war of attrition

IBO admits charter school special ed attrition numbers missed the full picture

A widely publicized statistic showing that charter schools do a poor job of retaining their special education students was based on flawed data, the city’s Independent Budget Office has admitted.

The agency reported in January that 80 percent of special education students identified at the start of kindergarten in 2008 left their charter school within three years. But the real figure is likely different, since the IBO only accounted for students receiving full-time special education services—omitting students with less-severe needs.

“If we made a mistake, it was the following: we should have named our finding full-time special education students,” said Raymond Domanico, the IBO’s director of education research.

It’s not clear how much the error affected the results, given that relatively few students are already identified as having special needs at the very start of kindergarten.

Still, it complicates long-simmering debates about how well charter schools serve special education students in which the 80 percent figure had already become a flashpoint. That number was emphasized repeatedly in the IBO report, and prompted a number of headlines (and Chalkbeat coverage).

It also raises questions about how committed the agency is to accuracy, given its role as a nonpartisan education data watchdog. The state legislature specifically charged the IBO with sifting through Department of Education data when it voted to renew mayoral control of the city’s schools in 2009.

The IBO’s numbers leave out a large chunk of students who fall under the city’s special education umbrella, including students who get pulled out of general education classes for some period of the day and students who receive services like speech and occupational therapy. State data shows that 31 percent of the city’s special education students in 2008-9 received services for less than 40 percent of the school day.

Domanico blamed the error on confusing data the agency received from the Department of Education, since students labeled “special education” did not include all students receiving special education services.

And though he acknowledged that the report wasn’t as specific as it could be, Domanico insisted that a correction was not warranted because that finding still reflects special education students, it was one part of a report much larger in scope, and because the city’s data has been inconsistent in the past.

“There was nothing that’s incorrect,” he said. “Our findings still hold; it’s a matter of specifying who we’re talking about.”

Special education advocates see it differently. Ellen McHugh, a member of the Citywide Council on Special Education, said the IBO’s conflation was “misleading,” since many special education students don’t receive services full-time.

In a highly polarized environment, the agency’s independent status also gives its findings additional credibility, McHugh said.

“It’s disappointing for advocates who thought they had this as examples of discrimination [by charter schools]. It’s also reinforcement for charter school advocates who say everyone lies about charter schools,” she said.

The error was first brought to the IBO’s attention by researcher Marcus Winters, who is affiliated with the right-wing Manhattan Institute and had conducted a study using data on the same cohort of students, who were in kindergarten and at a charter school in the 2008-9 school year. (That study found that special education students left district schools and charter schools at about the same rate.)

Winters and the IBO used student data from different points in the school year, making direct comparisons between the two reports difficult. Still, Winters was struck by just how far apart their numbers of special education students were.

Returning to his data, Winters says he accounted for 198 such students in spring 2009; the IBO had counted just 25 that fall.

“Whatever it is, that number they’re using is way too small,” Winters said.

Winters asked the Department of Education to explain the discrepancies. The response from the department was that, in the confusing labyrinth of the city’s data sets, the total number of special education students is not captured by only those students labeled “special education,” but instead by the labels of “IEP” and “disability.”

Winters passed that along to the IBO, and the New York City Charter School Center noted his explanation last month. The IBO now says he’s right, but only acknowledged that publicly after inquiries from a reporter.

“It rang true to us when we heard it,” Domanico said about Winters’ information. “The data that we’re reporting is accurate, but perhaps it could have used the [‘full-time’] qualifier.”

a 'meaningful' education?

How a Colorado court case could change how public schools everywhere serve students with special needs

Dougco headquarters in Castle Rock (John Leyba/The Denver Post).

The U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday grappled with the question of what kind of education public schools must provide students with disabilities, hearing arguments in a case that originated with a complaint against a suburban Denver school district and that could have profound implications nationwide.

The case involves a student diagnosed with autism and attention deficit/hyperactive disorder. His parents pulled him out of his Douglas County elementary school, saying he wasn’t making enough progress and the district’s response was lacking.

They enrolled the boy in a private school for children with autism and asked the district to reimburse them for the tuition, arguing their son was due a “free appropriate public education” as required by the 1975 Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

The law spells out the requirements states must meet to receive federal money to educate special-needs students. The district declined, saying it had met the standard of the law.

The family eventually filed a lawsuit against the district. Lower courts all sided with the district, reasoning that it had provided the child “some” educational benefit — the standard cited in the federal statute at issue.

Lower courts across the nation have varied in their definition of the proper standard. The high court arguments Wednesday centered on whether “some” benefit was good enough, or whether special-needs students deserve a more “meaningful” benefit.

