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.

The report was unveiled during a forum on special education in Westborough, and one of the event's eye-openers was a discussion of a rarely acknowledged issue in special education: what happens for those students with disabilities who do graduate from high school and want to keep learning. Paul Harrington, associate director for the Center for Labor Market Studies at Northeastern University, presented some key findings in a soon-to-be-released policy brief on special education students in post-secondary settings and found that those who have to rely on themselves in high school are more likely to make it in college. (The full report should be on the Rennie Center and Northeastern websites by the middle of May.)

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.

The Rennie Center report, much like the CommonWealth report, took a look at 50 "demographically advantaged" school districts — in the Rennie Center's case, defined as those with the lowest percentage of students receiving free and reduced lunches – and compared them with 10 urban districts. The report found the disparity in achievement was often along economic fault lines, with special education students in the "advantaged" districts consistently outperforming both the statewide average of all students and especially those of special ed students in the urban districts.

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.

Meet the Author

Jack Sullivan

Senior Investigative Reporter, CommonWealth

About Jack Sullivan

Jack Sullivan is now retired. A veteran of the Boston newspaper scene for nearly three decades. Prior to joining CommonWealth, he was editorial page editor of The Patriot Ledger in Quincy, a part of the GateHouse Media chain. Prior to that he was news editor at another GateHouse paper, The Enterprise of Brockton, and also was city edition editor at the Ledger. Jack was an investigative and enterprise reporter and executive city editor at the Boston Herald and a reporter at The Boston Globe.

He has reported stories such as the federal investigation into the Teamsters, the workings of the Yawkey Trust and sale of the Red Sox, organized crime, the church sex abuse scandal and the September 11 terrorist attacks. He has covered the State House, state and local politics, K-16 education, courts, crime, and general assignment.

Jack received the New England Press Association award for investigative reporting for a series on unused properties owned by the Catholic Archdiocese of Boston, and shared the association's award for business for his reporting on the sale of the Boston Red Sox. As the Ledger editorial page editor, he won second place in 2007 for editorial writing from the Inland Press Association, the nation's oldest national journalism association of nearly 900 newspapers as members.

At CommonWealth, Jack and editor Bruce Mohl won first place for In-Depth Reporting from the Association of Capitol Reporters and Editors for a look at special education funding in Massachusetts. The same organization also awarded first place to a unique collaboration between WFXT-TV (FOX25) and CommonWealth for a series of stories on the Boston Redevelopment Authority and city employees getting affordable housing units, written by Jack and Bruce.

About Jack Sullivan

Jack Sullivan is now retired. A veteran of the Boston newspaper scene for nearly three decades. Prior to joining CommonWealth, he was editorial page editor of The Patriot Ledger in Quincy, a part of the GateHouse Media chain. Prior to that he was news editor at another GateHouse paper, The Enterprise of Brockton, and also was city edition editor at the Ledger. Jack was an investigative and enterprise reporter and executive city editor at the Boston Herald and a reporter at The Boston Globe.

He has reported stories such as the federal investigation into the Teamsters, the workings of the Yawkey Trust and sale of the Red Sox, organized crime, the church sex abuse scandal and the September 11 terrorist attacks. He has covered the State House, state and local politics, K-16 education, courts, crime, and general assignment.

Jack received the New England Press Association award for investigative reporting for a series on unused properties owned by the Catholic Archdiocese of Boston, and shared the association's award for business for his reporting on the sale of the Boston Red Sox. As the Ledger editorial page editor, he won second place in 2007 for editorial writing from the Inland Press Association, the nation's oldest national journalism association of nearly 900 newspapers as members.

At CommonWealth, Jack and editor Bruce Mohl won first place for In-Depth Reporting from the Association of Capitol Reporters and Editors for a look at special education funding in Massachusetts. The same organization also awarded first place to a unique collaboration between WFXT-TV (FOX25) and CommonWealth for a series of stories on the Boston Redevelopment Authority and city employees getting affordable housing units, written by Jack and Bruce.

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."