kitchen table math, the sequel: Charter schools teach special needs students

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Charter schools teach special needs students

They do!

Charter schools teach special needs children.

I happen to know this because two of my children, both of whom have "core" autism, attended a charter school for autistic children.

Their charter was a specialized school created specifically to educate severely autistic children, but nonspecialized charter schools also teach special-ed kids. (The chart at the end of this post, comparing SPED enrollment in KIPP to SPED enrollment in urban and national schools, is from 2005.)

Which brings me to a point that seems to go missing in arguments about whether charter schools do or do not cherry-pick students: when underprivileged black and Hispanic students attend affluent white suburban schools, they are often classified as SPED.

I've seen this firsthand. I live in an affluent, white suburb, where children attend affluent, white schools. I don't say this as a criticism -- not of me, or the town, or its schools. I'm making a statement of fact.

The racial and socioeconomic segregation of my district is a direct consequence of the funding mechanism for New York schools, which is the property tax. When schools are funded by property taxes, the formula is simple: expensive houses, expensive schools.

Because houses here are expensive, no one who qualifies for free or reduced lunch would be able to attend my district's schools were it not for Section 8 housing vouchers.

Which brings me back to charter schools.

As far as I can tell, Section 8 children are the cherries charter schools are said to pick. These children have parents enterprising enough to apply for and get housing vouchers, then move out of their own neighborhoods -- all in order to send their children to suburban schools, where they will be one of a dozen or so black/Hispanic children in a sea of white faces. I don't know about you, but for me, that prospect would be disconcerting to say the least.

In short, many Section 8 parents are motivated and proactive, the same qualities charter-school parents are said to have.

So how do the black and Hispanic children of motivated low-income parents fare in suburban schools?

Not long after I realized that parents in my district were hiring an awful lot of tutors (many of them teachers in the district), I became curious about how the handful of black and Hispanic students, whose parents presumably were not hiring tutors, were doing. One day, not long after I'd begun to mull things over, I ran into a friend of mine, another mom in the district. I knew her through special ed; her daughter had learning disabilities but was quite a bit higher-functioning than my two autistic children.

At some point during our chat, I asked whether she knew anything about how underprivileged students were doing.

Her answer took me by surprise.

"I know all those kids," she said. "They're in the same class with M." M. being her daughter.

"Oh," I said. "Really."

It took me a couple of moments to regroup. I didn't know any of those kids, and nor did anyone else I knew. But my friend with the high-end SPED child knew all of them.

Because all of them were in special ed.

"So how are they doing?" I asked.

"Not well," she said.

And that was my introduction to the issue of "over-identification":
2008 government data mapped by the Equity Alliance at Arizona State University show that in most states, African-American students were nearly or greater than twice as likely as white students to be classified with emotional or intellectual disabilities.
Keeping Special Ed in Proportion by Anthony Rebora
The over-identification problem came up again a couple of years later, at a board meeting, when the director of special education reported that the district had received a letter from NYSED saying they'd over-identified black/Hispanic kids as SPED. The district's solution, he said, had been to reclassify one student as white. "With the parents' permission, of course," he added.

Problem solved.

Or not.*

Then there's C., who worked with Jimmy for years, and who was Chris's surrogate brother. C. is black, and was raised here in Westchester. He's one of the smartest people I know.

C. was in special ed. He and I used to joke about the geography of school buildings here in Westchester County. The SPED kids are always in the far corner of the basement, along with the black kids, who are also in special ed.

I know this is true because for years Ed and I used to sally forth to visit BOCES programs for Jimmy & Andrew. The programs were housed in public schools, and they were always in the basement, and not just the basement but the far corners of the basement. We'd get to the school, park our car, walk inside, and head downstairs. We didn't have to ask directions.

I remember one school where the kids were so far removed from the general population, not to mention all of the entry doors, that it was hard for me to imagine exactly how they were going get out in case of fire. There were windows on one of the classroom walls, but the windows were way overhead, and I didn't see any ladders. Plus I didn't know of a behavior management technique that would allow a whole class of severely disabled kids, some of them nonverbal and most of them with behavior problems, to suddenly cooperate in climbing ladders up and out of their classroom in the middle of a fire.

Inside that school, the BOCES kids remained in their subterranean domain all day long, never surfacing, not even for lunch. They were so far below-ground, they were practically hobbits.

Then there's my nephew's experience, in another state. He has learning disabilities, and he was pretty much the only white student in all of his classes for his entire public-school career.

