Special Education and School Achievement: An Explanatory Analysis
Since the passage of Mills v. Board of Education in 1972, school district spending on special education has increased dramatically nationwide. Are the high expenditures on special education justified in order to improve school performance? To shed some light on this question, we looked at the school achievement of 1,245 low-income, mostly black children in grades 1 through 6 who participated in the Chicago Longitudinal Study from 1987 to 1992. About 15 percent of the study sample received special education services, half in learning disabilities and half in other disabilities, 22 percent were retained in grade, and 50 percent changed schools more than once during their elementary schooling. Controlling for school achievement prior to placement in special education, as well as for family background, school experiences, and school attributes, children receiving special education services had lower reading and math achievement scores than other sample children who did not receive services, especially during grades 4 through 6. Children with learning disabilities benefitted less from special education services than did children with other disabilities. Grade retention and school mobility during the primary grades were associated with significantly lower reading and math achievement above and beyond prior achievement and other factors. Alternatives to special education placement services as well as grade retention, at least as they currently exist, may benefit children with learning difficulties.
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