Is Special Education Reform Working? A Case Study from New York City

Key Takeaway

The inclusion of students with disabilities (SWDs) within general education classrooms and the improvement of academic performance continues to be a challenge faced by many school districts across the United States. However, data collected on special education reform in America’s largest school district, New York City (NYC), suggests that progress on inclusion is possible, yet increases in academic performance are more difficult to achieve, emphasizing the need for new policies that address this gap in the educational system. —Taryn McBrayne

A Decade-Long Study

In this article, Stiefel et al. share the findings of their decade-long (2005-2015) empirical study on special education reform. The study “examines progress toward the twin legislative goals of both the federal Individuals with Disability Education Act (IDEA) and NYC district goals of (a) including SWDs in general education settings and (b) improving their academic performance."

As Stiefel et al. outline, between 2000 - 2010 various educational reports circulated in the state of New York, highlighting concerns regarding the representation of SWDs in NYC schools. According to the 2012 NYC Public Advocate report, “data from 2009 to 2010 revealed that SWDs had lower rates of inclusion, high school graduation, and math and English proficiency.”1 

In response to such reports, A Shared Path to Success policy was initiated in 2010. Here, SWDs were provided with one of four support services based on need, including support services, supplemental instruction, co-teaching, and self-contained services.  

In an attempt to assess the legislative goals over time, Stiefel et al. examined yearly trends in areas including but not limited to the distribution of SWDs across classrooms, math and ELA standardized test scores, and high school graduation rates. 

The Results

The results of the study by Stiefel et al. can be summarized as follows: 

  • Although more SWDs were represented in the school system, the proportion with particular disabilities changed. This difference is likely because “students with certain disabilities can be more difficult to integrate.”2
  • “NYC schools experienced changes in student composition that made achieving progress for SWDs on test performance more challenging.”
  • Performance [on math and ELA exams] varied considerably by student type and over time,” thus making trends difficult to assess. 
  • Data concluded that “SWDs have made some progress in graduating . . . but they have some distance to go before achieving anything close to those of GENs.”
  • In terms of attendance, statistics showed that “In NYC high schools... the attendance rate for SWDs in 2015 was 81%, trailing GENs by about 8% points.” 

Key Implications

The authors also highlight three key implications of their study:

  1. Educators and policymakers must consider what makes special education policies successful. 
  2. Educators and policymakers must consider “the implications that the movement toward more SWDs in general education classrooms has for supports and resources.”
  3. The study illustrates the kind of “systemwide work that must accompany specific program evaluation studies.” The authors call for increased research in additional school districts across the country. 

Ultimately, Stiefel et al. conclude that “although NYC has made progress towards increasing the amount of time that SWDs and GENs spend together, achievement gaps persist.” It is important to acknowledge that the research consulted in this study is largely descriptive and quantitative in nature, therefore its main limitation is that it cannot be considered causal. Rather, this study serves as a motivator to conduct additional, qualitative research in other districts across the United States and to further investigate why such gaps continue to exist in education. 

Summarized Article:

Stiefel, L., Gottfried, M., Shiferaw, M., & Schwartz, A. (2021). Is Special Education Improving? Case Evidence From New York City. Journal of Disability Policy Studies, 32 (2), 95–107. https://doi.org/10.1177/1044207320934810

Summary by: Taryn McBrayne - Taryn believes in the power of student voice and, through the MARIO Framework, strives to create more opportunities for both educators and students to regularly make use of this power.

Additional References:

  1. Fund for Public Advocacy. (2012). Educating all students well: Special education reform in New York City public schools.http://archive.advocate.nyc.gov/special-ed
  2. MacMillan, D. L., Gresham, F. M., & Forness, S. R. (1996). Full inclusion: An empirical perspective. Behavioral Disorders, 21(2), 145–159.

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We are a dedicated group of learners that are constantly seeking to improve the lives of the children we care for. Whether you are a teacher, parent, assistant, or administrator, we give you free access to the most recent special education related research and practices available. Our twice monthly MARIO Memo summarizes and shares studies from peer-reviewed journals, while our learning letters provide insights from MARIO classrooms.

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Join the MARIO Family

We are a dedicated group of learners that are constantly seeking to improve the lives of the children we care for. Whether you are a teacher, parent, assistant, or administrator, we give you free access to the most recent special education related research and practices available. Our twice monthly MARIO Memo summarizes and shares studies from peer-reviewed journals, while our learning letters provide insights from MARIO classrooms.

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