And my friend O., back in Los Angeles: same thing. Her son had high-functioning autism; his classmates were black. When I talked to O. about it, she said: "In every school we've been in, the black kids are in special ed. It's always A. and the black kids."

My point is: in the broadest sense, charter schools serving underprivileged populations are doing the exact opposite of cherry-picking. They are choosing the students who, when they attend predominantly white schools, are in special ed. KIPP may enroll a lower proportion of SPED kids than do other urban schools (in 2005, at least), but that tells us nothing about the number of KIPP students who would be classified as SPED in a suburban district.

I have to assume that a fairly large number of KIPP students would be classified as having special needs if they went to school in the suburbs. Seems to me it's possible that urban charter schools like KIPP should really be seen as SPED schools, or perhaps as schools with a specialty in teaching SPED students:
The nation’s largest charter management organization is the Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP). KIPP schools are emblematic of the No Excuses approach to public education, a highly standardized and widely replicated charter model that features a long school day, an extended school year, selective teacher hiring, strict behavior norms, and a focus on traditional reading and math skills. No Excuses charter schools are sometimes said to focus on relatively motivated high achievers at the expense of students who are most diffiult to teach, including limited English proficiency (LEP) and special education (SPED) students, as well as students with low baseline achievement levels. We use applicant lotteries to evaluate the impact of KIPP Academy Lynn, a KIPP school in Lynn, Massachusetts that typifies the KIPP approach. Our analysis focuses on special needs students that may be underserved. The results show average achievement gains of 0.36 standard deviations in math and 0.12 standard deviations in reading for each year spent at KIPP Lynn, with the largest gains coming from the LEP, SPED, and low-achievement groups. The average reading gains are driven almost completely by SPED and LEP students, whose reading scores rise by roughly 0.35 standard deviations for each year spent at KIPP Lynn.

Who Benefits from KIPP?
Joshua D. Angrist
Susan M. Dynarski
University of Michigan, NBER and IZA
Thomas J. Kane
Harvard University and NBER
Parag A. Pathak
Christopher R. Walters
Discussion Paper No. 5690 May 2011

Focus on Results: An Academic Impact Analysis of the Knowlege is Power Program (KIPP)

* That was the year not a single 8th-grade black or Hispanic student in my district (there were 15 in all) passed the state math and ELA tests. The state average for black/Hispanic students passing math was 34%. (2007)


SteveH said...

The goal of education is not to be able to teach all equal age kids in the same classroom. If schools cannot separate and deal with individual needs, then there is no reason to try to explain why charter schools can do bad assumptions better than public schools.

Also, if suburban kids are highly supported at home with basic skills work (our schools sent home notes telling us parents to work on math facts), then why should anyone be surprised when unsupported students do worse?

Public schools just care about statistics, not individuals. They don't mind if charter schools "sludge off the bottom", but they scream like weenies if charter schools "skim off the top". Public schools won't deal with different levels of willingness or ability and they expect everyone else to play the same game.

Charter schools that can separate or focus on special needs or levels will always do better than K-6 public schools that use full inclusion. This is not bad. This is good. Individual parents can solve problems immediately for their kids. They don't have to wait for a statistical rising tide to float all boats to the local community college. Affluent parents get choice, but not urban parents.

El Sistema shows how kids from the barrios can get to Carnegie Hall in less than 20 years, but our current public educational system thinks it's fabulous when urban kids are the first in their family to get to the community college.

Kids are not statistics and all kids have far greater potential than most give them credit for.

Hainish said...

It's a known fact that charter schools classify fewer students as SPED. It's unsurprising that underprivileged students are disproportionately classified in district schools.

Allison said...

In MN, charter schools must by law take Sp Ed kids, because they are public schools. MN has open enrollment across districts as well, which means parents can go to school districts known for their spec ed offerings. I doubt they are under-identified equally in all districts. Particularly upper class demographic groups seem well identified, because of the massive number of mechanisms for doing that identification outside of schools here (MN has a very strong prior-to-school identification and intervention program). More, the urban districts seem to have much higher bars for qualifying for services than the suburban districts do.

Sometimes, this business of every charter taking any student regardless of special needs is wholly inappropriate. The Chinese immersion charter school has kids who are dyslexic. Guess how well that works?

In our urban districts, which are less than a third white, and over two thirds free-reduced lunch, the Feds have decided that our schools and teachers were racist for "over-identifying" kids of color as have behavior problems and being put in schools and classrooms for those issues.

So now, to satisfy the feds, they have mainstreamed these kids back into the typical school classroom.

