Monday, July 29, 2002

Reading Failure in Chicago

The problem may be more acute in Chicago but it is representative of special education nationwide.

Special education students in Chicago are concentrated in some of the poorest, lowest-performing public high schools, putting increased burdens on already-stressed schools, a series of reports released today say.

In 11 neighborhood schools, all on academic probation, as many as 38 percent of the students were in special education in 2000, while as few as 3 percent were in special education at some selective-enrollment and charter schools.

Two reasons these poor schools have such a high rate of special-education classification.

1. Special education covers instructional failure. As Schools CEO Arne Duncan explains to the Chicago Sun-Times, "The real answer lies in reducing the number of special education students by improving reading instruction in elementary schools. That population is dominated by learning-disabled students who are slow readers."

2. Reading failure by low-income kids draws in funds from special education and Title I. These Chicago kids offer more proof to the “twofer” funding notion. As long as these kids draw in more money from two large federal programs for reading failure--where is the incentive to fix the problem?

This special education population in Chicago has grown from around 11 percent classified as special education in 1993 to close to 38 percent in some Chicago schools today. Incentives matter. If you make slow readers disabled and then reward schools for that reading failure, it shouldn't be surprising that this population continues to grow.

What I can’t understand is how these schools continually say that these extra special education kids represent a strain on resources. Every labeled kid brings in extra resources over and above that kids per-pupil allotment. The “overburdened” schools admit that they are not serving these kids with extra resources and that they have special-education teacher shortages. So if the money is not paying special-ed teachers or buying more resources—where is it going? Most articles about special education read the same: more special education students continue to burden public schools that lack resources. I’d really like to know where the extra Title I and special education money is going. It defies logic.

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