time donation at notwithoutus.org/join. If you have any questions or comments on this episode, visit disabilitydeomcracy.org – you can email us, leave a comment, or even a voice message. I’m Steven Davis and on behalf of Not Without Us, we think that democracy comes not from a vote every two years, but from the actions we can take every day.

41st Annual Report to Congress on the Implementation of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, 2019

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