In Michigan, the likelihood of your child being identified as needing special education services can vary dramatically based on your child’s gender, race, family income and home town. And experts say some children in special education could have avoided the designation had they received more educational support in early grades.
Those are some of the conclusions of a Bridge Magazine analysis based on special education data compiled by the state and interviews with state education leaders, many of whom say that Michigan’s special education rolls could be trimmed dramatically through teaching efforts focused on struggling pre-K and elementary students.
The findings raise concerns that Michigan, struggling to improve high school graduation and college attainment, may not be doing enough to help struggling students in early grades from slipping into special education, where educational outcomes are lower. The data also suggest that school districts are reaching vastly different conclusions about which students meet special ed criteria.
Federal law guarantees that children with disabilities have equal access to education. A Bridge Magazine and Michigan Radio investigation found that even with those laws, there are disparities in who receives special education services, the level of those services, and the efforts that schools put forth to support struggling students before they fall into special education.
About one in eight Michigan students are identified as in need of special services, a rate that mirrors the national rate. An analysis of state special education enrollment, however, found not all students have the same chance of being identified for special education services:
- Students in some school districts are more than three times more likely to be identified as in need of special education services than students in other districts.
- Boys are twice as likely as girls to be classified as special education across the state, with gender disparities in almost every community in Michigan.
- More than one in seven low-income students are in special education, compared with one in 11 students who are not poor.
- African-American students are over-represented in special education, with 14 percent receiving special education services, compared with 11.9 percent of white students, 11.7 percent of Hispanic students and 5.2 percent of Asian students.
Once in the special education system, the services available to students vary greatly among districts.
Special ed designation changes lives
The percentage of students in special education matters because the educational outcomes of those in special ed are significantly lower than their peers. About 77 percent of all Michigan students graduate from high school, compared with 53 percent of those identified as in need of special education services. That disparity is disturbing, said Teri Johnson Chapman, director of the Office of Special Education in the Michigan Department of Education, because about 80 percent of children in special education have no cognitive disability.
The implications are personal to thousands of families, and far-reaching for the state as a whole.
“When we label a child with a disability, we change the trajectory of their educational career,” Chapman said. “The label itself puts them at risk for lower academic rigor, increased rates of suspension, increased rate of dropping out, and lower graduation rates.”
That lower trajectory also has implications for their career earning power and the Michigan economy. High school dropouts face higher rates of unemployment and lower pay than high school graduates.
The key to lessening special education disparities, as well as lowering the overall number of students in special education, may rest in general education classrooms, before children are labeled as special ed, Chapman said.
“Kids struggle. That doesn’t mean they have a disability,” Chapman said. “But if we don’t address (their struggles), we may be creating one.”
Philosophies vary in districts
Across the state, 12 percent of students are identified as needing special education services by having an individualized education program (or IEP) created for them. There are 13 classifications of IEPs, such as for children with autism, hearing and speech impairment, and individual learning disabilities.
Guidelines for identification of students who qualify for special education services are the same for all schools in the state, but “it’s really a local (school district) or ISD (intermediate school district) decision around putting the guidelines in practice,” said Dawn Bentley, director of special education at Livingston County ISD. “We all have the same criteria to find people eligible for autism or emotional impairment, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that a child, even between schools in the same district, will always” be identified the same way. “It’s hard to predict. One team may find a child eligible and another not.”
The disparity among districts can be jarring. For example, in Walkerville Public Schools, in West Michigan near Manistee National Forest, 22 percent of students are identified as special education. In Pewamo-Westphalia in Clinton County, it’s 3.3 percent. At Whitmore Lake Public School District just north of Ann Arbor, 21 percent of students are special education; in the Dearborn City School District, 8.7 percent.
While the percentage of students with IEPs for special education varies among districts, one thing remains constant: boys outnumber girls. Across the state, 15.5 percent of boys have an IEP, compared with 8.4 percent of girls. In Grand Rapids Public Schools, 32 percent of boys are in special education and 17 percent of girls. In neighboring East Grand Rapids, where there are far fewer kids in special education, boys are still twice as likely to have an IEP (8 percent of boys, versus 4 percent of girls).
