What do school leaders need to know to help disabled students rebound?

Increased investment in IEP teams would help members better serve children from diverse schools and backgrounds.

Because students with disabilities are often “treated as a monolith,” it remains unclear how far this group has been knocked off course by COVID’s upheavals, a new report warns.

Lumping disabled students together “masks critical variation in outcomes depending on students’ intensity of special education services, race, socioeconomic status, and English learner status,” concludes a new analysis from the Center on Reinventing Public Education at Arizona State University and the Center for Learning Equity. It is therefore difficult to gauge the pandemic’s impact on their academic, behavioral, social-and-emotional, and post-graduation outcomes. But here’s what the Center’s researchers can say for sure:

  1. Almost all students declined academically, but students with disabilities were especially impacted.
  2. Students with disabilities appear to be experiencing intensified mental health concerns during the transition back to in-person learning.
  3. More students who need special education services may not be getting identified.
  4. An unknown number of families are still waiting for compensatory services to make up for what students lost earlier in the pandemic. Many are not even aware they qualify.
  5. Students with disabilities may have experienced exclusionary disciplinary practices with even greater disproportionality than they had pre-pandemic.
  6. Reliance on underqualified teachers in special education positions may be increasing from pre-pandemic levels.

The researchers added that their review of ESSER spending plans left them concerned about whether states and districts can make long-term and systemic improvements in supporting students with disabilities.

Students with disabilities face wider gaps

Prior to the pandemic and the shift to remote instruction, students with disabilities scored lower than their non-disabled classmates on standardized English language arts and math exams. Between 2020 and 2022, that disparity was more pronounced, with students with disabilities scoring 8 points lower in math and 7 points lower in reading while non-disabled students lost 7 points in math and 5 in reading.

It also appears that fewer students with disabilities are being evaluated for special education services. The researchers cited a report that found special education referrals in New York City dropped 57% between the start of the pandemic and the fall of 2021.

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And students already in special education may be missing out on the services to which they are entitled. More than 250 parents of children with disabilities said their child suffered learning loss or skill regression during the pandemic, but only about 25% had received information about their school’s compensatory services and just 18% had received those services, according to a survey by The Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates.

Special education had the most vacancies with 53% of district leaders reporting being understaffed at the beginning of the 2022-23 school year. In Pennsylvania, the number of emergency-certified special education teachers nearly doubled from 2018 to fall 2020, according to a state department of education analysis. “While shortages of qualified teachers raise concerns for all students, it is particularly troublesome for special education students because their teachers need specific pedagogical training,” the Center for Learning Equity’s researchers wrote.

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To overcome these challenges, K-12 needs better data systems to track outcomes and learning conditions for students with disabilities. These systems should be built on feedback from disabled students and allow educators and parents to disaggregate the data quickly to adjust instruction and services. Secondly, the report urges increased investment in district IEP teams so members know how to better serve children from diverse schools and backgrounds while also elevating “the voices of families and students when making decisions.”

Finally, district administrators and other education leaders should more regularly share effective strategies and models for enhancing learning opportunities and outcomes for students with disabilities. “We need examples of how districts used ESSER funding for students with disabilities to proactively provide compensatory services and navigate educator shortages,” the researchers wrote. “Disseminating examples of innovative and effective models will help prevent decision-makers from reverting to business as usual for educating students with disabilities.”

Matt Zalaznick
Matt Zalaznick
Matt Zalaznick is a life-long journalist. Prior to writing for District Administration he worked in daily news all over the country, from the NYC suburbs to the Rocky Mountains, Silicon Valley and the U.S. Virgin Islands. He's also in a band.

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