Closing the Disabilities Gap in NYC Schools

New York has a dismal record on one of the most pressing civil rights issues of our time: The inclusion of children diagnosed with disabilities into everyday life. According to The Data Accountability Center, New York state schools rank next to last in the percentage of students with disabilities who spend most of their day with non-disabled students in the general education classroom. Meanwhile, nearly a third of special education students in New York spend the majority of their day in segregated classrooms.

Now, New York City — which with 1 million schoolchildren is the largest district in the nation — will attempt to change that record with a radical restructuring of its special education policy. Starting on the first school day this fall, most of the over 158,000 special ed students in the system will gain access to their local neighborhood schools.

On a purely ideological level, this seems to be a major step forward toward desegregating students by learning or physical abilities. But as with so many changes in education policy, the day-to-day impact could be messy, and teachers and parents alike are vocally protesting the speed of change.

The challenge of creating diverse and accessible neighborhood schools has long been seen along racial and, more recently, economic lines. Neighborhood schools reflect local housing patterns, which remain highly segregated nearly six decades after Brown v. Board of Education. After the public disenchantment with busing in the ‘80s, school districts interested in racial integration attempted to emphasize magnets and district-wide choice.

But one area where busing stuck was special education, since the initial fight in the 1970s for students with disabilities was to be included in public education at all. A metonym for special ed, after all, is the “short bus” — the required transportation for any child with a disability to a school that is supposed to have facilities for that child.

Credit: NYC DOE

Today, however, segregation often takes the form of not having equal access to the same school and classrooms as other children — which is frequently a racially and economically segregated neighborhood school. (This is called the “least restrictive environment,” where restrictive also means segregated by disability.) However, the emphasis on local access may unintentionally perpetuate economic and racial segregation. Disability and race are already intertwined since black, Native American and Hispanic students get referred to special ed at higher rates than white and Asian children.

Still, advocates hope the reform, as the Department of Education calls it, may change what we see as both disability and schooling itself, where the vision of integrated schools includes not only students of different races in the same classroom, but also blind students, students in wheelchairs and students with invisible atypical learning styles.

Understanding the change requires taking a step back. “Disabilities” among children exist mainly a school context, and school policy determines where students who have minor learning disabilities or major behavioral disorders spend much of their day. Children tend to discover they have a learning or behavioral disability only once they enter the age-normed environment of a schoolroom, where “disability” often means an inability to learn in time and within group norms. The early 20th century witnessed the adaptation throughout the states of universal schooling, age-graded classrooms and IQ testing — which meant that students who did not learn in time with their peers could now be determined to be “slow” or “retarded.” Poor or abandoned children were often institutionalized group homes.

In 1975, however, the federal law that came to be known as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) passed, requiring that all students with disabilities have access to a free and appropriate education. Since then, the goal of IDEA has more explicitly become to integrate students with disabilities into the general education classroom whenever possible.

In New York City, however, funding since 1975 has supported “seats” rather than children — that is, DOE money went to special education classrooms or classrooms that included a special education teacher. The Fair Student Funding formula, put into place in 2008, weighted student spending according to factors, such as having a disability or being an English-language learner, that might require more resources to help that student learn.

Most everyone agrees that inclusive schools are a noble goal. “We believe that students with disabilities should be able to attend the same schools that their nondisabled peers attend as long as the schools are able to provide the specialized instruction and supports they need to succeed,” Carmen Alvarez, vice president for special education at the United Federation of Teachers, testified before the city council. The stakes are high in getting it right: Students with disabilities graduate at much lower rates — between 20 and 25 percent graduate high school in four years in New York City — and African-Americans disproportionately receive diagnoses of learning disabilities, emotional disabilities and mental retardation.

But in response to the city’s full-inclusion press for the fall, many teachers and parents have protested that the school system is not prepared. Teachers have not had enough training in inclusion, they argue, or principals have not had time to staff special educators. A pilot program for the reforms among 260 schools last year yielded limited data. GothamSchools reported parents threatening lawsuits after inappropriate special education placements — “’Show us the data, or we’ll see you in court,’ said Mona Davids, of the New York City Parents Union” — while Alvarez told the city council that principals might alter student’s federally mandated, school-based individualized education plans to meet new funding realities.

“The fear is that students will show up looking for services that [the neighborhood schools] cannot offer them,” says Richard Riley, a UFT spokesperson.

“We have an expression in inclusive education that ready means never,” says Celia Oyler, director of the elementary and secondary inclusive education programs at Teachers College and a consultant to the DOE on inclusive education. “The reform is not so much a reform but good teaching and compliance with the law.”

In many ways, fully inclusive education challenges schooling as we know it, and some parents and administrators are uncomfortable with that. In public school classrooms after tracking — a common practice up through the ‘90s that grouped kids by ability throughout school — “differientiation” has become the buzzword. It means teaching all the kids in a class at the level where they are, even if they have a diagnosed learning disability.

It does not mean one lecture fits all. Differientiation acknowledges multiple learning styles, paces and backgrounds. But it is not multiculturalism lite, where a teacher surveys her class and, for instance, decides to pick texts with culturally representative characters. Instead, it is simply good teaching: Making charts and graphs, writing and talking at once, using song and image, incorporating peer and group learning, station work, and dozens of other strategies.

Still, many special educators know that not all teachers are adept at strategies for bringing challenged students into mainstream education. In part, the question that will play out in New York City this fall revolves around where you place the main responsibility for failure to learn and thrive: In the student, in the teacher or in the society at large that supports isolated pockets of achievement.

Carly Berwick is a writer who covers education for Next City and art for ARTnews, Art in America and New York magazine. She has contributed features to the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, Slate, the New York Post, the Hartford Courant and many other publications. She has also — at various times, sometimes all at the same time — edited books and magazines, parented two children, taught high school English and completed a masters in education at Teachers College. She has lived for a decade in Jersey City, N.J., after time in Brooklyn, N.Y.; Palo Alto, Calif., where she went to Stanford for undergraduate education; and New Haven, Conn., where she grew up.

Tags: new york, politics & policy, education, education policy, united federation of teachers