These are kids who are massively disruptive, often violently so. The students who are not a danger to themselves and others are still so incapable of behaving in a manner conducive to learning that no one can learn anything with 1 in the room. Now these districts average half a dozen per classroom.

I have no idea if this claim of "overidentification" is real, but no matter what disparate impact law says, unpleasant facts are not racist just because they offend sensibilities. Our prisons aren't color balanced either.

It probably won't be long before the Feds decide your school district needs intervention like ours did, and you may not like the results.

linsee said...

If one criterion for special ed is tested IQ <= 70, then about 2.3 percent of all children should fall in that group (two standard deviations below the national mean). However, the mean for African Americans is 85, so "<= 70" is one standard deviation below the black mean. That means about 15.9 percent of black children should fall in that group.
Black children are underidentified relative to what would be expected if racial disparities did not have political consequences.

Crimson Wife said...

I'm appalled by the part about the SPED kids being hidden away in the basement. At both the school where my little one is attending her SPED pre-k class and the one where she'll be in a SPED K/1 class next fall, the general ed classes are interspersed with the SPED classes. The wing at the current school has SPED pre-k, general ed K, SPED pre-k, general ed K in a row. The one she'll attend in the fall has the 3 general ed K classes and the SPED K/1 class in one wing.

Her pre-k class has 4 Hispanics (her teacher is bilingual so I think the district tries to place Spanish-speaking kids with her when possible), 2 white kids, 1 South Asian, and 1 black kid. I don't know for sure the makeup of the K/1 class, but when I visited the classroom this spring before the IEP meeting, it seemed in line with the overall student population at the school (about 2/3 white with the balance about equally split between Asians & Hispanics).

West Kentucky Mom said...

i have to wonder which category of disability is being used to misidentify students? in KY, kids w/out a med dx of autism can be categorized as autistic by the school in order to receive spec ed services. this may or may not affect the rising number of autism cases announced by the cdc, read the fine print on the cdc website for where they get their statistics. if the states responsible for "over identification" also used the IDEA category of autism, do you think any of the kids would have been viewed as "over identified"? plus, the schools would have had to document a need for special ed services. how can a state look at a table of numbers and tell a school that they've over identified students as special ed? if records are being altered, isn't there a much bigger problem going on behind the scenes?

froggiemama said...

A research study done in NY found that the main driver of lower SPED enrollments in charter schools in NY is that parents are less likely to choose to enroll their SPED kids in charters.
The study does not offer any reasons for this gap.

As a mom of a kid on an IEP, I think I have some insights. My kid has severe hearing loss and some other medical issues. I participate heavily in mailing lists for families of kids with hearing loss and also for the medical issue. The common wisdom on those mailing lists is that it is harder to access services in both charter and private schools. Charter schools (and privates in some states) may be bound by law to honor IEPs and 504 plans, but they can make it really hard and inconvenient. Yes, traditional public schools can, and do, play that game too, but the perception at least seems to be that it is worse with charters and private schools. One of the problems may be that charter schools are small and run by people who may not have had any experience with the less common special needs. Kids with hearing loss need a bunch of pretty specialized services, so a small charter may prefer to discourage families by making it a hassle to get the services. Examples include things like taking months to order the FM system, not having someone on contract to fix it, not even knowing what an FM system is and arguing it is not needed, not contracting with a Teacher of the Deaf, making the kid travel off premises to access speech therapy, etc, etc. Public schools certainly do this too, but there is a sense that parents have more leverage with a traditional public school, and also that traditional public schools are better able to find and contract for specialized service providers.

There are specialized private schools that just educate kids with hearing loss (Clarke, for example) but very few kids live in range of those schools, and they tend to be for kids with the most serious issues. Kids with hearing loss for the most part should be mainstreamed, but with a lot of specialized support. Right now, the standard wisdom on the mailing lists is that it will be easier to get services in a traditional public school than in a charter or private. And that kind of standard wisdom, propagated across support networks for all kinds of less common special needs, may be a reason why fewer parents choose to enroll their special needs kids in charters.

lgm said...

I think the student in the basement scenario depends on the age of the building. In the basement here are the boilers, weight rooms, and staff lounges. No restroom facilities and not accessible pretty much mean they cant be repurposed for students.
Nonincluded Spedhere is usually the classroom closest to the gym and the accessible door that will be used for entry/exit,just to keep the hallway disturbances down as they normally are the first ones dismissed and not everyone can negotiate a crowded hallway for the duration of passing time.

lgm said...

Parents here tend to sue the district to put their children in a private school that has specialists for their childs special needs. The advice is to district hop to the district that has the specialists your child needs, or the inclination to provide the private placement.