special education

Thousands of students still wait for special education services or don’t receive them at all, city figures reveal

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

New data released Tuesday show that New York City is still struggling to provide required services to many of its students with disabilities.

About 30 percent of students had to wait longer than the two months allowed under law to be assessed for education plans that outline the services the city is required to provide them, according to data from last school year. Meanwhile, 41 percent of students were offered only partial services required on those plans — or no services at all.

Tuesday’s report is only the second time the city has released comprehensive statistics on how well the city is serving its roughly 212,000 students with special needs. Advocates and legislators had long complained that the city withheld crucial information about this population, a group that by itself would be roughly the seventh largest school system in the country.

With some exceptions, numbers from the new report show a relatively static trend in how well the city is serving students with disabilities compared with the 2014-15 school year.

Just 59 percent of students received the full range of services required on their individualized education programs, or IEPs, compared with 60 percent the previous school year. And 33 percent, or roughly 58,000 students, received only partial services — down from 35 percent.

The number of students who received no services, despite being recommended for them, rose from 5 to 8 percent, or almost 14,000 students.

“That’s really disheartening,” said Maggie Moroff, a special education policy expert at Advocates for Children. “But I think it’s also a big wake-up call. The fact that they’re doing the reporting and that it’s public and people are looking at it is a good thing.”

By law, the city has to hold IEP meetings within 60 days of a parent giving consent; they are used to develop a student’s annual goals and supports. This past school year, 71 percent of students got their IEPs within the legally required timeframe, compared with 69.5 percent during 2014-15.

“While we continue to make progress in improving our special education processes and systems,” wrote education department spokeswoman Toya Holness, “we have a lot more work to do to reach our goal of ensuring all students are receiving the supports they need.”

But, as in the past, the city issued a warning about its own statistics. Due to major flaws with the city’s special education tracking system, which has sparked litigation, officials warned the data may not be completely reliable.

“We are aggressively working to address the data concerns that presented challenges in last year’s and this year’s reports, and for the current (2016-17) school year,” Holness wrote in an email.

The city pointed to other bright spots: The number of students receiving related services such as speech and occupational therapies increased to 94.8 percent, according to the city. And graduation rates for students with disabilities has increased roughly 10 percent since 2011-12 to 41.1 percent.

“We’ve seen important progress and I’m encouraged by the preliminary information we’re seeing,” DOE Deputy Chancellor Corinne Rello-Anselmi, said in a statement. “We’ll continue to work tirelessly to ensure the data collection is accurate and expand programs and provide schools with the resources they need to provide a high-quality education for all students with disabilities.”

Measuring Equity

The city is paying for more students with disabilities to attend private school. But is that helping poor families?

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Mayor Bill de Blasio announces policy changes meant to make it easier for parents of children with special needs to secure city funds for private school tuition.

When Mayor Bill de Blasio announced he would make it easier for children with disabilities whose needs aren’t met in public school to have their private school tuition funded by the city, he said the policy shift would make the special education system more equitable.

Families were put through “a very difficult and often litigious process,” de Blasio said at a 2014 press conference announcing the new policy. He added that the city “needed a streamlined, parent-friendly, family-friendly, respectful approach that didn’t matter how good your lawyers were, or how much money you had to spend on lawyers.” He promised the city would scale back legal barriers that sometimes kept families from getting the city to pay for private placements.

That shift seems to have had a clear effect: As Chalkbeat reported in July, roughly 4,100 students with disabilities were funded by the city to attend private school last year, 42 percent more than in 2011. And fewer families had to fight lengthy battles for that funding: The city settled 49 percent more cases without going through a legal hearing than they did in 2011.

While some advocates see these as positive changes, exactly what kinds of families have benefitted is an open question — one that city officials say their data systems don’t allow them to answer.

In June, Chalkbeat filed a Freedom of Information Law request asking for demographic breakdowns — including socioeconomic status — of students with disabilities whose private school tuition is paid for by the city. The request was an attempt to assess whether the policy was having the effect on equal access that de Blasio promised.

Nearly four months later, after repeated delays, the city has denied that request. The city said it does not collect the socioeconomic status or race of students in the database where it tracks tuition reimbursements.

The state’s open-records law “does not obligate the DOE to match data across computer storage systems,” wrote Joseph Baranello, the education department’s records access officer, in a letter. Baranello noted the city also searched for “previously created compilations of data,” but could not find any.

Baranello’s explanation is based on the state’s open-records law, which requires the city to disclose only records that it already keeps. But it does raise questions about how the city can tell if the policy is having its desired effect without clear data on the question.

Education department spokeswoman Toya Holness said the new policy has made it easier for families of students with disabilities to get appropriate services.

“Several offices across the DOE work closely to process these claims,” she wrote, “and we are always looking for ways to improve our tracking systems.”

