Reports Shed Light on Special Education Woes in Boston, Washington State

By Christina A. Samuels — November 19, 2014 2 min read
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Two separate reports on special education released in recent days reveal common elements about the challenges facing students in special education when it comes to graduating on time with a standard diploma.

The Washington state Office of the Education Ombuds, a state-funded complaint-resolution agency, outlined a number of educational disparities in a 27-page report released Monday. In 2013, only about 54 percent of students with disabilities graduated within four years, and 62 percent within five years. (Students with disabilities are allowed to remain in school until age 21.)

In districts around the state, students with individualized education programs are two to three times more likely to be expelled than their typically developing peers. And graduates with disabilities go on to higher education at less than half the rate of their peers who are not in special education.

The Ombuds office calls for the state education chief and the governor to name a 12-person “blue ribbon” commission that would “collect and analyze data, recognize innovative practices, and make recommendations to the legislature, governor, and superintendent of public instruction to identify our system needs and propose strategies to promote an inclusive, universally designed education system.”

It continues, “we cannot continue to rely on existing models for delivering special education if we are intent on reaching new and different results.”

Though the report focuses on issues of statewide concern in Washington, individual districts in that state have struggled as well, as outlined in this September blog post on problems with the special education program in Seattle.

In Boston, the Opportunity and Equity report took a broad look at the educational outcomes of black and Latino students in the 55,000-student district, examining indicators such as attendance, suspensions and expulsions, dropout rates, and enrollment in advanced classes. Special education disparities were among the elements singled out for focus in the 261-page report, which was released Nov. 13.

For example, the student found that among elementary students receiving special education services, 40 percent of black males were placed in “subtantially separate” classrooms, and 31 percent of Latino males were in separate classrooms, compared to 20 percent of white males. (Substantially separate means that 80 percent or more of the school day is spent in classes with other students with disabilities.) The racial disparities persisted in middle and high school, the report found, though they were not as large.

The issue is a problem because students educated in more inclusive settings tend to perform better academically compared to students in more-restrictive settings.

“This report serves as a foundational study that confirms what we know and what we have yet to fully understand,” said John McDonough, the interim superintendent of the district in a statement. “We are issuing this report as a call to action, with a recognition that we have urgent work ahead.”

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A version of this news article first appeared in the On Special Education blog.