Special Report

Special Education Abuse

Incompetent schools take the easy way out, diagnosing learning disabilities at an alarming rate.

By 12.10.09

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Nineteen percent of black male students and 16 percent of their white male peers attending Cleveland's public schools in the 2005-2006 school year were labeled with some form of learning disability. This meant that they were likely placed into the traditional public school district's special education program, from which they are unlikely to ever graduate with a high school diploma.

Cleveland isn't some exceptional case. Fifteen percent of Ohio's black male students -- and one of every 10 white males -- were diagnosed as either being mentally retarded, emotionally disturbed, developmentally delayed or otherwise learning disabled. Meanwhile a mere 7.6 percent of black female students and 5.5 percent of white females were considered learning disabled.

Nor is Ohio alone. Six million American children are wallowing in the nation's public school special education programs. Boys make up two out of every three students diagnosed with a learning disability, an oddity given that learning disabilities should occur naturally among both genders. Contrary to general perceptions, most are capable of the kind of academic performance expected of students in regular classrooms. Although many students are certainly in need of special help, the labeling by traditional public schools -- and the resulting mistreatment -- of so many children capable of learning is one reason for the nation's abysmal levels of educational achievement.

THE LATEST ATTENTION TO SPECIAL ED comes courtesy of President Barack Obama, who has unwisely decided to toss even more money into these boondoggles. He has certainly gained qualified plaudits from centrist conservative and moderate Democrat school reformers for the Race to the Top initiative, whose $4.3 billion in federal stimulus funds is sparking officials in states such as California to embark on such needed reforms as making student test scores the predominant measure of teacher performance. But in providing $11.3 billion in new subsidies to special education programs, Obama has thrown school districts a lifeline without requiring any accompanying accountability for their activities.

Special ed is generally an afterthought among most school reformers. But thanks to the No Child Left Behind Act, which restricts the number of special ed students school districts can exclude from standardized tests, it has attracted the scrutiny of a bipartisan cadre that includes Jay P. Greene, the sharp-tongued education czar for the conservative Manhattan Institute; Erin Dillon of the Education Sector (a bastion among centrist Democrats); and Michael Holzman, the urbane education research consultant for the left-leaning Schott Foundation for Public Education. What they have concluded is that far too many children otherwise capable of learning are being condemned to short buses.

The nation's special ed population increased by 63 percent between 1976 and 2006; it now accounts for 13 percent of the nation's public school students. Although better diagnosis of cognitive disorders such as autism can account for some of that growth, it doesn't explain all of it. Mentally retarded students account for just eight percent of the nation's special education population, according to the U.S. Department of Education. The argument made by some advocates for the disabled that many mentally retarded children are mislabeled in order to protect them from scrutiny is countered by evidence that such retardation naturally occurs in just one percent of the population.

Half of special ed students are labeled as either suffering from a "specific learning disability" (a vague catch-all that can include students suffering anything from Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder to severe autism), hindered by an "emotional disturbance" (another toss-in category that can include poorly behaved kids and those suffering from clinical depression) or are "developmentally delayed" (which can mean that the child is either cognitively damaged, dyslexic or wasn't taught to read by his parents). With moderate accommodations (and in many cases, none at all), the students can actually learn. In Indiana, for example, 69-percent of third-grade Special Ed students who didn't need accommodations passed the math portion of that state's standardized test in 2006, barely trailing their regular class peers.

Young boys -- especially minorities -- are twice as likely as girls to be placed on short buses. One in every five black and white boys attending Indianapolis Public Schools, for example, was labeled learning disabled; just one in ten of their female schoolmates were similarly categorized. This isn't just an urban problem. In the ritzy Lower Merion Township, Pa. -- once the stomping ground of Obama adviser Lawrence Summers and NBA star Kobe Bryant -- 32 percent of the school district's black males and 13 percent of white males were labeled learning disabled, twice the rate for their female classmates. Such over-diagnosis is one reason why fewer men than women are graduating from high school and college -- even though males make up a larger proportion of public school enrollment.

Given the low rigor of curricula and the accompanying stigma of their status, special ed students are even more exposed to the inadequate instruction in traditional public schools. They are also more likely to drop out: Just 33 percent of special ed students leaving school in 2005-2006 earned a diploma.

THE NATURE OF LEARNING disabilities, which are often difficult to diagnose, is one particular culprit. Difficulties that come from a lack of proper childrearing at home can easily be mistaken for cognitive disorders. The fact that the most classroom teachers -- who are the ones who mainly refer children to be examined for disabilities -- also factors into special ed placement. Boys are particularly vulnerable because their natural rambunctiousness is of great contrast to the more-docile behavior of their female classmates. Also exacerbating matters: The federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, passed 34 years ago to improve the quality of education for special ed students. The law's vague definitions of learning disabilities -- and inadequate enforcement by the U.S. Department of Education -- have given districts too much leeway in treating students. As Holzman notes, black students are still twice as likely as whites to end up in special ed, despite federal oversight.

Then there is the money. Although special ed programs can be costly, they are also highly compensated through weighted funding formulas. In 2005-2006, for example, Atlanta Public Schools generated $7,550 in funds from Georgia's state government for every special ed child enrolled; that's three times more than the district receives from the state for every child in a regular classroom or in gifted-and-talented classes.

Medicaid, which compensates school districts for every cost related to providing special ed medical services, is also a prime funding source as states use the program to help shift administrative costs from their books. Last year, school districts in New York State agreed to repay $540 million in Medicaid funds for special Ed costs they improperly billed. Declared Greene and his colleague, Marcus Winters, this past August in Forbes: "Schools see a financial incentive to designate low-achieving students as disabled, while they may not actually be disabled at all."

No Child, along with IDEA, has certainly forced school districts to acknowledge how they diagnose and label students. The budget cutting that will come after stimulus funds run dry, along with school voucher programs such as the McKay Scholarship in Florida, may even bring some transparency to the process of how students are placed into special ed programs. But far too many children will still end up in special ed until school reformers place as much effort into reforming those programs as they do on expanding charter schools and developing new standards.

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About the Author

RiShawn Biddle the editor of Dropout Nation , is co-author of A Byte at the Apple: Rethinking Education Data for the Post-NCLB EraHe can be followed at Twitter.com/dropoutnation.