The city’s special education reforms have moved thousands of students out of specialized classes citywide, according to data shared by Department of Education officials on Friday. But city officials and special education advocates alike said it remained too soon to tell whether the systemwide changes have improved student performance.
Of the 142,220 students with disabilities in the school system last November who are still enrolled this fall, 5,312 fewer were recommended for self-contained classes this year and another 5,612 fewer were recommended for integrated co-teaching classes, which mix special education and general education students. There was a corresponding bump in students receiving only part-time services.
That shift reflects the city’s effort to integrate special education students into mainstream schools and classrooms, changes that were piloted in some schools in 2011-12 and rolled out citywide last year. Those changes were meant to align city policy with research showing that special education students do better when they learn alongside peers without disabilities.
Since the latest reforms were announced, parents and advocates have warned that the city hasn’t provided the money or training needed for them to be successful. Corinne Rello-Anselmi, the Department of Education deputy chancellor in charge of special education, said that the biggest problem was actually getting schools who didn’t typically serve students with disabilities to understand how to meet their needs.
“There was a fear, a personal fear of my own, that many kids would be placed into very restrictive environments or inappropriately moved into programs en masse,” Rello-Anselmi said.
She said that the drops in full-time integrated co-teaching classes indicated that schools are becoming “more thoughtful” about the placement of those students.
Still, when the reforms were first rolled out, Rello-Anselmi acknowledged that schools often didn’t understand their intent and some were moving students into programs that didn’t fit their needs. That “made us stop and think about what’s happening and how it’s being interpreted,” she said, and officials reemphasized that not every student with disabilities is right for integrated co-teaching classes, and not every child with behavioral problems needs a self-contained class.
“We spent an inordinate amount of time to remessage,” she said.
The new special education policies require schools to accept students without considering their special education needs, which they are expected to accommodate. That has led parents and advocates to sound the alarm that some students’ Individualized Education Plans were being amended to fit the schools, instead of schools adapting to students’ needs.
“Many parents have told us that their children are floundering after the principal at the child’s home school pressured the parents to agree to switch the child from a self-contained class to an integrated co-teaching class because the home school does not have any self contained classes,” said Carmen Alvarez, the UFT’s vice president for special education.
In response to those concerns, chief operating officer for special education Johannah Chase said that the city was regularly monitoring data from SESIS, the system that keeps track of information about students with disabilities, to look for questionable patterns of changes. (That system has been criticized widely, as well.)
The information released Friday adds to data released in January about students in the special education reform pilot program that showed positive results. Students at participating schools had bigger test score increases, higher attendance rates, and lower suspension rates than students with disabilities at comparable schools.
Last week’s data included no comparable information about suspension, absenteeism, and test scores as the changes rolled out citywide. Officials said the city would be releasing that suspension and absenteeism data this week, but said it was too early to gauge academic achievement because of the drop in state test scores.
Just 5.7 percent of students with disabilities who took the Common Core-aligned tests last year were deemed proficient on the English exam, and 8.4 percent were deemed proficient in math.
Many advocates for students with disabilities testified that the data doesn’t give a full enough picture of the impact of the reforms. Special education policy coordinator at Advocates for Children Maggie Moroff, who has been requesting more data about the reforms for years, said crucial questions were left unanswered. “It doesn’t say what the students’ experience is like. We don’t know if they moved them appropriately,” she said.
Union representatives also pushed back against the city’s narrative that the rollout of the reforms has been successful.
Randi Herman, first vice president of the principals union, said that she had been reserving judgment about the reforms, but that support for professional development and additional teachers has been inadequate. “Judgment Day has just about arrived,” she said. “Schools are trying to do the best they can with what they have, but they’re been asked to do a whole lot more with a whole lot less.”