New answers to old questions about special education
The federal requirement for schools to provide extra services to children with disabilities has been around for more than 45 years. More than 7 million children, about 14 percent of all public school students, now receive services. Although it costs state, local and federal governments an estimated $90 billion a year, we know very little about whether special education services are actually helping students with disabilities learn more.
Special education is a particularly elusive area to evaluate because no one wants to randomly assign students to services to see if the ones who get them do better than those who don’t, as in a vaccine trial.
A group of economists found a clever way around this problem by studying 24,000 elementary and middle school students who were diagnosed with a specific learning disability from 2006 to 2012 in New York City, the largest school district in the country. They compared the kids’ academic performance before they were diagnosed and after they started receiving services. Test score improvements for students with learning disabilities were generally stronger after diagnosis, equal to 18 percent of the usual disparity in math achievement between students with disabilities and those without disabilities. In reading, the benefits of special ed were equivalent to 16 percent of this achievement gap.
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