Rennie forum seeks help for special ed students before, during, and after high school
There is no dearth of studies or reports on special education in Massachusetts. It is an issue and a service that everyone agrees is a mandate that must be met to ensure education for all children. But the divisions come in trying to find the balance between the best practices for teaching students with disabilities and the efficient spending of tightening tax dollars to educate all students.
CommonWealth magazine's spring issue dealt with special education funding and achievement ("Isn't every child special?") and especially the growing gap between rich and poor communities. On Thursday, The Rennie Center for Education Research & Policy released a report titled "Seeking Effective Policies and Practices for Students with Special Needs" that furthers the discussion even more. The study, led by Robert Gaudet, the Rennie Center's senior research analyst, also found a continuing gap between students with disabilities and regular education students, similar to what CommonWealth found.
"Massachusetts special education students' standardized test scores are consistently lower than the state average, and this population is less likely to graduate from high school than general education students," the report states in its introduction.
Harrington says there is a simple explanation for the lack of attention paid to special education in colleges.
"It doesn't exist," he says.
Harrington's study was based on graduates of some of the state's vocational technical schools. While the statewide average for special ed students is 17 percent of total high school enrollment, students with disabilities make up 23 percent of voke-tech enrollment. Harrington said basing his study on those students was much like why celebrated bank robber Willie Sutton robbed banks: "Because that's where the money is."
"You go to voke-tech schools because that's where they put the special ed kids," says Harrington, whose wife teaches special education students.
The Rennie Center report found that special education students were about 50 percent less likely to enroll in any type of college than their regular education peers. In the voke-tech settings, Harrington found that of those who do enroll, about 40 percent are out after one year. But he also found that special education students who go to community colleges have a better chance to succeed — and that students with disabilities who are in full inclusion settings were 70 percent more likely to make it in community colleges than their special education counterparts who were in partial inclusion or substantially separate programs.
Harrington said those in full inclusion hone their self-advocacy skills better than those in other settings, and give themselves a better shot at succeeding in those skills, where there is not as much support as a special ed setting with smaller classes.
Half the report focused on seven districts and schools that have consistently made progress with students with disabilities. All the selected study sites were in the top 5 percent to 10 percent of districts statewide, annually showing improvement and success in MCAS results. But the best practices in each school were often different from their successful counterparts, making it difficult to determine what works and what didn't.
Charles Skidmore, principal at Arlington High School, offered that his school succeeded by its "commitment to inclusion," while Charla Mulbrandon-Boles, special education director for Assabet Valley Regional Technical High School, hailed her school's small co-taught classrooms — with a 50-50 split of regular and special education students — as the key to its success.It is clear from the discussions that there is no singular fail-safe approach to special ed success, a view perhaps best summed up by the state's special education director, Marcia Mittnacht, one of the conference's panelists.
"I never felt the full answer was in special education," Mittnacht said, noting the recent change in officialspeak in referring to "students with disabilities" rather than special education. "The student is, first, a student."