Aaron Pallas, a professor at Teachers College, expressed some skepticism about the department’s response to the records request. “You would think the department would want to demonstrate the effects of the policy change,” he said. “One is always suspicious that an agency refuses what seems to be a reasonable request because they won’t like the interpretation of the records.”

Some advocates said that even if the city can’t prove that the policy is serving more low-income families, those it is serving are often having an easier time.

Rebecca Shore, who represents low-income families as litigation director at Advocates for Children, said the administration’s shift has given parents of children with disabilities a more straightforward path to private school by reducing the amount of time and money they have to commit to legal battles.

“The reality is the policy is helping those low-income parents,” she said. “Does that mean it’s equally dispersed? No.”

race matters

When is a student ‘gifted’ or ‘disabled’? A new study shows racial bias plays a role in deciding

PHOTO: Stephanie Snyder
Fourth-grade students at Brownsville Ascend Lower Charter School in Brooklyn.

Racial bias among educators may play a larger role than previously understood in deciding whether students are referred for special education or gifted programs, according to new research from NYU.

The study, the first of its kind to show a direct link between teacher bias and referrals for special services, found stark differences in how teachers classify students of different racial and ethnic backgrounds showing identical signs of disability or giftedness.

Teachers were more likely to see academic shortfalls as disabilities among white students, even when students of color demonstrated the same deficits. They tended to see these struggles as “problems to fix,” the study explains, if students were white. And students of color were more likely be referred for special-education testing when they had emotional or behavioral issues compared with identical white peers — and were less likely to be identified as gifted.

Those findings may help inform a debate that has divided researchers: Is special education racist if students of color tend to represent a greater share of its population? Or do problems associated with poverty that can affect cognitive development (lead exposure, for instance) mean that students of color might actually be underrepresented in special education settings?

The study, which is set to appear in the journal Social Science Research, doesn’t resolve that debate. But it does offer evidence that bias plays a role in both over- and under-classifying students for certain services.

“The issue is that racism affects all of us, and teachers are in positions of power,” said Rachel Fish, the study’s author and a professor at New York University’s Steinhardt School.

Educators are an important focus because they are responsible for about 75 percent of all referrals for gifted or special ed programs, according to the report. And in the vast majority of cases, the evaluation process confirms a teacher’s suspicion.

Fish was able to isolate a student’s race as a deciding factor by giving 70 third- and fourth-grade teachers culled from an unnamed large, northeastern city a survey that described identical behaviors, but signaled different racial identities. Teachers were randomly assigned to read profiles of fictional male students who showed signs of academic challenges, behavioral/emotional deficits, or giftedness. The only thing that changed was their name: Jacob, Carlos, or Demetrius.

The teachers who participated were more likely to see academic deficits in white students as “medicalized problems to fix,” while black and Latino students with the same deficits were seen as ordinary. The implication, according to the study, is that “low academic performance is normal for [students of color], and not a problem to remediate.”

And in terms of behavioral challenges, black and Latino students’ actions were “seen as more aggressive and problematic than misbehavior by white boys.”

That could have troubling implications for equal access to appropriate education services because students who are classified as having behavioral issues tend to be treated differently.

“If you’re labeled with an emotional behavior disorder, you’re likely going to be excluded from the general education classroom and it’s likely you’ll be greatly stigmatized,” Fish said in an interview. While there isn’t much conclusive research on how students’ classifications affect them down the road, there is evidence that being labeled with a behavioral disorder is associated with future incarceration.

The study also found that bias helped determine whether students were considered gifted: Teachers evaluated white students’ skills more favorably than their black and Latino peers.

The picture is slightly more complicated for English learners. Teachers tended to refer a student with mild academic challenges for special education services if he was a white ELL student, as opposed to a black or Latino ELL peer. They were more likely to perceive Latino boys as having behavioral issues if they were non-native English speakers. But they were less likely to perceive white ELL boys as having behavior problems than their white non-ELL peers, according to the study.

Many of these problems are evident in New York City, where students of color are underrepresented in gifted and talented programs, and white students often face less severe behavioral interventions.

Still, Fish acknowledges that the study has some limitations and shouldn’t be overgeneralized. Because it relies on a small group of teachers evaluating fictional students, it’s hard to claim that her findings apply in real situations across the board.

But Celia Oyler, a professor at Teachers College who studies inclusive education, said that while previous research has shown racial disparities in gifted and special education, this study is among the first to describe one mechanism of how that sorting happens.

“We don’t really have very good ways to get at implicit bias,” she said. “And this is a really, really good way.”

Still, like Fish, Oyler is careful to point out that the findings don’t suggest teachers should be branded as racists; there are larger institutional factors at play that enable implicit bias.

“What is wrong with our system that we continue to sort and label kids at both ends of the imagined bell curve,” she asks, “and then give them different kinds of educational opportunities based on what we perceive them to be?”