Jeffrey Fisher, an attorney for the boy’s family, told the justices that as a general rule, individualized education plans for special education students should include “a level of educational services designed to allow the child to progress from grade to grade in the general curriculum.”

Throughout the arguments, the justices expressed frustration with what Justice Samuel Alito described as “a blizzard of words” that the law and courts have used to define what’s appropriate for special needs students.

Chief Justice John Roberts said regardless of the term used, “the whole package has got to be helpful enough to allow the student to keep up with his peers.”

Neal Katyal, an attorney for the school district, argued that providing children “some benefit” is a reasonable standard.

“That’s the way court after court has interpreted it,” he said. “It’s worked well. This court shouldn’t renege on that.”

Ron Hager, senior staff attorney for special education at the National Disability Rights Network, attended the oral arguments Wednesday and said he was optimistic the lower court’s ruling would be overturned.

He said if the Supreme Court does overturn the federal Tenth Circuit Court’s ruling and requires a higher standard, it won’t necessarily come with major financial costs for school districts. Instead, he said, it will nudge them to be proactive and provide teacher training and intervention services early on instead of waiting until problems — and the expenses associated with them — snowball later.

Marijo Rymer, executive director of the Arc of Colorado, which advocates on behalf of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, said she was heartened to see the case advance to the Supreme Court. Establishing a clearer standard on what constitutes a fair and appropriate education for students with disabilities is a civil rights issue, she said.

“It’s critical that federal law, which is what this is based on, be reinforced and supported, and the court is in the position to deliver that message to the nation’s schools and the taxpayers that fund them,” Rymer said.

Both Hager and Rymer acknowledged that even if the Supreme Court establishes a new, higher standard, it could be open to interpretation. Still, they said it would send a strong message to school districts about their responsibilities to students with disabilities.

Summer remix

Ten stories you may have missed this summer (and should read now as the new school year kicks in)

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Gabrielle Colburn, 7, adds her artistic flair to a mural in downtown Memphis in conjunction with the XQ Super Schools bus tour in June.

Labor Day used to signal the end of summer break and the return to school. That’s no longer the case in Tennessee, but the long holiday is a good time to catch up on all that happened over the summer. Here are 10 stories to get you up to speed on K-12 education in Tennessee and its largest school district.

TNReady is back — with a new test maker.

Last school year ended on a cliffhanger, with the State Department of Education canceling its end-of-year tests for grades 3-8 in the spring and firing testmaker Measurement Inc. after a series of missteps. In July, Commissioner Candice McQueen announced that Minnesota-based Questar will pick up where Measurement Inc. left off. She also outlined the state’s game plan for standardized tests in the coming year.

But fallout over the state’s failed TNReady test in 2015-16 will be felt for years.

The one-year void in standardized test scores has hit Tennessee at the heart of its accountability system, leaving the state digging for other ways to assess whether all of its students are improving.

Speaking of accountability, Tennessee also is updating that plan under a new federal education law.

The state Department of Education has been working with educators, policymakers and community members on new ways to evaluate schools in answer to the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA, which requires states to judge schools by non-academic measures as well as test scores.

Meanwhile, issues of race and policing have educators talking about how to foster conversations about social justice in school.

In the wake of police-related killings that rocked the nation, five Memphis teachers talked about how they tackle difficult conversations about race all year long.

School closures made headlines again in Memphis — with more closings likely.

Closing schools has become an annual event as Tennessee’s largest district loses students and funding, and this year was no exception. The shuttering of Carver and Northside high schools brought the total number of district-run school closures to at least 21 since 2012. And more are likely. This month, Shelby County Schools is scheduled to release a facilities analysis that should set the stage for future closures. Superintendent Dorsey Hopson has said the district needs to shed as many as two dozen schools — and 27,000 seats — over the next four years. A Chalkbeat analysis identifies 25 schools at risk.

Exacerbating the challenges of shifting enrollment, families in Foote Homes scrambled to register their children for school as Memphis’ last public housing project prepared to close this month amid a delay in delivering housing vouchers to move elsewhere.

The new school year has officially begun, with the budget approved not a moment too soon for Shelby County Schools.

District leaders that began the budget season facing an $86 million shortfall eventually convinced county commissioners to significantly increase local funding, while also pulling some money from the school system’s reserve funds. The result is a $959 million budget that gives most of the district’s teachers a 3 percent raise and restores funding for positions deemed critical for continued academic progress.

The district also unveiled its first annual report on its growing sector of charter schools.

With charter schools now firmly entrenched in Memphis’ educational landscape, a Shelby County Schools analysis shows a mixed bag of performance, while calling on traditional and charter schools to learn from each other and promising better ways to track quality.