Similar gender disparities exist across the country. Some biological factors play a role, such as autism, which appears to occur more often in boys than girls, said Bentley, of the Livingston ISD.
“We have a system that was built for 5 percent special education,’ Bentley said. “My county right now has 13 percent. To me, that’s a systemic problem. And right now, the system is broken.”
Some districts are finding ways to decrease the number of students with IEPs. Armada Area Schools in northern Macomb County has 9.3 percent of its students in special ed, significantly below the state average.
“For us, our general philosophy is we’re going to intervene as soon as possible, and find kids before they fall three and four grade levels behind,” said Armada Assistant Superintendent Phil Jankowski. “We can’t wait to third grade to identify them. We need them reading at a certain level coming out of kindergarten.”
Kids who are struggling academically in early grades in the small, rural district get all the same lessons as their peers, plus extra lessons from paraprofessionals – many of whom have teaching licenses – while classmates are in choir or gym.
“Those electives are important, but not as important as catching up in reading,” Jankowski said.
The result: fewer students falling so far behind that they are referred to special education.
Early intervention doesn’t just help keep kids out of special education; it’s just as effective moving below-average readers to the honor roll in high school, said Bentley.
“In a lot of our school systems, there’s not another answer - there’s general ed and special ed down the hall,” Bentley said. “In our strong systems, there are a whole lot of supports” to keep kids from falling into special education.
One program is working
That extra support is the strategy behind Michigan’s Integrated Behavior and Learning Support Initiative.
The program, which is both state and federally funded, encourages increased support for struggling students in early grades without the students being pulled out of the classroom. All students get the same lessons, but some students get extra time on topic.
“If we do really good quality instruction and all students have access to that, that would lower the likelihood of the number of students referred to special ed,” said Steven Goodman, director of the program for the state.
From 2009-10 to 2010-11, the special education referral rate for 43 Michigan schools involved in this program decreased 25 percent, and the percentage of students determined to be eligible decreased 6 percent. Middle school reading proficiency increased from 22 percent in 2008 to 51 percent last year in those schools. During that same time period, the percentage of middle school students struggling enough to need intensive reading support dropped from 29 percent to 18 percent.
“It’s not about extra staff,” Goodman said. “It’s about prevention and intervention early.
“If you can get people on track for success early on, the more successful they’re going to be later,” Goodman said. “If you’re not providing enough support, the later you add those on, the harder it is to get people on track.”
That program, now in 23 intermediate school districts and 28 local school districts, costs about $4.7 million annually (with $3.3 million coming from the state). The Department of Education hopes to implement a similar program statewide, without an increase in state funding.
“It’s not additional resources, it’s leveraging resources to improve reading outcomes,” Chapman said. Creating that system statewide will provide a consistency in special education identification and services that is lacking today.
“We can’t create consistency when we leave districts to figure it out on their own,” Chapman said. “When that’s done well with all kids, schools are much better at identifying who really needs special services, instead of children who have fallen behind.
“I’m not indicting the current system. But when we have well-implemented systems, there is more support for all learners, and we can better support those who actually need (special education).”
Hartland Consolidated Schools in Livingston County is an example of how early support can decrease special education enrollment. “There was a point about 10 years ago when we were near 16 percent (special ed enrollment),” said Sue Pearson, director of special education at Hartland. “One of our elementaries was over 20 percent. I told our (district) psychologist, OK, the last one out of general education, turn out the lights. We came to the conclusion that something had to be done.”
Today, the district has cut the percentage of students identified with an IEP in half – from 16 percent to 8 percent.
“The students who fell between the 8 percent and 16 percent are still here,” Pearson said. “But it’s a matter of how we’re helping them be successful. Our expectations are much higher now, and they’re stepping up to those expectations.”
Questions about special education in Michigan? Call the Office of Special Education Information Desk at 1-888-320-8384.