Data Review: Do Special Education Services Improve Academic Outcomes Overall?

Apr 28 2022

Key Takeaway

Despite decades of growth in the identification of special educational needs and provision of services, academic performance in students with learning disabilities remains lower than their neurotypical peers. Therefore, we must ask if special education services improve academic outcomes for students with disabilities? Results suggest that entering special education early has the biggest impact on students who have been classified with specific learning disabilities. —Frankie Garbutt

Analyzing Public Data on Students with Learning Disabilities and Academic Performance

In this article, Amy Ellen Schwartz (Syracuse University), Bryant Gregory Hopkins (Michigan State University), and Leanna Stiefel (New York University) analyze the “New York City public school data of the 44,000 students with specific learning disabilities over a seven-year period” to investigate the effects of special education services on academic performance.

The researchers point out that “there is surprisingly little evidence to guide special education policy and answer the question of whether services work.” They argue that there is a growing wealth of literature on the effects of school policy on general education students yet a lack of research into the efficiency of special education services. 


The study focuses on students with specific learning disabilities (LDs) “in particular for two reasons. First, LDs are the largest group of students with disabilities (SWD) in 2015, representing 35 percent of SWDs nationally and 40 percent in NYC.1 Second, because the majority of LDs are classified after school entry (typically grades 3 through 8), we observe outcomes both before and after classification.”

The study thoroughly examines “the quantitative literature on the effectiveness of special education,” “background regarding the special education classification process and the nature of learning disabilities,” and “data and models, respectively” before discussing results and conclusions.

Recommendations and Limitations


Overall the research indicates “that special education works to improve outcomes for students with learning disabilities.” As a result, the authors suggest earlier identification for special needs services to ensure gains in students’ performances. Moreover, it is suggested that findings could be generalized for students with learning disabilities, yet “more work investigating the differential effects of alternative service settings could be useful for policymakers.” 

However, it is acknowledged that there are several limitations, i.e. the lack of data analyzed for high school students or kindergarten as the study focused on elementary and middle school students. Similarly, authors could not “distinguish severity of disability within LDs and it is possible that effects differ with severity.”

The paper highlights the positive effect of special education on students’ academic performance and paves the way for methods to evaluate data on the efficacy of policies and practices, as well as starting to build the evidence base to improve special education for all in the USA. 

Summarized Article:  

Schwartz, A. E., Hopkins, B. G., & Stiefel, L. (2021). The effects of special education on the academic performance of students with learning disabilities. Journal of Policy Analysis and Management, 40(2), 480–520. https://doi.org/10.1002/pam.22282 

Summary by: Frankie Garbutt – Frankie believes that the MARIO Framework encourages students to become reflective, independent learners who progress at their own rate.

Additional References:

  1. U.S. Department of Education (USDOE), National Center for Education Statistics (NCES). (2018). Digest of Education Statistics, 2016. NCES 2017–094, Chapter 2.

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